A Land Called Chile

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    There is a land called Chile. It is a land of incredible sun-high ranges of perpetual snow; cold blue lakes; broad beaches; lush meadowland; fruitful mediterranean fields and orchards; warm pastel skies and wind-lashed steppes; arid moonscapes; flowering hillsides; dense forests; brooding glaciers; and the deep, life-giving sea. Hedged on the east by the towering Andes and on the west by the Pacific, it runs from the moon-dry Atacama Desert on the north to the penguin-dotted silence underneath the world. And in between is a land so beautiful it could break your heart and a people so friendly they could mend it again.

    Although Chile is 2,560 miles long, not even counting its Antarctic possessions, it averages only 110 miles in width. That makes it just about the skinniest country in the world, but that doesn’t matter because although Chile may look like a shoestring on the map, it is a land with a wide, warm heart.

    It is also a land with a destiny. 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 forsee 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 forsee 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.”

    Is it any wonder that the youth of Chile feel that they have been sent to earth with a mission? The fulfillment of Elder McConkie’s inspired prophecy rests squarely on their strong young shoulders.

    “To be young is marvelous,” says Luis Pontillo of Santiago, “and to be a young Mormon is even more marvelous. But the most marvelous thing of all is to be a young Mormon in Chile.”

    “My homeland is something sacred to me,” says Jaquelin Andala, also of Santiago. “I know that the Lord sent me to this land because he had a work for me here. Chile is beautiful. The people here carry a beautiful feeling inside themselves. They are very loving. Strangers greet you in the street, and people you don’t even know are always willing to help you.”

    “I am very proud of my nation,” Luis adds. “Although it isn’t great in wealth, it is great in spirit.”

    The white-topped mountains loom behind Santiago like a rising tidal wave of stone, their green foothills spilling steeply down before them into the avenues of Chile’s largest city, where about a third of all Chileans make their home.

    One green hill rises like an island from the city, capped by a statue of the Virgin Mary and covered with terraced gardens. It is known as San Cristóbal Hill, and it is a favorite place from which to view the city. Right now six students from the Colegio Deseret (Deseret High School) are doing just that. A layer of smog, Santiago’s 20th century birthright, covers the far-flung city, but the young people can still see the city’s tall office buildings and hotels, its treelined residential neighborhoods, its parks and monuments. Gazing over the city, Celia Ruiz says to the New Era reporters the students are guiding, “I love my country. When I sing the national anthem, I get a special feeling inside. I think my Heavenly Father sent me here to help my brothers and sisters learn of the gospel. I have a friend, and I want him to be a member. When you love somebody, you just naturally want to share the gospel with him. My testimony of Jesus Christ is immense. I’m happy to be a member of his church and to know that I am one of the chosen daughters of God in this land. One of my greatest desires is to go to the temple one day. In the meanwhile I love to associate with the youth of the Church and to teach little children. I love them. They are the most special gift our Father in heaven sends to the earth. I love to read the scriptures too. It’s one of my hobbies. Sometimes in the morning I get up very early to read them, and I always feel happy when I learn about the Church.”

    As the young men and women stroll through the flower-lined walks, they pass photographers awaiting customers beside huge box cameras that are plastered with samples of their craft. The group poses for a smiling picture while overlooking their city and then waits for it to be developed.

    “The Church is the most precious thing I have,” says Maria Antonieta Riquelme. “My testimony is strong, and I always try to share it with nonmembers. I’m happy to say that I’ve helped to bring many people into the Church. I have many friends who aren’t members but who are wonderful people, and I always talk to them about the Church. They like the Church, and they enjoy our activities.” Then referring back to her native land, as Chileans always seem to, she adds, “For me Chile is the best land on earth. A few years ago our family was on the verge of moving abroad because things were very difficult for us here, but we just couldn’t. It was impossible for us to leave our Chile. It costs a Chilean dearly to be away from his country. He cannot forget her because he always carries her with him in his heart.”

