August 5, 2004

witchy woman

Doña Albana’s shoes are pointy, her nose crooked, her face a contour map forged by decades of isolation and hard labor. On these short winter days she tends her chickens, gathers herbs, spins wool, knits and sews. All the while it pours. I visited her in her shack beside Patagonia’s Route 235, the principal road snaking up the fertile Palena valley to the divide of the Andes and the Argentine border.

She has plunked down roadside because after a lifetime pioneering one of the most isolated sectors of Patagonia, walking five miles to the bus, crossing rivers on footbridges and climbing steep hills, wasn’t longer comfortable. This area has been historically cut off from the rest of Chile, separated by sea and land thick with mountains and rushing rivers. It was most easily accessed via Argentina, and many of its Chilean colonists first came that way.

Doña Albana was five years old when she made the trip in 1933 over the Rio Encuentro pass. In those days kids didn’t have boots, her feet were shod in raw calfskin wrapped over wool stockings. The Reyes were returning from a stint in the more prosperous Argentina, having suffered as emigrees. Through the Aysen Law of Colonization they received a land grant of 500 hectares. The trick was it was land completely isolated, unaccessible by roads, steeped in vegetation and moated by rushing rivers. They arrived with a pair of horses, ten sheep, 25 goats and two oxcarts. They settled in “El Diablo” named for the cloven hoofprints found throughout the area.

They slept on saddles in a lona (animal skin tent). Albana was the oldest of five; then came Estela, Prosperina, Euteria, Facundo.

Two things strike me about Palena. One is that its citizens, the pioneers, have achieved incredible longevity. I met one centenarian while there and heard of two others who died not long before at the ages of 105 and 110.

The other is the relatively unrecognized truth that the foundations of this society was its women. While the men worked in argentina for months on end it was the women who worked the fields, tended the animals and raised the children. The women have big strong hands. Rings didn’t fit well on even the younger women. They kneaded bread, rolling it out with a winebottle, washed clothes, spun wool, built stock fences.

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