Emilio and the “Pulga”
Everyone has a friend who seems to remember everything; mine is Jesse. He remembers names, histories, quirks and faults of people he knew for only two years, fifty years ago, but hasn’t seen since. When Jesse tells a story, it is with such detail that you are either bored to death or totally captivated by what he is saying; the latter was the case when Jesse reached back about forty years into his memory to tell me about Pulga and the Banda de Collico.
It seems that when Jesse was a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to rainy, cool, Valdivia, where mold grows nine months out of the year on your shoes and leather coats if you don’t leave a light bulb on all the time in your closet, there was another Volunteer in the same area who wasn’t totally satisfied with the assignment he was given in one of the outlying poor suburbs of the city, and went looking for additional activities to entertain himself, as Volunteers of that era would often do.
Being a large, strong, young man full of energy and a friendly drive to be with people, Emilio, Emilio being the name his Chilean friends gave him since apparently they did not much like his real name Emery, set up a weightlifting and exercise group with young Chileans, and because he also was a good mechanic, this other Volunteer would offer his services to anyone who needed to repair pumps, motors, and other machinery.
He was handy, energetic, and driven by a desire to be useful.But his Peace Corps assignment plus the weightlifting classes and even his additional handyman jobs were apparently not enough to keep Emilio busy, so one day, as Jesse tells it, Emilio wandered into the small, clapboard frame house on a side street in one of Valdivia’s muddy outer neighborhoods along the Calle Calle River, attracted by the noisy practicing of a pick-up group of would-be musicians.
You see, Emilio was a kind of Renaissance man, who besides body building and mechanics, also knew a lot about music, so his apparently serendipitous appearance at the modest headquarters of the Banda de Collico was in reality the logical start of a long and enduring relationship.Jesse told me this story at my home in Virginia, in the United States, when we were gathering information for an exhibit about the Peace Corps in Chile we were preparing for the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps, and like with so many (but not all) of his stories, he made Emilio’s story so interesting that, when I found myself driving into Valdivia this past year on one of my annual exploratory journeys into the far reaches of Chile with my friend and erstwhile travelling partner Flick, I headed straight to the Collico neighborhood, determined to find someone who might still remember Emilio and the Banda de Collico.
I must admit I had a second agenda, though, which was to confirm some of the details of Jesse’s story, because Jesse, like I, will often remember things in ways that ensure that our lives, as we remember them, turn out more interesting than they possibly really are.Jesse had provided me with a picture of the old wooden house in Collico where the Banda used to practice.
I thought it might actually no longer exist, but if it did, I was pretty sure we could find it just by going up one street and down another until we covered the dozen or so blocks that make up the Collico neighborhood of Valdivia for things don’t really change all that fast in Chile, certainly not outside of the Capital, Santiago. And sure enough, we found the house because it had not changed at all since the pictures I had seen and it still had the sign on the front with the full name of the band: Grupo Musical Eleuterio Ramirez. (Eleuterio Ramirez was a Chilean naval hero in the war of the Pacific, but I have no idea why the musical group is named after him. So not having a good reason to feature Eleuterio in this discussion, I will continue referring to the group as the Banda).
Elated that we had found the place, we knocked on the front door, hoping that someone would be there who could talk to us about the Banda, and who might remember Emilio. But nobody answered. It was getting late in the day, so after waiting a few minutes with no response and deciding finally that this was not going to work out, we began to drive off. As we did, a man from a neighboring house, surely having watched us from behind a curtain the entire time we were trying to arouse someone, walked over to our car and asked what we wanted. We told him about our interest in the Banda, to which he replied with polite sarcasm, “Why don’t you just knock on the door of that house on the other side…the President of the Grupo Musical lives there.”
Astonished but excited that we may actually be about to find someone connected to the Banda, we followed his advice and banged on the door of the neighboring house until from around the side of the house a large, middle aged woman appeared, exhibiting some reticence, obviously taken aback by the sight of Flick and me, for we actually look a bit like Anglo versions of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, if you use your imagination a bit.
As we began to tell her our story a big smile appeared on Malva’s ruddy face and she said “Emilio? You know Emilio? Wait a minute. I will go in and wake up Jose, the President of the Banda. He works nights as a security guard downtown, so he is sleeping, but he will want to meet you and talk to you about Emilio.”
So for the next half hour or so, Malva and Jose gave us a tour of the headquarters of the Banda and explained some of the history of the Banda. Both Malva and Jose were small when Emilio lived in Valdivia and was involved with the Banda de Collico, but they remembered him fondly. They showed us pictures of the early years of the Banda that they have in a scrapbook and adorning the walls of the Banda’s headquarters, and explained how the Banda during the 1980s, 90s and into the 2000s went dormant because so many members came of age and went into the military services, including their leader, Pulga. Jesse had mentioned this guy named Pulga, piquing my interest to know more about someone named “Flea” and I became more expectant now that we were finally hearing about him.
Jose explained that Pulga was back, living in Valdivia, and he had resuscitated the Banda de Collico. (One of the first things Malva had done when she met us, unbeknownst to us, was to call Pulga to tell him he had to come to Collico to meet some friends of Emilio.) As Jose was explaining how this guy Pulga was getting the group going again, a big silver Mercedes Benz drove up the dirt street and stopped right in front of the Banda de Collico headquarters, out jumped a diminutive, tightly wound package of energy, and we pretty much knew we were about to meet the revered leader they call Pulga, for the nickname fits the man…as long as you limit the similarity to the positive attributes of a flea: tough, small, persistent, hard not to notice.
