Following 1973's military coup in Chile, the largest community of Chilean exiles in Wales settled in Swansea - a city which, for much of the nineteenth century, thanks to its world dominance of the copper trade, had been more or less the economic capital of Chile, the prime source of Swansea's ore. Among the eighty or so Chileans exiled in Swansea - few of whom, initially, would have been aware of the largely forgotten Swansea-Chile connection - was the poet and photographer Humberto Gatica.
Humberto, who arrived in Swansea with his wife Gabriela in 1975, was born in 1944 in the southern village of Huellahue, Panguipulli, in the territory of the indigenous Huilliche people - a region of rain, mountains, farms and forests not unlike parts of Wales. The presence of both geographies, although neither of them is named, is palpable in many of the poems in this collection. Like Wales, Chile is a land of poets: kick up any stone in Chile, it is said, and you'll find a poet lurking there. A poet who grew up not far away from Humberto's birthplace was Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), one of the greatest Spanish-language poets of the twentieth century, whose poems were an inspiration to the carpenter's son from Huellahue. Humberto's first efforts, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, were more prayer than poem: T come from a very religious family, and I liked the rhythm of the prayer.' But in the regional capital of Valdivia, where, aged about fifteen, he studied to become an electrician, he found poetry in libraries that excited his interest. There was also the custom in his village of gathering on Sundays to drink and chat. 'They'd get a little drunk, then they'd start to sing and recite poetry - dramatic poetry and poetry made out of the little things of everyday life. My curiosity was aroused: how to write poems about these little things?'
Not surprisingly, the haiku and its minimalist procedures would exert a considerable influence on this maker of slender, pared-down, carefully observed lyric constructions. (Humberto writes haiku not in Spanish but in English: 'When I try to translate haiku into Spanish, the line is too long.')
Invariably short and succinct, his poems are nevertheless the fruit of painstaking, regular craftsmanship. 'I get up around five every morning, and work for about two and a half hours on my poetry before I go to the university.' (Since 1987, he has worked as a photography technician and demonstrator at what is now Swansea Metropolitan University.) 'Maybe I don't write more than a line or manage more than finding just one word. But I have to attend to my poetry every day, and feel guilty if I do not.'
The poems in this collection, with their theme of enforced exile and the struggle to adapt to life in a foreign land, are the fruits of harsh political happenstance. A supporter of democratically elected President Allende, Humberto was working on a community arts programme in the mountains when Pinochet and his generals crushed the Popular Unity government's daring socialist experiment. Humberto was among the thousands rounded up, jailed, beaten and, in the worst cases, tortured, mutilated, killed or 'disappeared'. He spent ten months in prison, during which he was subjected to brutal interrogations. An international solidarity campaign managed to secure his release, along with that of many other prisoners of conscience. Friends advised Humberto and Gabriela to flee the country. They settled for a while in Mendoza, Argentina, until the political situation in that country worsened, when they sought asylum in Europe. Towards the end of 1975, they arrived in Swansea; here they have remained, apart from an interlude in Mozambique, where they worked on a community project. Their three children were born in Swansea and Cardiff: Andromeda died in infancy; Judith and Leonardo are, of course, citizens of Wales (or 'British subjects', as officialdom would have it).
Photography has been Humberto's bread and butter - he loves teaching the subject, and he has had two solo exhibitions as well as participating in many group exhibitions - but poetry has always been his first priority. The two arts inform each other. 'What they have in common, for me, is simplicity and an emphasis on the sense of beauty. Out of a great sense of solemnity in my village, comes this desire to make beauty.'
Although a long way now from Huellahue, his native locality continues to play on his imagination. 'I still have my village on my back. It's difficult to dissociate myself from that experience.' He is haunted by 'the music / of my rains / and my broken / landscapes' - a haunting made the more poignant (in the context of exile) by his use of imported touchstones, such as fireflies and lime trees, as similes and metaphors.
The wounds of exile, as these poems attest, are not easily assuaged. But surviving the trauma may have much to do with the place of refuge; Humberto is glad that, largely by accident, he and his family ended up in Swansea. The city, whose geography reminds many Chileans of Valparaiso, 'is more than a city,' he says: 'it's a collection of villages.' He is delighted that this, his first collection of poetry (although he has published many poems in magazines and anthologies), is being published in Swansea.
|Sobre el autor||Humberto Gatica (1944 - Huellahue, Panguipulli)|