Chilean Chronicles, Part 71: Mario Hernandez and Los Patitos

Mario Hernandez has worked at Los Patitos restaurant since 1969.

Mario Hernandez has worked at Los Patitos restaurant since 1969.

If you work at a restaurant long enough you become part of the menu.

At least that’s what has happened to Mario Hernandez.

He first started working at Los Patitos, a seafood restaurant in sleepy oceanfront Algarrobo whose name means “the ducklings,” as a 16-year-old.

That was in 1969.

He’s worked there ever since.

Don Mario served thousands and thousands of customers as his three boys grew up and became men.

He waited on Don Pablo Neruda and his third wife Matilde Urrutia. (He said the former’s personality was “special”, while the latter was “normal.”)

He took the order of Socialist President Salvador Allende.

Don Mario served military leaders during the Pinochet dictatorship-a group that he divided in two parts.

The smaller portion consisted of “good” generals like General Oscar Bonilla, who Don Mario said tried to restrain Pinochet’s murderous excesses of Pinochet and died in a mysterious plane crash in 1975.

The larger group were “bad,” he explained, shaking his head with disgust at the memory.

The dictatorship hit Don Mario’s home community hard, he said.

People would disappear in the middle of the night and never return.

Many people.

A climate of fear pervaded.

What was it like to serve people who you knew did these terrible things, I asked?

Don Mario stared.

For a minute, rather than an empty patio, it seemed as if he could see the leaders of the junta who had inflicted such massive damage on the country.

It was work, he said, just a touch of sadness entering his voice.

He worked at Los Patitos in 1988, the year he and Chileans across the country overcame their fear, voted with their hearts and aspirations, and voted No to the dictatorship.

Five years from retirement, Mario looks younger than his 60 years. His face is youthful and unlined. His black hair is a little thin in the back and he’s carrying some extra weight, but his movements are energetic and he smiles easily.

We met on Sunday night, when Dunreith and I were the only customers under the awning outside the restaurant.

We had initially checked the menu, gone to survey other options and returned to Los Patitos when we discovered that nearby Peruvian and Italian restaurants were closed.

It was a little cool on the patio.

Mario took a little while to warm up, too.  When he did, though, the information flowed quickly and freely.

He told us about his three boys, all in their 30s now, and living and working in Santiago. He carefully pulled out the business card for the oldest from his wallet and showed it to us with reverence.

Don Mario talked about being good friends with Manuel Araya, Neruda’s chauffeur whose assertions about the great poet being poisoned have contributed to his body being exhumed.

He’s talked about that for years, Don Mario said. He told me about that for the first time in 1978. Araya said that Don Pablo got an injection in his stomach, which turned red, Don Mario said.

So you believe it? I asked.

It’s the truth, he declared.

Don Mario stood to the side of us, his head jerking regularly as he spoke.

Often he didn’t respond to what I was saying, but kept going with his train of thought.

It wasn’t out of rudeness, but rather as if he didn’t hear me.

He did connect when I mentioned our friend and Chilean guide Alejandra Matus.

Alejandra Matus, he asked, brightening. I know her.

That was a good book, he said, referring to Alejandra’s The Black Book of Chilean Justice, her powerful expose of the Chilean judiciary in the Pinochet era.

The judge’s decision the day after the book’s publication in the spring of 1999 to recall all of the copies and the possibility of her serving 5 years in jail prompted Alejandra to flee the country.

The book was banned, but that didn’t stop Don Mario from getting a copy.

My copy was photocopied in Argentina, he said, smiling. A friend from Santiago got it for him.

I’m not a Communist, but I liked that book, he said, shedding his manner of long-time employee and leaning in close when Dunreith and I stood up to go.

You’re not a Communist, but you like to know the truth, I said.

Don Mario smiled again.

Tell her I sent my greetings, he said.

We shook hands.

His grip wasn’t real firm, but contained genuine enthusiasm.

Dunreith and I exited the patio and started to walk back to Andres’ rustic cottage in the woods.

Mario Hernandez was there, standing vigil over the restaurant where he’s worked so long that his name is a part of its history.

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