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For more than half a century, the people of Easter Island lived under an oppressive colonial regime. Then a schoolteacher sparked an unlikely revolution.  

‘We Wish to Be Able to Sing’

By Mike Damiano

The Atavist Magazine, No. 122


Mike Damiano is a contributing editor at Boston magazine and the author of Porque la vida no basta (Because Life Is Not Enough), a biography of Spanish painter Miquel Barceló. Listen to him discuss this story on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tanya Sandler
Illustrator: Sally Deng

Published in December 2021.

SECRET

TO: VALPARAISO

FROM: EASTER

… THE SUBVERSIVE MOVEMENT IS MUCH MORE SERIOUS AND GRAVE THAN BELIEVED ON THE CONTINENT … THE SCHOOLTEACHER IS PREPARED TO GIVE HIS LIFE TO WIN FREEDOM … TO AVOID FATAL CONSEQUENCES URGENTLY SEND A SHIP TO RESTORE ORDER

Chapter One

No one in the Rapu household could sleep. It was early March 1955, and in the family’s three-room home in the hills above the village of Hanga Roa, Reina Haoa busied herself sewing clothes. Her husband, Elías, paced. The couple’s four eldest boys—Alfonso, Carlos, Sergio, and Rafael—huddled together in the living room watching their parents worry. There was not much to say. In the morning, 12-year-old Alfonso would leave Easter Island on a cargo ship called the Pinto. He would travel to the port city of Valparaíso, Chile. His parents could not tell him when he’d return home or when he might see them again, because they did not know. They also could not tell him much about where he was going. Neither of them had seen land beyond Easter Island’s shores.

The Pinto came once a year to deliver basic supplies: soap, flour, sugar, fabric. For the Rapanui, the annual arrival was bittersweet. Though other ships occasionally visited the island, they brought few if any of the necessities needed to sustain life. By the time the Pinto came in late summer, the pantries of Rapanui families were bare. Construction projects had stalled for lack of materials. The Pinto, the Rapanui’s only regular physical contact with the outside world, brought relief.

But for many, the ship’s arrival also provoked a simmering sense of dread. Along with supplies, the Pinto brought disease. Each year, in the weeks after the ship unloaded, kokongo—a catchall term for whatever germs the Chilean sailors were carrying—swept through Hanga Roa. It was common for kokongo to infect as much as half the population. By the time it abated, it usually had left several families grieving.

There was no one to complain to about these epidemics, at least no one who would listen. For several decades, the authorities on Easter Island had been foreigners who represented their own interests by keeping the Rapanui under their thumb. In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast, centered on Hanga Roa. A network of fences known as the Wall, built by Rapanui men for menial wages, kept them there. Passage beyond the Wall—to visit ancestral lands, to explore or cultivate the countryside, or to leave the island entirely—was only possible with written permission from the island’s governor.

Over the decades, some Rapanui managed to leave the island, usually by taking jobs on the mainland with the Chilean military. Others resorted to more desperate measures. Some built rafts and set off over the horizon for Tahiti. A few of them made it, navigating the thousands of miles of ocean between Easter Island and French Polynesia by the stars. But the great majority—dozens of men—vanished in the vast Pacific.

Reina and Elías were born within the Wall, like their parents before them and their children after. There had been no way for them to leave. Their family grew almost every year, until Alfonso was the eldest of 11. He played soccer with friends and attended school most days. Like other young Rapanui children, he also spent long hours on his family’s plot of land, cultivating taro and sweet potatoes. Since there was no running water in Hanga Roa—and no ponds, streams, or lakes—the Rapu family collected rainwater in a cistern. It sometimes fell to Alfonso to skim the dead bugs and mold off the water’s surface.

There were other things—more brutal ones—that Alfonso accepted as normal at the time but would haunt him later. At the schoolhouse, nuns who delivered lessons in Spanish, a language their students barely understood, punished children with canes. At home, Elías was a menace. He chased Reina through the house and hit her. The children usually cowered; when they tried to intervene, Elías struck them. Domestic violence was endemic in Hanga Roa. A peaceful home was the outlier.

There were other horrors, including the constant threat of leprosy. When telltale sores appeared, breaking out on a temple, a forearm, or a bald scalp, the afflicted person was removed from the village and quarantined permanently at the island’s leper colony, at the base of the Terevaka volcano. When Alfonso was a child, his uncle worked at the colony, and sometimes brought him along to help. He got to know the place and the people condemned to live there. One man, Gabriel Hereveri, who had lost both hands and an eyelid to the disease, befriended Alfonso and told him stories of life on the island before the Wall went up, when the Rapanui were still free.

Alfonso had never seriously contemplated a life beyond the island. To the extent that he thought about his future at all, he imagined it taking place within the Wall. But Reina hoped for more. When she learned of a new program for educating Rapanui children in Chile—a humanitarian effort organized by the government—she lobbied her brother, who worked for the Navy, to ask his supervisors for a favor. Could they get her eldest son onto the list?

The supervisors said yes. Reina only found out the night before Alfonso was scheduled to depart on the Pinto.

The next morning, Alfonso and his parents went to Hanga Piko cove, where local fishermen launched their boats. The three gathered by the water’s edge, alongside 11 other children and their parents. Like Alfonso, these children, ranging in age from 12 to 15, were set to depart for Chile. They would be placed in boarding schools or with host families and enter the Chilean education system. They were the second cohort to participate in the program, and their families considered it a privilege.

