I believe that people are divided into two different groups. There’s one group which grows up and nothing ever happens to them. And…there’s this other group, and they’re the kind who see there’s an opportunity over there [and say], “Let’s go and see what’s on the other side of the hill.”
My advice is, always, “Go.”
— Henrietta Boggs
Here’s something that you probably do not know: The modern history of Costa Rica began in 1948, when in the wake of a disputed election in which the country’s ruling party retained its control over the government, a coffee farmer named José Figueres led a successful revolt.
Following the revolution, Figueres became the country’s provisional president (later, he was elected to two separate terms as president, from 1953-58 and 1970-74). The junta he headed held power for a year-and-a-half afterward, during which time a new constitution was adopted and numerous reforms enacted, including abolition of the standing army, extension of the vote to women and black citizens, a slate of egalitarian social initiatives and establishment of a civil service system.
When the junta voluntarily relinquished power in November of 1949, the foundation for democratic government had been firmly established. Since then, for nearly 70 years and counting, Costa Rica has been the most peaceful, stable, and prosperous country in Central America (and, I’m sure not coincidentally, a place where every single person I know who has visited says they wouldn’t mind living).
I’m recounting this brief history by way of telling you something else you probably don’t know: One of the pivotal — and, until recently, mostly unsung — figures in the onset of the Costa Rican revolution and the flourishing social democracy that emerged from it was South Carolina-born Henrietta Boggs, the wife of Figueres and the daughter of a family that had moved from their native Spartanburg to Birmingham in 1923.
Boggs enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College in the fall of 1937. Rather unusually for a young woman of that time and place, she aspired to become a writer and journalist. But in 1940, during the summer break at BSC, she went to visit an uncle and aunt who had moved to Costa Rica. While there, in what was at the time a country where most of the population lived in extreme poverty (“It was not exactly the land of eternal spring as I [had] imagined it,” she recalled years later), she met Figueres and, following something of a whirlwind courtship — much of it conducted aboard a motorcycle on which he toured her around the verdant countryside — she agreed to marry him.
At the time of his marriage to the young woman from Alabama, Figueres and many other large landowners had begun to chafe under an increasingly oppressive Costa Rican government, and he became determined to do something about it. In the summer of 1942, at Boggs’ urging, Figueres delivered a radio address that was harshly critical of the government. Before he had even finished his speech, government forces stormed into the radio station and arrested him. Two days later, he was sent into exile, and after stops in El Salvador and Guatemala, he and Boggs ended up in Mexico.
In 1944, a newly elected president allowed Figueres to return to Costa Rica. He was greeted at the airport in the capital of San Jose by what Boggs recalled as “a sea of people…the most exhilarating reception you can imagine.” He formed a new political party, but over the next four years, the situation only worsened, and in 1948, the revolution began in earnest. As the fighting intensified, Boggs was forced to flee with their two small children, taking refuge in a camp with American road crews working on the Pan American Highway until the revolution ended.
As the leader of the revolution and the provisional president of his country, Figueres was deeply involved with establishing the new constitution and governmental structure of his country, to the increasing exclusion of his family. Consequently, Boggs left him in 1951, taking the children and returning to Alabama (today, her son, Marti, is a successful businessman in Costa Rica, and her daughter, Muni, served as that country’s ambassador to the United States from 2010 until 2014).
In the mid-1950s Boggs moved to New York, where she worked at the United Nations, and later resided in Paris for a brief time. She moved back to Alabama for good in 1965, when she married Hugh Maguire, a prominent Montgomery doctor. She became — and remains — an active presence in that city’s civic and charitable circles.
Along the way, Boggs also realized her ambitions as a writer. Among other things, she founded Montgomery Living (now River Region Living) magazine. She later sold the publication, but continues to write for it today at the age of 98. In 1992 she published a memoir of her time with Figueres, titled Married to a Legend.
In 2009, while attending a Christmas party in Washington DC, Boggs met Washington-based filmmaker Andrea Kalin. Fascinated by Boggs’ story, and taken by the nonagenarian’s wit and vivacity, Kalin ultimately produced and directed First Lady of the Revolution, a documentary about Boggs’ time in Costa Rica and her lasting influence on the development of that country. The film will be screened in Birmingham this Saturday, as part of the annual Sidewalk Film Festival — with the subject in attendance.
