I was born in Costa Rica to a poor family, but I was fortunate to have parents who valued education. While other children were put to work in the fields, my father, despite being nearly illiterate, encouraged me to focus on my studies. Sadly, the academic horizons my parents envisioned for me were very limited. At that time, going to college was unthinkable.
Being from a poor family was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, since the lack of financial security forced me to seek out my own options. I have seen how that having money, for many, became a trap. It narrowed their horizon, and created the illusion that the future would always be the same as the past.
Toward the end of the 1970s, the world economy plummeted and there was a great scarcity of food in Costa Rica. Poverty multiplied and all of us were affected in some way or another. Up until that time, things had gone relatively well for my father. His arduous work had paid off. My father still considered himself to be a farmer. Two or three times per week he would go to the wholesale market to sell produce from his fields: cilantro, onions, celery, and lettuce, among others. My siblings and I waited anxiously because my dad would always bring things back in his sack, such as pudding, fresh cheese, powdered milk, and fruit. But when the crisis hit, it became impossible to sell produce. Prices were too low to make a profit, and if not, no one would buy. Now that I’m grown and have two daughters, I can’t imagine how difficult that experience must have been for my parents. However, there is one thing I remember as if it were yesterday: the Christmas that the “baby Jesus” didn’t bring us a toy. I remember looking through the window at the children passing by on the street with their new toys. It was Sunday, and I didn’t want to go to mass because all the children were supposed to take their toys to be blessed. Thanks to the goodness of God, toward the end of the morning my uncle Alfonso arrived at our house and realized that we were sad. So, he left and came back a little while later with some plastic balls: one for my brother and another for me. He had brought my sisters a doll. Poverty takes many forms, and it isn’t true that poor people aren’t trying. Sometimes, life is simply very difficult, and another person’s generosity is the only thing that can change the situation. Throughout my life, I have encountered both types of people: one is the cynical person who thinks that the poor are poor because they want to be, and the other is the truly generous person. My uncle Alfonso was the first of a lengthy list of people who have helped me. This is why I dedicated my undergraduate thesis in chemistry to ordinary people who pay taxes to create opportunities for people like me.
The situation did not improve over the years that followed. Once, I mentioned to a teacher that we were going through a very rough financial situation at home. She referred me to the counselor, who gave me a bag of groceries to take home that day. This occurred several times that year. The bag was not heavy; but it was hard to carry it, perhaps I was a bit embarrassed. The following year, the administration of Escazú High School included me in a scholarship program sponsored by the city, and for several years I received a scholarship.
When I was an adolescent, it was typical for secondary school students to study for three years in the regular system and complete the last two years in a vocational school, learning an occupation. Families did this because of the possibility that their children could start working sooner. That year, my dad enrolled me in a secondary school where they were going to teach me to be a master builder. A master builder is the person who directs the construction of buildings and other civil engineering projects, supervising workers and receiving instructions from professionals such as engineers and architects. On the first day of classes that year, as I was in the bus headed to that school, I passed my old secondary school and got off the bus to look for my classmates. I sat down in the first empty desk I found. Despite our poverty, my parents supported me when I decided not to go to vocational school. At that time, I saw that program as a threat, since my desire was to go to college. Something told me that if I became a construction foreman that would be the highest rung I would reach in life.
My insatiable interest in science possibly originated from the enormous quantity of scientific documentaries that I saw as a child. But the transformation from interest to reality was due to two people. The first one was astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz, whose career I have followed since Franklin went to outer space for the first time in a space shuttle in 1986. Franklin inspired me so much that I built a model of an Apollo rocket. My admiration for the tenacity and technical excellence of astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz has never diminished. The second person is Dr. Giselle Sandi Tapia. Giselle is the person who inspired me to become a chemist. This occurred when I was in tenth grade. Giselle was studying her degree in chemistry at the University of Costa Rica, and that year she was doing her university communal project at Escazú High School, where I was studying. At Escazú High School, there was no laboratory, so Giselle improvised one to teach us the chemical synthesis of a manganese aluminate. That experience was the moment my desire to study chemistry first began.
Notwithstanding my curiosity, I always doubted my capabilities. My last year of secondary school, just before sending my application to enroll in the university, I asked my math teacher, Mr. Gerardo Arias, if he believed I had any possibility of success in college. Mr. Gerardo answered my question with a resounding “yes;” however, I could always hear the voice of doubt whispering to me. In retrospect, I realize that there must be millions of young men and women who have a similar or more difficult background than mine and who are plagued by the same doubts. Many will not even entertain the idea, because they are convinced that they do not deserve anything better. There is another group of young people who do not believe that education is the doorway to a life of abundance and significance, although they do want to improve. They are the ones who fall as easy prey to drug traffickers and other criminals who seduce them.
I have always wanted to understand and solve the problem of underdevelopment. Not having found answers in Costa Rica, I decided to study a doctorate as a springboard to expand my intellectual and cultural horizons. This is why I came to the United States. The result has been equal to a quantum jump in my perception of local and global reality. I now understand that the problems at the root of underdevelopment and institutional inefficiency are self-generated. The crisis is an internal one and results in poor management of the country and its relationship to the world. Although there are historical factors that date back hundreds of years, the lack of an effective and efficient system to manage society can be solved. It is a technical problem with the organization and administration of resources, including human resources, or the population as a whole. Therefore, each inhabitant of the country shares the blame.
Good intentions are not enough. Global society is very complex and complicated. Therefore, to improve the management of society and its infrastructure, environment, and human resources, paradigms must be updated; and, consequently, the country’s internal regulations. The legal framework must permit a dynamic administration to respond to threats and grasp opportunities.
Certain groups demonstrate contempt for individuals with prestige and academic degrees. This is understandable, because some of these individuals have been responsible for severe acts of corruption. The fallacy is in believing that poor and little-educated people are less corrupt and are just as capable or more capable that well-trained individuals. The results obtained by leaders of developed countries and multinational companies demonstrate that a well-educated, sophisticated individual is an essential ingredient in reaching the goals of an organization, be it a country or company. Just as the proverb says, “One swallow does not make a summer.” Changes must be made in immigration laws to attract a bigger influx of high-level professionals and leaders. The competition for the most productive people must be joined. Furthermore, the population must be educated regarding the necessity of many high-level scientists and professionals so that each member of society can obtain better jobs and improve their quality of life. As Andres Oppenheimer writes in his book Basta de historias (“That’s Enough with the Stories”), clinging to the past handicaps us.
There are several basic elements to the administration of a city. Poor nations fail at the most basic of them, such as maintaining communication lines, effective waste management, mail service, and public safety. The lack of these elements leads to unemployment and poverty, since internal and external commerce depends upon this structure. The worst aberration consists of adopting ideologies which deny the natural principles that lead to a commercial dynamic between individuals and organizations. Impeding the exchange of goods and services through regulations is a crime.
Imposing ideas and methods on society has never worked. Initiative to act comes only when a person feels that learning is his or her own discovery. The solution to any social problem must come from within. Most of the principles of good management and the solutions to many urban problems have already been discovered, thanks to a culture in developed countries that values scientific research. Thus, the best universities in the world are in developed countries. We must not only open borders and create programs to entice the most productive people in the world to come and live in our countries, but we must also educate a large number of scientists and professionals at the highest level. Being strategically located near the country with the best university system in the world is an opportunity for Latin America. Because of resentment, cultural barriers, ignorance, and obsolete paradigms, this opportunity has not been exploited.