Friday 9 December 2022

107 years and two pandemics: The story of the Tico carpenter Juan Gabriel Hernández

Covid-19 is not the only pandemic that this centennial Costa Rican born in 1913 has had to go through. And despite the fact that he does not remember much of that time, he is in good health and has many anecdotes

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QCOSTARICA –  In an orange armchair located next to the door of his house and in front of a window, Juan Gabriel Hernández Matamoros rests.

Juan Gabriel Hernández Matamoros turned 107 on October 19. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

On his left side, folded in half, is the newspaper that he just finished reading a few minutes ago and that he cannot miss for any reason; while to his right is his cane, which for some years has been an inseparable friend.

Don Juan remains seated in that chair for several hours, mainly after the inevitable morning coffee that Griselda Duarte, his caregiver, prepares him. This simple but peaceful place has become one of his favorite places in his home, located in Los Lagos, in Heredia.

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It has been 107 years of anecdotes and paths traveled and today he enjoys that calm that his home gives him, while he remembers so many stories lived from his armchair.

He is in good health, enviable clarity, and is grateful every day for the opportunity to add so many unique moments.

Don Juan was born on October 19, 1913, in Naranjo, in the province of Alajuela, and throughout his life he has witnessed moments that not many have witnessed or do not remember. Among them, the eruptions of the Poás volcano towards the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s and the civil war of 1948, as well as the creation of Deportivo Saprissa, the team he loves.

Juan Gabriel Hernández leans on his cane due to circulation problems typical of his age, which makes it difficult for him to walk without support. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

He is also one of the few Ticos alive who witnessed the ravages of the Spanish flu, the pandemic that reached Costa Rica in 1920 and caused the death of 2,298 people. At that time the country’s population was around 500,000 people.

However, don Juan does not remember very well what that time was like. By then he was a carefree seven-year-old boy who lived in the mountains and spent his days playing with his brothers.

The truth is that he is one of those very few Costa Ricans who have had to live through two pandemics and all that this represents.

When he can, he takes a little escape to his carpentry workshop, a trade to which he dedicated himself for more than six decades. Photo: Rafael Pacheco
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He does not know much about covid-19, but he is clear that he cannot leave his home, as it is a dangerous disease. He also knows that he can no longer be taken to the Raúl Blanco Cervantes Geriatrics and Gerontology Hospital to be treated by doctor (Xinia) Ramírez, whom he appreciates so much.

He has had to get used to face shields and a mask when he receives a visit, as well as to alcohol gel and not seeing his whole family together, as he likes so much.

“I can’t go out because of that illness, so I can’t go to the hospital anymore, but the doctor always sends me greetings and calls me and knows what medicines I need, it’s very good. Now what I think about is my family members, I only ask God to accompany them all and to free them from this disease,” he says.

Foto: Rafael Pacheco

After spending the morning resting in his chair, don Juan, who uses a hearing aid to hear better, likes to spend a few hours in his carpentry workshop, a trade he learned as a teenager.

Only God will know how long I will be here, but I am happy and I want to continue leading the life that I have led until now Juan Gabriel Hernández

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The work area is in a corner of his house and there he has all his tools and what he really loves.

“I had several uncles who were carpenters and I helped them and there I learned the trade. Then there was a man in San Juan de Naranjo who was a specialist in making carretas (carts) and cart racks and my mother told me ‘Juan, I’m going to talk to so and so to teach you’ and he taught me to make carts and all that and to my parents were very good because they had oxen and I made carts for them. The truth is that I learned to do everything,” he recalls.

He loves his newspapers and the first thing he does after breakfast is read the news. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

He was a carpenter and builder for more than six decades, specifically until the age of 80, when his children asked him to stop because they considered that it was already a risky job for him:  his strength is not the same, and all his life he worked without being insured, which is why today he does not have a pension.

However, despite the fact that his six children do not allow him to spend much time in the workshop, every day he takes a little getaway, since, in addition to being his trade, it always be his favorite hobby.

He also takes a little time out of the day to watch television, mainly the news, and Cantinflas’s films are not to be missed.

The secrets (to his long life)

Eat well, sleep at least eight hours a day, do not consume liquor, do not smoke, and work hard. Those have been the secrets that don Juan claims have kept him in very good health until now.

Also, get up early, so that the day goes a long way. He gets up every day at 5 am and does some light exercises that doctors recommend.

However, all his life he has been a healthy man and affirms that this has allowed him not to have diseases, to gather strength, and to reach the age he is.

“I have to walk with a cane because the circulation bothers me and I can fall, but I feel very good, the only thing that bothers me are my legs, that’s why I spend a lot of time sitting on the couch,” he explains.

Don Juan grew up among the Naranjo mountains and started school at the age of six, however, he could not finish it since his parents Simón Hernández and Ana Francisca Cleta Matamoros, took him out of school when he reached fourth grade.

“I had seven siblings, but only I helped them because the others liked to go to work elsewhere to get paid, so that’s where my parents saw that it didn’t help them that I continued in school, because I had to work with them, then they took me out and there I learned agriculture,” he says.

He worked planting coffee, sugarcane, banana, yucca and everything that his parents grew; when he could earn something, he would go to a theater that was in Naranjo and in which they charged six reales for admission.

He is a faithful devotee of Saint Raphael and keeps an image that his mother gave him. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

And although the work was hard, he affirms that life was slower and more enjoyable.

“The only thing in Naranjo was a movie theater and then my vice was to go there to go see a movie, because I liked that a lot. At that time there was nothing, no television, no radio, or anything, that is, when there were no electrical appliances or anything. But it was more beautiful, there were more beautiful things to see, it was much quieter and there was a lot of countryside.