After several Chilean macho back slapping hugs a greeting like this requires, we settled into the practice area of the Banda headquarters and listened to Pulga recount but in more depth the story Jesse had previewed for me. Jesse had based a lot of the story he passed to me on a communication he had received in late 2011 from one of the surviving Banda members, Jose Miguel. What follows here is some of what Jose Miguel remembers, enriched and possibly embellished by Pulga’s testimony, as told to me in Collico that day in February 2012.
In the early 1960s, a group of very young men would get together every day to practice what little music they knew, on whatever instruments they could find, mostly abandoned or donated, “…after all, it was the only entertainment we had those days, no television of course; and one day, in 1963 or 1964, all of a sudden a tremendous “Gringo” appeared in the door of the Banda’s house, a “Gringo” who did not speak Spanish but was in spite of this able to communicate the ideas that amounted to: I band…I musician…I tuba…I peace missionary. No one knew him, for apparently he lived in a different neighborhood of Valdivia.”
As Chileans are known for doing, they invited the Gringo in. “He asked us many questions and said many things, none of which we understood, but he picked up a tuba and began to play it to everyone’s great pleasure, including the Gringo’s because we were all attentively listening to him play.”
As was mentioned earlier, when he learned more about the Banda Collico, Emilio stayed in the neighborhood to live; “…even though we were all of very humble means, children of obreros, modest workers, many of whom did not know how to read or write, less read music, Emilio developed a deep interest in us, especially our music, and he began to teach us musical notes on some of the few decrepit instruments we had. His personality made him an extremely friendly person, an attractive combination of jovial but demanding.”
Emilio became especially close to the smallest of the musicians, a boy in his early teens, Fernando, who spoke deeply vernacular Chilean Spanish including a good collection of the ugliest and most descriptive garabatos, swear words, many of which have now become commonplace in public discourse in Chile but back then were frowned upon. It was Emilio who baptized Fernando with the name Pulga because he was a huge pain, disorderly, and, well…flea-like..but they cultivated a grand friendship up to the time for Emilio to return to the United States.
“Emilio picked up his street Spanish from Pulga, and everyone in the neighborhood began to know El Gringo and wanted to learn music from him. His way of speaking made him extremely popular and a favorite of the children and adults alike, men and women, but more than anything, he was loved for his dedication to teaching music and his willingness to live in a humble way, like everyone else at that time in Collico.”
“Emilio knew cold and hunger with us, the poverty we were living. We had some very bad times, when we, and he, had very little to eat, but he never stopped teaching and demanding that we learn, and his friendship with Fernando never waned.”
After Emilio left, Fernando joined the Carabineros de Chile, where he remained for more than 30 years and rose to become the Director of the Carabinero National Band, the Orfeon, an impossible feat were it not for the music skills he learned from Emilio. Other members of the group, Humberto “el pavo”, Victor, and Dagoberto joined the Chilean army, Carlos “el chivo”, Luis, and Belarmino remained in civilian life, and even though the Banda did not prosper for several years while they were all doing other things, “..they are all very appreciative to this day of the training Emilio gave them that made it possible for them to escape poverty because of their music.”
One of the stories the old musicians of the Banda Collico like to remember is when Emilio, seeing that the Banda had too few instruments to play, sent a message to his parents in the US asking them to send instruments and uniforms for the Banda, only to be disappointed as they waited several months without news of the shipment. “One day El Gringo disappeared for several weeks, reappearing with boxes and boxes of instruments, uniforms, and best of all, sheet music including the favorites of Herb Alpert and John Philip Sousa!” As it turns out, the instruments had been sent from the US to Chile, but due to an ambiguous importation law the instruments could not enter Chile without previously paying a very elevated tax, a protective tariff habit Chile had during those years before the freer trade movement caught on. Anyway, confronted with this tax impossible to pay, the story goes that Emilio made some arrangement to obviate the Chilean official customs process and relying on an “unofficial” process the boxes arrived to Valdivia in a fishing boat that entered town via the Calle Calle river. They all swear that Pulga, future Carabinero officer, had nothing to do with the clandestine importation of musical instruments, but this part of the story is still quite cloudy and for my part shall best remain so.
I’ll keep sitting patiently through Jesse’s stories from now on, in part because he is a friend and I have learned to be polite to friends and listen to what they have to say or they won’t listen to me, but also because through this story about Emilio, Pulga and the Banda de Collico I found a treasure trove of interesting stories, memories, and personal histories by merely taking the time to stop by the headquarters (such as it is) of the Grupo Musical Eleuterio Ramirez, aka Banda de Collico (such as it is), site of another memorable Peace Corps experience in Chile. The genuine expressions of friendship and human understanding these stories tell are absolutely heartwarming, the stuff we all search for in life but only sometimes find.
What leaves an even more indelible mark on me when I connect with these moving relationships between regular Americans and regular Chileans is how durable they are, relations that began decades ago like this one in the poor neighborhood of Collico in southern Chile, relations that are alive and full of hope, as they were in the most vibrant moments when they were being formed, one day at a time.
Pulga brought this home to me as we were saying our goodbyes; he shouted to us as we drove down the road: “Tell Emilio we are still waiting for that second shipment of instruments he promised us!”
Posted in Leesburg, Virginia, on November 15, 2012.
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