Alfonso hugged his mother, who was weeping. When he turned to his father, he found that Elías was crying as well, which unsettled him.

Alfonso knew in a technical sense that he would board a ship, that the ship would sail over the horizon, and that he would disembark in a new land. But he had no ability to picture Valparaíso, a modern city of 400,000 people. He could not conceive of a journey of 2,300 miles, the distance to Chile, when the greatest expanse he had ever reckoned with was 14 miles on Easter Island—from the Poike Peninsula in the east to Rano Kau, a volcano, in the west.

Aboard the Pinto, he stood on the aft deck. As the ship shuddered and began motoring east, he kept his eyes fixed on Easter Island. For a couple of hours it receded. Then it disappeared over the horizon. All he could see was water. He broke down and sobbed.

In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast.

Valparaíso came into view on the seventh day of the journey. As the Pinto approached, the city seemed to rise up over the ship. One of the busiest and richest ports in the Western hemisphere, Valparaíso buzzed with the activity of industrial cranes, thousands of car and truck engines, and the constant interchange of sailing ships, tankers, and tug boats. Ten-story towers and hulking neocolonial government buildings stood on the flat land at the water’s edge. The rest of the city—wealthy neighborhoods of Victorian houses and poor slums of multi-colored shanties—clung to the coastline’s steep hills, which residents ascended via funiculars.

Alfonso Rapu took in the staggering sight from the Pinto’s deck. He was about to set foot in a new world.

After a train ride over the foothills of the Andes, he arrived at a boarding school in downtown Santiago de Chile, a dense urban hub that was home to the president’s sprawling mansion and the headquarters of Chile’s banks and copper-mining corporations. The next several months were lonely and difficult. Rapu lived in a dormitory full of bunk beds, which during the week were occupied by children but sat empty on weekends; most students returned home to their families then, leaving Rapu alone. Yet even on weekdays he was isolated. He barely spoke Spanish. When teachers called on him in class, his speech was halting and accented. His classmates snickered and called him indio—Indian—a pejorative for anyone with non-European blood.

A 26-year-old social worker, Guacolda Zamorano, noticed Rapu at the school and worried over him. On weekdays, she checked on him during her breaks. On Friday afternoons, she left him with enough home-cooked meals to feed him through the weekend. Still, Zamorano felt she wasn’t doing enough. In the evenings, at her house in a suburban neighborhood, she talked to her husband, Manuel Nova, about Rapu. The boy needed more help, she said. He needed a home.

Early in the winter of 1955, Zamorano instructed Rapu to pack his things. She told her husband that the boy would be living with them for a while. He stayed for nearly nine years.

Rapu was given his own bedroom, a new wardrobe of chinos, button-downs, and loafers, and a makeshift family. Zamorano became, in every meaningful sense, Rapu’s second mother. She was warmer than Reina, who had always been protective of her children but came from a culture that tended not to shower them with affection. Children were liabilities and laborers; they were expected to fend for themselves and contribute what they could. Rapu had sometimes felt like a piece of property, particularly when his parents loaned him to the neighbors in exchange for an ox. The neighbors used Rapu for a day of labor in their field, while Reina and Elías used the beast to plow theirs. No one thought anything of the arrangement; it seemed like a square deal. But now that Rapu had seen something else—another life, another way to be a child—the memory rankled.

Zamorano tutored him in Spanish, and he made steady progress. Within a few years, he spoke the language fluently. He strove to catch up in other subjects, too. Every morning as he walked to the bus, he added up the numbers on his neighbors’ mailboxes to practice arithmetic. At school he started sitting in the first row of desks, focusing his attention on the teacher to help him ignore his classmates’ taunts, until finally, gratifyingly, they stopped.

As Rapu grew, his station among his classmates changed. By the age of 16, he had transformed; the scrawny child had become tall, muscular, and handsome. He was a capable soccer player and charming, with a winning smile and a quiet sense of humor. He had girlfriends. One summer he befriended the daughters of senator Salvador Allende. He spent afternoons with the Allendes by their pool. Once he even wore the future president’s swimming trunks.

For the first time in his life, Rapu had options, opportunities, and frivolous diversions—he had developed a weakness for orange Fanta. But in the midst of bourgeois bliss, something gnawed at him. He had not forgotten where he came from, and in a cruel way, the more comfortable he became in Santiago, the more distressed he felt whenever he thought of his family back on Easter Island.

One summer day in 1958, Rapu boarded the Pinto again in Valparaíso. He was headed home for his first visit since leaving the island three years earlier. After a weeklong journey, Rapu looked out over Hanga Roa bay as the ship’s crew dropped anchor. In the water below, he saw Rapanui men in white button-front shirts paddling fishing boats out to greet the Pinto’s sailors. This was a Rapanui custom that dated back centuries. When Dutch explorers first happened upon the island, men in canoes greeted them.

Rapu had watched this ritual from shore in his childhood. He knew these men; he had called some of them koro, a term of endearment that means “grandfather” in Rapanui. But now, as they approached the ship, he was startled by their appearance. He remembered them as strong and vital; these men looked hollowed out.