“I was mesmerized,” Kalin told me over the phone last weekend, speaking of her initial encounter with Boggs. “I thought, ‘I really need to take down this history,’ and I filmed the first interview with her the very next day. I didn’t know if it would be enough to turn into a film. I just knew that I’d met an extraordinarily interesting person, and that I wanted to know more about her.”
As her interest did indeed develop into a full-fledged film project, Kalin said, her appreciation for Boggs’ place in the history of Costa Rica grew (a Costa Rican historian interviewed in the film calls Boggs “a bright star in a dark night”). Many of the reforms that Figueres championed were things that he and Boggs had discussed during the years of their courtship and marriage.
“She helped put into place the legacy of Costa Rica,” Kalin told me. “She had such a hand in these things that created the progress and stability that Costa Ricans now take for granted.”
That fact came home to her last March, Kalin said, when she accompanied Boggs to Costa Rica, where the former First Lady delivered a TEDx talk — in Spanish, the filmmaker notes — to an audience of 1,600.
“To the people there, it was as if Martha Washington was giving a tell-all,” Kalin recalled. “It was as if they were rediscovering a page lost in their history books. At one point, she told them that she had a secret to reveal, and she said, ‘The real reason [Figueres] launched the revolution was to get me off his back.’
“The audience erupted. It was amazing.”
Nearly seven years after meeting the subject of her film, Kalin said she remains “astounded by Henrietta’s energy.” Boggs continues to go into her office at River Region Living every day and, as indicated by the recent trip to Costa Rica for her TEDx talk, she maintains an active travel schedule. She celebrated her birthday last May in New York, and will return to San Jose in a few weeks for the Costa Rican premiere of First Lady of the Revolution.
“What an utterly fascinating life,” Kalin remarked as we were wrapping up our conversation. “She was born before women could vote, was part of giving Costa Rican women the right to vote, lived to see the first black President of our country, and it looks as if now she’s going to see our first female President. The way she’s lived, and the way she continues to make a difference, is incredible.”
I’d be remiss if I wrapped up this column without saying something about my personal connection to Henrietta Boggs. Back in 1984, during that year’s presidential primaries, I volunteered in the Birmingham office of then-Colorado Senator Gary Hart. After the primary here in Alabama, I was offered a position with Hart’s statewide office in Montgomery. Part of my meager pay for that position was a free place to stay — a tiny guest cottage behind the home of a prominent local doctor, Hugh Maguire, and his wife, Henrietta, who happened to be an enthusiastic Hart supporter.
I was too young and too full of myself and my own political passions to pay much attention to this charming lady who was my host during the two months I lived in Montgomery. I do recall that she took the trouble to invite me one or two mornings a week to join her at her kitchen table, where we’d drink Costa Rican coffee and talk about politics in the era of Ronald Reagan. Henrietta was gracious and funny and so much smarter and wiser than I that the main thing I recall is being completely intimidated by her presence.
I met Henrietta again sometime in the early 1990s, when I made a trip with our mutual friend, the late Marie Stokes Jemison, to have lunch with her in Montgomery. Marie had invited me delightedly, immediately on discovering my acquaintance with Henrietta, and my recollection of our lunch is mostly of listening in rapt fascination to these two anything-but-traditional Alabama belles swapping stories.
On the way down, I’d told Marie about something particularly provocative Henrietta had said to me over one of our coffee chats in the Gary Hart days. She shot me a look of great import and made this pronouncement:
“Henrietta,” said Marie, “is a pistol.”
That she was — and is, and always has been. I look forward to renewing our acquaintance at the festival this weekend.
First Lady of the Revolution will be shown at 11:40 a.m. this Saturday, August 27. Sponsored by Birmingham-Southern College and EBSCO, the screening will take place at First Church, located at 518 19th St. N. downtown. On Sunday, August 28 at 4 p.m., Revelator Coffee Company (1826 Third Ave. N.) will host a reading of Married to a Legend, along with a Costa Rican coffee tasting.