“Viva Chile” Part 1: The 18th of September
“Viva Chile!!” has filled the air these days, punctuating with an emphatic exclamation point what that stoic country has been through during 2010. The massive earthquake in the central south coastal region, the notable election of a center-right President after 20 years of center-left governance, and the agonizing but finally successful rescue of 33 miners in the north has had people throughout the world checking our geographical and political maps to follow all the action. If these momentous events were not enough for one country for one year, Chileans also celebrated their nation’s bicentennial this year, on September 18. Secretary of State Clinton said it well in her greeting to the people of Chile on this occasion, when she said “The people of your country have set a vibrant example…the earthquake in February has demonstrated your unshaken determination…your all-out efforts on behalf of the trapped miners is inspirational…”. Given all that was going on in Chile (and the feeling that the time was right to repair our apartment in Santiago from earthquake damage) we decided to join our Chilean family and friends in Chile for their Bicentennial “18th” celebration.
But this story really starts in the summer of 1967, when my Peace Corps group was being prepared to serve as volunteers in Chile. We spent days and nights at an isolated summer camp facility (Camp Armac) near Bothell, Washington, learning Spanish, brushing up on our silviculture (we were going into a forestry development program where promotion of tree-planting in rural Chile was the main activity), and familiarizing ourselves with the customs and habits of our future hosts, the Chileans. In this orientation period we were introduced to the “18 de Septiembre” as a moment when all of Chile celebrates the independence of a country and an independent people with deep cultural roots in rural Andean South America. There were several returned volunteers who had already served in Chile, helping with the training program. Willy, Bill and “Buzo” who had lived in rural Chile during their Peace Corps service urged us in no uncertain terms to prepare to participate fully in the “18” celebrations while living in Chile.
To help prepare us for this, we were introduced to favorite Chilean ballads such as “Si Vas Para Chile”, “Rio Rio”, and “Adios Santiago Querido”. Our Spanish instructor Max (on leave in the US from his home University in Concepcion in south central Chile) played Chilean music into our earphones so much that none of us to this day can hear the “Cuatro Cuartos” tonada “Que Bonita Va” without thinking about this intense period over forty years ago and this insistent language instructor who, after all, was so key to any success each of us had in finally communicating with Chileans. And we were introduced to the national dance, the “cueca”, a strange set of steps meant to mimic the mating maneuvers of a rooster and hen; a dance that must be learned through practice, and which we found out very soon cannot be faked on the dance floor like so many other dances can. Much to my chagrin, I never learned to dance the cueca, but I was by no means alone in that failure. We were told that during a “18” celebration, we should go to a rodeo, dance the “cueca” and drink a lot of wine and fresh grape cider named “chicha” over a several-day period if we were to participate appropriately in this most important of Chile’s celebrations. Unfortunately, we arrived that year in Chile only the week following the celebration in 1967, so we waited a year before participating in our first Chilean “18”.
During my Peace Corps service I was in Chile for just two “18s”. I remember them fondly, although I admit the memories are somewhat hazy due in part to the many years gone by since, but also to the effects of the great amounts of wine and “chicha” we consumed so as not to appear culturally insensitive and disappoint our hosts. My first “18”, in 1968, was in Santiago, where, for two full days we partied at the “fondas” in a park in what was then the semi-rural neighborhood of Santiago called La Reina. The simplest “fondas” are hut-like rustic constructions put up by sticking corner poles in the ground and across the top, and overlaying eucalyptus or “aromo” boughs, or whatever leaved limbs and branches you have available, on the top to provide a type of roof. Open sides and dirt floors are OK.
“Fondas” are also called “ramadas”, coming from the Spanish word “rama”, which means branch, like branch of a tree. (I wonder if it was a nostalgic Chilean who put the Ramada name on our chain of motels, or maybe it was the way they were put together.) The point of the Chilean “fonda” is to have a place in which to put a bar to serve some food and drink, a few small tables and chairs, and maybe a small area for dancing. In Chile to this day the “18 fonda” is pretty much still the same, although in the cities, especially Santiago, some have become more sophisticated and comfortable, losing in the process some of the attraction I recall from earlier years. My most lasting memory of this “18” in 1968 was a simple, very popular “fonda” named “Juan Tragolta”, a typically Chilean play on words linking our John Travolta with the word “trago”, Spanish for drink. This fonda was well-named, and we spent quite a bit of time there listening to music, drinking chicha, and avoiding dancing the cueca. It was fun to participate in this simple expression of Chilean civic pride. We felt like we were beginning to fit in.
In 1969, I participated in a much more typical “18” celebration outside of Santiago, when I spent the holiday in Pelluhue at my brother-in-law-to-be Joaco’s family home that sits on a rocky ledge high above that lovely Maule shoreline which was devastated by the recent tsunami. I attended a Chilean rodeo in nearby Cauquenes with wife-to-be Ximena, Joaco, sister-in-law-to-be Veronica, and several other “to-bes”. The rodeo is central to the “18” activities especially in this south-central agricultural part of Chile where the short, stocky Chilean horse presides. A Chilean rodeo is considerably different from the North American rodeo. It is held in a “media luna” (half moon) corral-type wooden construction, around the inside of which two “huasos” (Chilean cowboys, or horsemen) chase a steer and try to pin him against the wall with their horses at a specific place on the wall and as far back on the animal as they can. Points are given for style and precision, but apparently who you know at the scoring table also helps.
Ximena’s father, Claudio, rode in the Cauquenes rodeos in his youthful years, so attending this rodeo and drinking chicha from Cauquenes was a personal rite of passage with very special meaning to me, contributing I believe to the very close relationship I was fortunate to have with my father-in-law through the years. Claudio loved the rodeo, horses, rural life, and the “18” celebration. He was never as happy living later in Santiago as he was in his earlier years in Cauquenes. (Upon his untimely death a few years ago, my mother-in-law, Ana Luisa, gave me Claudio’s frayed rawhide lasso and his rusty branding iron he used to mark his animals on “La Hermosura” farm where they lived very early in their married lives. I treasure these gifts for what they meant to Claudio and our friendship they continue to remind me of.)
The Chilean rodeo can be a very festive affair, but on that specific day in Cauquenes in 1969 it rained and rained, as it so often does around this time of year in southern Chile, so by the end of the evening, we were drenched….inside and out.
We watched some of the rodeo, which was mostly tired and unwilling horses and hapless steers all slipping and sliding in the mud trying to avoid each other. We mostly walked around with cups of “chicha” in our hands, in mud up to our ankles and with cold rainwater running down inside the backs of our shirts. This “18” was a memorable event, to be sure, that left the indelible image I carry to this day of celebrating the “18” in rural Chile.
In July of 1970, Ximena and I left Chile, unfortunately prior to that year’s “18”, and with the exception of a couple of years in the late 1970s when we again lived in Chile, we did not celebrate another Chilean “18” until this Bicentennial year 2010, when we returned to join in a collective “Viva Chile!”
Written in Leesburg, Virginia on October 30, 2010.