On shore, his parents and siblings greeted him. Reina and Elías looked unchanged, but his brothers and sisters were all new versions of themselves, some taller, some wider, some thinner. He had a week to spend with his family, the time it would take the Pinto to unpack its supplies and load up the annual production of wool from the sheep ranch that foreigners managed in the island’s interior. He spent most of his days with his brothers Carlos, Rafael, and Sergio. They had been his closest allies during his childhood, and he had missed them fiercely. But now that they were reunited, Rapu felt a distance between them that was difficult to bridge. When they asked him what life was like in Santiago, he didn’t know what to say. How could he explain attending soccer matches at Santiago’s 40,000-seat stadium? What could he tell his brothers, who were confined by the Wall, about weekends spent at his host family’s country cottage? What bothered him most, though, was that his brothers thought they were fine, that life on the island didn’t need to change. He had thought the same thing before he left.

Back in Santiago, Rapu spent long nights awake, staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, worrying about his brothers. As he neared adulthood, he also contemplated his future: which profession to pursue, where to live, what to make of his life. He decided to become a teacher.

As he neared university graduation in the early 1960s, Rapu considered various teaching positions—in Santiago, in the Lakes Region of southern Chile, and even one, offered through a U.S. State Department program, that would provide educational opportunities in the United States. But he could not push from his mind the circumstances of his brothers and the rest of the Rapanui. He had begun to wonder if there was something he could do to help.

He was still considering his options when he returned to Easter Island a second time, in 1962, and made a terrible discovery. The Rapanui community had suffered yet another trauma, and this one struck close to home.

In 1888, a Chilean delegation landed at Hanga Roa bay. They had come to lay claim to the island, one of the last uncolonized territories in Polynesia. There was a reason European powers had passed it over. It was distant from everything: 4,400 miles from New Zealand, 2,600 miles from Tahiti, 4,500 miles from Hawaii, and more than 2,000 miles from the South American ports of Valparaíso and Callao, in Peru. The island also seemed to hold little economic potential. The land was dry and hard to cultivate. There were no natural resources to speak of. And the population was too small—the number of Rapanui had dwindled to fewer than 200 by the time the Chilean delegation came—to be exploited as a labor force.

To Chile, though, the island had special value. Since the country had won its independence from Spain, it had strived to establish itself as a modern Western power. Chile’s elite—Spaniards and Italians with few familial ties to indigenous Americans—were expansionists and industrialists. They had turned the country into a mining behemoth and pushed its national boundaries south to the tip of the continent, taking land from the Mapuche people as they went, and north into territory seized from Bolivia and Peru. Now they were looking west. They wanted an offshore colony, a hallmark of the European powers they emulated. Easter Island was the best—really the only—option.

The leader of the 1888 delegation was a Navy captain named Policarpo Toro Hurtado, who was intent on colonizing the island. He had taken his case directly to the president, leaning on a combination of hyperbole and fantasy. In a report, he wrote that the island’s “fertile shores” would become Chile’s “Oasis in the Ocean,” even though the soil was volcanic and nearly barren. He claimed that the island lay in transpacific shipping lanes, which would make it a valuable stopover; in fact, Easter Island was hundreds of miles out of the way. The president had no way to verify what Toro said and didn’t care to. Now Toro had arrived to seize Easter Island for his people.

Chile’s first act of treachery on Easter Island was its first act of any kind there. Toro had brought with him two documents—one in Spanish, the other in a hybrid of Rapanui and Tahitian, the latter of which was commonly used in legal documents in the Pacific. The papers were intended to lay out an agreement between the Chilean government and native leaders. But the two texts didn’t match. The Rapanui and Tahitian words described a congenial alliance: Chile would become Easter Island’s protector and “friend of the land.” But the Spanish text said something altogether different. It stated that the Rapanui would cede the “full and entire sovereignty” of Easter Island to Chile, “forever and without reservation.” In front of Hanga Roa’s Catholic church, beneath a flagpole flying both the Chilean and Rapanui flags, the island’s king, Atamu Tekena, and a dozen other local leaders signed the Rapanui-Tahitian document with crosses drawn in black ink.

When Toro sailed off, he left behind three Chilean families. They were to be the first Chilean settlers on Easter Island, the foundation for the new colony that Toro envisioned. But things did not go as planned. The settlers’ crops failed, and they discovered that the only reservoir of fresh water on the island was inside the crater of Rano Kau, a four-mile climb up from Hanga Roa. They refused to ask for help from the Rapanui. After a disastrous year, two of the families abandoned the island, fleeing on a Chilean battleship. The third stayed behind but soon died. And just like that, Chile’s dream of a thriving colony in the Pacific collapsed.

Chile soon developed a case of buyer’s remorse and sought to offload its new territory. The Easter Island Exploitation Company, a joint British-Chilean venture, was glad to oblige. Under the terms of its long-term lease, the Company, as the Rapanui came to call it, could do as it pleased with the island and its people. Within a decade, the Company had confined the Rapanui, and leprosy, which had arrived with the Chileans, was spreading within the community.

In the summer of 1898, the Rapanui’s new king, Riro, marched to the Company’s island headquarters, a one-floor house with a wraparound balcony on a bluff outside Hanga Roa. Riro carried with him a list of grievances. He met with the Company’s manager, a Chilean named Alberto Sánchez Manterola, and demanded better pay and working conditions for the Rapanui men employed at the Company’s sheep ranch. When Sánchez refused, Riro asked for passage to Valparaíso. He wanted to appeal to higher authorities. Fine, Sánchez said—if he wished, Riro could even meet with the president of Chile.

