Translation: The Clairvoyant
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Easter is coming up next week, and in our archives we have a very timely story.
We are in Chile, in the 80’s, in a City called Villa Alemana. Back then, it was a small town with a population of 50,000 who had not much to do. The adults would go to work every day to Viña del Mar or Valparaiso. The city would be practically empty, left in the hands of the young people. One of these youngsters was Álvaro Bisama.
Álvaro Bisama: It had a movie theater, a gallery shaped in the form of a snail, a few bars, a few empty skating rings, you could roam the whole city by foot or bike. The axis of the town was the train line.
Daniel Alarcón: Alvaro is now a novelist and a critic. He lives in Santiago, and has written a lot about his city of birth. According to him, Villa Alemana had its charms.
Álvaro Bisama: It wasn’t a bad place to grow up because it felt like a big playground.
Daniel Alarcón: In the middle of this giant playground, at the bottom of the hill, lived Miguel Ángel Poblete, who became the most notorious resident of this city. It was 1983 and he was 17 years old.
Álvaro Bisama: He was a young man, not tall, dark, with a thin, sharp voice, who spent his life in many youth centers because his mom had abandoned him. He was like a nomad, a lost person who walks around.
Daniel Alarcón: One day Miguel Ángel went out with his friends and went up the hill. A few versions of the story state they sniffed glue, they got high, but all that is known is that Miguel Angel looked up to the sky and in that instant…
The Virgin Mary spoke to him.
Miguel Ángel went in a trance.
A while later, a local priest heard the story. He was interested in the clairvoyant, Miguel Ángel, and his miracle. The priest helped him spread the word.
His logic was simple: if the Virgin Mary appeared in Fátima, in Lourdes and other places, why not Villa Alemana? Miracles occur in the most unexpected places. Little by little, believers started to come. Initially twenty or thirty, then hundreds, thousands, and lastly tens of thousands. In front of these crowds, Miguel Ángel would go in a trance, and the faithful would ask for proof.
Álvaro Bisama: His voice would change and he will start talking, mumbling.
Daniel Alarcón: The Virgin’s appearance would happen mostly during the weekends, because it was convenient for those who worked during the week.
Álvaro Bisama: The town would fill up with posters or signs that said: “At twelve o’clock on such day the Virgin Mary will appear.” So people would go up the hill, he would see the Virgin, speak to her, listen to her message, and pass it on the people.
Daniel Alarcón: It was the Virgin Mary’s show, the Chilean version in 1983. The star was undoubtedly, Miguel Ángel Poblete, the clairvoyant of Villa Alemana.
Álvaro Bisama: He made appear a golden box with holy wafers. He passed around flower petals which were believed to be the tears of the Virgin. He transformed a vase of flowers into the sandals of Christ. He asked people to follow him, to look at the sun, to lay on the floor and wait for the end of the world. He stamped a piece of cloth with the image of Jesus Christ as it was on the shroud of Turin, several times. He sang in Aramean, I don’t know how the crowd knew it was Aramean…He asked to be hanged in a cross, died and resurrected. Virgin Mary statues made of wood or plaster cried tears and blood. He lifted a 264 lb. man. He was certain a subterranean bomb was going to explode in Russia. He made more holy wafers appear.
Daniel Alarcón: The Church itself was skeptic. It opened an investigation against Miguel Ángel in 1984 and declared the clairvoyant’s claims were a farce. Here the spokesperson of the bishopric of Valparaiso reads their statement to the media:
Spokesman: “We prohibit any act of worship in that place to all of the priests of our diocese…”
Daniel Alarcón: Pinochet’s dictatorship would ed at the end of the decade, but the tiredness, weariness of it all was felt everywhere. The fear everyone felt after so many killed and so many tortured.
In the meantime, every Saturday, Miguel Ángel described an apocalypse appropriate to the times. He had visions…or rather premonitions: earthquakes, wars, the fall of the Soviet Union, a bomb in the Vatican. He declared himself anti-communist, anti-socialist, and spoke obsessively of a possible Russian invasion. There was something desperate in his oration.
None of this seemed to bother his followers, who kept coming to Villa Alemana, to the hilltop shrine, with their requests for the clairvoyant…in their hands.
Álvaro Bisama: The crowds were docile, they weren’t a rowdy crowd, they were silent crowds waiting attentively for the next thing the clairvoyant would do, or the next thing the Virgin Mary would tell him. Suddenly this opened the door to a country that is much more irrational, complex…worst than the country Chileans want to see.
Daniel Alarcón: But how do you explain the visions Miguel Ángel had? What was the relationship between the Virgin Mary of Villa Alemana and Pinochet’s regime? No one knows exactly but there were theories. For example this one:
Álvaro Bisama: Next to Villa Alemana there’s a place called Belloto where there’s an airbase of the Chilean navy. Many said that during the mornings or the so-called miracle days, airplanes came out of this airbase and dumped chemical dust on the clouds.
Daniel Alarcón: According to this theory, this dust caused visions – collective visions. Those who defend Pinochet’s government have always denied this.
Between the first Marian vision and the last one, approximately five years passed by. About a total of 500 visions. But in the last months, there weren’t thousands but hundreds coming, and…then, suddenly, it all ended.
One day in 1988, Miguel Ángel had his last vision. But he lived for one last transformation…he changed his name and his gender. He started dressing as a woman, and said to be the last heir of the Russian dynasty. His new name was Karol Romanoff. An invented character.
By this time, Alvaro was an adolescent. He had grown with the clairvoyant’s show, with Miguel Ángel, the icon…he remembers the first time he saw him in person. Alone, without his followers, without cameras…which may be the reason he didn’t recognize him.
