The New Yorker – The cemetery in Atenas, Costa Rica, a small town in the mountains that line the country’s lush Central Valley, contains hundreds of flat white crypt markers laid out in neat rows like mah-jongg tiles, extending in every direction. On a clear afternoon in April, Álvaro Salas Chaves, who was born in Atenas in 1950, guided me through the graves.
“As a child, I witnessed every day two, three, four funerals for kids,” he said. “The cemetery was divided into two. One side for adults, and the other side for children, because the number of deaths was so high.”
Salas grew up in a small, red-roofed farmhouse just down the road. “I was a peasant boy,” he said. He slept on a straw mattress, with a woodstove in the kitchen, and no plumbing. Still, his family was among the better-off in Atenas, then a community of nine thousand people. His parents had a patch of land where they grew coffee, plantains, mangoes, and oranges, and they had three milk cows. His father also had a store on the main road through town, where he sold various staples and local produce. Situated halfway between the capital, San José, and the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, Atenas was a stop for oxcarts travelling to the coast, and the store did good business.
On the cemetery road, however, there was another kind of traffic. When someone died, a long procession of family members and neighbors trailed the coffin, passing in front of Salas’s home. The images of the mourners are still with him.