A few weeks later, Riro departed for Valparaíso aboard the annual supply ship. He never returned. Nor did he ever meet with the president in Santiago. Upon Riro’s arrival, a Chilean employee of the Company took him drinking in Valparaíso’s taverns. The next day, the king died in a Navy hospital. The official cause of death was alcohol poisoning. The Rapanui, when they learned his fate, concluded that it had been poisoning of another kind. But no one would ever know for sure: Chilean Navy personnel dumped Riro’s body in an unmarked grave.

Riro’s death ended the first effort by the Rapanui to make their grievances heard in Chile. In the following decades, the government largely ignored Easter Island. Every ten years or so, a report about goings-on there, written by a passing explorer or a shipwrecked sailor, would make its way into the Chilean press. The dispatches described bleak conditions: crushing poverty, harsh discipline, disease. Next came a flurry of concern, often from Chile’s more humanitarian-minded Catholics: newspaper editorials, vows by politicians to aid the pascuenses (the Spanish term for the Rapanui), and recriminations against the Company. In 1947, a group of Chileans formed the Society of Friends of Easter Island to advocate for better conditions for the Rapanui. Members of the society lobbied the government to evict the Company from the island. In 1952, Chile did just that.

In the Company’s place, Chile installed the Navy. Now, instead of a corporate manager ruling the island and overseeing the sheep ranch, there was a naval governor. Usually a young captain looking for adventure, the governor served a term of one or two years, and he lived at Mataveri, the bluff outside Hanga Roa, in the same house the Company manager had occupied. During his tenure, the governor had total control over the island: He was ranch manager, police chief, mayor, judge, and jury.

How the Rapanui fared from one year to the next depended almost entirely on the current governor’s temperament. Some governors—the better ones—focused on ranch operations and mostly left the Rapanui to themselves. Others were cruel. In 1961, a particularly brutal governor arrived. A tall, fair-haired Chilean of British descent, John Martin viewed the Rapanui as disobedient charges who needed to be kept under control. Like the worst of his predecessors, he ordered his men to shave women’s heads as a form of discipline and locked men in the House of Stone, a small, square jailhouse that looked like a medieval castle in miniature. Martin let it be known that he would not hesitate to use violence as punishment for insubordination.

By the time Martin took command of Easter Island, Alfonso Rapu had been in Santiago for a few years. His brothers were now young men. Carlos, in particular, had undergone a dramatic change. At 15, he was the island’s star athlete. Fast and muscular, he was formidable on the soccer pitch. He was also a fitness buff. When he wasn’t playing soccer, he ran sprints. The Navy’s dentist on the island, a lieutenant named Julio Flores, took notice. Flores also passed his time working out—what else was there to do on Easter Island? Soon, Flores and Carlos were training together.

Reina and Elías were pleased. It was always good to have Chilean friends, who had access to better food and coveted goods, such as fabric and lumber. Once, Flores gifted the Rapus a radio, so they could listen to music on the island’s lone station. A relationship with a Chilean could also offer protection; the authorities were less likely to mete out capricious punishments to a Navy man’s friend.

Flores was charming, kind, and solicitous. His only quirk was that he disapproved of Carlos’s relationships with girls. When Carlos started dating a classmate, Flores complained to Reina that her son was spending too much time away from home, with his girlfriend. Reina figured Flores was just a traditional type who disapproved of frivolous romance.

But then strange things started happening. Once, Flores invited Carlos to go with him to Anakena, a beach beyond the Wall. Carlos jumped at the opportunity. But when he returned and Reina asked him about the excursion, he withdrew to his room and changed clothes. When she asked what was going on, he wouldn’t give an explanation. Another time, at a party, Flores hugged Carlos in a way that made the teenager uncomfortable and Carlos snapped at him. Later, Carlos told Hanga Roa’s mayor that Flores was a homosexual.

When John Martin heard of the accusation, the governor ordered his men to lock Carlos in the House of Stone. Here was an indio smearing the reputation of a Navy man; the governor wouldn’t stand for it. Carlos’s crime was lying. The next day, Martin’s men dragged Carlos out and beat him with a baton, just a few hundred feet from the Hanga Roa market, in full view of passersby.


Rapu’s visit to the island, shortly thereafter, would prove to be even more impactful than the first. His family told him what had happened to his brother, and Carlos showed him the wounds from the beating.

Back in Santiago, Rapu was haunted by the image of his brother’s scarred back and by the question of what he should do. He looked for answers in the university library, reading newspaper clippings about revolutions and civil rights movements around the world. He borrowed a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, whose model of anti-colonialism—nonviolence combined with an inclusive form of nationalism—especially appealed to him. There were people elsewhere who had been oppressed and then freed, or who had freed themselves. Why not the Rapanui?

In 1963, after Rapu had completed his studies, the Ministry of Education appointed him to serve as Hanga Roa’s schoolteacher. He would be the first Rapanui to fill the role, if he accepted the post. Rapu decided he would. He did not want to make a life for himself in Chile or the United States; he wanted to return home. A few months later, in January 1964, he boarded the cargo ship bound for Easter Island. This time, his passage was one-way.

