Puerto Montt, Chile – the southern gateway to the vast Andes mountains and majestic Patagonian fjords.
At a corner store turned local bar, a heavyset man walks in. He has a pronounced limp and his face is almost lost amongst an enormous grey and black beard. Two piercing blue eyes tell the story of a strong but weary man. There is a depth of wisdom and sadness in those eyes that begs many questions.
Had he lost someone? Is he lonely? Do his memories bring him sadness or joy?
He wears torn stained jeans, old black leather boots, and a dark spray jacket, half zipped up with a grubby singlet underneath. It’s a winter evening and he doesn’t seem bothered by the bitingly cold winds.
Several bottles of beer later Maverick stumbles over, bumps into the table, and introduces himself in broken English with a deep, low voice. I introduce myself in broken Spanish. Maverick laughs, and shakes my hand with immense force. He doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s almost crushing my bones. I can feel his calluses built up over a life of hard work. He releases his grip and I rub my hand as he mumbles something unintelligible to me.
We laugh and joke, attempting to communicate despite the barriers. A younger man joins us and offers to translate.
Maverick had only just arrived back from a sea voyage. For months at a time, Maverick endures the loneliness and harsh weather of the high seas aboard a fishing vessel of which he is the skipper.
As the evening slips by, through drunken ramblings interrupted by friends’ greetings, Maverick tells a tale of long-lost happiness replaced with anger and sorrow so deep even time hasn’t cured.
Travelling back to the early 70s, Maverick’s eyes light up yet fill with tears as he remembers his first love – Sofía.
He’d met her in Copiapó. Predominantly a mining region, Copiapó is situated several hundred kilometres north of the capital Santiago. His father was a miner, and Maverick joined him in the silver and copper mines as soon as he was able to.
As he tells his story, his eyes wander off into the distance as he pictures her.
She was the source of the most intense joy and the most heart-wrenching pain he would ever experience.
Her family grew olives and tomatoes, and sold fresh produce at the local markets. It was there at the markets where Sofía first caught Maverick’s eye. Her flowing black hair and perfect olive skin, the smile she gave to customers and the frown she gave to brutish authorities – Maverick noticed it all.
A shy boy in his late teens, it took weeks before he actually said a word to her. His older brothers teased him about it constantly, and almost as if it were scripted they tripped him up as they walked past, causing him to stumble and fall into Sofía’s stall. Bottles of olive oil and crates of tomatoes tipped over, sparking Sofía’s mother to react angrily, chastising the boy. Amongst a hundred apologies he helped clean up the mess, and even paid for a broken bottle of olive oil with the little money he had saved.
He recalls looking at Sofía and seeing a cheeky grin, masked by a half-frown. She told him later she wanted to laugh but didn’t want to invoke the wrath of her mother. Their eyes met for the first time and locked in a way he’d never experienced. He wasn’t a fan of eye-contact at the best of times, but this time was different. Her eyes were gentle, kind, and most of all – loving. He felt a calmness come over him and wash away any anxiety he’d had while imagining this very moment.
From that point on Maverick was fixated on one thing – her. He spent the next few months working extra shifts at the mines so he could stop by her stall every chance he got. Her smile was what motivated him to continue the back-breaking, dangerous work.
Oh, that smile.
He eventually plucked up the courage to ask her out. In front of her mother no less! He wore his best outfit, which wasn’t much, and took her to a dance in Caldera – a nearby coastal town. She was the most beautiful girl there, and he was the envy of the dozen boys who’d been denied his place. He’d been the only one to politely ask in front of her mother.
With her leading their dance, no-one noticed his lack of ability or awkwardness.
After a few songs they decided to walk down to the waterfront and watch the boats come and go. It was a warm night, and Sofía cheekily peeled her dress off and dove off the jetty into the water. She called for him to join her, assuring him the water was warm. His usual hesitancy quickly dissolved and soon they were both treading water in the deep blue of Caldera’s port. It wasn’t long before he was clinging to a pylon, finally admitting he couldn’t swim.
Sofía swam over to him and illuminated by the full-moon they shared their first kiss.
Their romance quickly blossomed and within two years they were married with their first child, a daughter – Francisca, named after Maverick’s mother. They lived in a small hut on Sofía’s family farm. The hut was situated at the rear of the yard, away from the main house, a detail which would prove vital in saving their lives.
In September 1973, a coup d’état successfully overthrew the socialist, democratically elected government. General Augustus Pinochet gained control and began fifteen years of an oppressive, violent regime – a horrific period of time in recent Chilean history, filled with abhorrent human rights abuses.
Supporters of the socialist government were rounded up in the thousands, some executed, some exiled, and many have never been found.
Maverick’s father was the first of his family to disappear, followed by his three brothers, all members of the now banned Marxist party. His family home was no longer safe so his mother and sister took refuge at Sofía’s, living off whatever the land would produce.
Maverick would sneak out at night and meet with a group of resistance fighters who were organising a boat from Caldera to the south where families could either find refuge with sympathisers or escape to Argentina.
Little did he know at the time but due to his father’s involvement in the unions, Maverick was being closely monitored by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), Pinochet’s secret police.
They followed Maverick back to Sofía’s home one night, watched him greet the family, and waited for the lights to go out. Maverick, Sofía, and Francisca were all woken up by screams from the main house, followed by gun-shots, deafening silence, and then loud shouting. Maverick looked out the front door of their tiny hut up through the olive trees to the main house and saw uniformed men with rifles storm out the backdoor. He didn’t hesitate to react, grabbing his heavily pregnant wife and small child, and ushered them through the orchard away from view. As they reached the road, he stole one last look at the house, which was now up in flames. Francisca was crying, so he picked her up and swung her around like he always did, trying to protect her from realising the danger that was breathing down their necks.
