Minnesota considered home for native of BoliviaHugo Velarde shares time in Worthington, South America
WORTHINGTON — Hugo Velarde grew up in the poorest country of South America and lost his father before he began medical school, but he didn’t let either one of those obstacles get in the way of his dream to become a surgeon
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Hugo Velarde grew up in the poorest country of South America and lost his father before he began medical school, but he didn’t let either one of those obstacles get in the way of his dream to become a surgeon.
Now retired and dividing his time between Worthington in the summer and South America in the winter, Velarde said he has the best of both worlds.
“I’m very happy with my life program,” he said with a grin Friday afternoon from his home on the south side of Worthington’s Lake Okabena.
Born in Bolivia, Velarde was the eldest of two children raised in what he called Bolivia’s middle class.
“My family was not that poor — I would say it was OK,” Velarde said.
Still, he was intent on making a better life for himself, and a career in medicine intrigued him.
“I had an uncle who did not attend medical school, but he was in one of those wars in South America — he was trained as a war nurse and took care of wounded people,” Velarde said. “When the war ended, he just continued being like a doctor. He lived in a small town where there were no doctors, no nurses. Even though he didn’t have any training, he was the doctor for them with whatever he had learned. He was my inspiration.”
Velarde attended medical school in Argentina and practiced there for two years before obtaining a special Visa allowing him, as a foreign doctor, to get his full surgical training in the United States.
He could have attended a surgical service in South America, but the trainings did not pay students for their work at that time.
“I needed to support myself and my family,” he said. “The only country I knew … that gave you that opportunity to train you and pay you at the same time was the U.S. That is a wonderful thing. In South America you don’t have that — most health systems don’t have that. If you have money, there’s no problem, but I didn’t have the income.”
Velarde completed a year-long internship in Washington, D.C., and then earned his residency in general surgery through the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
After passing his boards in general surgery, Velarde and his American wife and two young children moved to Peru. He spent two years there working in a mission hospital.
“I came back (to the United States) in 1976 and had a surgical practice in Kansas City, Kan.,” he said.
In 1986, the family relocated to Worthington.
“I have lived in the states longer than anywhere else,” Velarde said in reflection. “I think for me the States is now home.”
Beauty of Bolivia
Roughly two-thirds of the inhabitants of Bolivia are indigenous people, traced back to two different Inca descents. They are quite primitive people, said Velarde, adding that they speak their own languages of Quechua and Aymara. A majority of the Inca people live in the mountainous western region of Bolivia.
“When I lived in Peru, I had to have an interpreter to deal with the patients,” said Velarde, who grew up speaking Spanish like most residents of eastern Bolivia, also known as the Amazonian region.
“The Inca, they are very exotic because they dress different,” he explained. “They have a lot of skirts — one on top of the other — and these little derby hats. They wear them all of the time.
“Most of the markets … are serviced mostly by women,” he added. “Women are the most industrious there and the most entrepreneurial.”
In terms of faith, Bolivia’s official religion is Catholicism, although the Inca “practice a mixture” of old pre-Spanish beliefs with Christianity that was imposed on them by the Spanish Conquistadors, Velarde said.
“There are some folkloric dances where instead of worshiping God or Gods, they worship the devil,” he added.
The mountainous region the Incas call home is also the primary tourist destination for those traveling to Bolivia. The Amazonian Region draws tourists mostly for its two national parks and Jesuit Missions.
“The western part has beautiful mountains — the highest mountains in South America are in Bolivia,” Velarde said.
Velarde said the town of Santa Cruz, where he grew up, has changed considerably since his youth.
“I was born in a 25,000-population town, which in area was about the size of Worthington,” he said. Today, that town is the largest in Bolivia at more than 2 million residents.
“That area that was so backwards when I was born and where I was raised has become a boom town,” Velarde said. “Because that area is very flat and it has fertile land, there is a lot of agriculture now — mainly corn and soybeans, just like around here. They also have discovered oil and natural gas in that area.”
After partially retiring in 2001 at age 62, Velarde began doing mission work as a surgeon in Bolivia during the winter months. Then, when he retired completely in 2004, he spent three or four years providing surgical work in South America.
Velarde’s sister still lives in Argentina, and he has some extended family in Bolivia. Each winter he spends time in both countries before travelling to other areas of South America. The summers include visits with his children and grandchildren. His daughter Maria and her two children reside in Sioux Falls, S.D., and son Carlos is in Portland, Ore.
Velarde remarried in 1994. His wife Anastasia is a native of the Ukraine, although her family escaped there during World War II and went to Argentina. She was 8 years old at the time.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.