Chapter Two

Rapu moved into his parents’ house and started making a new life for himself. Every morning, he walked out of the hills to the schoolhouse in the village center, where he gave lessons in Spanish and math. His students included both Rapanui and Chileans—the children of Navy officers and government functionaries. The students loved him. He taught bilingually so the Rapanui students wouldn’t fall behind. He connected with the Chileans by sharing stories from his life in Santiago. He was different from his predecessors in never striking his students. He considered himself a pacifist.

Rapu ate lunch with the nuns who ran the schoolhouse. They were not the nuns of his youth. These were young women in their twenties and thirties, and they became some of Rapu’s closest friends on the island. After almost a decade in Santiago, he felt that he had more in common with them than with his fellow Rapanui. The nuns could speak about politics and world events. Rapu was grateful for the camaraderie, but it pained him that he couldn’t find the same bond with the men and women he had grown up with, however hard he tried. When he tried to strike up conversations about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the fractious politics of mainland Chile, his Rapanui friends steered the conversation back toward familiar ground: fishing, the harvest, village gossip.

Rapu came to realize that he no longer fully belonged anywhere. He had been a foreigner in Santiago, and now he was an outsider on Easter Island.

He decided that the best thing he could do was educate people, and he wasn’t only thinking about children. If circumstances were going to improve for the Rapanui, he believed, they had to be literate in Spanish. Colonizers had deployed written language against the Rapanui from the beginning, when Policarpo Toro Hurtado used it to deceive the king. It was the secret code that had enabled generations of Company managers, in their frequent reports and telegrams, to represent themselves to the Chilean government as benevolent and responsible caretakers. Even visitors who had meant well—explorers and scientists, mostly—had described island life in their own terms, leaving the Rapanui voiceless before the wider world.

So in the evening, after the children went home, Rapu opened the schoolhouse to adults for literacy classes. These were well-attended, rowdy affairs. Fishermen, farmers, and homemakers packed the rows of desks. Rapu wrote Spanish words on the chalkboard and called on people to read them. When someone made a mistake, the class heckled them, but the mood was collegial. The adult students, Rapu saw, were like family to one another.

After class he trudged over the hills, exhausted, and collapsed into bed. During his first few months back home, this was all he did: fish, teach, and sleep. Was it what he had come back to do? Perhaps. But was it enough?


While Rapu settled into his routine, another young man, Jorge Portilla, was establishing his own domain at Mataveri. Portilla was the island’s new naval governor, replacing John Martin. He had arrived just two months before Rapu, in November 1963, accompanied by his wife and three young children.

There was no special reason that Portilla was chosen for the role. A third-generation Navy man, Portilla had joined the service as soon as he was able. Now 34, he had risen to the rank of captain. When he heard that the Navy was looking for applicants to serve as governor of Easter Island, he thought he would give it a go. He had always found the distant colony intriguing. Here was his chance to see it, and to have one last adventure before settling into midlife.

During their first months on the island, Portilla and his wife held court at Mataveri, hosting barbecues primarily for Chilean officials, though sometimes they invited Rapanui. Portilla joined the Navy soccer team—he played goalie—which consisted of officers and their Rapanui employees. On weekends, they faced off against Rapanui teams.

Portilla was a less fearsome leader than Martin had been. Under his administration there were no Navy-sanctioned beatings or head shavings. But he wasn’t a reformer. He was a paternalistic authoritarian. No Rapanui could go beyond the Wall or leave the island without his written permission. In Portilla’s view, this was how things should be.

Every Monday morning, dozens of Rapanui men amassed outside the front door of Portilla’s office in downtown Hanga Roa. They wore work clothes and milled about, waiting. To an outsider they might have looked like day laborers hoping to secure an honest wage. But here the men knew they would not be paid. They were partaking in a ritual known as State Mondays, the polite term used to describe weekly forced labor sessions.

Eventually, Portilla walked out his front door, stood on the building’s single step, and assessed the crowd. Then he broke them into several groups and gave orders for the day. Some Rapanui would do road repair work. Others would mend fences or storm damage to Navy buildings. The tasks varied according to the needs and whims of Portilla and his men.

Occasionally, the Rapanui grumbled about the work. Though technically any resistance was grounds for imprisonment, Portilla instead offered the men a brief pep talk. The labor was for the good of their own community, he said; the Rapanui were improving the island for themselves. His comments never addressed how exactly spending a Monday afternoon gardening in a Navy official’s yard for no money would help any Rapanui.

Rapu was exempt from State Mondays, as were all Rapanui men who had jobs at Navy headquarters or on the sheep ranch. But the sight of his friends, uncles, and cousins trudging to Portilla’s office every Monday distressed him. It wasn’t dignified, he thought, to be forced to work under threat of imprisonment. Rapu was reminded of how he had felt on his first visit home from Santiago, that something here was not right. His people, he now believed, had been beaten down, and they had lost sight of who they are.

So Rapu embarked on a new mission at the schoolhouse. He wanted the Rapanui to remember where they had come from, that they were the descendants of a great civilization, one that had learned to survive on this inhospitable island and built its famous moai statues. By 1964, most of the moai lay toppled and covered in lichen, surrounded by grazing sheep. Rapanui farmers plucked rocks from the ahu—the platforms the moai once stood upon—to build walls around their fields.

