The return to Uruguay
The return to Uruguay
The other society
Returning to Uruguay did not just mean the happiness of meeting again with their family and friends; the survivors also had to explain to society, and in particular to the parents and relatives of their dead friends, what had really happened up on the mountain. The new society that had been created in the Cordillera now had to merge together with "the other" dominant society, the one they had known until seventy-two days before.
When the news spread that there were survivors from the Fairchild, the hopes of relatives and friends were reborn; even those who had been more skeptical were perplexed. When the list of survivors was released, some of the families were immensely happy and others remained in deep sorrow. This divisional line of feelings opened a breach among them which deepened when the survivors confirmed that they had fed themselves with the bodies of the dead, a subject that was presented in its real depth upon the return of the group to Montevideo.
The parents and relatives who were sustained by faith, intuition, or an unbreakable hope had continued the search, even when it seemed absurd, and now, they had their reward. Even those who did not find their sons on the list of survivors had the consolation of having fought until the end and having explored all possibilities.
After Christmas in Chile, the main part of the group had improved their physical condition and they agreed with their families that it was time to return to Montevideo and to prevent any news from spreading around out of context, as had happened in the most well known Chilean newspaper.
On December 28 (ironically, the Holy Innocent's feast in the Catholic Calendar) the group traveled to Montevideo without Harley, who needed more rehabilitation days, and without Parrado and Algorta, who stayed in Santiago, Chile, hosted by some friends. As soon as the plane landed, all the passengers spontaneously sang the Uruguayan National Hymn. The great crowd that was expecting them at the Carrasco airport confirmed for them what their heroic achievement had meant for their country. To avoid being pursued by the media at the airport, it was decided that after greeting their families the survivors would be taken directly to the Stella Maris College ("the Christian") to hold a press conference. Shortly before 9:00 pm, they gathered on the great stage that had been built in the school gymnasium and were greeted with sustained applause and cheering from the present public. When the conference started there was an expectant silence and the public followed with rapt attention the stories that, one by one, the survivors told about their experiences. Each of them reflected on different moments of their collective experience. There is no doubt that the press, as well as the audience and the whole country, were focused on finally knowing how the boys had sustained themselves for such a long time. Up to that moment, apart from the Chilean newspaper, some other sensationalist media from different countries had alluded to the subject of anthropophagy and the rumors had made a strong impact in Uruguayan society, especially within the survivors' nearest circles.
On one side, there were those who supported the decision the boys had made in order to survive, and on the other side there were people who adopted a critical or condemnatory attitude. There were cases, in Montevideo in particular, in which the anthropophagic subject was taboo. Many people avoided it or ignored it, as if by not acknowledging the subject it ceased to exist. No doubt, when such an important subject is taken out of context, our culture can consider it a morally reproachable action, but in fact nobody can interpret it nor judge it without considering the limited situation in which it happened. The religious education received at the Stella Maris College allowed these young men to make parallels between the meaning of Communion and the decision they thought they naturally had to take.
An explanation of the aspects they took into account when making the decision was left for the end of the press conference, and it was Alfredo Delgado who assumed the role of representative of the group. No doubt, the contact with Father Andrés in Chile had been very important to them. He had given them peace of mind by explaining that anthropophagy "in extremis" was not condemned by the Church, confirming for them in that way that they had not committed any sin, either religiously or morally.
Words spoken by Alfredo Delgado:
"When one awakes in the morning and sees the snow capped peaks all around, it is very impressive. The silence in the Cordillera is majestic, sensational. It is something frightening to feel alone in the world… and I can assure you that God is there. We all had that feeling inside ourselves, for we were not the kind of pious youths who were always praying rosaries, at least in the ritual aspect, but we had a religious education. Up there, one feels the presence of God. One feels, above all, what is called the hand of God, and allows oneself to be guided by it… And then the moment came when we had recovered our spirits enough to go out in expedition and we did not have any more food, or anything of the kind. On the sixteenth day, the avalanche came and killed our best friends. We really think that the ones who died… God took them with him because they were better than us, because every one of our friends who died taught us something. An example of courage…of all the values that can be mentioned. I think that to put it in words is to diminish the real dimension of all that happened. We all have it inside our hearts, and to mention specific acts of courage and of greatness would reduce the significance of the whole. So I prefer not to mention them, but I wanted to make the point clear. Then, the moment came when we had nothing to eat and we thought that if Jesus at His last Supper had shared His flesh and blood with His Apostles, then it was a sign to us that we should do the same. We took this, the flesh and blood, and that was an intimate communion between us all. It was this that helped us to survive, and now we do not want this - which was for us something very intimate - to be misunderstood or twisted or anything like that. That is why, in other countries, we tried to approach the subject in as elevated a spirit as possible, and now we tell it to you, our fellow countrymen, exactly as it was. But it must be interpreted and taken in its real dimension, and you have to think how great those boys were…"
Alfredo Delgado´s words moved the whole audience so deeply that, when asked if anybody else wanted to ask a question, the public and the press representatives unanimously answered that they had none and the conference ended with effusive applause and a standing ovation.
Testimonies full of humanity and greatness
EL PAIS, Montevideo's newspaper, December 29, 1972
Moving words spoken by Dr. Valeta, the father of one of the dead boys
Several relatives of the boys who died in the Andes were present at the press conference held at the Stella Maris Christian Brothers school. "We share what they did", said Dr. Helios Valeta, referring to the words spoken by Delgado. "We are happy that there were 45 of them, because this helped at least 16 of them to return," he said. "All the parents that are in my situation understand these boys."
