On my first day back in Chile, after a twenty nine year absence, there was an earthquake. Good old
Santiago, I thought, was welcoming me back in a familiar way. Earthquakes happened frequently enough
during the three years we lived there that the safe evacuation of younger siblings became a routine task
assigned to the older children, along with washing the dishes, making your bed and doing your homework.
The years disappeared as I felt that familiar shaking from my seventh floor hotel room. It didn't last very long.
Thirty years earlier we barely would have paused in our daily activities to acknowledge it.
I was staying at the Hotel Carrera, to whose rooftop pool my mother used to bring her seven children for
afternoon swims. I heard music playing my first morning there, and looked out my window to see a military
band parading in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace I remembered from those long ago visits to the
hotel. It had been bombed during the military coup in 1973 and I was relieved to see that it still looked the
way I remembered it. I wondered if there was some big ceremony going on, but the front desk assured me
that it was just the changing of the guard, which happened several times a week. Then the band played
Happy Birthday. No one would believe it when I told them what I had heard-military bands don't play requests
they insisted-but I don't think my ears could have deceived me. It was a tranquil and festive scene down
there on the square, and I took it as a hopeful sign for my visit.
Chile had changed enormously from the days in the early 1960's when my father ran into President Jorge
Allessandri, walking alone on a downtown street on his way to his office in La Moneda. Dad stopped him for
a little chat and the President seemed quite interested in the work he was doing as the Peace Corps
director. My parents always talked about Chile as one of the last of the great democracies. "It's like Ireland,"
they would say, remembering the years they had lived in Dublin, and never imagining that bloodshed would
be something the two countries would have in common. My visit in February, 1994 took place two weeks
before the inauguration of Eduardo Frei, Jr., the second democratically elected president since General
Pinochet lost power in 1990. It had been over twenty years since the coup in which President Salvador
Allende died and twenty thousand Chileans disappeared or were killed. For years I had wondered if any of
my classmates from third, fourth or fifth grade had been killed during that period and now I wondered how I
would find out. I hadn't stayed in touch with anyone for very long after I moved away.
I opened the phone book in my hotel room that first night and started looking up names of classmates. For
reference, I had brought with me my third grade class picture from Betty Retchford's British School, with each
of the twenty five students' names carefully listed on the back in my meticulous eight year-old handwriting. I
started looking for Maria Isabel Valenzuela, who had been a good friend. There were twelve Maria Isabel
Valenzuelas listed in the phone book, and I couldn't narrow them down any further since I didn't know her
"segundo apellido" the second last name that everyone uses, the maternal family name. (I sometimes used
my mother's maiden name as my segundo apellido - Maria Judge Hanna - to give me something in common
with my classmates). I began the task of calling each of the numbers and trying to explain my mission. I was
looking, I explained to people who answered the phone, for a Maria Isabel Valenzuela who would be in her
late thirties and who attended Miss Betty's School in Providencia about thirty years earlier. My quest was
unsuccessful. One number was a pharmacy, several people told me they were the wrong Maria Isabels or
that I had the wrong number and one woman told me she was 70, so she couldn't be the person I sought but
she did wish me luck on my search.
I decided to try another name, and I chose Raul Troncoso, who sat behind me in the fifth grade and with
whom I traded stamps for my collection. On the fourth try I got an elderly sounding woman who told me that
her son Raul had indeed attended that little school many years before. She gave me his phone number, and
a few minutes later I had him on the phone and was trying to explain to him who I was. I was the
`norteamericana' who had gone to school with him for three years in the early sixties at Miss Betty's, I
explained, and this was my first visit back to Chile since I left in 1965. Did he remember me, I wondered,
almost holding my breath. It seemed a great moment to me. It was less so to him. No, he said politely, he
didn't remember me. I explained further, realizing, as I did, that time at Miss Betty's had stood still for me in
July of 1965, when I left the country. But for everyone else it continued on, and one little girl who attended
the school for a few years and then moved away was only one of many students who came and went, and
was probably forgotten. I kept talking and he finally remembered some `chicas norteamericanas'. Yes, I
encouraged him, my two sisters and I had all been students at Miss Betty's. He didn't seem to remember
much else. I suggested we get together, but he was leaving town the next day. Perhaps on your next visit,
he suggested. My next visit might not happen for another thirty years, I told him, even though by then I knew
I'd return sooner than that.
I continued comparing the names from the picture with the telephone listings. There was Marisol, who had
personally broken the news to me of John F. Kennedy's assassination on that terrible November day when I
missed the official announcement because I was in the bathroom. There were the twins, Monica and Cecelia,
one of whom - I could never tell which - used to burst into tears and rush out of the classroom each year
during Holy Week when Miss Betty read to us of the Lord's Passion from the Gospel of Mark. There was
Maria Elizabeth, with whom I'd had an argument about whether or not Santa Claus existed. She thought he
did, but I thought otherwise, as I had seen my mother the previous Christmas Eve trying to sneak presents
from her bedroom closet down to the tree in the living room. There was Roberto, another fellow stamp
collector, though a more meticulous and professional one than I. He would reject any stamps that were
ragged or smudged, whereas I, one of eight children and therefore accustomed to hand-me-downs, accepted
all manner of well worn items for inclusion in my collection.
