The Cassettes from Exile – Translation
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Translated by: Patrick Moseley
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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. We’re thinking about Chile these days, since on October 25th the country will vote on a plebiscite to decide if a new constitution is written.
We thought it was a good moment to go back to one of our favorite stories, which was first published in 2017.
[Dennis Maxwell, reporter]: Well, this started when my brother and I found a box with a bunch of cassettes.
[Daniel]: This is Dennis Maxwell. You’re sure to have heard him on several episodes of Radio Ambulante.
[Dennis]: I had gone to visit family in Chile and my brother took the chance to ask me to help him move. It was a very hot summer day in Santiago. We were moving a ton of dusty old boxes that my brother had stored away in a closet for years at a friend’s house, when it occurred to him to open one of the boxes and see what was inside. And inside there were at least 20 cassettes in their cases, all with handwritten labels.
[Daniel]: And he immediately knew what was on those tapes.
[Dennis]: An intense feeling came over me because I thought those tapes were lost.
[Alberto]: Hello. Hey there. How are you? Well, I’ll start out by saying hello, as always, to everyone one by one…
[Daniel]: His whole childhood was recorded on them. And re-listening to them, he re-lived feelings and memories from a complicated time in his life. One that Dennis now saw as very distant.
[Alberto]: How are all of you? Mom, I hope you’re listening to me too. How are you?
[Daniel]: A period that left a defining mark on his family.
From 1976 to 1986 Dennis’ father was in exile, living outside of Chile. And for Dennis, this voice…
[Alberto]: Nothing, I’m going to ask you to not take so long before writing to me again, I’m asking again.
[Daniel]: Was all he had of his father.
[Dennis]: In 1973, my dad worked at a television station, channel 9, which belonged to the University of Chile. The channel was definitely on the left during the Unidad Popular years, which is what Salvador Allende’s socialist government was called. In September of that year there was a military coup, and all of a sudden Chile became a very violent country.
My father has vivid memories of the stress in those days just after the coup:
[Alberto]: As early as the first day, we started learning that there had been murders, there had been disappearances, etc. They started looking for people connected to our channel, really, I think they started coming after a lot of us.
[Dennis]: By the third or fourth day, my dad heard that they had killed a lot of his friends.
[Alberto]: People I knew, people who were close to… to me and to… to our family. I started to worry, realizing that the situation was serious.
[Dennis]: By the tenth day my dad came home and told my mother that we needed to leave the country.
[María Eugenia]: And for me that was when the world turned upside down because everything was just one difficult thing after another.
[Dennis]: Well, the closest way out of the country was to cross the Andes mountain range and take refuge in Argentina. But it was so dangerous for my dad to be in Chile at that time that he decided to leave first.
And my mom stayed on her own with the three of us: my sister Gayle, who was three years old, my brother Laurence, who was six, and me, who was barely a year old. She got everything out of the house as fast as she could, she left some things with her sister and other things with her mother. And she packed…
[María Eugenia]: A few duffle bags that I stitched together from tarps to take all the clothing, uh, bedding, necessities… as much as I could carry.
[Dennis]: A month after my dad left we took off. My mom tells me we took a bus and that it was a day and a half journey. And my mom remembers that when we arrived at Portillo, a town that is still on the Chilean side…
[María Eugenia]: It started snowing really hard and that made it difficult because we were stopped in… in Portillo for eight hours freezing in that tiny bus. And I was with you three. It was very tough.
[Dennis]: The truth is that I don’t have too many memories from my first years in Buenos Aires. Most of my memories from that time are more like images, like photographs. But one of the few things I do remember was a character my dad made up: Grandpa. My dad worked in a factory and when he came home from work…
[Alberto]: Which was really tough, and I came back tired, I exaggerated the part about being tired so I could play with all of you in a way that was more fun and… and… and different.
