And the Desert Shall Rejoice


Think of some place dry—some place so dry it makes the Sahara Desert look like a swamp. Wring out the last drop of water from that place and hang it out to dry in the hot sun and wind for a week or so, and you’ve got a place about half as dry as the Atacama Desert.

Covering the northern fourth of Chile, the Atacama has received a total of 0.76 millimeter of rainfall in the last 20 years. Not even the smallest, prickliest, toughest, shrubs live in its driest reaches. Nothing but lifeless dust can be seen for many kilometers except in a few rare places where meager streams run down from the mountains or wells have been dug. It is hard to believe that even a microbe could live in the soil of these moon-gray hills.

And yet there are cities here. One of them is Arica, the northernmost city in Chile, established in the very driest part of the dry Atacama. Green with trees and flowers, it sits between the blue Pacific and the dead wilderness. It is a bright city. Houses and shops are painted in vibrant colors. The people are happy. The music is rhythmic. The holidays and festivals are lively.

And in all this bright, happy city, the brightest and happiest people are—you guessed it—the Latter-day Saints. And Arica’s two wards contain many dedicated young Mormons who are keeping the commandments; preparing for missions, marriage, and righteous homes; and having a wonderful time. They can be found together often, participating in sports, dances, meetings, parties, and especially splashing in the salty waves of one of Arica’s several public beaches.

So it is, one spring afternoon in November, when a city bus pulls up to its last stop at one of Arica’s beaches and lets out a group of happy, good-looking young men and women who run through the soft sand down to the beach. High above them looms El Morro, the massive gray cliff whose profile dominates Arica’s southern skyline. In a moment’s time a magic carpet of colorful towels has appeared on the beach, and a game of dodge ball is proposed. But there is no ball, so one of the towels disappears from under a young man. After it is tied in a number of knots and wound with some shoelaces which are tied securely, it is a towel no longer. It has become a ball, and the dodge ball game begins—the boys against the girls. The boys are stronger and throw straighter, but the girls are trickier, and the outcome of the battle remains dubious. They churn the sand as they play, leaping and twisting until the hot yellow sun seems to leap and twist in the sky above them. After a while the game somehow evolves into a contest to see which team can keep the ball away from the other team and somewhere along the line a real ball has appeared.

Later, some of the young people relax and tell the youth magazine writer about life in Arica.

Ariquenos love laughter and need little excuse for a good fiesta. They enjoy their holidays and have a good supply of distinctly elaborate celebrations. One of the highlights of the year is the carnival season each February. During that mad interlude passing strangers are likely to be bombarded with water-filled balloons, confetti, or flowers. On the Dia de los Picados (Day of the Imps) this list expands to include buckets of water, mud, shoe polish, dye, eggs—anything vaguely liquid can be used. Dances and parties are held in the plaza. A wooden monkey is built and dressed in a tuxedo. This monkey becomes the carnavelón, the chief of the carnival, and everyone shows him exaggerated respect as he is feted at parties and parades. When the carnival finally comes to an end, the carnavelón is buried, accompanied by extravagant weeping and mourning.

The group of young people at the beach also explains a little about school in Chile. Most students attend half-day sessions, but they are expected to study hard in their free time. During his schooling each student studies Spanish, mathematics, music, English, physics, chemistry, and other optional subjects. If a student fails the final exam in one of his major subjects and does not redeem himself at a follow-up exam, he must repeat the whole year’s studies, including the subjects in which he did well. Needless to say, tests are taken seriously. Students study until late at night striving to get a seven (highest grade) and have nightmares of being issued a one (the lowest). Competition for admittance to universities is tough, but Mormon students throughout Chile have done well.

While basking beneath the sun, they also share their feelings about the gospel, its blessings and responsibilities. “The first thing we have to do in order to fulfill Elder McConkie’s prophecy concerning our future is to be examples, not only in friendshiping people, but also in our deportment,” says Elisobet Santibanez. “In this way people will see that by doing the right things a person really can live happily. A worthy member of the Church can always feel tranquility. And when people who don’t feel this tranquility see our example, they will change. Every day there will be more people who want to study the gospel.”

