Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 31, 2006

A clear view

Palo Alto woman restores old photos that show the beauty and strife of Costa Rica in the early 1900s

by Rebecca Wallace

When Alejandra Chaverri first saw photographer Manuel GŪmez Miralles' finely detailed black-and-white images of Costa Rica in the early 1900s, she was taken with the buildings.

Unlike so many slapdash structures built in the Americas today, they had a stately character. Her favorite was the Liceo de Heredia, captured in a 1908 photo. The first school that taught girls and boys together, the Liceo had a European architectural style, with arches and carved stone accents.

Chaverri, a Palo Alto photo restorer and photographer, was enchanted. Then she looked closer.

Among the beauty of Costa Rican streets and streams, hills and dells, Miralles also found girls laboring on coffee farms, boys barefoot with poverty, and images of illness and infection.

Subsequently, Chaverri's admiration for Miralles grew: not only did she appreciate his considerable skill as a photographer, but she saw how he had documented the daily strife and joys of another time in her native country.

"I've been learning from this man; he had a passion for what he did," she said. "It rains all the time (there), and this guy was traveling probably by horse, in mud and gravel."

Now Chaverri's passion is Miralles' work. She's restored 100 of Miralles' glass negatives, converting them to electronic files, cleaning up the scratches, silver deposits and other scars of time with her computer; and printing them on archival fine art paper. She's been working with Manrique Alvarez, a photography collector in Costa Rica who owns the negatives, as Miralles had no surviving family.

Since it's not feasible to bring the large glass plates here, Chaverri had to make trips to Costa Rica, carting her scanner along in a suitcase and scanning for 18 hours a day. Along the way, she's been exhibiting the restorations in various places and hopes to work them into a book as well.

This June, she's planning to make another trip to Costa Rica; she's heard that another collector may have more of Miralles' negatives.

"We hope it's true," says Chaverri, a gregarious woman with close-cropped hair and long metal earrings that swing as she talks. She's standing in her Palo Alto home studio next to an enormous 24-inch-wide printer that she uses to make the large prints — many are 12 by 18 inches.

The project got its start with a family connection. Chaverri, traditionally a darkroom photographer, took a digital photograpy class at Foothill College and became inspired to restore her old family photos. The result was a hand-bound book with 60 images of three generations of the Chaverri Benavies family.

Her aunt in Costa Rica enjoyed the book and showed it to collector Alvarez, and the link was made.

Stacks and stacks of the restored Miralles photos cover Chaverri's dining room table, and she flips enthusiastically through them, creating a sort of herky-jerky slide show of the Costa Rica of long ago. A viewer gets a sense of a great social divide: here are wealthy couples with a Ford automobile, there is the elegant El Carmen Church in Heredia, a city seven miles from the capital municipality of San Jose.

But here, too, are the men straining to collect gravel from a riverbed to build a road, and women selling live chickens with the birds' feet tied together. And the young coffee pickers, girls in long dirty skirts holding heavy baskets of beans.

"I am not justifying this child labor," Chaverri says with a frown. "This is another statement of how poor the country was."

One poignant photo shows a ragged boy on the streets of San Jose selling the flowers known as flor de itabo, which are often cooked and eaten with eggs. His feet, bare on the stony road, have scaly, painful-looking toenails. Chaverri says he, like many other barefoot children in the photos, had a major infestation of a parasite that was a serious public health problem for people who went without shoes in the tropics.

The problem didn't start to get better until 1940, when then-president Rafael Angel CalderŪn Guardia launched a campaign to have all school-aged children wear shoes, Chaverri said.

Chaverri hopes to include some of this factual information in the Miralles book, so that it can serve as a historical resource as well as a photographic collection.

Some people are already finding the photos historically useful. Recently, public health workers in Costa Rica saw some of the photos on display and asked to see the negatives to help them document the history of the parasite, Chaverri said.

Lawrence Naiman, a member of the Palo Alto Camera Club, was also intrigued by the restored photos when Chaverri gave a talk on them at the club earlier this month.

"We were blown away by the amounts of efforts she'd put into restoring ancient and not-such-good-condition glass plates," he said. "This is a contribution to the history of the people of that era, and a contribution in general to restoration. We can appreciate what life was like back then."

Naiman had not heard of Miralles and was impressed with his work. "It's a straightforward depiction of honest people and honest places. There's nothing contrived about it," he said.

With all this talk of the past, every now and then there is a surprising connection to the present day. In February, Chaverri displayed some of the Miralles photos at the French Alliance in San Jose, Costa Rica. A man looked at a 1917 picture of a child riding a bicycle and realized it was his grandmother.

Delighted, Chaverri arranged to meet the 92-year-old woman and photograph her. "She's a painter. She walks every day," she said.

Though she's still caught up in the restoration work, Chaverri is also in the midst of her own photography project. She's now collecting and photographing items that are about 100 years old.

Underneath the Miralles photos on her cluttered dining room table are glass marbles, a faded doll's dress with lace, and a flowered parasol with a wooden stick. She also has a tiny pair of black leather lace-up boots that belonged to her great-grandmother.

Chaverri opens the parasol and gives it an experimental twirl. "I've been looking for things that people treasure. Isn't it beautiful?" she says. "The (Miralles) glass negatives brought me to old things."

Info: More information on Alejandra Chaverri's work is at


Posted by gabriel, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 16, 2007 at 5:35 pm

I knew a family named Chaverri whom were from Costa Rica.Are you related?

Posted by qabriel, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 16, 2007 at 5:36 pm

Posted by Fencepost, a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2007 at 5:46 am

I have a camera

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