[Dennis]: He went to his room, presumably to sleep, but about five minutes after having gone in, this old man came out of his room, made up with…
[Alberto]: Talcum powder in my hair and I don’t remember what else I put on. I think I drew some more pronounced wrinkles on my face.
[Dennis]: He put on a hat and a different pair of pants, a vest from an old suit.
[Alberto]: And the Grandpa appeared, who was really a storyteller.
[Dennis]: Grandpa was a constant traveler. He always went around exploring some part of the world and getting into some kind of trouble. And, when I think about it now, he kind of foreshadowed what was to come. We did everything with that Grandpa. I remember that one time we even went back to Chile.
[Alberto]: I told you that I had gotten a hot air balloon and that we could use it to cross the mountains and go all around Chile.
[Dennis]: And we put together some reed chairs we had.
[Alberto]: I set up the four chairs and I invited you aboard, and you were very small. You were the youngest, obviously. You were, how old? About three. I invited you on the… the hot air balloon.
[Dennis]: Making a show of us flying through the air
[Alberto]: First we lit the fire, it heated up and the balloon inflated. And the chairs were the basket we sailed in.
[Dennis]: And I think that’s where my fear of heights comes from. Soon some gusts of winds came and threw us off balance.
[Alberto]: I described what we could see below and you were so caught up I think the three of you really could see it.
[Dennis]: And we traveled across all of Argentina starting in Buenos Aires, then the Andes, which is an enormous mountain range, you know?
[Alberto]: We even reached down to take ice off of the mountain peaks to cool off because it was a very hot summer.
[Dennis]: And we even made it to Chile. And when we came back…
[Alberto]: You rushed off to tell me, your dad, the father, about the trip you took with Grandpa.
[Dennis]: And I’m telling you this because I want you to understand what my dad was like. And so you understand how much a child can miss a father like that.
In 1976, only three years after having left Chile, we ran into another coup. This time in Argentina.
[Alberto]: A Chilean caught on the street in Buenos Aires would get arrested just for being Chilean.
[Dennis]: And well, Uruguayan and Brazilian too. My dad started to look for ways to leave the country. And a friend of the family, who had fled to France, made the arrangements through the United Nations to help us leave Argentina. But they only offered us one ticket to go to Paris. We didn’t have the money to pay for anyone else, so my dad, who was in the most danger, traveled to France, planning to work there and get together enough money to bring the rest of us over.
My siblings, my mom and I went back to Chile. To Santiago. This time we left first.
[María Eugenia]: There is a photograph of that painful moment in my mind, when we had to travel to Chile by train and your father went to see us off at the station, and it was raining.
[Alberto]: The last thing I remember is seeing you through the train’s window when it departed and it started raining in Argentina.
[María Eugenia]: It was very emotional to see your dad below us and we were all up on the train, saying goodbye. And raindrops ran down the window.
[Alberto]: And I could see your pained faces inside, half-crying. And I shed a few tears too, standing on the platform, watching you leave.
[Dennis]: It was 1976 and I wouldn’t live with my father again for ten years.
The first few years back in Chile were very hard for me. So much so that, at just six years old, my mom took me to a psychologist. And there I was diagnosed with severe depression. I remember crying a lot. I cried a lot in school. Teachers didn’t know what to do with me anymore so they would take me out of the classroom. And I remember being alone in the school’s courtyard while my classmates were still in class. And of course, it wasn’t just difficult for me, the youngest, but for the whole family.
[María Eugenia]: For me it was painful in the sense that, for example, I remember one day Laurence, who was the oldest, uh, told me: “Mom, now that dad isn’t with us anymore, I’m going to help you.” And that was painful for me, because he was nine years old.
[Dennis]: According to my mom, my sister didn’t really let on. But when she was only seven years older, she changed all of a sudden. Like she grew up really quickly.
[María Eugenia]: And she became too responsible in school, at home.
[Dennis]: Which isn’t normal at all for such a small girl. According to my mom…
[María Eugenia]: She even planned her… the fights with her friends: she would write them down on a little piece of paper, and everything she was going to do the next day.
