In September of 1967 took place an unusual, and out of the protocol, meeting in the remote place of San Pedro de Atacama. There arrived Eduardo Frei Montalva to met its inhabitants, who requested to met with him once they learnt he was at the opening of the preliminary chores of the copper mine “La exótica” in Chuquicamata, as part of the process of Chilenización del Cobre (the acquisition of a percentage of the assets of foreign mining companies from part of the Chilean State to control). The next day, the President had to go to Antofagasta so he could return to Santiago, but Frei, the Mayor of Antofagasta and his entourage, headed to San Pedro were been welcomed by the president of the Council of the Neighborhood and Development of the place, the jesuit priest Gustavo Le Paige, to listen their demands for the development of the zone.
The ethnographer missionary
Le Paige (Tilleur, Belgium. 1903 – Santiago, Chile. 1980) was born in Tilleur, near to the university city of Liège, under the wing of an intelectual family linked to that university. His early studies were at the school “Compañía de Jesús de Charleroi”, to enter as a jesuit novice in Arlon in 1922, and was sent to the Belgian Congo in 1928 at 25 years old, the he returned to Belgium where he studied Philosophy and Theology at Catholic University of Leuven. In 1933 returned to Africa again as an itinerant missionary in Yasa’s Mission, staying 3 more years before got back to Belgium to be ordained to the priesthood. In that occasion he met, the chilean seminarian at that time, Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, who accompanied him in his ordination to return Congo for the trhird time in 1936 until 1952 as a superior in the jesuit mission of Ngi .
At Congo is where he started to develo phis interest in ethnic groups through the native african art. As the investigation of Jorge Pavez holds, for Le Paige “the study of indigenous art can help to know the relation within ‘races’ and links within the inhabitants of the different provinces, which would allow to find relationships of ‘religious dependency’among races” . The missionary held correspondence with Joseph Maes, who is in charge of the Collection of the Museum of Tervuren in Belgium, “who, from his gabinet, coordinated the ethnological belgian studies at Congo and put in order the objects that missionaries and colonial officials sent”. Along with the advice in the collection of ethnographic information of the objects, Maes collaborates in streghten and develop the figure of the “ethnograph missionary” in Le Paige, who collected a complete ethnographic work of the región of Kwango. Nevertheless, a heated dispute with the bishop of the zone regarding to “his strategic defence of native costumes”, will be the reason of his exit of the mission by Vatican’s order along his ecclesiasticals superiors .
After the resolution of the SS, he is sent along his Order to Chile to work with A.Hurtado arriving in 1953 . As he told: “Father Alberto Hurtado has died on August 18 of 1952 without our knowledge or better said, without letting me know, making me think I was sent to Chile for helping him!!?” . Designated to Chuquicamata in 1954, the missionary has no reached to fully integrate this mining town. Towards March of 1955 he discovered San Pedro de Atacama and requested to be transfered there to be in charge of the parish church where he lived for the rest of his life.
Le Paige in San Pedro de Atacama
Since his arrival to San Pedro de Atacama, Le Paige started to walk around the surroundings of the town’s highlands, getting to know al the region in few years. The origin of his interest in local archaeology is not posible to know clearly, because he contributed to this confusion by telling diverse versions of this discovery: “One day I was painting in the middle of the desert, because I always liked painting very much, when I noticed something protruding from the earth, digging like a madman when I found a tomb with two bodies” . Year later, in a press conference carried out in Santiago in October of 1967, he told: “I was walking with some kids when I found skulls; I took them and made the first examination. I handle one to each kid whitout realizing their shocked faces while I was looking for more; so, I had every kid with one skull. I explained them the differences between
dolichocephalic and brachycephalic ones, as they could understand; then, I saved and kept them. The news spread through the town and, at once frightened and joking, I was going to be known at the priest that buries the living and unearth the death” .
The stories coincide in the eventful finding of the pieces, being the beginning of his contact and approach to the culture of Atacama because of his continuous excavations, and he was also able to develop at the same time his pastoral and priestly work. The experience of the “ethnograph missionary” gained in Africa allowed him a quick proximity with the highlanders. As Horacio Larraín explains: “His great familiarity and harmony with the actual people of Atacama –the distant relatives of an archaeological long ago- through the inner circle of his assistants of the field and their families, and thanks to the frequent charitable visits to the families more distanced from the center of San Pedro, arrive to their humble huts in his ramshackle jeep allowed him to collect traditions, non written stories, narratives or pieces of information of the highest ethnologic an scientific value”.
Meeting with the President
The meeting of these two figures in San Pedro it was not coincidental. The biographer Lautaro Núñez use Le Paige’s words as slogan: “Everything that happens in San Pedro concerns and predispose and meet the procedures and actions” , remarking in his personality, a self- sufficient style to achieve his interests. An example of that is when he wrote in September of 1965 to the President Frei about the necessity of decorate mister Saturnino Flores for his outstanding “heroism and sacrifice” in his rescue work in the light of the storms in the highlands to which he responds: “I’ve received your polite letter on 7th of this month and I have taken notes of your comments…I think is an accurate idea to honor mister Flores with an special award as a recognition to his humanitarian spirit, and if I visit the zone I would be very please to do it. In any case, I let you know promptly” .
