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Finding tío Genaro

While mysteries remain, they seem like part of the charm of Genaro’s stories – that the full truth matters less than the time we spent together, telling the story.

The early January sun sets over the Tempisque River neighborhood of Guardia, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, not far from where Genaro - and my mother-in-law - grew up.

I am writing to my two sons about "where they came from." This is a story for my second-born, named after tío Genaro, about what Genaro was like, and our search to learn more about him in early January, 2022. The names of people who are not in our family have been changed to protect their privacy.

Tío Genaro

We named you, our second-born, after tío Genaro, abuelita’s father’s brother. I never met Genaro or Toño, but their memories are invoked at many family gatherings, even to this day. We knew we wanted a Costa Rican family name for you, and the family member who seems to have most greatly impacted everyone, as evidenced by the way he is remembered, is tío Genaro.

Tío lived with Daddy’s family off and on during Daddy’s childhood. From the stories told around the family table at birthday parties and holiday gatherings, Genaro would show up with a large suitcase in which he carried close to all of his earthy possessions. These included his crisp dress shirts, which he kept ironed and starched himself; his hair gel, which he used to style his hair in the “copete” style of the 1950s; one or two pairs of shoes, which he kept shined and in good shape, and his signature cologne.

He was quite a story-teller, tío Genaro. My mother-in-law says with a smile that Genaro was a serial liar, but that the entire neighborhood would pass through the house when he was there in order to be able to hear a story or two. Genaro’s lies were always exaggerations, based in truth but bent and expanded to get a laugh or a wide-eyed response.

One of the most famous and repeated tall tales was Genaro’s recounting of his time spent at the hospital in the banana plantation in Panamá. It’s unclear where exactly in Panamá this was – it could have been at the main hospital run by the United Fruit Company in Bocas del Toro, which would have still been part of Costa Rica if tío had been there before 1941. Your dad and I visited Bocas one year for a vacation, and we saw the location of the hospital, now ruins, on one of the islands in the archipelago. It was the location of experiments and groundbreaking treatments of some of the most difficult tropical diseases, like malaria and yellow fever, as the banana company needed a healthy workforce in order to change the course of human history by exporting tropical fruit to the temperate zones on an industrial and global scale.

If tío was at that hospital, or a different one, doesn’t matter for his story. The factual details weren’t the important part of a Genaro story. He would tell his listeners of how, after what might have been some kind of prostate procedure, how he had had a hysterectomy like the women that surrounded him in the recovery room. According to tío, he spent so long in the hospital that soon they employed him there as a baby-catcher in the labor and delivery ward.

Tío would say that his full name was José Genaro Granados Matarrita. At some point he went by the last name Granados, and at another time Matarrita. But he can be found in the National Registry as José Genaro Granados Granados, son of Maria Justa Granados Granados, born September 19, 1915, died March 27, 2004, during Holy Week. He was born in Palmira in the Carrillo canton of Costa Rica, and died in the Enrique Baltodano Hospital in Liberia. Just from the registry it seems that his was a life lived in the hot and dry northwestern province of Guanacaste, but we know about the years he lived in Panamá on the banana plantations, and the years in San José.

One grainy photo the family has, with tío Genaro pictured in the center-back, in his famous black dress shirt. This was the only photo I had seen of Genaro, until this January.

He had black shoes that he kept perpetually shined, green pants, and always wore white undershirts, which he tucked in not only to his pants, but into the elastic of his undershorts, leaving it visible above his belt. Genaro prepared his own cigarettes, and always traveled with hair oil. Genaro did not consider himself ready for the day until he styled his hair and put on his Colonia Brut, a pungent aftershave-type cologne in a green bottle from the Palí store. He was moreno moreno (very dark-skinned), and had numerous gold teeth.

The family remembers with a laugh that he would send underwear for Daddy as a gift. The family disagrees about whether these were used or new; regardless, they needed a safety pin to stay on Daddy’s skinny little-boy body.

Daddy tells of how another one of tío Genaro’s habits was having one shot of liquor around 3 PM every day. Because licor was looked down upon in the evangelical Ruiz Loáiciga household, Genaro would respectfully find his spirits at a local bar. He would take Daddy along, too young to be in a bar (but he brought him in anyway), and he would buy him an ice cream along the way. If this was the routine, Daddy was more than happy to participate!

Genaro never married - he always said that the right woman for him had not been born yet (to which a jovial neighbor responded that one day they would see Genaro walking down the street holding a newborn baby girl, announcing that finally his soul mate had been born) - but he is rumored to have had a daughter with someone from the village. He was also in love with the daughter of the landowner of the farm where he worked, but they never got together.

When tío Genaro was getting ready to take a shower, he would prepare himself by walking around without his shirt on, with a towel around his neck. He would take off his socks and start picking off the fuzz balls that had formed, “dry cleaning them,” according to your tía. He would get some sun and take off his sandals and clap them together to get off any dust or dirt. When the time to bathe was approaching, he would swing the towel in his hands, up and down, from shoulder to shoulder, slapping the top part of his back to get the blood flowing.

