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.
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.”
“Oh, thank you very much!” We went back the way we came, down the dirt road. The mechanic shop was right next door to the man that had given us the name and address of William. We drove around back, past cars and jeeps with their hoods up, to the yard where there was a school bus and smaller “coaster” buses waiting their turn for a tune-up. “Is Filemón around?” We asked. The young man working on a car looked up and said, “He should be back in about an hour.”
“Great, thank you!”
We drove back to the cemetery, and used the key to open the lock that was holding together the chain around the gate. We decided that the best strategy, even in such a small cemetery, would be to divide up and search.
“I’m sure there is no marker,” abuelita said.
“Right, well if no is paying to rent the space, they probably take out the bones after, what, five years?” Daddy responded.
“Yes, and I doubt there was any money to get a plot to begin with,” abuelita said, confidently.
Nonetheless, we divided up and started reading headstones in the hot Guanacaste sun. Despite being only around 9 AM, we were already sweating and feeling our cheeks flush with heat. Fortunately, it only took about two minutes for me to yell, “I found him! Here he is!”
“Genaro Granados Granados,” his tombstone read. “29-3-2004 Remembrance by his family.” It was clear it had taken two days to assemble the grave after he had died, on the 27th of March.
Tío Genaro's grave in Comunidad, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
While most of the graves in the cemetery were large raised tombs covered with white tiles around 6x6 inches, Genaro’s grave has orange-brown tiles. The headstone is an iron marker inlaid on a raised section of the tomb that resembles the location and appearance of a pillow, had the tomb been a bed.
We all gathered around. Abuelita choked up a little. “Now I feel like I want to cry,” she sighed. “I never expected to see such a nice tomb. They really loved him here.”
We took photos of you, my second-born, with your namesake, and continued exploring the cemetery. We found the Castro grandparents, Nicolás Castro Aguilar and Victoria Corona Gutiérrrez, the couple that cared so much for tío Genaro: it was their son’s farm where Genaro lived and worked for many years, and where he was living when he fell ill and died. The Castro graves, six in a row, all had colors other than white, which seemed to confirm that they had been the ones to construct Genaro’s grave, too.
After spending some time at the cemetery, we went back to return the key. This time, just as we were about to leave, Elizabeth looked out the car window. She let out a shout, and rushed to take off her seat belt and open the car door. “My cousin!”
I looked at the woman, who seemed like she was about to turn around and go back into the house. “I think she knows you!” I called out.
Elizabeth rushed to the gate to hug the woman, and said, “Isabel!” The women hugged for a minute or two before our new friend said, “Isabel is my mother.”
A happy reunion.
“Oh!” Smiled Elizabeth. “It’s been so long I thought you were your mother!”
“No, but she lives here next to me. I’m Ligia. Come, let’s go visit her. We’ll see what she can remember.”
And so we went around back and sat in the back porch with Isabel, while Ligia went to buy a watermelon to serve to us - slices for the kids and freshly pureed watermelon juice with ice for the adults. The boys and I had been eating lollipops in the car, so we still had those in our mouths when the surprise relationship was revealed. When we walked back, a little boy appeared and of course wanted a lollipop too, so I returned to the car for a few more. “Guilas, time to eat!” He yelled to his siblings or cousins.
Elizabeth and Isabel caught up on information about the family - their various children and cousins. Isabel’s mother was Mercedes, the sister of Elizabeth’s father Toño.
Isabel lives surrounded by her children - each having built a house on the property, sharing backyards, as is common in Costa Rica. They have an adobe oven in the yard for making the traditional Guanacaste corn-based treats called rosquillas, particularly for Semana Santa and the 25th of July to celebrate the Annexation of Nicoya.
Daddy shared how he remembered coming to tía Mercedes’s farm and riding horses, eating tamarindo fruits from the trees, and drinking hot milk right from the cow. Isabel smiled and said that her son still makes cuajadas from the milk they get from a few cows that remain in the family.
After about an hour of sharing on the porch, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the by-now-well-trodden gravel street behind the cemetery. The tourism van that had been parked in front of the mechanic shop was no longer there, so we had to drive back and forth several times before we could find Filemón. We eventually did, however, and he was in the back, talking on his cell phone in the shade. We waited for him to finish several calls before we approached, introducing ourselves. He was friendly, though clearly busy, but he did invite us to visit his parents’ farm and reminded us of the way. He told us that his father is doing well but is aging (93 years old), and that his mother is now bedridden and does not talk.
Filemón, like everyone we had talked to so far, remembered tío Genaro as “Genarito.” I wasn’t sure if this was a totally affectionate name, or if it also referred in some way to Genaro’s size. He himself was burly but relatively short, and people call him Filemóncito.
Even though it was going on 11 AM, threatening to become lunchtime by the time we arrived at the finca, we decided to press on and try to get there before visiting the beach, knowing how difficult it would be to get two small children to leave the beach in order to visit aging family members.
