Mike Damiano | The Atavist Magazine | December 2021 | 8 minutes (2,379 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 122, “We Wish to Be Able to Sing,” written by Mike Damiano and illustrated by Sally Deng.





Chapter One

No one in the Rapu household could sleep. It was early March 1955, and in the family’s three-room home in the hills above the village of Hanga Roa, Reina Haoa busied herself sewing clothes. Her husband, Elías, paced. The couple’s four eldest boys—Alfonso, Carlos, Sergio, and Rafael—huddled together in the living room watching their parents worry. There was not much to say. In the morning, 12-year-old Alfonso would leave Easter Island on a cargo ship called the Pinto. He would travel to the port city of Valparaíso, Chile. His parents could not tell him when he’d return home or when he might see them again, because they did not know. They also could not tell him much about where he was going. Neither of them had seen land beyond Easter Island’s shores.

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The Pinto came once a year to deliver basic supplies: soap, flour, sugar, fabric. For the Rapanui, the annual arrival was bittersweet. Though other ships occasionally visited the island, they brought few if any of the necessities needed to sustain life. By the time the Pinto came in late summer, the pantries of Rapanui families were bare. Construction projects had stalled for lack of materials. The Pinto, the Rapanui’s only regular physical contact with the outside world, brought relief.

But for many, the ship’s arrival also provoked a simmering sense of dread. Along with supplies, the Pinto brought disease. Each year, in the weeks after the ship unloaded, kokongo—a catchall term for whatever germs the Chilean sailors were carrying—swept through Hanga Roa. It was common for kokongo to infect as much as half the population. By the time it abated, it usually had left several families grieving.

There was no one to complain to about these epidemics, at least no one who would listen. For several decades, the authorities on Easter Island had been foreigners who represented their own interests by keeping the Rapanui under their thumb. In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast, centered on Hanga Roa. A network of fences known as the Wall, built by Rapanui men for menial wages, kept them there. Passage beyond the Wall—to visit ancestral lands, to explore or cultivate the countryside, or to leave the island entirely—was only possible with written permission from the island’s governor.

Over the decades, some Rapanui managed to leave the island, usually by taking jobs on the mainland with the Chilean military. Others resorted to more desperate measures. Some built rafts and set off over the horizon for Tahiti. A few of them made it, navigating the thousands of miles of ocean between Easter Island and French Polynesia by the stars. But the great majority—dozens of men—vanished in the vast Pacific.

Reina and Elías were born within the Wall, like their parents before them and their children after. There had been no way for them to leave. Their family grew almost every year, until Alfonso was the eldest of 11. He played soccer with friends and attended school most days. Like other young Rapanui children, he also spent long hours on his family’s plot of land, cultivating taro and sweet potatoes. Since there was no running water in Hanga Roa—and no ponds, streams, or lakes—the Rapu family collected rainwater in a cistern. It sometimes fell to Alfonso to skim the dead bugs and mold off the water’s surface.

There were other things—more brutal ones—that Alfonso accepted as normal at the time but would haunt him later. At the schoolhouse, nuns who delivered lessons in Spanish, a language their students barely understood, punished children with canes. At home, Elías was a menace. He chased Reina through the house and hit her. The children usually cowered; when they tried to intervene, Elías struck them. Domestic violence was endemic in Hanga Roa. A peaceful home was the outlier.

There were other horrors, including the constant threat of leprosy. When telltale sores appeared, breaking out on a temple, a forearm, or a bald scalp, the afflicted person was removed from the village and quarantined permanently at the island’s leper colony, at the base of the Terevaka volcano. When Alfonso was a child, his uncle worked at the colony, and sometimes brought him along to help. He got to know the place and the people condemned to live there. One man, Gabriel Hereveri, who had lost both hands and an eyelid to the disease, befriended Alfonso and told him stories of life on the island before the Wall went up, when the Rapanui were still free.

Alfonso had never seriously contemplated a life beyond the island. To the extent that he thought about his future at all, he imagined it taking place within the Wall. But Reina hoped for more. When she learned of a new program for educating Rapanui children in Chile—a humanitarian effort organized by the government—she lobbied her brother, who worked for the Navy, to ask his supervisors for a favor. Could they get her eldest son onto the list?

The supervisors said yes. Reina only found out the night before Alfonso was scheduled to depart on the Pinto.

The next morning, Alfonso and his parents went to Hanga Piko cove, where local fishermen launched their boats. The three gathered by the water’s edge, alongside 11 other children and their parents. Like Alfonso, these children, ranging in age from 12 to 15, were set to depart for Chile. They would be placed in boarding schools or with host families and enter the Chilean education system. They were the second cohort to participate in the program, and their families considered it a privilege.

Alfonso hugged his mother, who was weeping. When he turned to his father, he found that Elías was crying as well, which unsettled him.

Alfonso knew in a technical sense that he would board a ship, that the ship would sail over the horizon, and that he would disembark in a new land. But he had no ability to picture Valparaíso, a modern city of 400,000 people. He could not conceive of a journey of 2,300 miles, the distance to Chile, when the greatest expanse he had ever reckoned with was 14 miles on Easter Island—from the Poike Peninsula in the east to Rano Kau, a volcano, in the west.

Aboard the Pinto, he stood on the aft deck. As the ship shuddered and began motoring east, he kept his eyes fixed on Easter Island. For a couple of hours it receded. Then it disappeared over the horizon. All he could see was water. He broke down and sobbed.

In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast.

