Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Bull Shipping

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Bull Shipping

Article excerpt

On Chilean Mothers and California Gold

ONE DAY IN 1962, A MAN IN CHILE WOKE UP blind. The cause was a pituitary adenoma: a tumor, benign but expanding, that had encroached on and finally compressed his optic chiasma. Adolfo Carmona-husband to Raquel, father to Queli, Bebo, and Gemi-could no longer see. We all owe our lives to someone's vision and someone else's blind spot, but it's seldom quite so literal: I owe my existence to that tumor and the sight lines that developed around it.

JFK had a vision. The Chile-California Program was part of his Alliance for Progress, an initiative partnering with Latin American nations to deliver them from the third world and its Communist temptations. The Chile-California Program proposed that the state of California do something no other state had done with a foreign nation: formalize a "special" relationship with Chile, both in recognition of their shared geographical features and because both fostered a kind of homegrown technical creativity, a gift for engineering raw materials into a kind of commercial sublime.

California and Chile both style themselves the fruit baskets of the Americas. Fruit, not bread; luxury, not necessity. These days, both are efficient, abundant, and slightly high-end producers of almonds and avocados and wine (rather than, say, corn). That California was a state and Chile a country seemed like exactly the kind of unimportant technicality Alliances for Progress were supposed to overcome. But in fact, this model for economic and intellectual exchange between an American state and a foreign country was unprecedented. And this essay is, in its way, the history of how that geopolitical mismatch between a giant state and a tiny nation filtered through actual people, down to me.

The program launched in December 1963 with an office in Santiago, Chile, a backup office in Sacramento, California, and the kind of vague promissory language that sounds like an excuse for a party. The director in Santiago was ostensibly in charge of policy; the deputy director in Sacramento was supposed to drum up interest from the private sector via bureaucratic undertakings like VIP visits and sister-city programs.

Fifty years later, what this iteration of the program achieved was quixotic but concrete. It transported three used fire trucks to Chile, shipped enameled cherry cans to Santiago, and coordinated and funded visits by several American engineers, urban planners, and agricultural experts.

It was also-informally, but definitively- the vector through which my family came from Chile to California.

In the years before Adolfo's tumor blinded him, the Carmonas performed the comfortable normalcy of a typical Chilean middle-class family. Adolfo was an engineer, Raquel (née Gonzalez) was a schoolteacher. Angular and elegant with an aquiline nose, she stayed home to raise their three children, Raquel (nicknamed Queli), Adolfo (Bebo), and Cecilia (Gemi). Raquel cooked and sewed and managed her fractious husband, whose mounting paranoias would eventually be explained by the adenoma whose growth no one yet suspected.

Theirs was not a love story. Raquel (Quela to her family) craved conventionality with nearradical fervor. When my grandmother Liliana, Quela's sister, annulled her own unhappy marriage, Raquel soldered the rifts in her own. Liliana tended toward a diffuse policy of parental laissez-faire-she worked full time arbitrating disputes between farm workers and their "patrones"-but Raquel was a detail-oriented homemaker, an engineer of perfection. She kept up the appearance of her marriage long after her husband lost his ability to appreciate the illusion.

Like most illusions, Quela's force field was as hermetic as it was attractive. As the architect of her family, her approach was a loving geodesic dome: structured, but risk-averse, clannish, and closed. No one could have guessed from their perfect portraits that in a few short years they would be forced to scatter. …

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