image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Others’ Words

Madeline Kiser

May 30, 2015

Homage to don Alvaro Ugalde

With thankfulness for his gift of time and love to Volcán, Costa Rica

Twelve years ago, after a decade of trying to draw attention to pineapple’s expansion in Volcán, Costa Rica, especially its effects on local rivers—a difficult task, given that many people work for the company producing the pineapple, Del Monte, one of the country’s main exporters—family members from this area asked my husband and me to help find help.

We live in Tucson, Arizona, and it seemed like an impossible task. We don’t live near the Volcán River (though my husband grew up next to it), so couldn’t be nurtured by its sounds, its changing flows. We weren’t part of daily town life.

Yet my father-in-law, Pablo Beita, now 87 and a rancher who loves the town and the river, insisted. So we agreed to send out what were to be just a few letters--to non-profit organizations, to universities. Whom else? As any of us who live this life of trying to uphold the communities we come from do, we began in the dark.

We sent out dozens of letters to environmental agencies in Costa Rica, national universities, and people outside the country. We explained how local people had tried for years to question the company’s use of the river and called for an integrated management plan but had been largely ignored. After a time, in the replies, a pattern began to emerge: “We’re sorry…this is not part of our funding or research agenda…it’s such a big problem…mucha suerte!” Then, almost as an afterthought, there would be a p.s.: “There is one person who might be able to help, if he chooses.”

One of the writers included in her note the email address and phone number for that one person, Alvaro Ugalde. I looked him up on the Internet, thought a while, then wrote. Almost immediately his response flashed back on my computer screen: Call me.

He was one of the first people to lean into our appeal, to extend an offer to talk. In the days before mustering the will to call I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t the voice over the phone.

He answered with a notable curtness, an abruptness. Just a few minutes into the conversation, as I tried to share a condensed version of the story of the river, he cut me off: “What do you want,” he barked, “a job?” But he continued to listen and ask detailed questions, unmistakably tender in ways hard to describe. Without hesitating and for a stranger and likely amidst too much to do, he stepped into a teacher’s role.

From that moment, around 2003, until a few months before he died, and as he likely did with far more people than any of us will know, don Alvaro coaxed and guided those of us from Volcán who want the best for this drying river, made connections for us, sent documents, read notes (“for heaven’s sake, learn to be brief!”), nipped at us when we seemed dispirited, joked in his singularly dry ironic way.

Above all throughout the decade we knew him, he led by example, this example being that a big part of being a steward of this fragile planet is learning to properly nurture the nurturers, showing a willingness to risk everything for love.

This was Alvaro. Down in the mud, close to the beat of the thing, true-hearted, plain-spoken, bold. He exuded meaning and love in a world that can be institutionally cold, and cut through the notion that we can give without risk, without broken-heartedness, or the healing that comes through living fluidly, selflessly, fully.

The last encounter I had with Alvaro was in a dream, close to the night as it turns out that he physically left this realm. He was wearing a dark blue suit, and a tie, atypical for him. “I’m going to Europe,” in a loud voice he said, “and I need someone to find sources there for me to contact.”

As those of us who love Alvaro do when he asks for something, I woke wondering how to meet the need, to take that next step.