    The photographer advises them that the photo is ready. They admire it for a while and then move on to the summit. One young man who is a mountain climbing enthusiast tells of an experience he had climbing in the Chilean mountains with a North American friend. After a long struggle they reached the top of a very high peak, and at the mountaintop moment the young Chilean took out of his pack the Book of Mormon he had brought along to read and left it in the cairn at the top for someone else who shares their love of high places. Echoing another sentiment expressed by almost all Chilean youth he adds, “We Chilean youth feel a great love for young people all over the world, especially those who are members of the Church and have the same ideals as ourselves. I would like to know many young people from many countries. I love the youth of this Church.”

    There is much to see on San Cristóbal, including a small funicular railroad train that labors up a green corridor cut from the hillside foliage. There are also pools, playgrounds, a zoo, artisans handcrafting jewelry, statues, museums, and more; but the group is soon on its way down the hill and into the busy streets of Santiago.

    Traveling by car through the streets of Santiago past chic shops, towering cathedrals, and massive governmental buildings is an exciting experience. Chilean drivers have gone far beyond the crayon school of driving, which advocates staying inside the lines, and have achieved a sort of abstract expressionism in which thousands of tons of steel, glass, and rubber interweave in a colorful and unpredictable ballet.

    The colegio van driver enters the artistic mainstream with gusto, calmly fading in and out around gargantuan trucks and ramping buses as if inches were yards.

    Discussing Church activities, Arda Gallete announces casually, “I’m the Junior Sunday School chorister and teach the four-to-nine-year-old class. I’m president of the Laurel class. I’m on the scripture chase team, and I’m in a folkloric group that promotes missionary work in Chile.” Then, reflectively, she adds, “I’ve undergone many tests, and I wouldn’t be here working in the Church if I didn’t know that God is really my loving Father and that I am one of his warriors who must try by every means to combat Satan. A fine nonmember dancer came to our group and asked about the Church. I explained a great deal to him and so did my bishop. He was able to help us with our dances too. He went on a stake camping trip and in the testimony meeting he said he felt something he had never felt before. He cried when he stood up to speak, said we had been a great help to him because of the love and acceptance we gave him, and told us that what we taught him by example was something very special. He is now a member.”

    Luis Pontillo says, “I’m going to leave school with a great desire to fulfill a mission. All my life I will thank my Father in heaven that I have been able to know the gospel in my childhood. The gospel is my life. When a person is born, he doesn’t know anything about air, but he feels it. He senses it is something that gives him life. The gospel in my life is something like that. It is the air I am breathing. I am grateful to my parents for being Chilean. I desire with all my heart to be able to progress here in my land and carry on the missionary work here, to share with my Chilean brothers the opportunity of being able to know the gospel. When I received the gift of the Holy Ghost, I felt that I had something very special, but I had to learn what to do with that special something. What I had to do was share the gospel with many people.”

    Luis also shares an experience that shows how service and missionary work are combined in the minds of Chilean youth: “I was working with my brother on the construction of our chapel when a young man came by and stopped and watched us. Finally he approached and asked us why we weren’t out somewhere having a good time. He pointed out that it was a beautiful summer day and we could have gone to the beach or just rested somewhere in the shade. We told him that our spirits were very joyous to have this opportunity to work for the Lord and that we would have been ashamed to think that our brothers and sisters were having to do our work for us. We explained that this was a chapel for the Lord, a house of worship, and that we were eager to see it completed. That young man is now an active member of the Church.”

    Juan Castaneda says, “I have to work a lot in the Church, and I like that. I’m preparing to go on a mission. I’m studying the scriptures. I’m saving money. I love Chile. The people here truly love one another.”

    Juaquelin Andala adds, “I know that the gospel is true and that by becoming more faithful every day we are going to progress more. I want to be a better person every day. My greatest desire in life is to be married in the temple and form a home and have many children. I hope to be able to return to my Father in heaven. I’m very happy, joyful in fact. I have everything a young girl could possibly want in this world.”