We followed the directions we had been given: up three hills, (the first large, the second medium, the third small), turn left (rather than continue straight to Playa Cabuyal), at the large water tank there is a bus stop and that is the left turn you take. Then 850 meters to the farmhouse.
The farm itself is large, and borders on the now famous Papagayo resort area. The Castro family sold a portion of their farm to Papagayo for what I am assuming was not nearly enough money. Daddy’s memory is of visiting this farm before Papagayo existed.
The beach that we visited on this day is the very same one that he visited with his father in those years, the early 90s, before Papagayo controlled the entrance to the public beach. Costa Rican law prohibits anyone from blocking access to any beach, which are all considered property of the state.
Since Papagayo has built their resort area and installed guard houses that suggest a private control of the whole Papagayo peninsula, they comply with the law by providing a parking lot and free shuttle service to drive people 10 minutes down curvy roads, past the Four Seasons resort at the Bahia (“13 Family Compounds,” according the sign), under the rows of imperial palms and past gardeners tending to irrigated landscaping, through the golf course, with a constant view of the crystal blue Papagayo bay until reaching Playa Nacascolo.
Manicured and irrigated landscaping on the private drive to the public beach in dry forest ecosystem Papagayo.
When your dad visited that beach with his father on one trip to the farm, they drove all the way in their own vehicle, and happened upon an event of hundreds of thousands of red crabs covering the beach, crunching under the wheels of their vehicles.
On our visit we didn’t see crabs, but the ocean was filled with tiny brown but transparent jellyfish that sting, so we couldn’t swim in the calm turqouise waters. It seemed like poetic justice, nature keeping people out of a paradise they had tried to claim for luxury tourism.
But before we knew of the jellyfish, we were driving down the bumpy dirt road to finca La Culebra, a farm important enough to appear on Google Maps. We drove past small homes of the extended family of the Castros, through a large teak forest.
“Tío always said that he planted this teak,” Elizabeth commented.
“Oh, wow, I remember this now!” Daddy exclaimed. “Yeah, the teak, I remember this part.”
The memories felt sacred, and we felt like we were at once going back in time but also facing an uncertain future - uncertain of what we would find at the house, and uncertainty about what would happen with this farm, now that the owners are old, with little time left. We were traveling through a crack in the veil of time, and the veil looked like teak trees. I could imagine the underbrush, now unruly, being cleared by Genaro and other workers on the farm, in keeping with Costa Rican tidiness. It is so common to see dust on the large, flat teak leaves on plantations across the country, but on this day, on these leaves, the dust seemed like magic dust, that if we were able to blow it off the clean leaves would take us back in time to find Genaro there, working on the farm.
Teak trees, perhaps planted by tío Genaro, at the Culebra finca.
We had one more clue to ask for, as we kept driving down the road. We stopped at a yellow house where a friendly man was standing at the gate. “Where can we find the Castro farm?” Your dad asked. “The Canstro farm?” The man confirmed. “Just down there, past the shipping container [on stilts, with steps leading up to a door that was perforated into the side]. You’ll run right into it. Have a lovely day!”
We made our way down, and were greeted by the Castro’s single adult daughter, Francisca, when we exited the car. She and Elizabeth both smiled as they remembered each other’s faces. Francisca is now around 70 years old, and has the tanned skin and golden tooth fillings commonly seen in Guanacaste. There are dark circles under her eyes, and I wondered if that was something hereditary or the consequence of her being the main caregiver to her parents for her entire life.
Francisca explains that her father was getting a bath, and that her mother is now in bed, unable to recognize people nor speak. Today she is expecting a doctor to come and help to cure a bedsore that was an inevitable consequence of her mother’s situation.
After washing our hands to ward off the coronavirus, we entered the living room and sat down on the sofa. Elizabeth offered a large bag of coffee as a gift, which Francisca received with grace. We only sat for a minute or two before Elizabeth jumped up and exclaimed, “There he is!” There, on the wall, just above my head, was a portrait of tío Genaro. The only photo I have ever seen of him. It is a full-body photo, of tío standing in his famous pleated pants with a perfect tuck at the ankles. He has on his shiny black shoes and black belt, and his attractive collared shirt, a white one in this photo. His hair is styled to stand up in a wave, just like the family stories say. He has one thumb hooked in his belt, and the other hand is holding something that is indistinguishable. He does look small, though the family stories make me know that his life was much bigger than his stature suggests. He is not smiling in the photo, but one can see a playfulness in his face anyway. His nose looks like my husband’s, and his dark skin is like that which has not been lost in the family, even when I added my white genes. It’s easy to believe that Genaro and at least one of Toño’s siblings shared a father, and that whoever that father was is the great-great-grandfather of my children. At the same time, it’s also easy to believe that the only relation between us and Genaro is pure love, not blood.
The man. The legend. Tío Genaro.