[Dennis]: My dad tried to overcome the distance with letters. I remember some really long letters. My mom read them to us at dinner time or before we went to bed. And around 1978, two years after having gone to France, my dad started sending us cassettes.
[Alberto]: How are you? I just got two letters, just now. I have them here. I’m opening them up. No, I’m not really opening them. I already read them, right? I’m re-opening them. One letter from Laurence and the other…
Dennis: In those years, mail could lag by weeks. A lot of times the things my father sent were lost or stolen as well. We got a cassette once every month or maybe every two months.
I would get really anxious when the mail carrier came in those days. But when a cassette finally arrived, we put it in a Sony tape-recorder that mom had bought. It was a machine with big buttons. We would press play and we all sat around it: my mom and often my grandma, my dad’s mom.
[Alberto]: And just for you kids, because I promised I’d tell you some stories, well, I’m going to tell you some now. I was thinking about what story to tell you. I didn’t know if I should make up a story or do something else…
[Dennis]: This is my brother, Laurence
[Laurence]: He sent us tapes he recorded for us with his voice, right?, in which he told us about what he was learning about French society and how much he missed us, right? And he told us stories in those tapes too, stories he… he came up with.
[Dennis]: You could hear my dad’s personality in those stories.
[Alberto]: But I’m going to tell you about the trip I took to Spain. I drove with some friends. Oh, and I have to tell the kids especially that just as I was getting ready to take this trip to Spain, you’ll never guess who showed up, who came to visit? Do you know who came? Of course, it was Grandpa. Grandpa was traveling across Europe. So we went with Grandpa too…
[Dennis]: And listening to Grandpa again was a way of continuing the relationship we had built.
Each time Grandpa appeared, I felt a tremendous sense of nostalgia. I was around eight years old, but I felt like my father was there, inside my mom’s Sony.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, Dennis Maxwell was telling about his childhood and the relationship he built with his father through a Sony tape recorder. From his exile in France, Dennis’ father sent his recording and with those cassette tapes they tried to maintain a bond.
Dennis continues the story.
[Dennis]: After a while my dad wasn’t the only one recording cassettes. We did too:
[Laurence]: Like all kids, we were rather curious, in terms of exploring the… the possibilities of new technology.
[Kids]: No, not that. Sing to him… Little lost dog. No. Yes! Alright, OK, OK.
[Dennis]: And when we made recordings for him we did it very naturally. For us that machine was part of our lives, always there, always connected to him.
[Laurence]: So we left it on there and play… while we played. And all of a sudden ideas would occur to us and we would tell him, out of nowhere. Or sometimes we would agree and sing him a song.
[Kids]: Alright. One, two, three: I wake up early in the morning, I wash my hands and I also wash my face…
[Dennis]: Or we would tell him the things that happened to us in vivid detail. For example, this is my sister Gayle:
[Gayle]: Today is March 24th, I think. Uh, yes, that’s what mom says. March 24th.
[Boy]: Who are you talking to?
[Gayle]: Yesterday, uh…yesterday was Sunday, we went to the… the… what’s it called. The Cajón del Maipo, there by the dam. There at the… what’s it called?
[Dennis]: We almost always recorded one side of the cassette. And if my grandma was visiting that day she would record something with us. And my mom almost always recorded the other side.
[María Eugenia]: Hey, gordito. I wanted… wanted to give you a musical introduction. Maybe later on I’ll sing a song that I really like, that I… we’re just practicing with Nano. He plays with me.
[Dennis]: She told him about us.
[María Eugenia]: Dennis is fine. He’s a little skinny but he’s fine. He likes going around and goofing off and making jokes. Dennis has a… a very lovely character.
[Dennis]: And of course, she talked about herself.
[María Eugenia]: I don’t know. Despite not… not having talked to you or written to you in so long, I don’t know… Right now all of the things I want to say… are escaping me.
