A Match Made in the Forest

By Cidney King, Missouri School of Journalism

ESTACION SAN GERARDO, AREA DE CONSERVACION GUANACASTE, NORTHWESTERN COSTA RICA — For parataxonomists Gloria Sihezar and Osvaldo Espinoza, shopping at the “supermarket” isn’t as simple as grabbing pre-packaged food items off neatly organized shelves or placing cooking supplies on a conveyer belt. Their supermarket doesn’t have numbered aisles, grocery carts or checkout lines — it’s located in the heart of the forest.

With each step Sihezar takes, fallen branches and plant vegetation make a crunching noise. She arrives at the supermarket. She steadies herself as she steps down a slippery hill leading to a stream. She precisely stretches her right foot forward, inching it toward a moss-covered rock — she’s one step closer to marking another item off her list.

Not far away, but on the other side of the forest lost in the greenery is Espinoza. He’s just short enough to avoid some of the drooping tree branches without ducking. Trudging farther into the forest in his thick black rubber rain boots, he finds the plant he’s been looking for — he places a check next to this item on his list.

For more than 20 years, Sihezar and Espinoza have worked together collecting leaf samples and identifying caterpillars and other insects in the field for ecologist Daniel Janzen and the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG).

Janzen’s contagious passion for conserving the biodiversity of the ACG region fueled the intimate relationship Sihezar and Espinoza share with not only the tiny insects that inhabit the dense environment of the rainforest, but also with each other.

Sihezar and Espinoza have been a couple for 20 years. Had it not been for their work, they might never have crossed paths.

The Beginning

Gloria Sihezar was 17 years old with a sixth-grade education the day she walked to the ACG administration area seeking a position. She was a babysitter for the children of Elda Araya, one of the first parataxonomists in ACG, and Costa Rica for that matter.

Sihezar badly wanted to get involved. She saw the job as a change, something different. No one in her family had ever worked with insects before.

There was only one problem. Janzen didn’t have any positions available.

“He told me to return a couple months later if I was really serious about the job,” Sihezar said.

A few months later, and one month before her 18th birthday, a position opened and Sihezar started training. She never looked back to her days as a babysitter.

Almost immediately after starting her job, she encountered a man who thought she was more beautiful than all the breathtaking sights nature had to offer. She paid him no attention.

“At first I didn’t like him! I don’t know why,” she said.

Sihezar had always envisioned herself with a serious person.

“He was a trickster and always bothering people,” she said.

That trickster, who could often be found stirring up laughter, was none other than Osvaldo Espinoza, who had a similar educational background to Sihezar’s.

He had dropped out of grade school to help support his family. Parataxonomy provided him with stability and gave him an escape from his work as a fisherman.

“Life of a fisherman is really hard sometimes — down right ugly,” Espinoza said.

He was now relieved of the long days and hardships that come with working on a boat. His new job also allowed him to find peace and the love of his life — even though she wouldn’t be an easy catch.

“From hate to love there’s just one step,” Sihezar said as she reminisced on how her feelings for Espinoza changed.

It was a normal day of work — as normal as setting mousetraps on the forest floor for a research project could be. Espinoza and Sihezar had paired up, carefully placing traps down one by one.

Sihezar leaned down, ready to place another trap . She felt the warmth of Espinoza’s lips meet the softness of hers.

“The first kiss was really good,” Sihezar said as a smile crept to her face. “I forgot about everything else.”

Espinoza had finally mustered enough courage to make the first move. He captured Sihezar’s heart.

Even after so many years, Espinoza still likes everything about her.

“She’s direct … and is very self-confident,” he said as his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

The Present Day

Sihezar and Espinoza continue to intertwine their love for nature and each other.

Every morning after cooking breakfast, ironing school uniforms and getting their 11- and seven-year-old sons ready for the day, they head down the road to work.

With both Sihezar and Espinoza maintaining full-time work status as parataxonomists, the task of balancing work and home life becomes a juggling act.

During summer when the boys aren’t in school, Sihezar’s sister watches them. When she is unavailable the boys excitedly hop in the back of the family truck ready for a day of exploration in the forest or laboratory.

Their oldest son wants to be a biologist.

“He grew up around biology. That’s all he knows,” Sihezar said. “If he were in charge, we would live in the lab.” Whenever the boy finds a caterpillar tucked inside a leaf or inching its way along a plant, he grabs it and brings it home.

Sihezar and Espinoza’s seven-year-old is more urban but still takes an interest in nature. He brags to his schoolmates about his mom’s knowledge of insects, especially caterpillars.

Sihezar beamed ear to ear with pride as she expressed how much she loves her job — it changed her life.

In Costa Rica, a higher education is more attainable for working-class people than it was in the past but still poses financial burdens. These burdens are now conquerable for Sihezar and Espinoza.

Their work as parataxonomists will allow them to send both their children to universities, they said. It’s another reason why their love for the forest remains unwavering.

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