Genaro’s photo is occupying a place of honor, right between the father and mother of the current Castros of this farm: Nicolás and Victoria, whose graves we had found at the cemetery. There were no other portraits on this wall, making it seem like it was reserved for the most important members of the family.
Well, but that’s the thing, the Castro family are friends of our family, not blood relations. This is one of the mysteries of tío Genaro - why was he so loved by this family, so much so that the only good photo that seems to exist of him is located in the living room of this remote farm, prominently placed between the portraits of the family patriarch and matriarch?
But then, another shriek. Elizabeth had found another photo, on the facing wall. “Well, how is this photo here? I don’t even have this photo!” She exclaimed.
She was looking up at her own likeness, at around seven years old, in a family portrait with her father, don Toño, and the mother that had raised her, doña Maria Petrona (doña Tona). Also in the portrait is Elizabeth’s cousin, Cecilia, who had also been living on the banana plantation where Elizabeth was born, and who, at 11 years old, when asked while eating lunch if she would like to go live with Toño in Guanacaste, said, “sure,” and walked off the plantation like she was going to the grocery store, never to return. Elizabeth and Cecilia, four or five years apart in age, would complete first grade together in the village of Paso Tempisque before moving to Liberia when Toño got a job at the police headquarters.
Abuelita Elizabeth, bisabuelo Toño, Cecilia, doña Tona.
This was also the only photo I remember seeing of young Toño, your great-grandfather. He is handsome, with the same Asian-shaped eyes as his mother Victoria in her portrait. One can see a resemblance between Toño and his daughter and niece. He dressed for the occasion and looks very handsome in his suit. His skin is lighter in color than Genaro’s, and he looks smaller than his wife in the photo, though he was said to have been a large man.
It was a bad time to visit the farm. All of the energies of the people in the home were focused on the last days of Francisca’s mother, and of caring for her husband. Unlike at Isabel’s house, we were not offered watermelon or fresco or lunch, but it was no matter. We had found tío Genaro, and we had found Elizabeth and her family, at a house of people not even related by blood.
We spoke with el señor Castro for some time, trying to shout so he could hear us and then strain so we could hear him. He is disappointed that his children didn’t take a greater interest in the farm, and that the farm doesn’t look tidy like it did in his day. He told about working hard on the farm and eating rice and beans and tortillas every day. I asked if that lifestyle kept him strong and healthy, and he looked hesitant before saying that these days his body is just giving out. He doesn’t feel strong and healthy now. As he sat rocking it occurred to me that my own farmer grandfather, Emerald Peters, would be about 93 by now, if he hadn’t died at 79 from a stroke. Leonida’s quiet and sweet energy was similar to that of Emerald. I wondered if Grandpa would have said some similar things about his own life.
That family agricultural life is disappearing with each farming couple that passes away, in Costa Rica and in South Dakota. The Papagayo project and resort tourism in Guanacaste in general threaten to wipe out the past, which was not in itself idyllic. There were relatively small family farms, sure, but also large landowners who controlled huge swaths of land throughout the region, using xenophobia and stereotypes to control their peones, many of whom were forced to migrate to the banana plantation zone rather than be able to make a living at home.
Tío Genaro himself spent time at the banana plantations in Panamá, before returning to Liberia and then to San José. He was a classic example of survival, but not everyone was as charismatic as he, nor as lucky to have found different benefactors. When his father did not claim him and his mother could not care for him, he was adopted by Toño’s mother, who nursed him even though he wasn’t hers. He grew up as a brother to your grandfather and his siblings, and was later brought into the Castro family with such love that they are today the stewards of his only photo, and the only photo we know of your grandmother as a small child.
Genaro's photo in a place of honor at the farm.
Part of the mystery of tío Genaro is this very history: is he related to the family by blood, or by adoption? Is his father the same as great-grandfather Toño’s? If so, the mystery of the blank spaces where the father’s name should go in your family tree (a common mystery in so many of the records in the Civil Registry), would be solved.
It actually doesn’t really matter. Tío Genaro lives on, not just in your name, my dear second-born, but in the memory of the family and in the smiles he sparks whenever he is mentioned, which is at every single family gathering I have ever attended. Even 17 years after his death, more than 100 years after his birth, Genaro’s stories, habits, and affection for his extended family and neighbors sparks in us a desire to live happy lives. In a time of great anxiety and sadness due to the Covid-19 pandemic, tío Genaro and all who are like him are greatly appreciated.
The search for tío Genaro led us to re-encounter cousins, to relive memories of visits to the farms, and to greet the older members of a fading generation before they pass on. Our journey to Liberia and Comunidad and Finca La Culebra and Papagayo helped you to spend more time with your abuelita, and to feel your Guanacaste roots in the hot sun, dusty roads, roosters calling in the early morning hours, the palm trees and Tempisque River, the grave sites and the neighborhoods of the living, ever-adapting to changing times.
We found tío Genaro because we found connection, and stories, relationships and happy memories, all of the things that Genarito means to us and to so many people. 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.