    As they drive through town, they pass restaurants featuring food from all over the world, which is no surprise because the ancestors of today’s Chileans came from all over the world. On the men and women they pass can be seen English faces; German faces; Jewish faces; Irish faces; Scandinavian faces; Italian, French, Spanish, and Indian faces; and all other possible kinds of faces; all of them very Chilean faces, usually with a warm Chilean smile.

    Before continuing their sightseeing, the group takes time out for a fruit break at an open-air market along the banks of the Mapocho River. After viewing statues and government buildings along Santiago’s beautiful Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, their next stop is Santa Lucia Hill, San Cristóbal’s little sister, located smack in the middle of downtown Santiago. They climb steep stone pathways dappled with leaf shadows up to a fortress resembling the one the Spanish built when they founded Santiago after a long dry march from Peru in 1541. There, among the crowds of happy Chileans and balloon and cotton candy vendors, they see the statues of Lautaro, the chieftain of the never-conquered Aurucano Indians, and of Valdivia, the valiant Spanish conquistador who died trying to subdue them. They stand in silence before the eternal flame of liberty that burns within the fortress, visit the cannon that echoes noon across the valley each day, and stop at a kiosk for a cold soda pop.

    As they drink, the group watches couples walk slowly by hand in hand, and they point out that Santa Lucia is not only a favorite retreat for Santiagueños on weekends, holidays, and lazy afternoons, but a traditional place for young men to bring their girl friends. Dating customs in Chile, they explain, are very different than in the U.S. In Chile it is considered very bad form for a young person to have a variety of dating partners. Their custom of steady dating is known as the pololeo, and a couple who are going together are known as pololeos. If someone who is pololeando (going steady, roughly translated) is seen with a different date, it can be the basis for a bad reputation. As a result, young Latter-day Saints do much of their socializing in groups rather than as couples because asking a girl out can be a serious commitment. Favorite social activities of young people in Santiago are sports, movies or theater, bicycling, dancing, and singing. Much of their socializing is done at Church-sponsored activities.

    When the frosty bottles are empty, the young people go back down the hill, past the beautiful classic fountains rich in rainbow-and-mist-shrouded Greek gods. They pause at the statue of the naval hero Arturo Pratt. The love of the Chilean people for Mr. Pratt symbolizes the strong, almost quixotic, sense of chivalry and honor in the Chilean soul. Arturo Pratt is a hero not because he won a battle, but because he died valiantly in a brave sally that had little to do with the final outcome of a great naval victory.

    As the group goes along its way, laughing and pointing, sometimes stopping and becoming serious when they view the great monuments of their people, some Chilean characteristics become obvious. Like most Chileans, they are very attractive, healthy, and very much alive to the wonder of life. Laughter comes easily to the Chilean, but there is also a profound Latin courtesy and formality they assume very naturally when that is called for. They speak easily of serious matters with a dignified eloquence in which there is no embarrassment.

    In their nature, as in most Chileans, there is a boundless self-confidence that makes them accept others easily without resentment or suspicion. Chileans are rarely offended if someone wants to take their picture. Indeed, they are delighted to become part of the photographic record of a friend they have never met and will never see again. Vendors in the marketplace will pose proudly by their stalls, workers proudly by their tools. A Chilean seldom assumes that anyone is looking down on him. How could anyone? As well as any people in the world, Chileans prove that self-confidence is the very opposite of arrogance.

    After the students leave the hill, a half-hour drive brings them to the battleground of Maipú, where the last decisive battle of Chile’s independence was fought. Here the students admire the huge equestrian statues of Bernardo O’Higgins and San Martin. Bernardo O’Higgins is Chile’s greatest hero, considered their liberator and the father of their country. Here also they visit the towering chapel of Maipú with its sumptuous stories-high stained-glass windows. The chapel is a Catholic church, but it is also a Chilean monument to liberty. Inside they enjoy the immense silence, disturbed only by pigeons, echoes, and colored light.

