Usually the word exiled brings to mind suspicion of wrongdoing. Yet within the term there is a whole spectrum of categories, reflecting circumstances and personal motivations. The most common exile is the political dissident, rejected by his own country's government, accepted as a hero by another's. Manuel Seoane is in this category; so too Carlos Davila, and also Miguel Labarca, although later he became a voluntary exile. In this latter category we find Roberto Matta, misunderstood in Chile and needing a more accepting atmosphere in which to develop. We have the economic exiles, the restless, the nonconformists, and the professional exiles whose work requires that they live away from their homeland.
During my life as a circumstantial exile I met them all, and I lingered in their ghettos to participate in the ritualistic banquets of their homesickness, momentarily soothed by food preparations, filling rooms with the nostalgic aromas of a faraway country, silently savoring the repast. Then letting down pretense to reminisce about the last authentic meal enjoyed with friends in the family's home. So, I introduce here the honorable exiles in my life, and my own experiences as someone cast out.
I was born in San Francisco, California, in 1914, my parents' third child after Eugene and Betty. At six months I made my first trip to Chile. It would not be my last journey on the Japanese Maru line.
During my father's twelve-year assignment as Chilean consul in San Francisco, my older sister Betty's frail health often required frantic trips home for consultation with physicians about her disturbing symptoms. California and New York physicians had given up on the child. They told Mother: "You are young. You can have other babies." In retrospect it is apparent that multiple allergies were the cause of Betty's problems, but back then the word allergy was unknown. The recurrence of the attacks seriously debilitated the child, and each ailment seemed a matter of life or death. The trips to Chile returned Mother not only to the familiarity of language and relatives, but also to native healing methods that Betty responded to.
Each emergency was met by precautions designed to protect others from supposed contamination. I recall vividly a vacation at one of Berkeley's most beautiful hotels when I was two; it was interrupted by a strict quarantine. Betty was sick again. All other guests promptly evacuated our floor while Mother, Eugene, and I remained isolated. Meals were left outside the room. We were forbidden access to the halls or even to open our doors. We'd become a threat to others. We waited forty days for the signs of measles to appear. They never did!
Once the incident was over, Mother insisted that she must travel to Chile to find out how to avoid a recurrence of such embarrassment.
Betty had been near death with the mumps, whooping cough, diphtheria, and sudden rashes that covered her body with blisters or swelled her up monstrously. Mother was resentful that the hotel's management had dared quarantine her and her family. Her pride as a Chilean aristocrat and wife of a diplomat was deeply hurt.
When we were on one of these trips to Chile in search of cures for Betty, our Japanese ship stopped in Panama. With the best Oriental courtesy, expressed with multiple bows and guttural noises, the captain requested that Mother and her children disembark. Betty was again showing alarming symptoms of distress. Captain Hakamuri sought to avoid the death of this small creature on his ship. It would reflect poorly on his impeccable record. Amid the turmoil of Carnival in Panama, we found a hotel.
For a short while that evening I had a respite from the worry of a sick sister and a frantic, distraught mother. With my brother, Eugene, at my side, my legs dangling between the rungs of the banister on the third floor of the hotel, I watched entranced as revelers danced below us on the patio of the hotel. Caribbean fragrances, colors of every hue, music, and laughter filled my ears and tickled my eyes. Finally the drinking and carousing became so uninhibited that my twelve-year-old brother felt he must shield me from the spectacle and sent me to bed.
For a woman with three children and no husband, to be stranded in Panama, a land reputed to be a haven for pirates and criminals, amid a variety of dubious characters, was an unpredictable situation. There was no easy or quick way to reach Father for help, but being a resourceful woman, Mother took matters in hand and soon had the Chilean consulate in Panama pulling strings on her behalf.
Mother was small in size, tall in authority. She had delicate fine-boned features made irrelevant by her two fiery, piercing eyes that commanded action. She knew how to exert that strong will on everyone, regardless of status.
When we finally returned to San Francisco, we came with assurances that my sister would grow sound and healthy. Several Chilean doctors concurred with this condusion. Besides, the physicians were sure that Mother could handle any emergency, if it came to happen. One of them encouraged her to write a book about her observations and research undertaken for Betty. She did. It dealt with simple preventative and emergency measures in children's health care. The book had tremendous success and can still be found in many Chilean homes, particularly in rural areas. But the recurrent illnesses of my sister had affected four years of my life and seven of her own existence.
With her reputation as a healer, Mother became a sort of emergency physician during our vacations at relative's ranches. Once a peon had his arm pierced by a stake from his elbow to the shoulder. Nobody dared touch him. Mother gave him a glass of whiskey, braced herself and pulled on the stake with such force that she landed on the ground. She then poured iodine into the wound, bandaged it tightly, and sent the man to the nearest clinic. A week later he returned to thank her for helping him. Mother never took compliments gracefully. She once told me she found them redundant. She tapped the man on the shoulder, smiled thinly, and walked away.