After his shower, tío would put talcum powder all over his body, careful not to miss any spot. He would use his hair gel and comb to shape his dark hair into perfect waves, and finish off with the Brut cologne, a classic still available today as the only men’s cologne sold near the shaving supplies at the Palí grocery store.

By this time it would be 9 AM, and Genaro was ready for breakfast. “Will you be having coffee?” your abuelita Elizabeth would ask. “Yes, please, half a cup,” Genaro would respond.

After a few days of that Elizabeth would get frustrated and insist that Genaro eat breakfast with the rest of the family before 8. “I didn’t have time to be dealing with all of those children, the cooking, the housework, and then to make him breakfast an hour after everyone else, with fresh coffee for a half a cup!” Elizabeth huffed as she recalled Genaro’s habit. She smiled a little though, too, at the memory.

Genaro would show up from Guanacaste, where he worked on a farm, with a large suitcase that he could barely carry without wobbling, but seemed to only ever wear his best outfit: brown pleated slacks and a black dress shirt. The whole neighborhood would remember him as the man with the brown pants and black shirt. His clothes never seemed to need washing, but they were always somehow impeccably clean, just like him.

This was during the time that Genaro, as well at abuelo Toño and his wife doña Tona lived with Daddy and their family in Desamparados. They lived there for a few years when Tona was sick with diabetes. She died in 1993, and after that abuelo Toño went back to Guanacaste to live, and Genaro did, too. Toño was able to find a room to rent in the home of a couple that took care of him until his death in 2009. Genaro went back to the farm called La Culebra, where he lived until his death in 2004.

Tío Genaro didn’t have the same mother as don Toño, your great-grandfather on abuelita’s side. Toño had seven siblings, three of them full siblings and three more half-siblings, children of his mother, Victoria Loáiciga. And then there was Genaro. He did not share the same mother as the other seven, though doña Victoria may have nursed him when he was a baby. Meaning that he is either a half-brother to your bisabuelo, or adopted and biologically unrelated. Genaro was short and thin and dark-skinned, and Toño was tall and large, with lighter skin and eyes that look Asian. Despite this difference, no one in the family has every questioned his status as brother/uncle.


The key that opened many doors

In January, 2022, you came with me and Daddy and abuelita to try to find tío Genaro. We came in search of his grave, as well as any further information about him that might fill in blanks about his life - who his father was, why he lived and worked on the farm called La Culebra, and what people thought of him and what they remember of him. It was also a good chance to learn more about your great-granfather, Toño, and about abuelita herself: where she grew up, got married, and had her first children.

On Monday morning, January 3, we set out for the community called Comunidad (yes, that’s the name) to see if we could find his grave. All we knew was that he and the whole family was from this area, and that he was likely buried here. We used Google maps to search for the cemetery, and found it on the south side of the village. As we pulled the car into a dusty parking place under an almendro tree, we could see that the gate to the cemetery was locked. We weren’t even sure if this was the right place. Daddy and I walked around, looking through the metal bars, but it was impossible to see the names on any of the mostly-white ceramic tiled graves.

The community cemetery in Comunidad, Guanacaste.

Not sure what to do next, we got back in the car and starting driving back toward town. Rather than return on the main paved road, this time we drove down the small gravel road that ran along the back side of the cemetery. After driving by a pasture with some baby calves that was nestled between the government-issue homes that are common in poor rural areas in Costa Rica, we decided to stop and ask for help. Daddy rolled down his window when we saw a man getting ready to leave his house, and asked for any information about when the cemetery might open.

The man smiled and said, “Oh, the person in charge of the cemetery lives right here, out on the main road, right across the street from the Chinese restaurant called Pou Tu. His name is William.”

Just the information we needed. We drove to the main road and turned left, and after searching both sides of the street found the restaurant about one block in. There were two houses directly across, but only one of them had the front door open. I hopped out of the car and yelled out, “¡Buenas!” into the doorway A young woman came to the door. I explained that we had been directed to this house to find William, who is in charge of the cemetery. She said, “Just a minute,” and disappeared out the back of the house, where we could see a nice patio with trees, chairs, and the customary pila (wash basin).

After just a minute or two a middle-aged woman came out. I greeted her again, and wished her a happy new year, another customary greeting that is acceptable to use anytime through March when you see a person for the first time since the previous year. Daddy had now joined me, and he explained that we were looking for an uncle of his in the cemetery, but we wanted to know when it would be open.

“Oh, how about I just lend you the key?” The woman suggested with a shy smile. “You can just bring it back when you’re done.”

She entered the house and returned with the key. Had abuelita looked out her car window at that moment, she would have noticed what she noticed later, which is that this woman, the wife of William, the man in charge of the cemetery, was Elizabeth’s cousin. But she was looking somewhere else.

Daddy decided to ask one more thing. “Do you happen to know Filemón Castro?” That is the son of the couple that lives on the farm where tío Genaro lived.

“Filemón, yes, yes, I know him,” the woman replied. “He has a mechanic shop on the road there behind the cemetery.”