They kept to the shadows and quietly made it to a resistance safe-house, a makeshift home for political refugees. It was there, in the cold, damp basement of an old stone church that Sofía had their second child – a son, Ignacio.
Maverick and Sofía never had a chance to grieve the loss of their families before another addition was made. Ignacio was, in their eyes, a gift from God. A glimpse of graciousness in a time of terrible tragedy. Francisca and Ignacio gave Maverick the strongest motivation known to any human – the will to protect his own flesh and blood. He took up arms with the resistance fighters and fought back where necessary, always careful with his retreat back to the safe-house so as to not compromise it like that other fateful evening. He would constantly plot their escape, but in the first few months this was seemingly impossible.
Eventually, the boat to take them south was ready. Maverick’s urge to continue fighting Pinochet’s regime was far outweighed by his desire to get his precious family to safety.
A stolen army truck was fitted out with a false floor, with enough room to hold three families laying underneath. The truck was on its third and final run of the night, and the skipper of the boat was anxious to leave. Resistance fighters were creating havoc across the district, creating diversions for the escapees. Finally they had all boarded and were about to leave when there was an explosion nearby, and gunfire. A resistance stronghold had been blasted wide open, and the military were storming their position, dangerously close to the boat, which was now slowly chugging its way out of the harbour. The families crouched together in the hold of the old fishing boat, praying, cuddling each other for warmth and safety.
The sound of gunfire and explosions eventually grew faint and disappeared. Maverick turned and kissed Francisca and Ignacio, wrapping them both in his enormous arms. He gazed deep into Sofía’s soft, brown eyes and said – “I love you.”
Suddenly bullets started ricocheting off the hull, causing the children to scream and cry. A few men, including Maverick, grabbed weapons from their limited stockpile and returned fire. A small navy vessel had seen the fishing boat leave and without question or warning had opened fire.
The last thing Maverick remembers of that night was the sting of a bullet smashing into his leg causing him to stumble and fall off the boat into the freezing ocean. He recalls desperately trying to stay above water and get back to the boat, to his family, before sinking into blackness.
A fisherman and his two sons, having witnessed the event, used their fishing net to drag Maverick’s limp and lifeless body from the water. They shook him and slapped him across the face to see if he was alive. He finally coughed and vomited up a stomach-full of water. Forgetting he’d been shot, he tried to stand but immediately fell back down. He felt dizzy and his vision was blurry as he looked out across the sea to try and spot the boat holding his family. The fisherman – a strong, gruff man, lifted Maverick up with ease and placed him on a bed in their sleeping quarters. One of his sons wrapped up the wounded leg tight and plied him with alcohol to soothe the pain – his first taste of what his mother used to call “Devil’s brew”.
For the next few years Maverick had to lay low, working for the fisherman to earn his keep, meanwhile trying everything he could to find news of his family.
For the remainder of Pinochet’s regime, Maverick scoured the vast coastline of Chile aboard fishing vessels in search of his family. Several times a year he became involved in helping smuggle exiled families to the south where they could escape to Argentina.
Every now and then he’d receive a new piece of information that’d give him a glimmer of hope through the despair.
He was told his family had made it to Valparaiso but were captured and being held in a concentration camp.
He was told the fishing vessel had sunk and all survivors had been captured or shot.
He was told they’d made it all the way to Puerto Montt, where they had planned to hide out, awaiting his arrival.
He was told they’d escaped across the Andes into Argentina.
He was told many things over the years, but no matter where he searched he couldn’t find them. They had vanished without a trace.
He was so consumed with anger he took it out on everyone around him, until he was left to face the pain alone.
On numerous occasions he was tempted to leave this earth, but he chose not to, clinging onto the smallest chance that his family would be found.
He turned to drinking to numb the pain of losing everyone he had ever loved, and refused to remarry or even look at another woman.
Behind his great beard, cheeky grin, rough skin, and bright blue eyes, Maverick still holds onto the chance they’ll be found. He still believes they made it to Argentina and are living a happy, peaceful life. He often wonders how they turned out.
Francisca would be a grown woman in her early forties by now, perhaps with a family of her own – grandchildren of Maverick’s. He knew she would’ve taken after her mother, strong-willed and ambitious, and could be anything from a doctor to an engineer to a business owner.
Ignacio would be a grown man, and with the two strongest women raising him he’d be a force to be reckoned with. Maverick hoped Ignacio had met a beautiful girl and fallen in love as deeply as he loved Sofía.
Sofía. His one and only love. She’d be tending to the needs of the grandchildren, reading to them, teaching them how to make olive oil and tomato paste, encouraging them to take chances in life and only regret chances not taken.
Maverick, this enormous figure of a man, would scare off anyone who couldn’t look past his rough exterior. Given the chance, he would show his heart of gold, but in more recent times few have had the pleasure.
He continues to go out to sea in search of his soul, and the souls of those ripped from him many years ago. Little does he know that tonight, in the story behind those eyes, he has shown more heart and soul than most.
He finishes his story with a toast to those lost or taken during those terrible times. The whole place erupts in a cheer, loud enough to wake any lost soul, and Maverick stumbles off into the night, his limp somewhat less pronounced than before.
Maverick’s father, mother, brothers, sister, wife, and children are among the thousands of lost names and faces of the desaparecidos, the “disappeared”, which can be seen in the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights, pictured below), in Santiago. Their names have been changed in this recount of events to protect the privacy of any surviving relatives, and the photo portraying Maverick, taken by Andrey Zharov, is used only for illustrative purposes.