Rapu wanted to remind his people that the statues weren’t just ruins that littered the coastline. They were relics of a proud history, sacred monuments to the Rapanui’s ancestors.

He wanted the Rapanui to remember where they had come from, that they were the descendants of a great civilization.

Around a thousand years ago, a double-hulled sailing vessel ran onto the beach at Anakena Cove, on Easter Island’s northeastern coast. White sand formed a crescent around the bay. Beyond the beach stood a dense grove of towering palm trees.

The people who stepped off the vessel were the first to set foot on Easter Island. They were Polynesian scouts sent on a mission of exploration by their king. Finding the island was a stroke of luck. It was uninhabited and big enough to support a settlement. The scouts returned home to report their discovery. Sometime later, according to oral tradition, a small fleet landed in the same spot at Anakena, this time carrying not just young men but also women, children, and older male leaders, as well as seeds, plants, pigs, and chickens. This was the Rapanui’s ark.

Over the subsequent centuries, people fanned out across the island. They organized themselves into a network of cooperating clans, each controlling one slice of the island and the natural resources it contained. One clan had the best fishing cove, another the best pasture. Yet another looked after Rano Raraku, the volcano—also known as the quarry. This was where workers carved the moai.

In the Rapanui cosmos there is no heaven or hell; souls do not relocate after death. They inhabit grasses, mingle among their living relatives, or—in the case of exalted ancient leaders—take up residence in the moai. The moai thus had power, mana, over earthly events, which may explain why over time the people of Easter Island made them bigger, taller, and more ornate. At the peak of moai production, the statues were towering monuments. The biggest stood 30 feet tall, with a highly stylized face: a sharp jawline and an overlong, flared nose.

Sculptors carved a moai out of porous volcanic rock, right where it had hardened to the earth. When a statue was complete, they pried it from the ground and, with a system of ropes, stood it upright. Then they jostled it forward, a few feet at a time; men tilted it left while others tugged it forward on the right, and back and forth. With this technique, they transported statues weighing as much as a commercial airplane across the island. When they reached the coast, they used levers and ropes to hoist the statues onto the ahu.

The moai always faced inland, watching over the population. There was no reason for them to look seaward. For centuries no ships came over the horizon. Easter Island was like a lone planet floating through space.

Then, in 1722, three ships appeared. They were sent by the Dutch West India Company, and they marked the beginning of a new era. Over the next century and a half, until Chile’s annexation of the island, commercial ships, explorers, and settlers periodically landed on the Rapanui’s shores. Sometimes they engaged in trade, but more often they delivered calamity. The first three ships set the precedent: After sighting the island on Easter Sunday—hence the name they gave it—the crews landed, and the captains took a tour, guided by Rapanui leaders. When they returned to where they had left their men, the captains found carnage. Sailors had opened fire on a crowd of Rapanui men, killing nearly a dozen and wounding many more.

Later ships brought smallpox, and Peruvian slavers abducted men and transported them to South America. In 1868, a French pirate named Jean Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier set about transforming the island into his own personal fiefdom. He won some Rapanui allies, armed them, and terrorized a band of Jesuit missionaries who had settled in Hanga Roa, driving them and their followers from the island. Dutrou-Bornier ruled with impunity until one day, in 1876, three Rapanui men bludgeoned him to death.

Twenty-five years later, after the Company had taken over, the Rapanui attempted to topple a manager named Percival Edmunds. Led by a Rapanui woman named Angata, who claimed to be a prophet, a band of men slaughtered the Company’s cattle and marched on Company headquarters. As Edmunds bunkered at Mataveri, fearing for his life, a Chilean Navy ship landed. The sailors arrested two of the revolt’s male leaders and carried them back to Chile, breaking the spirit of the movement.

The assassination of Dutrou-Bornier was the first Rapanui uprising against a foreign authority. Angata’s revolt against the Company was the second. Alfonso Rapu, the quiet schoolteacher, would soon lead the third.

Chapter Three

Rapu started looking for ways to expand programming at the school, with an eye toward teaching Easter Island’s history. He partnered with Luis Paté, a popular fisherman, known to everyone as Papa Kiko, who had made it his life’s work to keep alive traditional songs and dances from the precolonial era. Papa Kiko and Rapu founded a dance troupe of children and teenagers. On weekends they met at the schoolhouse to craft traditional clothes—grass skirts, headdresses made of dried reeds—and to rehearse Papa Kiko’s music and dance steps.

To naval authorities the activity seemed innocuous, a way for the Rapanui to keep themselves busy. For Rapu it was a way of reintroducing himself to islanders, regaining their trust after so many years away, and reasserting his Rapanui identity. He was also creating a sense of community. In short, he was organizing.

Another center of influence had emerged at a campsite on the edge of Hanga Roa. In February 1964, a 40-foot schooner dropped anchor near the village. It belonged to a French adventurer, Francis Mazière, and his Tahitian wife, Tila. They had come to Easter Island, they said, to carry out a major archaeological research project. Without asking many questions, the Chilean government granted them permission to do their work, and Portilla and his wife gave them a dignified reception. But the Mazières did not socialize with the Chileans much after that. They were put off by the way Portilla stressed Chile’s European origins, as if to distance himself and his country from the indigenous people his country had displaced and dominated, including the Rapanui.

