The midnight fireworks on June 7 eve seemed to recreate the battle that decided the fate of two cities: Tacna, Peru, and Arica, Chile. The sky above El Morro was ablaze with rockets, marking Arica’s anniversary. Not of its founding, but rather when it ceased being a Peruvian city and became Chilean in 1880. This was the day the Battle of Arica was wrought on the heights of El Morro, bringing an end to the War of the Pacific.
Once upon a time, Peru extended as far south as Iquique. Bolivia claimed Antofagasta as its territory. This entire region was rich in nitrates, a mineral essential in the making of 19th-century agricultural fertilizers and gunpowder. British and US companies, which administered most of the salitre mines, hoped Chile would give them more favorable, laissez-faire concessions. For this reason, they promoted the war Chile declared against Peru and Bolivia in 1879.
At the war’s end, the Treaty of Ancón turned administration of the entire zone to Chile, with the proviso that a plebiscite election would be held after 10 years to allow Arica and Tacna to decide to which country they would belong: Chile or Peru. Chile would not allow the referendum to occur until 1929.
Arica decided to stay with Chile. Tacna’s residents voted to return to Peru. Thus that city’s nickname: The Heroic City. The historic vote is celebrated in that southern Peruvian town every August 28.
In these past few months, I have had opportunities to learn more about those missing 50 years of history between the end of the war and the plebiscite. The story of the region’s Chilenization, hidden for several generations, is now being told.
In Arequipa, native-son writer Oswaldo Reynoso started his presentation with a story pulled from his family’s past. His parents grew up in Chile-controlled Tacna where the Patriotic League threatened anyone who supported Tacna’s return to Peru. One morning dawned with his father’s door marked by the League—a sign to leave or be killed. He left for Bolivia, seeking refuge there. A few months later, his girlfriend’s door was similarly marked. She and her family had to leave by ship for Peru. Many years later, the two wayward lovers met again in Arequipa.
This history is now also being revealed in Arica. During the monthly tour of the city’s cemetery (last Wednesday of the month, 9 p.m.; free), the guide told us of the people who lay in the late-19th and early 20th century tombs. Some were Europeans that immigrated to the city, as part of the Chilenization of the region. When the referendum would finally be held, their votes would assuredly go for Chile. Some of the people in the more humble graves, however, were victims of the Liga Patriótica and its reign of terror.
The Chilenization of Arica continues to this day. So claimed the guide of the city’s Oficina Municipal de Gestión Patrimonial who led us around downtown. The tour began inside the municipality building (Calle Sotomayor and Calle Baquedano) where remains of the 16th-century San Juan de Dios church are. In the parking lot behind the municipalidad are the ruins of the nave. As we wandered to the old Arica-La Paz railroad station and other historic buildings, he recounted how the national government won’t release funds to help Arica preserve any edifices dating from Peruvian times. Many of them are slated to be demolished, to make way for shopping centers, private clinics and parking lots—even if they have historical significance, like hosting saint-in-the-making Beato Alberto Hurtado. “It’s as if they are erasing any traces of Peru,” the guide said.
As the couples dance—scarves fluttering, spurs jangling in rhythm to the music—in the national cueca competition in Arica, the Guerra del Pacífico’s aftereffects continue to be felt until this day. With Chile’s victory, Bolivia lost its access to the sea. Once again, Bolivia will be presenting to international courts its complaint of non-compliance of the treaties that guarantees it access to Pacific ports. Reportedly, after more than two decades of inactivity, the Arica-La Paz will be back on line later this year—but only cargo service. Perhaps this promise will finally be fulfilled.