    Afterwards they visit the aeronautic museum, the national library and archives, the national congress building, the national historical museum, and other places that Santiagueños are proud of. When they get back to the colegio, there is still time for a spirited pichanga—a game of pickup soccer. Soccer is a national passion in Chile, as in most of the world, and Chileans of all ages will get together to play it on any pretext. The ball may be a tin can, and the goals upended trash cans, but the game will go on. As they play, some of the reasons for the national passion become obvious. In a pichanga match there is all the grace of a choreographed dance routine and the intensity of a street fight. The players hypnotize the ball with their feet, make it walk on air, dribble it like a yo-yo, bounce it off invisible walls, and levitate it on impossible trajectories.

    Some of their other favorite sports are basketball, volleyball, handball, track, bicycling, gymnastics, and skiing on Chile’s famous slopes.

    That weekend at a track located just outside the national stadium, young Latter-day Saints from the Santiago Chile Nuñoa Stake gather for a “mini-Olympics.” An hour before the meet begins, young athletes in bright track suits and warmups do limbering-up exercises and jog around the track. Rooters from the various wards are busily tearing crepe paper into strips to make pompons, and officials from the Chilean National Track and Field Association (who are donating their time to supervise the meet) are measuring and marking and getting the track ready.

    The meet is a rousing success, filled with hard running, jumping, and throwing. Some of the competitors are very skillful. Others are just very enthusiastic, but everybody has a great time, including the crowd. The cheerleaders whip the cheering sections up to a pitch of partisan enthusiasm:

    A correr! A saltar!

    Nuñoa Uno

    Va a ganar!

    (very roughly translated:

    Let’s go jump!

    Let’s go run!

    Nuñoa First Ward

    Is number one!)

    And after the last contest has been decided, the youth prove it is a Mormon Olympics by holding a scripture chase.

    Sunday the young men of Santiago’s Parque O’Higgins Ward arrive at their beautiful new chapel in plenty of time for priesthood meeting. They are all proud of their chapel because they have helped build it themselves. After opening exercises, they gather in quorums to fulfill their obligations and learn the gospel. In the teachers quorum the adviser speaks of repentance.

    “When we sin,” he says, “we find ourselves alone, without the help of the Spirit. We must come back to tranquility and light and not return to darkness again.”

    In the priests quorum next door the bishop is speaking about prayer. Afterwards the class discusses how people can recognize the answer to prayer.

    Later, in a Sunday School class containing many of the ward’s young people, the young teacher speaks of faith and then opens the class for the bearing of testimonies.

    “I know that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost live,” says 17-year-old Carlos Feliz. “I know that the standard works are true. I have an especially strong testimony of the Book of Mormon, America’s own witness for Christ. I know that the Lord has prepared a path for every one of us. I know that here on the earth we are being prepared and tested in order to achieve exaltation with the Lord so that we can become gods. I know that here in the Church I can find different friendships than those outside the Church. I know that the Lord protects us and gives us revelations through his prophets and that he puts challenges on the earth so that we can gain more wisdom. I know that the bishops and other leaders of the Church are inspired. I know that none of us is here by simple coincidence but because the Lord has prepared a place for us and has a work for us.”

    Jose Suarez says, “Since the moment I was baptized, I have felt something very profound in my heart, like a key opening a door to a part of me I had not known about before. And when that key turned, I immediately began looking for friends and brothers to share the gospel with.”

    Miguel Salva adds, “I know that Spencer W. Kimball is a prophet inspired of God and that Joseph Smith died because he would not deny God’s word. I believe that if I were going to be killed for my testimony, I would not deny it either. I would die in God, because he has promised that I can be with him by keeping his commandments.”

    “I was a different person before I joined the Church,” says Jorge Remon. “This is the first time I’ve ever publicly borne my testimony, and it’s hard, but I know the Church is true; I feel it in my heart. I have such great joy in the gospel that I can’t find the words to thank the missionaries who taught me the gospel, and especially my sister who knew about the Church first and told me about it. I pray every day to my Father in heaven to thank him for the many blessings he gives me.”