It happened one night in downtown, when Alvaro was coming out of the movies with some of his friends.
Álvaro Bisama: We were used to seeing Miguel Ángel in a trance, in the way to a trance, or coming out of a trance. The image we all had was of his tense face, his eyes looking at the sky, his head slightly raised, his jaw forward, in a stiff position, a state that couldn’t come close to being peaceful. We never saw Miguel Ángel in a normal state, like a normal person.
Daniel Alarcón: And then, he disappeared. The dictatorship came down and Chile forgot its clairvoyant. Karol would appear once in a while, mentioned in the media, like a folkloric tale from the old days.
She gained weight. Became an alcoholic. Reached old age surrounded by a dozen of her most loyal followers –women who took care of her, supported her. In September of 2008 she suffered a digestive hemorrhage. A few days later, in a clinic in Villa Alemana, not so far from the hill that made her famous, she died.
According to Alvaro, the story doesn’t end there. Maybe Miguel Ángel made up everything, with or without the help of the military regime, but undoubtedly, it had an impact. It changed lives: his life, and the lives of thousands of his followers – and the life of a whole country. Years later, even if people want to forget him, it still shows.
Álvaro Bisama: The hill is still the same, it’s still a sanctuary, it’s still well taken care of, etc. Sometimes my mom or dad tell me that a lady with a purple veil gets on the train which travels between Villa Alemana and Valparaiso to talk about the clairvoyant. When you go downtown on Saturdays you can see ladies with white veils who you know are going to visit the hill.
Daniel Alarcón: We’ll be back after a short break.
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Daniel Alarcón: Before the break we heard the story of Miguel Ángel Poblete, known as the clairvoyant of Villa Alemana. His story is part of the novel “Ruido,” by Álvaro Bisama. And we want to share a fragment with you. Here’s Álvaro.
Álvaro Bisama: How were we raised?
We were raised with the sound of our parents’ voices coming from afar, transformed into a senseless murmur that burned our ears. We were raised with the sense that there was a world out there, crashing into ours. We were raised with the echo of the dirty war. We were raised with the low voices of those who speak of the dead. We were raised with the sound of radio on in the background, With love songs interspersed with bombs, now and then, open graves, where the hair was stuck to the bone, the skin pulled back from the lips, and all the mouths left open in that humid darkness.
We were raised with the cartoons always on, waiting like idiots for those morning evangelical programs to end. We were raised with a train that left on the hour for the port. We were raised with the blazing hills of those torrid summers. And the thin winter frost that our adobe houses tried to block out. We were raised waking at dawn to climb the mountain on foot with our mothers and grandmothers. We were raised among sticker albums of killer robots. We were raised with more albums, but with heroes from long-ago wars.
More. We were raised in the dust of local schoolyards. We were raised with the long distance calls from our parents’ friends, who were in exile. With those early morning phone calls, where someone in Germany or Belgium held up a receiver, with a crooked piece of metal or a counterfeit coin in a phone booth on a side street near Alexanderplatz, while we heard voices in unknown accents behind that other voice the voices of our parents’ uncles or blood brothers and that was the voice of someone who didn’t know us, but spoke to us with familiarity, from beyond the delay, the seconds that it might take that voice to cross the cables from continents away.
We were raised with all that, with the seconds that our parents spoke to their friends trying to recover the normalcy that the rifles and the knives had erased. As if Europe or Mexico was just on the other block.We grew up.We almost always wanted the bombs to land here, in the center of town,and the explosion, if possible, would leave us deaf forever. It was a strange moment.
We became rock fans.We started drinking in the streets. We conquered downtown, which was a miniature version of the world.Our parents didn’t know what to do with us. Some of us stopped cutting our hair. Some of us shaved our heads. Some of us drew obscene images on our t-shirts. Some of us burned pigs’ heads on the pastures and invoked the devil.We went to satanic rock concerts in gyms and fields, in neighbourhood centers decorated with garlands for baptisms and weddings. We drew skulls on our school notebooks. We wore used clothes and iron-tipped safety boots. We filled our jackets with patches.We started believing in the devil or in nothing, in prayers about the apocalypse from songs by death metal bands, in the idea that the world is ruled by chance, that the future doesn’t exist. Some of us run away from there. We left.
We were not interested in the past. The present was ours. The town suffocated us, but it was the only thing we had, the valley’s geography like a map of our feelings, like the coordinates of our heart. Some learned to play instruments and started bands. Some started collecting records. We built a mythology there, with those pieces, with that sound. We became experts in reggae, in ska, in dub. We painted dancing skeletons on our t-shirts. They were not Mexican skeletons. Every day was our day of the dead. The future was still years away. Our girlfriends and boyfriends played along. We fought on the street, late at night. We yelled at each other or had sex standing up, against the wall of the old houses in the northern neighborhood, which that looked like they belonged to a colonial past that never existed.
It was a strange time: On every corner, a version of the future was rehearsed.
We lived there, inside the noise. It felt natural to us.
Daniel Alarcón: Álvaro Bisama is a writer. His most recent novel is called El Brujo. He lives in Santiago.
This story was produced by Nancy Lopez and by me. The mix and sound design are by Martina Castro and Andres Aspiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas, Luis Trelles, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Barbara Sawhill, Caro Rolando, Melissa Montalvo, Désirée Bayonet, Ryan Sweikert, Luis Fernando Vargas, David Trujillo, and Andrea Betanzos. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Next week we’re taking a small break, but just for one week. We’re back on April 18 with a two-part story from Colombia. Look out for it. You are not going to want to miss it.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.