In that way, it is hardly surprising that Le Paige has been the main speaker as President of the “Junta de Adelanto” when Frei visits the place the morning of the 27th of September, an opportunity in which he was welcomed by the children of the School of San Pedro de Atacama, the inhabitants of the community of Toconao, Socaire and Talabre, who participated in this historical visit could be find in the photographic records kept at Casa Museo Eduardo Frei Montalva. Le Paige gave Frei a memorándum with the issues that affected the locality to achieve the development and progress it needed, as drinking water, a hospital or the School “Granja de San Pedro” which was requested before in 1939, by the inhabitants, to the President Pedro Aguirre Cerda but it was opened in 1967.
Given this, the visit of the President was considered the opening of the school. Frei also was given several typical objects of the zone of the inhabitants of Toconao, made of volcanic rocks while Le Paige “gave him two objects which belonged to an ancient civilization that once lived in the zone”.
Le Paige remarked the milestone of the first visit of a President to San Pedro. Frei told: “He has said that in more than 400 years of existence of this town- from where Chile conquerors emerged, here started maybe in this same square, of that corner- is the first time a President of Chile come to greet them and, naturally, for me this is reason for satisfaction. Is useless to give an opinion about something if it is not being seen with own eyes. Now we have seen each other with our eyes: we have met. You have earned little by knowing me, but I, by knowing you, a lot; because now, when you let me know your problems I’m not just thinking in a phrase, a name, intead I am saying that something can be done to help this children, men, women and their sons and daughters that have been here in this peaceful square, talkinf with their President, because I am the President of all of you”.
Frei and Le Paige visited the church of San Pedro. That picture was the cover of the edition of “El Mercurio de Antofagasta” and one of its original copies, along with the registers of that meeting, is part of the Photographic Archive of Casa Museo. Likewise, the missionary showed the facilities of the Archaeological Museum which was opened in1957 in the parish house, and with the support of Universidad Católica del Norte, the first section was opened in 1963 . When the meeting in San Pedro ended, Le Paige asked the President EFM to be received the next month in Santiago because he would be visiting embassies there and given conferences and speeches. Also during the visit to the locality, Frei visited the facilities of the Hostel of San Pedro, at that time, part of the Hotelera Nacional S.A. , as a way to support the incipient domestic turism.
Le Paige in Santiago
In October of 1967, Le Paige started a number of visits at domestic level to spread and place value on the collection of Archaeological Museum of San Pedro de Atacama, letting it know in Talca, where there is a conference, while in Santiago he gave talks. Moreover, he started to contact embassies to make them to meet the promises of help to the community of San Pedro. In this manner, on Friday 7th of October in 1967, Le Paige is welcomed at Palacio de la Moneda, where he gave back the visit the President made during his tour on September in the north. Along with the exposition of the issues that concerned the locality, Le Paige requested resources for the museum achieving a “serious commitment in supporting the Museum” on the part of the President, this allowed the construction of the second section of the building, opened in 1968 along with the Archaeology Pan- American Congress which he organized in parallel .
After the visit of EFM in Santiago, Le Paige met with the owner of Editorial Orbe with the purpose of a signing for an agreement for the edition of his books in english and spanish. “Industrias Líticas de Atacama” (Lytic Industries of Atacama), is part of Frei’s library co- published with Universidad del Norte . He also offered a press conference at the publishing house when knew the novelty Le Paige represented and his advances. The press was already remarking how through the study of the skulls and stones he made known the importance of the altiplanic town along with unravel the “social archaeology” of the community of San Pedro: “I have 125 mummies there; I have examined about four thousand tombs and 30 unihabitated and destroyed villages…I never found in my life such an anciently democratic town as San Pedro de Atacama. Every year on the same date, in a rotary way, they distribute charges from the more to the less important. I never found a grave that revealed the existence of chiefs or dignitaries, they could be rich or poor and even poorer, but equal at any time”.
On July 14th of 1972 , as a recognition for his contribution to the national culture, Le Paige was conceded the chilean nationality by grace and to his final days he stayed living and working in San Pedro de Atacama. Two months before his death, in May of 1980, when Frei knew the state of health of Le Paige, he wrote a brief letter which expressed, again, his friendliness and the possibility to meet once again. The contribution of the Belgian missionary to de development and progress of the locality of San Pedro de Atacama is undeniable, because since his arrival in 1955 until his death he, “collected about 375 thousand objects, discovered more than a hundred archaeological sites, around 40 villages in ruins, dug more than 3 thousand graves and and estimate of 50 graveyards”. So, in just 25 years he could position this remote locality as one of the most important national archaeological centers, along with an extense collection that is kept, nowadays, in Museo Arqueológico Gustavo Le Paige, a place that safeguards this invaluable national heritage.