Monday, February 26, 2018

Luis Alberto Salas (1926-1991)

Costa Rica
Luis Alberto Salas

It was a day of pilgrimage. A day to celebrate. Tickets were sold at reasonable prices for pilgrims to travel to the old city of Cartago to visit "La Negrita," a statue of the Virgin Mary that reportedly had healing powers. The profits from the tickets were to be donated to help the elderly of Cartago.

The train left Alajuela at 7:30 A.M. pulling 3 rail cars full of people. Other stops were made and additional rail cars and people boarded the train. It was a festive day, and the passengers were waving out the windows of the overcrowded train. The capacity of the train was not to exceed 300, but on this day, there were nearly 1000 passengers. Further stops were supposed to be mad along the way to pick up more ticket holders, but there was no more room.

At 8:20, less than an hour after it left the station at in Alajuela, the train was taking a slight curve as it was about to cross the bridge over the Virilla River. On a normal day, the train had to slow down a little and then speed back up to make the hill climb after the bridge, but with this many passengers and weight, the train wouldn't be able to make the climb. It barely slowed as started to cross the bridge. Passengers looked down into the canyon to watch the river waters rush by. As the last two rail cars boarded the bridge, the balance was thrown off of the last car and it derailed, pulling the next car with it. What would happen next would be one of the worst disasters in Costa Rica's history.

Train wreck over the Virilla River

The day was the 14th of March, 1926. The last rail car of the train plunged 190 feet to the bottom of the gorge. As the other cars tipped over, more people fell out of the windows either to the river below or were pinned under the rail car. The final death toll was 248 with another 93 injured. It is said that the Virilla River turned red that day.

Hortensia Salas
"Tita Tencha"
It was on this day, in Alajuela, that my grandfather, Luis Alberto Salas was born. He was one of many Illegitimate children of Ismael Arias Chaves. Luis was the last of 10 surviving siblings born to Hortensia Salas. Hortensia was born in 1885 in La Guacima de Alajuela to Maria Salas, also known as Mamita Maria.

Ismael Arias Chaves
Isamel Arias Chaves was born in 1870 in Alajuela to Rafael Arias Castillo and Bartola Chaves Vargas. He was a large land owner during his day and would be considered quite the "ladies man," by today's standards, as he had at least 25 children with 5 different women (only 2 being wives.)

When Ismael died in 1936, a few of his legitimate children with his wife, Isabel Johnson, were taken in by Hortensia Salas; therefore, becoming housemates with their half brother Luis Alberto Salas.

Luis Alberto Monge
39th President of Costa Rica
Luis Alberto's half siblings were not the only ones to move in with him. In his formative years, he had a roommate that shared first and middle names with him and was the same age. This young roommate was Luis Alberto Monge, who would become ambassador to Israel and later become Costa Rica's 39th president. When asked by friends why he never asked his former roommate for a higher ranking job or better pay, Luis Alberto Salas replied with a statement similar to that of United States President Kennedy,"never ask you friends for what they can do for you. Ask yourself what you can do for your friends."

Luis Alberto Salas
Like many Costa Rican's of the time, Luis Alberto worked for the United Fruit Company, the country's largest employer. The United Fruit Company was started when American businessman, Minor Keith, built a railroad from the capital of San Jose to the eastern port of Limon. Keith planted bananas on the land that the railroad passed as a way to cheaply feed his employees. His passenger train business was not as profitable as he had hoped, but his bananas showed promise as a potential export. He teamed up with Andrew W. Preston and his Boston Fruit Company to form the United Fruit Company, known today as Chiquita Bananas.

United Fruit Company workers loading bananas onto a train

The Turbulent 1940's

Dr. Rafael Calderon Guardia
In 1940, Dr. Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia was elected as president of Costa Rica. Dr. Calderon was politically progressive and was the first president to establish the workings of a welfare system in the country. With excellent intentions, he wanted to lower the poverty level and establish a minimum wage. He was also deeply involved with the public healthcare system. Through his charismatic personality and his policies, he quickly gained immense power in the country. When his four year term ended, Dr. Calderon was not eligible for a consecutive re-election due to the constitutional laws of the country. 

Teodoro Picado
In 1944,  Teodoro Picado Michalski was elected as Dr. Calderon's successor. It is widely believed that Picado was nothing but a puppet for Dr. Calderon so he could retain power and control over the country during the four years that he was ineligible to govern as president. The popularity of Picado and Calderon quickly diminished as they gained an unlikely ally with Manuel Mora and the Communist Party.

