Chilean Chronicles, Part VI: Pure Magic with Alejandra, Alberto and Alejandro

The view from Alejandra and Alberto's house.

The view from Alejandra and Alberto’s house.

If you’re lucky in your life, you’ll have the chance to experience days that feel like pure magic, as if an enchanted air has descended from the sky and cast a glorious spell over you and everyone around you.

Saturday was one of those days for Dunreith and me.

We spent the afternoon and a large part of the evening in the company and at the home of Alejandra Matus, Alberto Barrera and their five-year-old son Alejandro.

Alejandra and Alberto are highly unusual people.

She is a fierce and decorated journalist who, in a country whose press has often been criticized as being excessively acquiescent and docile to oppressive authority, has written important books about the assassination by the Pinochet government in 1976 of Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and about the nepotism, corruption and lack of independence that existed within the judiciary during the Pinochet era.

All copies of the latter work were ordered confiscated the day after it was published in 1999, a full nine years after Pinochet had left power.

Beyond that, the government sought to prosecute Alejandra under a Chilean law that forbade citizens and journalists from offending officials.

If convicted, Alejandra faced five years in prison.

She asked for, and received asylum, from the United States. She stayed in our country for more than two years, returning only after the law under which she would have been prosecuted had been overturned.

Last year, after an additional two years in the United States-a time during which she was a Nieman Fellow and earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government-she joined the faculty at the University of Diego Portales where I will be teaching.

Alberto, who hails from the town of Antofagasta in the northern part of Chile, is a veteran Socialist activist who left the country at age 17 during the Pinochet dictatorship. He went first to Bolivia, then spent six months in Brazil and three years in Norway. Later he lived for three years in Frankfurt, Germany.

During these years he continued his organizing work against the brtual regime, occasionally being smuggled in and out of his homeland whose security forces would have killed him had they caught him.

The oldest of nine children, Alberto often received help from one of his brothers, a hairdresser in Argentina who would cut Alberto’s hair in a way that would disguise his identity.

During her Nieman year Alejandra was a classmate with Beth Macy, an intrepid and award-winning reporter, author of the forthcoming book Factory Man, and a friend from the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism. Beth gave me Alejandra’s contact information shortly before I left and suggested I reach out to her upon my arrival.

Dunreith and I met Alejandra in person on Thursday, and she invited us to her home on Saturday.

This morning, we set off close to noon.

After a Metro ride to the Central Station, we found and then took a bus down a largely straight road through increasingly rural territory before the bus driver informed us we had arrived at Paradero 36.5 in the community of Lonquen.

Alejandra and Alejandro, who has straight black hair, bunches of curiosity, a few missing teeth and a voice that is accustomed to being heard, picked us up and drove us up a twisty and bumpy dirt road to their home that is nestled in the Andes mountains.

Alejandro shows me dinosaurs in his room and teaches me the Spanish names for them.

Alejandro shows me dinosaurs in his room and teaches me the Spanish names for them.

We walked up a winding set of wooden slats with raised steps to guide us and arrived at the farmhouse style home Alejandra designed after purchasing a large plot of land a decade ago.

Although I’ve recently extolled the virtues of living in a small space, I have to admit that entering a home with high triangular ceilings was a pleasure. So, too, was walking past a handmade vintage wooden table and settling near a fire that was well stoked, if not blazing, in front of three couches that, along with the fireplace, formed a square.

While putting the finishing touches on squash topped filled with local cheese, Alejandra offered us our first piscola sour, a tart lemony concoction.

Alberto and I chatted about his time in exile.

He said that he lost many friends during the dictatorship.

The terror was not rational, he explained. Friends and family who were not political were tortured and killed, while other who were openly against the regime survived.

His father was among that number.

Alberto’s dad was a staunch opponent of the regime who was away from the northern community of Anafogosta when the coup occurred.

Alberto said his father was away for the first few months of the regime, and thus escaped being killed in the Caravan of Death, one of the first waves of murdering political opponents.

Although he was stripped of his teaching job and thus had to scramble to do all kinds of jobs during the dictatorship, his father never left the country.

The school gave him his job back when Pinochet’s reign ended.

Alberto had not seen his father for 11 years when Pinochet left power in 1990. It would be another three before he saw him again.

By that time, when Alberto returned, many of his former comrades had become part of the governmental leadership.

Alberto called Jorge, an employee who has his own house on the property and works a few hours a day, to help him light the fire on the grill that he cleaned with half of a fresh onion.

Jorge gets the fire going.

Jorge gets the fire going.

Those tasks completed, he put a thick slab of virtually fat free beef, added liberal doses of salt.

Alejandro watches his father on the grill.

Alejandro watches his father on the grill.

Alejandra and Dunreith brought out the squash, creamed garbanzo beans, brown rice and a tangy beet salad the two of them prepared and that had left purple stains on their hands.

