Chilean Chronicles, Part 70: Hernan Gutierrez and the Dance of Conversation in Algarrobo

Hernan Gutierrez stands in front of his wife's clothing shop in Algarrobo.

Hernan Gutierrez stands in front of his wife’s clothing shop in Algarrobo.

In the nine years that he lived in the south of Germany, the country where he had moved to give his son a better life than under the Pinochet dictatorship, Hernan Gutierrez could recognize fruit from his homeland by its smell.

Sometimes it was an apple.

Other times an orange.

But Gutierrez could tell where it had come from, even though there was an embargo in place against Chilean produce.

He knew.

The knowledge and the smell gave him joy.

By the time Hernan told us this nugget, we were already knee deep into a conversation that began when we surveyed the options and then bought a piece of white chocolate from one of the two stores he owns in Algarrobo, a seaside town about 90 minutes west of Santiago.

Dunreith and I are staying in a rustic cottage that’s owned in part by Andres Rolón, the lean, wild-haired Bolivian roommate of fellow Fulbrighter Larry Geri.

After our weekly yoga class at their apartment, we mentioned our desire to head out of Santiago for a few days.

Andres talked about his house.

Sixty dollars later, we had the place for the weekend.

We managed to get the lights and water on with little incident.

The gas was more problematic, and, thanks to the son of an elderly woman visiting our neighbor, we managed to get hot water and the stove working, too.

Despite our bringing shorts and swimming trunks in anticipation of taking a springtime dip in the Pacific Ocean, the weather was decidedly mid-winter. The sky was grey, overcast and cold.

Undeterred, we strolled on the beach past the world’s longest swimming pool at San Alfonso del Mar.

We purchased and ate a dozen mandarins from two immaculately maintained grocery stores.

Soon after that we entered Hernan’s chocolate store, which he was manning with his daughter-in-law.

The offerings were laid out neatly in the counter of the small space.

Hernan, who is sturdy and wore a white hat on his roundish, long head with white sideburns, greeted us and explained the flavors. (He had liqueurs filled with whiskey, among others-and everything ranging from standard choices like dark and white to slightly more unusual ones like orange.)

At just about the midway point of our time in Chile, I’m familiar with the conversational ritual we go through with vendors, people we meet in parks, or people who invite us to their homes.

We cover where we’re from, how we like Chile, and what on earth motivated us to travel to their country, let alone describe it as a place that we had dreamed of coming before seeing where things lead.

With Hernan they lead directly to the Pinochet coup and ensuing dictatorship.

He was just 13 years old and living in Santiago when Pinochet and the forces loyal to him ousted democratically-elected Salvador Allende and ushered in 17 years of terror.

Hernan remembers the dead bodies in the Rio Mapocho, the murdered people in the streets, the disappearances.

It is precisely because of those memories that he has little patience for those people who say now they didn’t know what was happening then.

I saw these things at 13 and understood what was happening, he said animatedly after we had moved outside of his store and onto Algarrobo’s main street, a peaceful two-lane road. Other people who were older than me had to realize.

People in Algarrobo were not as directly affected by the brutality, he added, but the climate of fear and disappearances happened here, too.

We need to recognize, not deny our painful past, he declared.

The conversation gained momentum as Hernan took us through his time in Germany, the poor quality of Chilean Spanish, the connections between the Pinochet government and Nazi thinking, the dim prospects for change through the political process, and the yawning gap between rich and poor in Chile.

He broke down the measures the tiny group of the most powerful Chilean families take to ensure their grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s financial futures.

High on the list: the regressive nature of the 19 percent Valued Added Tax which hits poor people hardest since they never get anything back. On other hand, wealthy store owners have the money returned back to them because they´ve been able to successfully argue that providing supplies for their workers means that they should get a tax exemption, he said.

From there he talked about the difference between Chile’s macro and micro economies and the disappointing tenure of former President Ricardo Lagos, whose election was heralded as being the end of the dictatorship, but whose presidency was characterized by making things even easier for the rich to line their pockets.

Hernan had just given us his assessment about how the movement from the current Santiago-based and controlled political system to the establishment of regions as meaningful political entities would be ideal, particularly for nearby San Antonio, a port city with one of the world’s largest tonnage movement, and was moving into a detailed discussion of the reasons why Chile has so many abandoned dogs and a local operation to spay many of them.

At this point all standard conversational moves were off.

The three of us were were just flowing and riffing and laughing and learning from each other.

The thought had entered my head that we might eventually end up at his house for dinner if this continued-a prospect that might have impacted my evening’s writing, but seemed highly enjoyable nonetheless-when Dunreith signaled that she wanted to get home before it was dark.

I’ve written before, including recently, about the good things that happen when I listen to my wife.

So I did.

I extended my hand and did my best to meet Don Hernan’s thick mitt with the same force he applied to mine.

He kissed Dunreith on the cheek. We wished him well, and he did the same.

Dunreith and I walked down the street a little bit before crossing to the side closest to the ocean and walking back to Andres’ house.

Hernan was standing in the front door of the chocolate shop.

We waved to each other.

Dunreith and I kept going.


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