… In this way, with that heroic resignation, with that profound human gesture, the father of one of the boys who had died in the tragic episode accepted "absolutely all of the actions" of the 16 survivors who were able to defeat death. Some minutes before, Delgado had described the most dramatic moments that the victims had faced in order to survive. In front of them, sitting with his wife and daughters, was this human being who, with his very presence was giving his approval - maybe the only one that really mattered - for what the courageous rescued boys had done.
“I came with my family because we wanted to see all those who were the friends of my son and because we are sincerely happy to have them back among us. What is more, we are glad that there were forty-five of them, because this helped at least sixteen to return”.
“I would like to say, furthermore, that I knew from the very first moment what has been confirmed today. As a doctor I understood at once that no one could have survived in such a place and under such conditions without resorting to courageous decisions. Now that I have confirmation of what has happened, I repeat: Thank God that the 45 were there, for 16 homes have regained their children”.
After that, reaffirming every syllable of his thoughts, as if trying to eliminate every doubt about the sincerity of his words, he added:
"I cannot speak for the other parents that are in the same situation as me, but I positively know that all of them think in the same way, we are in complete agreement with what the boys did and we admire the courage they showed in overcoming death."
"The courage and loyalty of them all, and especially Delgado, who faced this press conference to tell the real story, moved me deeply. The beautiful way in which he explained it was the best homage."
Referring afterwards to his son's death, Dr. Valeta said:
"Since the very first moment my wife, my daughters and I had a feeling of resignation. Inexplicably, I had a kind of certainty that my son had died in the accident. Now that his friends told us how it occurred, I have confirmed it. It is better in this way, at least now I know that he did not suffer in agony."
At last, he criticized certain press,
"who had attacked these boys with low words and veiled reproaches. Today, I publicly challenge the representatives of those in the media to go through a similar experience. I believe the most correct attitude, the only one that fits, is for the whole press to have a merciful attitude towards these young men. We have nothing to reproach them with.”
LA MAÑANA, Montevideo´s newspaper, January 2nd, 1973
Moving tribute from a father to the Andes heroes
The letter is, for its spiritual content and for the avowal of faith it implies, evident proof that human values are something that nothing nor anybody will ever be able to defeat.
The letter was written by Arturo Nogueira and his family, whose son, named Arturo after him, was one of the young students that remained forever under the snow of the Andes, after the horrible tragedy of the Uruguayan Air Force “Fairchild”. With an invaluable spiritual greatness, these people, overcoming the loss of their beloved son, publicly stated their admiration for the sixteen young heroes who survived the disaster, and the whole letter is, as we have already said, a marvelous message of faith in the human condition.
The following is the complete text for the readers to evaluate for themselves what to us appears as something beyond praise. These are the words:
To the Editor,
I am ask you to publish the following letter in your newspaper:
In these few words, written in obedience to what is in our hearts, we wish to pay public homage, in admiration and recognition of the sixteen heroes who survived the tragedy of the Andes.
Admiration, because this is what we feel in the face of their many displays of solidarity, faith, courage and serenity, and the many obstacles which they had to face and which they overcame.
We offer recognition, profound and forever, because of the care they gave in every moment to our dear son and brother, Arturo, up to the time of his death many days after the accident.
We invite every citizen of our country to spend some minutes in meditation of the immense lesson of solidarity, courage, and discipline which has been left to us by these boys in the hope that it will serve us all to overcome our mean selfishness, excessive ambitions and our lack of interest in our brothers.
A final acknowledgement to the Stella Maris College, whose Brothers and Teachers have formed so many generations of students, sportsmen and essentially MEN of our country.
Our best wishes to the Editor thanking him in advance for the publication of this letter.
ARTURO NOGUEIRA AND FAMILY.
“The words spoken by Dr. Valeta and the letter from the Nogueira family moved me deeply and gave me great peace.
The return to Uruguay was not easy and although it may seem madness, as days went by, there were moments when I longed for the silence and the unpolluted environment of the Cordillera, the place that had allowed me to meditate for the first time in my life.
In spite of the many demonstrations of affection from my family and friends, I felt that nobody could fully understand the experience I had gone through, but with time I was able to imagine myself in their place and I understood that I would have been like them.
Fortunately, after thirty years, another gesture of humanity and greatness allowed me to fill in the empty place that the death of my great friend had left in me and to close a chapter of the Andes odyssey that had remained unfinished.”
The new society and "the other" society
The re-adaptation to society ("the other") was not an easy task. In the Cordillera, by necessity, the group had been forced to strengthen the values learned in family and at school, and to incorporate others according to the extreme circumstances of survival. The new society that had developed in the mountains had generated a new code, based on what each of them could or should give for the support of the whole group and with the aim of finding a way out.
Respect, organization, work division based on attitudes or abilities, team work, solidarity, faith, discipline and affection, were the survivors´ true support. These values started naturally appearing as days passed, because when they had taken the plane in Montevideo on October 13, no one had carried Administration or Organization handbooks onboard with them.
If there was a miracle in this story, it was the revelation each one had to discover that they were capable of doing and to find within themselves the determination to defend the most precious gift: life.
The return to Uruguay meant the challenge of making those two societies compatible: the new one and the old one.
For those who came back from the Cordillera, the time that had passed since October and December of 1972 seemed like a century. For relatives and friends, it was counted as two months and a little more. No doubt, these were two different dimensions; so different, yet both had the predominant and necessary values to live in each respective society.