Dunreith and Alejandra show the labors of their beet salad creation.

Dunreith and Alejandra show the labors of their beet salad creation.

The air was far cleaner and fresher than in Santiago, where a higher number of people than usual were wearing masks to ward off the air pollution.

Alberto continued to pour, and we continued to drink goblets full of rich red Chilean wine. He told us we were in training for the September celebrations of Chilean independence, which last a week and which also involve large portions of the University of Diego Portales journalism faculty gathering, drinking copious amounts of wine and dancing.

I told Alejandra that we had planned to go to Argentina during the break, but that perhaps we would change our plans.

You should, she said, laughing.

We munched contentedly on the feast in front of us until we had had enough, then ate some more.

After a while we decided to follow Alejandro, who had gone inside because he was too cold to stay at the table.

Do you eat like this every day? I asked her on the way into the house.

Not every day, Alejandra answered. But most weekends we do something, because otherwise it would be a waste.

We each took a place on the couch and settled in for what turned out to be hours and hours of wide ranging conversation in Spanish and English over a luscious cheese-cake like dessert, tea or coffee-I had the former, while everyone else had the latter-and, of course, as many more glasses of wine as we we were willing to consume.

The topics flowed from Alejandra’s years of exile following the publication of The Black Book of Chilean Justice to the comparative ineffectiveness of the Transparency Law passed in 2009 during President Michelle Bachelet’s tenure to the shared military background of Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei, both daughters of Air Force generals and childhood friends who now are presidential opponents.

We spoke about the concentration of wealth that became even greater during the dictatorship to the materialism that has crept into Chilean society and Paula, a feminist magazine that’s been around nearly half a century and to which she contributed a recent story about her mother.

Alejandra told us about her upcoming book, while Alberto shared about their travels around the United States.

Together we discussed the similarities and differences between Chile and South Africa, countries that are still emerging from the wounds they sustained during the period of authoritarian government that ended in the early 90s.

In short, it was a virtual primer and seminar on Chilean history, the dictatorship and life afterward from two people who had lived through and fought against it in distinct, yet related ways.

Eventually, Alejandro started to hit what Dunreith used to call “Mambo Time,” that point in the day that parents the world over confront where the window to have a smooth bedtime has closed because of adults enjoying being with each other.

Toasting with new friends.

Toasting with new friends.

Alejandro kissed us goodbye. We hugged Alberto and shared intentions of getting together again soon.

Alejandra drove us to the bus stop for our return journey and waited with her blinkers flashing until we got on the right one.

We didn’t wave vigorously enough to flag down the first bus that roared by the stop that was covered in darkness, but did so the second time.

Dunreith and I both dozed off in the bus even though the lights were on.

A young Chilean signaled for us to join everyone else and leave when we arrived at the last stop.

It had been a day not so much when hope and history rhyme, as Seamus Heaney would say, but rather where food and drink and mutual values and relationships and a spirit of openness and acceptance combined to create an exquisite moment of shared connection.

My ever deeper understanding of life’s permanently fleeting nature, the 13 years since I first applied to the Fulbright program, the dozen years since Dunreith and I first identified that we wanted to go to Chile, the memories of the generosity my friends in South Africa showed me 18 years ago all made my appreciation and gratitude that much more profound.

So, too, did the awareness of being firmly in the middle of life, and of the enormous gift of meeting kindred spirits in different, yet similar places on their journeys. At this point we all have aging or deceased parents, children at varying stages of being grown, careers and passions having been chosen, and former lovers and spouses.

Because of all this, we are acutely aware of the preciousness of any moment, let alone such a rich one as this.

We walked back through the bus station, back onto the crowded Metro that, as it always does, zipped us back to the Pedro de Valdivia stop that is rapidly becoming homelike for us.

It was raining harder than it has since we arrived, but the magic of the day shielded us and made us feel like we were dodging the drops.

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4 responses to “Chilean Chronicles, Part VI: Pure Magic with Alejandra, Alberto and Alejandro

  1. Jeff, I am a friend of Dunreith’s, and have not had the pleasure of meeting you, but I love your work, your passion, and your ell chosen words. Thank you for sharing your reflections of this beautiful day. Blessing to you both as you savor the moments of this great adventure!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Annette, for your kind words and regards, which I will pass onto Dunreith.

      I hope all is well with you and wish you only good things in your life.

      Jeff

  2. Ed Lowenstein

    A wonderul reminiscence, beautifully described. What a day! The picture of Alehandro and the dinosaurs reminded me of my eldest son who knew the names of more dinosaurs than I knew wexisted when he was young. The dentist the kids went to gave them dinosaurs, too. Ed Lowenstein

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Dad. I was able to pull out some of the English names of the creatures with whom Alejandro was playing. 🙂

      Let’s Skype again soon.

      Love,

      Jeff

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