Rioting and strikes became more prevalent during the Picado administration. To quell the strikes and rioters, Picado sent in the military to suppress the rebels by force. This increased the unpopularity of Picado and his National Republican Party; so much so, that Dr. Calderon lost his bid for re-election in 1948 by a landslide. Calderon claimed election fraud and petitioned Congress for a new election. Congress was controlled by the National Republican Party and granted Calderon his election which greatly angered the people of Costa Rica; and gave Jose "Don Pepe" Figueres Ferrer a reason to take action.

"Don Pepe"

Jose Figueres Ferrer had greatly disliked the rise of power that Dr. Calderon had obtained and throughout the 1940's began to assemble alliances and a militia. When a re-election was granted to Dr. Calderon, Figueres had moved  his militia into action. Don Pepe believed that it was time for the government and military corruption to stop. This began the Costa Rican Civil War of 1948.

Don Pepe Figueres began moving his troops up from Panama and slowly began taking control over small towns. It wasn't until his forces reached the former capital of Cartago, Costa Rica's second largest city, that he began to face greater opposition. President Picado had expected more assistance from neighboring Nicaragua, but received little to no help. Once Figueres had taken over Cartago, Picado knew he had no chance. He was willing to negotiate with Figueres, however, Manuel Mora was not; at least until he realized the United States was backing Don Pepe's rebellion because of it's interest to quell any gaining of power by the communists. Picado and Mora surrendered. 

When the 44 day long war had come to an end, Don Pepe Figueres Ferrer obtained the presidency while Picado and Calderon fled the country. Aside from leading his men to victory, Figueres' largest accomplishment was permanently eradicating the Costa Rican military. He also established a new constitution that is still in effect today. Don Pepe Figueres Ferrer is widely considered a national hero; and while Dr. Rafael Calderon Guardia had done much to improve the quality of life for many in the country through his improvements to the healthcare system, he is just as well known as the enemy of Figueres during the Civil War.

Zaida Barahona Retana

Zaida Catalina Barahona Retana
about 1950

It was not long after the war that Luis Alberto Salas was invited to a school play by a friend who was a teacher at the local school. At the school, he was introduced to Zaida Catalina Barahona Retana by his friend. Zaida was a young aspiring teacher at another school in San Jose. 

Luis and Zaida
on their wedding day
Not long after this encounter, Luis Alberto, moved to Palmar Sur, in the swampy lands southeast of San Jose. He asked his friend for Zaida's address so that he could write to her. Their correspondence began and they would write to each other for a year. Eventually, Luis Alberto moved back to marry Zaida and in August of 1953, they wed. They purchased a house in Hatillo a suburb of San Jose to live close to her family. 

Luis Alberto Salas and his mother,
Hortensia Salas
Luis began working for the San Jose water department to support his new family. Over the next 13 years they would have six children. Jose Alberto (1954), Marielos (1955), Leonardo (1958), Daniel (1960), Luis Emilio (1962), and Diego (1966). Zaida followed in her parents footsteps by continuing her passion for educating children. In the mid 1960's, Luis and Zaida moved their family from Hatillo to Zapote, on the other side of San Jose. 

In April of 1991, while Zaida was in California visiting her daughter, Luis Alberto Salas had a heart attack. Zaida and Marielos caught a flight to San Jose. With such short notice, the easiest way for them to get back to Costa Rica took them nearly 24 hours with stops and layovers in several countries. Shortly after their arrival and visiting Luis Alberto in the hospital, there was a large earthquake. There was fear across the country for aftershocks, so visits to the hospital at this time were limited. On the 28th of April 1991, Luis Alberto Salas had another heart attack which would prove fatal. He was 65 years old.

Luis Alberto Salas witnessed great change in Costa Rica during his lifetime; from poverty in La Guacima in Alajuela, to living a comfortable middle-class life in San Jose. He witnessed war and the results of a new constitution and a demilitarized nation. He witnessed healthcare and education in his country far exceed that of other Latin American countries. Luis Alberto Salas witnessed his beloved country change for the better in nearly every aspect; to become one of the most popular destination for tourists because of it's beauty, wildlife, and the general happiness of the Costa Rican people. 

Follow Kindred Roots at: 

No comments:

Post a Comment