Documents that tell stories

by Bernardita Skinner Huerta
Periodista, Mgr. en Arte, mención Patrimonio / Journalist, Master of Arts, specialist in Heritage

Sometimes documents show up unexpectedly, almost by magic.  This time they were unpublished photographs and drawings from 1936 and from 1963.  My maternal grandfather was a sailor and my father a journalist with the newspaper “La Unión” in Valparaiso.  Neither of them is alive today to ask them directly, but their memories remain in different forms.  The photographs give us a glimpse of the past, as well as often offering new views on things we thought we already knew.  The drawings, in this case, were made by children from the Island and reflect their imagination of both their local situation and their view of the continentals who were arriving.

My grandfather, Ismael Huerta, was a 20-year-old midshipman when he set out on a training voyage on the oil tanker “Maipo”. Adding value to the photographs that he took, he made notes which let us recognize the people involved.  In his photos, we can spot Father Sebastian Englert and see the chapel of Hanga Roa in the 1930s.

“I could never forget Easter Island, but I prefer to hold on to my reminiscences of this first and only visit.  I have strong memories of the excursion into the crater of the Rano Kao volcano and of the difficulties that we had to climb back out; of the trips to go swimming on the coast and their risks (the waves break heavily on the rocks); the classical – and unforgettable – Sunday Mass in the rustic wooden chapel with the choir of female voices” he wrote in his memoirs.   He also recalled his visit to the leprosarium and the complaints of the Islanders about the authorities.  At that time there were two leper colonies which, after 20 years of existence, had a miserable aspect.

An uncle had told my grandfather to visit “old Juan Tepano, a true Easter Island patriarch who had the privilege of serving in the (Chilean) Army, around about 1900”. Juan Tepano was the most important informant for the archaeologists and anthropologists who visited Rapa Nui.  Scholars, such as Alfred Métraux, Henri Lavachery and Sebastian Englert, sought him out to consult for their ethnographic work.  Tepano gave my grandfather two wooden Moai and one of volcanic rock to show his appreciation.  One of the wooden ones is still held in the family.

In those days, Rapa Nui had about 400 inhabitants and was leased to the Compañía Explotadora Isla de Pascua which belonged to the British firm, Williamson & Balfour. The highest civil authority was the Naval Sub-delegate, Carlos Recabarren-Larrahona since January of 1926.

Following my father’s death, his documents and souvenirs have allowed me to connect with him.  He himself used to say that there is no such thing as luck, only coincidences.  Among his things are souvenirs from the trip that he made to Easter Island in the transport ship “Pinto” of the Chilean Navy in 1963: two hats made of Mahute, a hand-made guitar Pahu peti (literally, “can of peaches”) and a notebook of children’s drawings, most of them signed by Sergio Rapu.

In consideration of those discoveries, when I visited Rapa Nui as a journalism student, I contacted the principal author of that valuable notebook and told him about it.  “I would like to know that Sergio who was then 13 years old”, I thought to myself, so I met Sergio Rapu, a well-known Rapanui archaeologist, who told me that when he finished school on the Island, he had to wait for a while before traveling to the continent to continue his studies.  In the meanwhile, the nuns from the school had him making drawings as homework.  In some unpublished photos, we can see that some of the passengers who disembarked for the first time on the Island were nuns who came to work as educators and to tend to the lepers.

At that time, Rapu told me about his brother Alfonso, in 1964 a young school teacher, who, after ten years on the continent, returned to the Island and was one of the organizers of a letter sent to the Chilean President Eduardo Frei-Montalva, requesting that the government of Chile recognize their civil rights as Chilean citizens.  It should be remembered that the Rapanui of that time were under the jurisdiction of the Naval authorities of Valparaiso from the time that the Island was annexed to Chile in 1888.  This year of 2016 is commemorating the 50 years in which the Easter Islanders officially received Chilean citizenship and began the long-promised development.

Returning to my father’s objects, I can’t overlook the Pahu Peti guitar.  That was the name given to the first guitar that was made with a can of processed peaches.  Local lore tells that at the end of the 1930s, with the arrival of the German yacht “Die Walkiria” (information offered by the Australian researcher Daniel Bendrups) which brought two Polynesian men, the first guitar or ukelele arrived on Rapa Nui. “One of them was called Mapé and the other Henere… they brought their Kitara (guitar) and ukelele and the people saw them”, Kiko Pate told me in 2007.  “Kiermo” Teao-Riroroko was able to make his own Kitara, which he called Pahu Peti because he made it mostly from an empty large rectangular can of peaches which was brought by the Williamson & Balfour Company.  Those cans were called Pahu Peti, and to the present day the expression “peti” (peach) is used to refer to something good, something sweet.

Although neither my grandfather nor my father never returned to Rapa Nui, their memories remained intact and came through in their writing and in their photographs.  The shared history of an area is that which unites a group of people and can always be read again or reinterpreted from memories and the documents which remain.  Rescuing, preserving and organizing fragments around stories enrich our history and strengthen our identity.