A large part of the first 20 years of my life were spent in the company of six females.
There were eight of us living in that rented house in the country. My maternal great-grandmother, Margarita, was the eldest.
My mother, Elba, was a busy woman: a Physical Education teacher and a well-known athlete. She worked at an All-girls High School in Santiago, about 40 miles from our home.
My father was a busy labor lawyer who was rarely home, except for the week-ends. My three younger sisters and myself made seven.
Our “Nana Yolita” was the final piece. The sixth woman in our house.
Yolita moved in after she became an orphan, at the age of 14. She also came from “campesino” roots. Unlike my illiterate great-grandmother Margarita, Yolita had learned to read and write when she spent a couple of years in an orphanage, where some nuns taught her.
When she was 16, she came to live with us. First, to care for our great-grandmother. Later, when we were born, she became a loving second mother to us. A great cook, a teacher, a friend. Before I turned five, she taught me to read and write, how to feed and gather the eggs from our few hens, how to get up on the roof to dry the apricots from our two apricot trees, or how to ride our neighbor’s dwarf pony. Yolita also had a healthy sense of humor. She loved to tell jokes and I was a favorite target of her sharp imagination.
Although my father held the title of “head of the family,” our family essence was female. As I remember it, Yolita was the person who truly ran our house.
Yolita is also the first woman who comes to mind when I think of indelible women. She deserves her own column. Or a book.
Nevertheless, in this particular, I want to write about some brief yet unforgettable encounters with other women. Real yet magical experiences that have accompanied me my entire life.
The first encounter took place in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. I was 16 years old and I traveled there representing Chile in a South American tennis championship.
At that time, Paraguay was led by the anti-communist dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who reigned for 35 years, from 1954 to 1989. A harsh period, also known as “El Strosnato.”
My political views were maturing rapidly. According to my still incipient stands, Stroessner was a despicable human being.
Thus, imagine my shock when the head of our delegation told us that “tomorrow we are going to visit the Presidential Palace and meet President Stroessner.”
I was speechless, but one thing I knew: I could not go there! I did not give an impassioned political speech: I simply faked an illness.
The next day, the entire delegation left to meet Stroessner and I stayed in my room.
I was feeling nervous. Although it was a rather sheepish one, it was one of
my first semi-open political stands. Alone in my room, I went to the balcony, fearing negative repercussions for my rather minor transgression.
The skies above were dark and ominous. Three floors below, the street was filled with pedestrians. Unlike most major streets in the world at that time, that busy street was closed to vehicles. Just for two blocks. The hotel was located in one of them.
Suddenly, the dark clouds gave way to a torrential downpour. The pedestrians disappeared, looking for refuge under the awnings of the stores that framed the street.
All ran away, except one. Advancing towards where I was watching from my privileged balcony, a woman walked down the middle of the street. She was getting soaked, but she did not seem to care. She was beautiful…and she knew it. The rain and the admiring phrases in “Guaraní” (the second official language of Paraguay) accompanied her walk, as she moved on, a confident vessel. As she passed in front of my balcony, she suddenly looked up to where I was watching, enthralled. She caught my eye, smiled…and kept walking.
At the corner she disappeared, but she managed to enter, forever, into my heart of hearts.
Suddenly, I realized that it would all be fine. That — somehow — that woman was my reward for not going to shake the hand of the dictator.
Many years later, this time walking in the hot Caribbean sun of San Juan, Puerto Rico, I noticed a statuesque Black woman walking ahead of me. She seemed in no hurry, someone sure of herself, supremely aware of her regal character.
I could not resist my desire to approach her. I walked a little faster and when I caught up to her I asked: “Excuse me…but I have to ask. You seem so self-assured, so confident. Who are you? You must be someone important.” She stopped, gave me the briefest of smiles and said: “I am the best ‘bomba’ dancer in Puerto Rico!” She did not say her name…nor did I ask.
She simply kept on walking with that self-assured gait. And she also walked right into my gallery of indelible women.
Who are your indelible women? If you have a few, visit them. In person, or in memory.