I went to my first book launch last Friday in a somewhat unexpected location. In Pocuro, the town where I live, there are about 1,000 people. It is part of Calle Larga, home to 10,000, and 15 minutes from Los Andes, which has 50,000. Given those options, the party was held in Pocuro, in the shade behind a large, decaying adobe house. In attendance were the mayor of Calle Larga and a handful of government officials. The selected location makes more sense once you know the title of the book: An Oral History of Pocuro.
Pocuro, despite its small size, has spent its fair share of time in the spotlight. Gabriela Mistral, Chile first Nobel prize-winning poet wrote about the town and its people in her verses. Pedro Aguirre Cerda, president of Chile from 1938 to 1941, was born in Pocuro and spent his childhood there. The dilapidated adobe house where we gathered was, in fact, his one-time home. The stone chapel in Pocuro was built in 1945 and remains one of the most attractive in the area. Many people choose Pocuro’s chapel from the 11 in the parish for weddings and funerals. Since I live next to the chapel, I hear all the services and can attest to its continued popularity.
An Oral History of Pocuro had its inception in a government project started by former president Ricardo Lagos. The five-year initiative’s goal is to reconnect with the country’s roots and culture. To that end a team of interviewers came to Pocuro, a place less touched by the tides of time. Working together with residents who volunteered, the team spent 2006 talking with elders in the town. They recorded stories of the past and impressions of the changes over the decades. The result was a 130-page collection of once oral, now written history.
The book was written at an opportune time. Life is changing rapidly in Chile. Though the people of Pocuro see themselves as less convinced of the glorious march of progress, they too are along for the ride. Three months ago, on the same week in December 2006, two mega-stores opened in Los Andes. For a city that had many specialty stores and relatively small grocery stores, now there are the equivalent of a Walmart Supercenter and a Super Target. Los Andes is 15 minutes away from Pocuro, but even that is a recent development. It was only six years ago that Pocuro’s main road was paved and bus service arrived. Having a fixed phone line installed is still expensive, but cell phones are plentiful and now everyone has one (though until last month phone cards cost $0.67 a minute; now it’s between $0.30 and $0.45). Dozens of internet cafes in Los Andes offer cheap access to worldwide information and communication. On Saturdays they’re filled with kids playing the latest online games and instant messaging one another.
I’m sure there are diverse opinions on whether all these developments are good or bad; the truth is probably a little from column A and a little from column B. In either case, it’s important to have a record of the past. You can’t argue that where you are going is better if you don’t know where you come from.
I bought my copy for $7. Naturally the book is in Spanish, so I’ll move through it at a slower-than-average pace. As I do, I’ll share more about the Chilean countryside town where I live.