[Dennis]: I didn’t listen to these cassettes when my mom recorded them. Of course, they were messages between the two of them and not meant for us kids. And maybe it’ll sound simple, so insignificant, but it’s not: I’d never heard my mom call my dad gordito. I was really young when they lived together. So I never saw their real marriage. So when I hear this:
[María Eugenia]: I’m proud of myself, I’m happy because I started studying something that maybe… I don’t know, I always thought I liked but didn’t feel like I was able to do. And this year I said “No, I’m going to do it.” And I’m happy. I started studying theatre and I have ten hours of class a week. They’re…
[Dennis]: It’s as if I were listening to the end of the relationship. When she says “I’m happy” now I imagine how this must have sounded to my dad. It sounded like “I’m staying.” Like “I’m not going to France.” Like “My children and I are staying in Chile.”
Although my parents’ relationship already had problems before my dad went to France, the distance definitely took a toll on the relationship. And little by little they accepted the reality that they had to live. My mom was laying new roots in Chile. She started a business with her sister, a daycare, and of course she was always worried about us and our upbringing.
While my dad, on his end, tried to continue educating us from afar. He did it through stories, narrating some trip he had taken or some museum he had visited. There is a very significant moment on those cassettes. My brother remembers it better than I do.
[Laurence]: I always remembered it because it’s like the example, you know?, of the nostalgia he had for… for more direct communication with us, when he creates a collage. He makes a collage with our voices.
[Alberto]: I want to do an experiment to… to see if I could chat with… with the kids directly for a little bit.
[Laurence]: In which we are talking to him through the tape, from far away, from Chile, right?, and he interweaves his own voice, right? So it’s like a dialogue between us.
[Alberto]: Let’s see, Laurence, tell me. Do you remember the last cassette you sent me? You were telling me about something grandma had sent you or that she brought you. Let’s see, what was it? What did grandma bring you?
[Laurence]: Grandma brought me… me a picture of grandpa José María Canales.
[Dennis]: Making that collage wouldn’t be that hard with the technology we have today, but with the recorders he had at the time, it was very hard. He got a double cassette recorder, an Overlay, especially for those kinds of edits.
[Alberto]: It made me feel closer to you, more involved in your lives. And certainly it gave me a sense of satisfaction, uh, to feel a little better in that punishment, the exile.
[Dennis]: But I talked to my brother about it and we both agreed there was more going on. He was reclaiming his place.
[Laurence]: And that longing, you know? To… to see us grow and know about us and be there for us and not lose the… that role: the role as a father, of the father-figure.
[Dennis]: We spent more than four years like that, with the image of my father appearing only in words coming out of a tape recorder. Until one day in 1981 he gave us a big surprise. With a lot of effort, he managed to get together some money and suggested we travel with our mom to Peru to meet up with him.
He couldn’t enter Chile, but they couldn’t keep us from seeing each other in another country. So in February that year, when I was only eight, we took a bus to Tacna, which is a small town on the other side of the Peruvian border. I remember that bus trip from Santiago, when we crossed the Atacama Desert. Looking out the window at that arid endless landscape and feeling that enormous anxiety of finally meeting my dad. Because, well, I had gotten to know him through those cassettes, sure: I’d been able to learn about him, listen to his voice, imagine him or look at photos he had sent. I knew what he looked like more or less, but that was going to be the first time in a long time that my dad would be there in person and I was going to touch him. I was going to hug him.
I very clearly remember that waiting feeling. We had agreed to meet at the central plaza of Tacna. It was my two siblings, my mom and me all standing there in the middle of the plaza waiting. We knew he was going to show up at any moment, but we didn’t know if he was going to take a cab or if he was going to come on foot or what. I remember how nervous I was. I thought I recognized his face in every person walking through the plaza then. Until I think my sister recognized him and shouted: “There, it’s dad!”. The three of us went running, with tears of joy, and when we got to him we jumped on him and gave him a hug. And that was a hug I’ll never forget. Of course, my dad remembers that moment.