Finally, with Roberto, my search proved successful. There was someone with his name in the telephone
book, and when I called I reached a doctor's office. Doctor was away until Monday, I was told. I went through
my monologue again, adding that when I knew this Roberto, he had red hair. Yes, that sounds like him, the
secretary told me, and suggested I try him again on Monday. I did, and when he came to the phone he told
me that when his secretary told him that a "Maria Yooch" was trying to get in touch with him, he couldn’t
imagine who she meant. "But then," he told me, "she said the magic words, Miss Betty's School, and I knew
exactly who you were." When we met for lunch the next day, we decided we could have picked each other
out of a crowd. He was still about my size, just as he had been all those years before, and his hair was still
red, as was the beard he now had. He was an eye surgeon, and this did not surprise me, as I recalled the
precision with which he had maintained his stamp collection. He told me he remembered how I was always
watching out for my `hermanito', my little brother, and I told him that my hermanito was thirty five, had a
business in San Francisco and was getting married the following month. In a short hour and a half, over
guacamole and cheese sandwiches and diet cokes, we caught up on many details of the intervening thirty
His office was one block away from the street where we had lived, but more things in that neighborhood
were unfamiliar than were known to me. Our old house at Nueva de Lyon 92 and Miss Betty's School at
Santa Magdalena 104 no longer existed, and the rows of tall buildings, vertical malls, subway stops and Pizza
Huts looked more like downtown Boston than the Santiago of my memories. The Mapocho River, into whose
depths we always thought our cocker spaniel Mapocho had disappeared, still ran along one end of our
street, but the modern artwork that adorned its banks was most unfamiliar. The Oriente Theater, three blocks
over on Pedro de Valdivia, where we saw such great American classics as El Cid and the Oregon Trail, did
look much the same, although the streets I walked along to get there held no familiar buildings. I spoke with
the theater manager who told me that it hadn't been renovated in at least 30 years and the hushed, velvet-
curtained interior did look quite familiar.
I was reminded of the newness of more than just buildings the afternoon I visited in another unfamiliar part
of the city, and couldn't quickly decide which door of the house was the one I had been instructed to use.
After I tried two different doors and got no answer, I stood on the sidewalk, feeling a little disoriented. A voice
behind me inquired if I was lost, and I turned to see a policeman watching me. I explained my confusion over
the correct door, and he informed me that no one was at home. I told him I was expected and gave him the
name of the person I was visiting. Ah, well, she was at the next door down the street. He pointed, then
walked me over to the correct door and made sure I went up to it. As I knocked, I remembered someone
telling me that President Awylwin lived down the block, which explained the police presence.
A few hours later, as a cab took me back to where I was staying, the driver told me that we would soon pass
General Pinochet's house. Without thinking, I unzipped my briefcase to get my camera, telling the driver I
would take a picture. The poor man almost drove us off the road as he hastily said "No, no, don't you see the
sign up there?" As we came closer I saw that it showed a camera with a line through it and a warning "Picture
taking is prohibited".
"Which is his house?" I asked. "It's the one on the left with the ..... in front" was the answer. I finally saw
the house, guarded by policemen, but couldn't quite make out the word the cabdriver was using. "Who is in
front?" I asked and he used the same term again, "rambo". I told him I didn't understand the meaning of this
word and asked if he could explain it. "Haven't you seen the movie `Rambo'?" he asked. "These are rambos
guarding the house." "Is that the word you use for policeman?" I wondered. "No, no, just for Pinochet's
policemen," he said firmly. I mentioned I had just been in the neighborhood of President Awylwin's house.
"Are those rambos who guard his house?" I wondered. "No," he said. "Those are the `policia'."
He and I talked about the days of the coup. He wondered if people in my country were aware of what was
going on in Chile during that period. I had been a freshman in college in September, 1973, and now I tried to
remember what I knew at the time. I remembered reading articles in the Boston Globe about the coup. He
told me that I probably knew more up there about what was going on than they did here in Santiago. The
military was very professional and we didn't see very much, he told me. "And those who did see something,
didn't really see anything," he added. "People kept their mouths shut."
I became aware of another change the afternoon I had a pisco sour in the Copper Room at the Hotel
Carrera. I remembered the drink specifically from my years in Chile, but at that time had thought of it as a
Peace Corps Sours. I had been in Peru earlier in the week, and was told that the best grapes for pisco were
grown there. Since I thought of it as a Chilean drink, I mentioned this comment to the bartender and waiters
and asked for their opinion. They very politely told me that while Peru did indeed make some very fine pisco,
the best grapes were grown in Chile, in the quinta region, the fifth region of the country. "What is the quinta
region?" I asked. They told me that during the Pinochet years, the twenty five provinces of the country had
been eliminated and replaced with twelve regions, plus the capital of Santiago. For thirty years I had prided
myself on my ability to remember the names of Chile's twenty five provinces, in descending order from north
to south, just the way Miss Betty had taught us to memorize them. My knowledge was now obsolete. It was
as if the fifty states of the USA had been lumped together and then divided up again in arbitrary fashion.
At the end of my visit I was taken to the cemetery, to see the new memorial that had been dedicated two
days earlier. It looked like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, a smaller, whiter version, but no less
compelling. Across the top ran a line of verse: All my life is here and will remain attached to the wind, the
rocks and the sky. Below it were listed the names of five thousand of the dead and the disappeared, and in
the middle was the name of Salvador Allende Gossens, Presidente de la Republica. I looked carefully but
didn't see a single one of the names I had so carefully inscribed on the back of my third grade class picture.
I felt a great sense of relief.
On my first day back home, after a two-week absence, there was a snowstorm, the fourteenth of the
winter. Good old Boston, I thought, was also welcoming me back in a familiar way. I decided I preferred the
earthquake. It brought back better memories.