The Mazières were more interested in spending their time with locals. They set up camp and hired Rapanui men and women to help them with their fieldwork. Soon they were hosting campfire soirées, where they dropped hints that they might have a solution for the Rapanui’s problems: Leaders of several French Polynesian islands, including Tahiti, were working to form a new nation, the Polynesian Federation. Perhaps, the couple suggested, Easter Island could break away from Chile and join.

Rapu, who rarely attended the Mazières’ campfires, didn’t share the prevailing sentiment at the gatherings: He was not hostile to Chile, where he had spent so much of his life. His hope was not for Easter Island and Chile to separate, but for them to draw closer—for all Rapanui people to experience the privileges and freedoms he had enjoyed in Santiago. He wanted civil rights, not secession.

What’s more, he believed that the Navy had a role to play in bringing about change. In his view, John Martin, the governor who had ordered his brother beaten, was a bad actor, but that didn’t mean that the Navy itself was rotten. Rapu hoped Portilla might become his ally. Rapu taught the governor’s eldest daughter at the schoolhouse—she was an excellent pupil—and he found Portilla to be a responsible and engaged father. On the soccer pitch, their competitions were friendly. But Portilla soon disappointed Rapu by stymieing an initiative at the schoolhouse.

From his own experience, Rapu knew that young Rapanui children were often left alone while their parents worked. So he told the school’s head nun, Sister Petronila, that he wanted to create a kindergarten. It would give parents a place to deposit their kids during the day, and it would give Rapu and the nuns the opportunity to start educating children early. All Rapu needed was a field: Since the temperature on Easter Island hardly ever dropped below 60 degrees, and the schoolhouse was occupied, the kindergarten would be outside.

Sister Petronila explained the proposal to Portilla and asked for a plot of land. Portilla agreed, but the land he offered was a scrap of dirt, covered in low brush, at the edge of the village. It was too far from the school, and not nearly big enough to give kids room to play. When Rapu complained, Portilla didn’t budge.

Rapu next asked Portilla for better personal accommodations. He had learned from the nuns that there was a house in Hanga Roa, a few hundred feet from the school, that was officially designated for the island’s teacher. By rights, the Navy should have handed it over to Rapu. Instead, a Navy officer had made it his own.

Sister Petronila sent another petition to Portilla, who, sitting alone in his office, viewed it as reasonable. But he was nothing if not deferential to the chain of command, and he was unwilling to evict a fellow officer from the house without consulting his superiors in Valparaíso. In late August, he sent a telegram asking for guidance, and in response Valparaíso rejected Rapu’s request. Because he wasn’t married, authorities determined, he could remain with his parents. Portilla, ever the loyal Navy man, presented the decision as if he fully endorsed it.

Rapu was incensed and began reassessing his view of Portilla. The governor was mild mannered, yes. But in his official acts he was imperious, just like his predecessors. Rapu concluded that the governor didn’t regard the Rapanui as fellow citizens; he saw them as serfs.


On October 31, 1964, Guido Andrade, the Navy’s doctor on the island, threw a party. He had invited practically everyone in Hanga Roa to his small house, which he shared with his wife and daughters. The crowd overflowed from the living room onto the front stoop and into the street.

Andrade was perhaps the only person who comfortably straddled the divide between the Chileans and the Rapanui. If he received an invitation for a social engagement—a Navy dinner party or a backyard curanto, a communal cookout where pigs and yams were roasted in underground ovens covered by banana leaves—the answer was invariably yes. He could always be counted on to stay late and bring booze. And if he had once had a dalliance with a Rapanui teenager, well, most people chose to look past it. Life on the island could be monotonous, but Andrade never was.

No one else could have assembled the group that showed up that night. Portilla was there alongside island elders. Chilean sailors and young Rapanui men jostled for a spot near the bar.

At the end of the evening, Andrade quieted the crowd to give a speech. The intended audience, it seemed clear, was Andrade’s Rapanui friends, not the Chileans, much less Portilla. “Mi querido pueblo pascuense,” he began—my dear Easter Islanders. He had good news to share, he said. A new president had been elected in Chile. Eduardo Frei Montalva of the center-left Christian Democratic Party had promised in his campaign to be a reformer, and had even referenced the antiquated system of governance on Easter Island. The Rapanui should hope for a brighter future, Andrade said. Soon they might get relief from the “deficits of liberty” they had long endured.

Portilla, listening among the crowd, was furious. The next day, he summoned Andrade to his office.

“What are these deficits of liberty?” Portilla asked.

“There are many,” Andrade replied.

Portilla felt that Andrade’s speech was an act of insubordination. To Rapu it was an opening. It was the first time he had seen someone so brazenly defy naval authority. The episode made Rapu wonder what other kinds of resistance might be possible.

Germán Hotus, another guest at the party, had the same thought. Hotus had been a regular at the Mazières’ campfires, where he spoke openly of the Rapanui’s oppression and the need for reform. Throughout 1964, Hotus had spent many evenings visiting Rapanui families in their homes, listening to them talk about their hardships and telling them that life on the island needed to change. In the weeks after Andrade’s party, Rapu and Hotus met regularly at the schoolhouse or at Hotus’s home. They didn’t agree on all matters: Hotus was sympathetic to the Mazières’ separatism; Rapu still felt himself to be Chilean. But they shared the conviction that the Rapanui deserved a better life.