[Alberto]: I remember that that moment, that day and those following days I couldn’t stop looking at you three to see how you had changed. To see the expressions on your faces and how you moved. You had changed so much, uh… You had even changed in relation to what I had imagined. Your bodies, your smiles, your eyes.
Like you, for example, I can’t help but remember that look of amazement you had when you looked at me. Like a curious astonishment, recognizing this man who was your father at the innocent age of eight or nine years old, expressing that through your smile, your expression, your face.
[Dennis]: Little by little we got used to each other and we became more and more familiar, rebuilding that trust. Those days with my father were full of excitement and a lot of joy. But that happiness barely lasted four weeks. Then my dad went back to France and we went back to Santiago.
My dad turned back into a tape recorder. And of course, inside that tape recorder there were no flaws, there were no arguments, there were no scoldings. He was practically perfect.
[Laurence]: We had built a very idealized paternal image, very perfect, you know? And that was our dad: that ideal, perfect, right?, mythical figure. That was our dad.
[Dennis]: And we learned to live with that image. To defend it in front of the other kids at school, who often judged us for not having a dad. But we always knew that he wanted to come back to Chile, to be with us.
Unfortunately, it was more than ten years before he came back. And in those ten years, my mom rebuilt her life, she kept working in theatre and met someone else. And things had changed for my dad too: now he had a French partner and a small daughter, my sister Adeline. But in 1986 a new consul in Paris was appointed. And he finally granted my dad what the previous ones had denied him: a permit to come back. And in July of that year he landed in Santiago.
And I’m not going to tell you that everything was perfect. In those eleven years a lot of things had changed. Chile wasn’t the same country my dad had left behind. And we weren’t the same children he had seen for the last time in Peru. My brother Laurence was 19, Gayle was 16, and I was 14.
He arrived on his own first, without his new family. He came to our house. It was exciting and strange for him to be so close. We talked for a long time, without the time limit imposed by the cassettes, which were 60 minutes long. Sometimes we stayed up into the early morning talking. Part of me couldn’t believe he was there in front of me. And it was also hard for me to understand that his return didn’t mean that our family had been put back together. Maybe that was the hardest part.
And his return wasn’t permanent either. Maybe he couldn’t get used to the new Chile, I don’t know. He broke up with his French partner and in 1991 he left to live in California. Two years later I followed him. I wanted to study. And it was the first time we really lived together. I was 21 years old. It wasn’t easy by any means. I was used to an independent, free life. And my dad wanted to fulfill his role as a father. He wanted to have authority over me and it didn’t work for us. I bear a lot of the responsibility for that too, to be fair. I was a very rebellious child.
More than 20 years of my life have passed. My dad went back to Chile and I stayed in California. I’m married and I have a son. He’s an old man, the age we imagined he was when he was pretending to be Grandpa, that made-up character that entertained us so much when we were kids.
And when he visits us, I see him stretched out on the floor playing with my son. And he’s just like he was with me and my siblings. Playful. Caring. Full of stories. He is Grandpa now. But the made-up Grandpa had imaginary adventures. While this one has had them for real.
Throughout this story I have called him dad. But I have to confess something. In real life, that word doesn’t come easily to me. I don’t know why.
I call him Alberto.
[Daniel]: Now Dennis has also created a character for his four year old son who can’t go to school because of the pandemic. It’s called Professor Brocha and it’s actually Dennis disguised as a man with a thick mustache and a prominent belly, who visits the house to give Spanish lessons. The inspiration for Professor Brocha comes from Granda, the character of Dennis’ dad
Dennis Maxwell is a producer and journalist. He lives in Oakland, California. In 2017 this episode won the prize for Best Foreign Language Documentary at the Third Coast International Audio Festival.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas, and me. Music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Aneris Casassus, Victoria Estrada Xochitl Fabián, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Desirée Yépez.
Fernanda Guzmán is our editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.