Chilean Chronicles, Part 60: The Busy Life of Mayor Mario Gebauer

Mario Gebauer, right, the Mayor of Melipilla.

Mario Gebauer, right, the Mayor of Melipilla.

A few years ago, Mario Gebauer was planning to set aside some quiet, reflective time to study social anthropology.

But then came the call came to serve in government in Santiago.

He answered.

In 2008 he decided to run for Mayor of Melipilla, a community about an hour southwest of Santiago.

During his campaign Mario walked to thousands of households, knocking on doors, introducing himself and asking for support from the voters in on during his campaign.

The longtime Socialist won in a traditionally right-leaning area, garnering 58 percent of the vote.

His life has been a whirlwind of activity ever since.

To wit, he has helped the usher the community through the devastation wrought by the deadly earthquake of 2010.

He’s participated in a precedent-setting, but ultimately unsuccessful, lawsuit involving the 2009 Transparency Law and that sought public officials’ emails.

He’s started to work with Chinese companies that want to invest in the area that has traditionally relied heavily on agriculture to power its enconomy.

He’s begun working on a hospital that would replace the current facility that, along with other public services, attracts people from all over, but that he said is not equipped with state-of-the-art facilities.

He’s laid the groundwork, along with elected officials in nearby San Antonio, to create a distinct governmental region that would seek to release what he called the “super-centralized” system that, not unlike Chicago in Illinois, concentrates a disproportionate amount of power and resources in the largest city.

He’s supporting Michelle Bachelet so that she can win in the first round in the upcoming presidential elections as well as backing other candidates with similar political leanings.

He’s also raising a family.

Dunreith and I spent three and a half hours with him this morning and afternoon.

I had met Mario briefly at the University of Diego Portales with Alberto Barrera, a former MIRista, friend and husband of colleague and guide Alejandra Matus. We were following up on his invitation for us to visit his community.

Dunreith and I took the Route 78 bus from the San Borja bus station for a peaceful, hour-long ride through increasingly green, hilly and rural territory to arrive near the town square.

After walking to the town square and looking for the municipal building, we received help from Juan Manuel Cornejo, a hale and hearty lifetime Mellepilla resident who works in real estate. Cornejo delivered us to the mayor’s office and took his leave after passing me a business card.

Dressed in a sweater and blue jeans, Mario is close to six feet with thinning, fine black hair. He is clean shaven, and emits a look of intense concentration on his face as he listens.

Mario speaks quietly and moves and acts in a efficient, economical fashion. He used the time the town’s lawyer came in talk with us about the transparency lawsuit to rapidly sign a bunch of documents, all the while continuing to follow the conversation. His phone buzzes and moves constantly with calls and texts and emails.

The Social Democrat came of age during the 1988 plebiscite in which the Chilean electorate voted to end the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Then 17 years old, he couldn’t vote, but he was able to throw himself into the work and see the value of a key opportunity converted into a meaningful social result.

The pictures on the wall show that his political commitments and high levels of energy have remained largely the same since then.

On one wall is a framed copy of the Bolivarian dream of a pan-Latin American federation.

On an adjacent wall is an arpillera, or tapestry, that were common forms of resistance during the Pinochet dictatorship. (He later gave Dunreith nine cards with multi-colored cloth Nativity scenes.) Near that are three black and white pictures he received during a recent trip to Cuba.

The prize-winning cards of aprilleras from Melilpilla.

The prize-winning cards of aprilleras from Melipilla.

So, too, have the emotional scars from that era.

Over lunch, Dunreith said that she has been watching Los Ochenta, Andres Wood’s company’s representation of life during the dictatorship as experienced by a single family.

I watched one episode of the show and decided not to watch more, Mario said.

His choice was not because the program has inaccuracies.

Quite the opposite, in fact. He praised the scenes and clothes and music and television excerpts that appear in the episodes.

Rather the show brings back painful memories for Mario. He didn’t elaborate, but said, simply, “Era fuerte.”

It was strong.

His words came after we had spoken in the office about the major initiatives he has been engaged in during his first term and the beginning of his second four years in office. Mario explained that he is deeply committed to bringing public investment to Melipilla. It’s no easy task, as about 80 percent of the municipalities have no such investment. He estimates that he travels to Santiago about once a week to solicit funds, among other purposes.

The pick up truck that Mayor Gebauer uses in Melipilla.

The pick up truck that Mayor Gebauer uses in Melipilla.

We had arrived at lunch after driving in the mayor’s official car, a white pickup truck, past rolling hills with vineyards, horses, cows, basic houses with Chilean flags and road signs with campaign pictures of candidates like Juan Antonio Coloma.

A house along the side of the road in Melipilla.

A house along the side of the road in Melipilla.

Don Roberto, a brown-haired lifelong native of Melipilla, drove, and then ate, with us at El Mirador de Popeta, a restaurant that sits above the main highway on a dusty and winding road and that specializes in typical seafood.

Miriam, an energetic grandmother of three with a purple sweater, thick black hair in a ponytail and amiable manner, greeted Gebauer with a familiar hug and ushered us to our table.

We were the only ones in the restaurant.

Shortly after we sat down, Miriam brought a steaming pile of the largest, tastiest seafood appetizer I’ve ever shared.

Shrimp, scallops, mussels in shells that ringed that the black, cast-iron bowl. Large pieces of salmon and reinata. Vegetables and a rich, brown soy-based sauce underneath.

The appetizer at El Mirador that could easily have been a meal in Melipilla.

The appetizer at El Mirador that could easily have been a meal in Melipilla.

And, of course, a pisco sour. This one had a touch of ginger on the top that added a tangy twist.

We spoke during the meal about what the experience of people in the area was during the dictatorship.

Don Roberto explained that many people worked on farms, received their information about what was happening from their patron, or boss, and thus did not know about the atrocities the Pinochet regime had committed. Because of that, the recent commemorative activities and shows on television had been a potent and disturbing revelation, he said.

In between peppering us throughout the drive and meal about the American political situation, Gebauer told us about visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, his trips to Rio and his sense of Buenos Aires.

Miriam came back after we had finished-she told me she was going to punish me because I hadn’t eaten enough-and asked if we wanted dessert.

We chatted for a minute about El Mirador, which gets its seafood and shellfish from Santiago and which she and her husband opened two years ago. By this time the restaurant was bustling with customers.

The opening came 40 years into their marriage and decades after her husband, who worked for most of his life in restaurant kitchens, first hatched his dream.

Miriam told us that her daughter has taught English for nine years.

But the English of England, not America, which is a lower form, Mario said.

It’s like the different between Castilian and Chilean Spanish, I answered. (We had already discussed how many Chileans pride themselves on speaking a Spanish that is generously called hard to understand.)

They laughed loudly.

The Americans are the Chileans of English, I added.

More laughter.

We talked a little while longer until a pause came in the conversation.

Shall we go? Mario asked.

It was a statement more than a question.

We got back in the car. Mario talked, texted and answered as we drove.Don Roberto dropped us off at the bus station.

Toward the end of the meal, Mario said he hoped to get back to his studies next year.

I wouldn’t count on it.

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