“Life was very simple, the houses were ranches and the roofs were made of straw. I remember that when I was young I made my ranch out of pure straw on the farm where my father and mother lived,” he explains.

His best memories of that time are being accompanied by horses since this was the means of transport par excellence. He had to cross rivers, mountains, and muddy roads to get from one place to another but he was happy, he breathed fresh air.

In those his travels he met Claudia Rodríguez, whom he married in 1936 and with whom he shared his life for 72 years, until 2008, when he died. Together they had seven children.


Throughout his years don Juan has collected moments that are and will continue to be unforgettable and he laughs just by remembering so many things that have happened to him.

For example, remember when one time on a trip to Caldera, in Puntarenas, he lost his tooth plate.

“I really liked going to the beach and when we got into the sea I didn’t expect those huge waves and when I realized it, I lost my tooth plate and looking everywhere I couldn’t find it and then, in a butcher shop they found a tooth plate in a fish and it was mine,” he recalls with a laugh.

But that was not the only thing that happened to him, on more than one occasion La Llorona and El Cadejos scared him and although he now remembers that experience with a smile, it was not always like that.

“My parents had a farm in Zarcero and there was a time when I had to deliver corn there. And one day, when several of us were going down a hill in Barranca, where a river, a woman showed up and got on the cart and we were very scared and said she was La Llorona,”  he recalls.

In Hispanic American folklore, La Llorona (Spanish: [la ʝoˈɾona]; “The Weeping Woman” or “The Wailer”) is a ghost who roams waterfront areas mourning her drowned children.

In addition, he assures that “we really liked to ride a horse and suddenly I heard a very strange noise and they said it was El Cadejos, but you never saw it. The truth is that they scared me many times.”

El cadejo (Spanish pronunciation: [kaˈðexo]) is a supernatural character from Central American folklore.

However, he has also experienced some situations that have made him fear for his life and that of his family. One of them was the war of ’48, given that he and his loved ones were always Calderonistas, that is, on the opposite side.

“It was terrible, it was a disaster. As we were opposed to the Liberation government, they mistreated us a lot, they persecuted us and everything, we had to stay at home, quiet, doing nothing because they persecuted us. Then, my children were students. And there were some friends who told me ‘Juan, we are going to fight at such a point’ and I told them not to, that I didn’t want any of that.

Read here about the Costa Rica Civil War

“They tried to be brave, and it’s not that I wasn’t brave, but rather that I started to think that what did I gain from that,” he explains.

Also, at that time he was thinking that his wife was about to give birth. In fact, she went into labor in the middle of the war and had to go, hiding through the coffee plantations late at night, to look for a midwife.

And for that reason, little by little he became disenchanted with politics, although he assures that he will always be a mariachi and a faithful follower of the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC).


Don Juan is a very gentle man … until Saprissa loses.

Don Juan Gabriel Hernández is passionate about Deportivo Saprissa and has followed the team since its founding in 1935.  Photo: Rafael Pacheco.

Saprissa is the only exception to stay up and not go to bed at 7 pm, as usual, because he likes to watch the games until the end.

He is one of those Saprissistas who has been with the team since its founding in 1935. From its first games, he fell in love with the team and he has witnessed every victory, every defeat and every championship.

“I liked Saprissa because they were a very good team and they are still very good and they are champions. I always went to the stadium with the kids, because at that time everything was very cheap and it was something that I loved and I made all of them Saprissists. Well, there was one that didn’t, Luis Enrique, my son. He would annoy me and would come to the parties yelling ‘Liga, Liga!’ ( Liga Deportiva Alajuelense),” He says.

He is one of those saprissistas that his family assures that if it loses a game, he goes to bed angry and the next day there is no person in the world who can get don Juan to read the newspaper. He simply refuses to watch the news about the losses of the team.

And although it has brought him one or another colerón (anger), it has also given him unforgettable experiences. The most recent was for his 107th birthday, when he received the best gift he could imagine: the popular Sapriss former goalie José Francisco Porras called him to congratulate him.

He also has a team shirt signed by all the players, mugs, team flags and even a mask, which can be seen from the living room of the house.

But Saprissa is not the only passion of don Juan: he loves to play lottery, Chances and Teimpos of the Junta de Protección Social (Costa Rica lottery) and there is no raffle in which he does not participate. Of course, this is not his great vice.

What he does love is dancing and he can’t hear a song on the radio, because he’s already on the dance floor.

“I’ve always liked to dance and I love listening to Los Panchos and I tell the girl who helps me‘ change that and put on Los Panchos ’, but lately I start dancing with whatever (music). What bothers me are my legs, because of the circulation, so I can’t dance for long ” he says.

Before there was nothing, no television, no radio, nothing, but it was prettier, it was much quieter, there was a lot of countryside and life was very simple, the houses were ranches and the roofs were thatched Juan Gabriel Hernández

Before, when I was a child and there were no orchestras or groups, the one in charge of putting on the dance was a man who played accordion but that was enough for don Juan.

At 107 his goal now is to reach 110 to celebrate big time with his family and friends. Photo: Rafael Pacheco.

Now his dream is to turn 110 years old, to be able to celebrate his birthday again as it was in 2013 when he reached 100 and they gave him a great party, with the Lubín Barahona Orchestra and he celebrated with his whole family dancing.

His wish is to be able to reunite the musicians, his loved ones and dance throughout the celebration.

“Only God will know how much longer I will be here, but I am happy and I want to continue leading the life that I have led until now,” he concludes.

Translated and adapted by the Q from La Nacion’s Revista Dominical, “107 años y dos pandemias: Conozca la historia del carpintero tico Juan Gabriel Hernández”. Read the original here.

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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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