At remote family ranches, Mother often helped out in deliveries, teaching the principles of hygiene to the mothers. As she taught the local midwives and healers, they also revealed to her their secrets. She watched as infected wounds, wrapped in moldy cornhusks and cobwebs, miraculously healed, treated by what we now know as antibiotics.
Betty was six years old when we returned to San Francisco. She seemed fine but soon a whole set of never before seen symptoms developed. Mother was off again to consult her Chilean physicians. Following the Panama incident, Father was concerned about our safety on Japanese ships. He had been approached by a Chilean who had been unsuccessfully searching for a relative lured north, some years earlier, by the California gold rush. This man had used up his money and lacked his fare home. Father agreed to repatriate him, and in exchange asked Don Francisco to look after his wife and children. As a farewell present, Father handed him a gold coin to cover his arrival expenses in Chile.
Father's anxiety was well founded. One morning Mother opened the door of her cabin to find Don Francisco lying in front of it. During the night a fight had started among the crew and several sailors were dead or wounded. He wanted to be sure that Mother and the children were safe.
This story had a touching ending. Some years later in Santiago, between assignments, Father was walking down the street when he heard someone call out. He turned around and saw a tall sturdy man running toward him. He said, "Don Arturo, don't you recognize me? I'm Francisco."
"Yes, of course I do. It's been quite a few years since last I saw you. What are you doing now?"
"I'm working on my farm. But periodically I come to Santiago looking for you. I have something to return." With that he dug his fingers into his waistcoat pocket and brought out a small, carefully wrapped object.
"Here, Don Arturo. I have kept this for so many years hoping I would see you again. I never spent it. If I had, I probably wouldn't have done as well as I have. I'm now a landowner. You must come and visit me and my family."
Don Francisco unwrapped the gold coin Father had given him so many years earlier. It dropped out, shining like new. Father told us this story later. His only comment was: "We do get our rewards in life."
Even in remote locations, Father had always found Chileans experiencing different degrees of distress and sometimes success. His anecdotes ran the gamut from the admirable to the hilarious. Among the latter are the tribulations of a Lothario who arrived in Hamburg, in midwinter, barefoot and wearing only pajamas. He had crossed half of Europe, leaving behind all his possessions, escaping from an irate Italian husband. He was repatriated.
In Australia a Chilean "artist" requested an appointment with Father. He told about his very special talent as an opera performer. Father asked about his voice register. The man replied that he didn't sing.
"How do you do it then?"
"By breaking wind, Don Arturo. I can give you a free demonstration," he answered eagerly.
The "opera star" was thrown out of Father's office, never to return.
During his stay in the United States, Father had observed a number of enterprises. Reporting to the Chilean president he repeatedly recommended that the Chilean government select outstanding young men to come to the United States to study new techniques applicable to Chilean products and raw materials. Two prominent Chilean families—the Matte and the Edwards—followed this advice, sending their sons to the United States to learn paper manufacturing. Both men considerably increased their wealth, creating the only "Factory of Paper and Cartons" in Chile. The Edwards added an entree to political power by founding what became the most influential newspaper in the country, El Mercurio.
Father also studied the production and export of fruit. The Bunsters followed his reports closely, planting huge apple orchards on their ranches in the south of Chile. Another area he researched in the United States was the recently opened Transpacific Railroad. President Alessandri asked him to reorganize Chile's railroad—the country's sole means of land-based transportation—which was near bankruptcy.
So it came about that in the spring of 1920 we sadly left San Francisco and boarded a ship bound for Chile. How often since then I've missed the pungent smell of cabins, the salt in the air, the swinging motion of ships. The Pacific rocked us in its powerful swells as the ship cut through waves splashing us with fresh, cool foam, cresting the deep dark green of its waters. I remember stopping in Callao, Peru's main port and the entrance to Lima. Father told me a little about the city, seat of the Spanish viceroys for centuries. I heard much later about the colorful history of Lima, particularly the amazing life of La Perricholi. I wasn't aware then that someone living in that city would have a great influence over my life.
There were no docks in Valparaíso at that time. A large, wide, and tall staircase came down to the sea, where we disembarked from tenders. The sailors who had rowed us through the high tide rolled up their pants, stepped into the water, and carried us in their arms to the top of the staircase, where our relatives waited for us and showered us with questions:
"Do you remember me?" (Of course not.)
"Aren't you glad to be here?" (I don't know yet.)
"Come and meet your cousins."