On March 1, 1977, Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Council of the Twelve stood before an area conference in Santiago, Chile’s capitol city, and said: “I foresee the day when the seven stakes in Chile will be seven times seventy. I foresee the day when the 250 active Chilean missionaries will be increased by the thousands. I foresee the day when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be the most powerful influence in this nation … The Lord will pour out blessings abundantly upon this nation because of the righteousness of the people who live here.”

A recent convert adds, “Some of the best things about the Church are the people. They are very warm and loving. They welcomed me with open arms.”

Santos Altamirano Espinosa, who has just returned from serving a mission, says: “ We should let our brothers and sisters know of the truth and help them realize that they have the opportunity of gaining eternal life.”

She adds a personal experience of following the counsel of the Brethren: “I remember President Kimball as an apostle. Ten years ago he said, ‘Prepare yourselves and have provisions in your homes because difficult times will come.’ Several years ago Chile went through a difficult time when there was no food. The prophecy was fulfilled, and every time I remember this, I put more emphasis on obeying the counsel of the prophets.”

Hector Novoan says: “Since my first steps as a child I have been developing faith in God. Now that I know the gospel I can proclaim as with a trumpet that the greatest blessing one can receive upon this earth is to come to a knowledge of the gospel.

“I know that the Lord loves me. His love is so great that when I praise him from my heart, I feel a great joy fill my whole being and I feel him very near. I know that if it were not for the veil covering my mind, I would be able to remember him and those days when I was with him.

“I know without a doubt that by applying the gospel in our lives we will achieve perfection and prepare ourselves to return to the Lord.”

A young man from North America who is in Arica as a foreign exchange student speaks with great admiration for the young members in Arica:

“They are completely honest. If one of them feels unworthy to officiate at the sacrament table on Sunday morning, he says so rather than just going ahead and doing it in order to avoid embarrassment. I love the nonmember Chilean family I live with like my own family. They are some of the finest people in the world. But whenever I visit the homes of the members in Arica, I am amazed by the difference it makes when the priesthood presides in a home and gospel principles are obeyed” (lived).

Ana Maria Rivera eloquently sums up the feelings of the whole group—their faith, their hope, their commitments: “Our existence would be completely void if there were not a brilliant and promising light to give us direction and guide us to the true path, a path that brings us back to the celestial home to which we belong and to the Father who gave us the marvelous opportunity to live on this earth.

“Above all we must enthusiastically do our Church work, for it is a work that honors, elevates, satisfies and which makes those who perform it happy.

“In short, believing in Jesus Christ and in what he has given all men makes me devote myself to doing what he wants me to do with all my heart, body, and mind, always knowing that at the end of the path is our Father, waiting for me with open arms, desirous for me to overcome the obstacles, and anxious for the time I return with my brothers and sisters.

“We are young; we have the strength, the will, the hope, the love, and above all, this fresh, healthy, great, glowing faith that fills the voids and lightens the darkness. We will use it with renewed strength and vigor to build the marvelous church that Jesus Christ wants to have here on the earth in these latter-days.”

Not one of the happy group on the beach has ever seen it rain in Arica, and not one of them probably ever will, but with the spirit and power that is within them, it doesn’t seem impossible that even the Atacama will rejoice and blossom as the rose. (Isa. 35:1.)

[photos] On the coast of northern Chile the blue Pacific meets the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. Only .03 of an inch of rain has fallen on Arica in the last 20 years. But Ariquenos have learned to live well in the wilderness, drawing life-giving water from beneath the ground and harvesting the sea’s bounteous wealth of fish.

[photo] The cold Humboldt current makes swimming a Spartan challenge at most of Chile’s beaches. But Arica is blessed with a warm current that sweeps ashore to make the waves comfortable nine months of the year.