    After Sunday School the deacons quorum presidency holds their meeting. Victor Gutierrez, the quorum president, calls the meeting to order. Second counselor David Muñoz gives the opening prayer. Secretary Miguel Molina reviews the attendance record for the previous week, and the presidency discusses how to motivate those who didn’t come. Arrangements are finalized for collecting fast offerings. First counselor Miguel Cerda, who is in charge of quorum activities, discusses plans for a service project to clean the meetinghouse blackboards. The spirituality of the quorum is discussed, and the individual needs of the quorum members are reviewed. Each member of the presidency has specific responsibilities, and each gives a clear account of his stewardship as the group handles quorum business.

    After the meeting they all express a feeling of deep responsibility to the members of their quorum, a sense of being not only leaders but servants. “I don’t feel that my job makes me any better than anybody else in the quorum,” one of them says. “I’m a child of God, and he expects all of us to help build his other children.”

    “What we must do,” says another, “is work in the Church, keep the commandments, learn more about the gospel, and become better people every day.”

    Bishop Muñoz, bishop of the Parque O’Higgins Ward, working in his office after sacrament meeting, has high words of praise for the youth of his ward.

    “In the 16 years I have worked with the youth of the Church, my constant concern has been to see that they really progress spiritually. The young people are also concerned about this, and they have achieved a very high level of spirituality.

    “The youth desire very much to progress every day and to be useful to both the Church and their country by going on missions. And that is what we encourage them to do. We have great youth. Whatever we ask them to do, they do it well. They are very responsible. Many young people in the ward hold important callings. An 18-year-old priest is president of the Sunday School. The president of the Young Men is also 18. The executive secretary of the ward is 20. They hold these positions because they are dependable.

    “The future of the ward is with these young people, and I think that the future of the Church in Chile is in their hands. A great part of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Elder McConkie will be the direct responsibility of these young people as a result of the work they will do in the mission field and because of the dedication they have to their callings.”

    They are a good young people, the kind of young people the Lord can depend on to make prophecies come true in the land called Chile.

    Photos by Jed Clark

    Top: Two Santiago women stroll to mass on a Sunday morning, and bicyclists flash down Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue in an international race

    Middle: Faces of Santiagueños reflect Chile’s worldwide heritage

    Bottom left: Colegio Deseret students wait for their photo to be developed on San Cristóbal hill, and then gaze out over Santiago

    Above: The ruins of an old church lead the eye to the beautiful Chapel of Maipú, a house of worship that is also a Chilean monument to liberty

    Colegio Deseret students study documents at the national archives and visit Santa Lucia Hill, site of the first Spanish fortifications in Chile. Like all Chileans, these young Latter-day Saints are fiercely proud of their nation and their heritage. The fruit vendor doesn’t know his picture is being taken, but if he did he would almost surely be smiling happily like the fish vendors. Chileans are among the world’s friendliest and warmest people, always ready to help a stranger or foreigner as if he were an old friend

    Top: Young Chileans enjoy participation in sports of many kinds. Here young ladies of the Santiago Chile Nuñoa Stake strain toward the finish line in one of the races in the Nuñoa Mini-Olympics

    Bottom: The photographer proves that in Santiago, Chile, as in all the world, young Mormon faces reflect joy and inner peace

    Above left: Chileans love soccer and will play it just about anyplace, anytime. These two young students are dueling in a game of pichanga (pickup soccer) in the schoolyard

    Above right: Young Latter-day Saints compete in the Santiago Chile Nuñoa Stake Mini-Olympics

    Below left: The deacons quorum presidency of the Parque O’Higgins Ward discusses the needs of quorum members, and two young girls direct a Junior Sunday School class. Young Chileans eagerly accept responsibilities in wards and branches throughout Chile, and their influence can be seen in successful Church programs