Valparaíso came into view on the seventh day of the journey. As the Pinto approached, the city seemed to rise up over the ship. One of the busiest and richest ports in the Western hemisphere, Valparaíso buzzed with the activity of industrial cranes, thousands of car and truck engines, and the constant interchange of sailing ships, tankers, and tug boats. Ten-story towers and hulking neocolonial government buildings stood on the flat land at the water’s edge. The rest of the city—wealthy neighborhoods of Victorian houses and poor slums of multi-colored shanties—clung to the coastline’s steep hills, which residents ascended via funiculars.

Alfonso Rapu took in the staggering sight from the Pinto’s deck. He was about to set foot in a new world.

After a train ride over the foothills of the Andes, he arrived at a boarding school in downtown Santiago de Chile, a dense urban hub that was home to the president’s sprawling mansion and the headquarters of Chile’s banks and copper-mining corporations. The next several months were lonely and difficult. Rapu lived in a dormitory full of bunk beds, which during the week were occupied by children but sat empty on weekends; most students returned home to their families then, leaving Rapu alone. Yet even on weekdays he was isolated. He barely spoke Spanish. When teachers called on him in class, his speech was halting and accented. His classmates snickered and called him indio—Indian—a pejorative for anyone with non-European blood.

A 26-year-old social worker, Guacolda Zamorano, noticed Rapu at the school and worried over him. On weekdays, she checked on him during her breaks. On Friday afternoons, she left him with enough home-cooked meals to feed him through the weekend. Still, Zamorano felt she wasn’t doing enough. In the evenings, at her house in a suburban neighborhood, she talked to her husband, Manuel Nova, about Rapu. The boy needed more help, she said. He needed a home.

Early in the winter of 1955, Zamorano instructed Rapu to pack his things. She told her husband that the boy would be living with them for a while. He stayed for nearly nine years.

Rapu was given his own bedroom, a new wardrobe of chinos, button-downs, and loafers, and a makeshift family. Zamorano became, in every meaningful sense, Rapu’s second mother. She was warmer than Reina, who had always been protective of her children but came from a culture that tended not to shower them with affection. Children were liabilities and laborers; they were expected to fend for themselves and contribute what they could. Rapu had sometimes felt like a piece of property, particularly when his parents loaned him to the neighbors in exchange for an ox. The neighbors used Rapu for a day of labor in their field, while Reina and Elías used the beast to plow theirs. No one thought anything of the arrangement; it seemed like a square deal. But now that Rapu had seen something else—another life, another way to be a child—the memory rankled.

Zamorano tutored him in Spanish, and he made steady progress. Within a few years, he spoke the language fluently. He strove to catch up in other subjects, too. Every morning as he walked to the bus, he added up the numbers on his neighbors’ mailboxes to practice arithmetic. At school he started sitting in the first row of desks, focusing his attention on the teacher to help him ignore his classmates’ taunts, until finally, gratifyingly, they stopped.

As Rapu grew, his station among his classmates changed. By the age of 16, he had transformed; the scrawny child had become tall, muscular, and handsome. He was a capable soccer player and charming, with a winning smile and a quiet sense of humor. He had girlfriends. One summer he befriended the daughters of senator Salvador Allende. He spent afternoons with the Allendes by their pool. Once he even wore the future president’s swimming trunks.

For the first time in his life, Rapu had options, opportunities, and frivolous diversions—he had developed a weakness for orange Fanta. But in the midst of bourgeois bliss, something gnawed at him. He had not forgotten where he came from, and in a cruel way, the more comfortable he became in Santiago, the more distressed he felt whenever he thought of his family back on Easter Island.

One summer day in 1958, Rapu boarded the Pinto again in Valparaíso. He was headed home for his first visit since leaving the island three years earlier. After a weeklong journey, Rapu looked out over Hanga Roa bay as the ship’s crew dropped anchor. In the water below, he saw Rapanui men in white button-front shirts paddling fishing boats out to greet the Pinto’s sailors. This was a Rapanui custom that dated back centuries. When Dutch explorers first happened upon the island, men in canoes greeted them.

Rapu had watched this ritual from shore in his childhood. He knew these men; he had called some of them koro, a term of endearment that means “grandfather” in Rapanui. But now, as they approached the ship, he was startled by their appearance. He remembered them as strong and vital; these men looked hollowed out.

On shore, his parents and siblings greeted him. Reina and Elías looked unchanged, but his brothers and sisters were all new versions of themselves, some taller, some wider, some thinner. He had a week to spend with his family, the time it would take the Pinto to unpack its supplies and load up the annual production of wool from the sheep ranch that foreigners managed in the island’s interior. He spent most of his days with his brothers Carlos, Rafael, and Sergio. They had been his closest allies during his childhood, and he had missed them fiercely. But now that they were reunited, Rapu felt a distance between them that was difficult to bridge. When they asked him what life was like in Santiago, he didn’t know what to say. How could he explain attending soccer matches at Santiago’s 40,000-seat stadium? What could he tell his brothers, who were confined by the Wall, about weekends spent at his host family’s country cottage? What bothered him most, though, was that his brothers thought they were fine, that life on the island didn’t need to change. He had thought the same thing before he left.

Back in Santiago, Rapu spent long nights awake, staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, worrying about his brothers. As he neared adulthood, he also contemplated his future: which profession to pursue, where to live, what to make of his life. He decided to become a teacher.

As he neared university graduation in the early 1960s, Rapu considered various teaching positions—in Santiago, in the Lakes Region of southern Chile, and even one, offered through a U.S. State Department program, that would provide educational opportunities in the United States. But he could not push from his mind the circumstances of his brothers and the rest of the Rapanui. He had begun to wonder if there was something he could do to help.

He was still considering his options when he returned to Easter Island a second time, in 1962, and made a terrible discovery. The Rapanui community had suffered yet another trauma, and this one struck close to home.