They also complemented each other. While Rapu could relate to the Chileans—and speak to them in Spanish—Hotus was a married father of nine who was employed at the village supply store. He was a man of the people. Rapu and Hotus became a team and started laying plans. They did not support violence, and neither aspired to be governor or king. Still, they believed that the Navy could be resisted, and that the regime on Easter Island could be prodded to change. They wanted to show the Rapanui how.

The Rapanui should hope for a brighter future, Andrade said. Soon they might get relief from the “deficits of liberty” they had long endured.

One day Rapu and Hotus learned that a Canadian naval ship had departed from Nova Scotia and was en route to Easter Island. Traveling on the Cape Scott was a team of scientists and physicians. They had received permission from Chile to land at Easter Island and study the Rapanui.

The whole idea bothered Rapu. What right did the Chilean government have to grant foreigners permission to inspect the Rapanui? But he and Hotus also sensed an opportunity. There was little that Chilean authorities and especially the Navy feared more than embarrassment on an international stage. With foreign observers on the island, Rapu and Hotus believed, the Navy would have to act with restraint, giving the two men more room to operate and to stage acts of defiance.

Rapu and Hotus began collaborating on a letter they intended to send to Chile’s new president. It would become a long document, incorporating the ideas of the men’s Rapanui allies: Rapu’s students from his night classes and Hotus’s contacts from his consciousness-raising tours of the community. It referenced Hotus’s interest in Easter Island seceding from Chile and joining the nascent Polynesian Federation, but it didn’t go so far as to endorse the idea. Longer passages were informed by Rapu’s Chilean patriotism, asserting a sense of common national identity and demanding full civil rights for islanders.

The men laid out the Rapanui’s grievances. “Mr. President,” they wrote, “what we want to say cannot be said here on the island.… We live under threat because if we speak freely the Governor says he will fire us from our jobs or send us to jail or that he’ll never let us travel to the Continent. This makes us live under a constant tyranny.” Their basic rights, they said, were infringed. They were not allowed to assemble without permission. Their Navy-controlled elections were not free and fair. They had been dehumanized by brutal punishments. They were confined to Hanga Roa. Their mother tongue was banned in radio communications.

In the face of these injustices, the letter’s demands were modest. They amounted, more or less, to a desire to be left alone. The Rapanui people, the letter said, were self-sufficient—“here, by our own initiative, we do everything.” All they wanted was a little bit of money to modernize. The funding should come from the proceeds of the sheep ranch, the letter said. The Rapanui would use it to buy machinery for a basic textile factory to avoid the cost of importing fabrics, for a woodworking shop to manufacture furniture, and for a cobbling facility to make and repair shoes. The Rapanui would also buy modern fishing and farming equipment. They would happily accept help from “civil, NOT MILITARY, technicians” to establish these new industries. Above all, they wanted the Navy to leave.

The letter was a cry for freedom. “We wish to be able to sing,” it concluded, “without being so ordered.” The plan was to smuggle several copies of the letter off the island and somehow, perhaps through the Chilean press, convey it to President Frei.

Rapu prepared the letter on a typewriter at the schoolhouse. Beneath the final paragraph, he typed the names of 45 influential Rapanui men; after each name he left a blank line. Then he sent two allies, Alberto Tepihi and Antonio Tepano, to collect signatures. He wanted the letter endorsed by the community’s prominent male citizens, which he hoped would make it more difficult to dismiss.

It was a risky gambit, because many of the men he listed opposed his vision for the future. Rapanui society was divided between those who wanted reform and those who didn’t. Some members of the Rapanui old guard, a contingent of men who held a variety of political sinecures doled out by the Navy, bristled at the notion of change. These men and their followers were a minority, but a sizable one, and they had access to more political power than Rapu’s supporters. Their leader was Hotus’s uncle Lázaro, the Navy-backed mayor of Hanga Roa.

Nonetheless, Rapu placed Lázaro’s name first on the list of signatories. He wagered it was worth a try to get the mayor and his allies to sign. Maybe asking them to sign a letter to the president would appeal to their egos. They might not even bother to read the letter—or they might not be able to. It was not lost on Rapu that, like the Chileans, he was exploiting his fellow Rapanui’s illiteracy, the very thing he was seeking to remedy in his evening classes. But in his mind, the ends justified the means.

Tepihi and Tepano spent a day crisscrossing Hanga Roa seeking out signatories. They added their own spin to Rapu’s plan: They told each man what they thought he wanted to hear. They told some that the letter was a New Year’s greeting for President Frei. They told others that it was a request for more resources for road construction. Around half the members of the old guard signed. When some, including Lázaro, refused, Tepihi and Tepano forged their signatures. When they returned to the schoolhouse, every signature line was filled out.

The next day, December 6, Hotus and Rapu convened a community meeting at the schoolhouse. They billed the event as an opportunity to discuss the upcoming election, scheduled for early January, for the positions of mayor and village councilors. All of Hanga Roa’s influential men showed up, including elders who supported Hotus and Rapu, and Lázaro’s cadre of loyalists. Lázaro opened the meeting. He listed the candidates—his political allies—who would be up for reelection, and who had been preapproved by Portilla. Then Rapu took the floor.

They should hold elections now, Rapu told the packed schoolhouse, and they should vote for whomever they wanted. When he asked the room who was in favor, almost everyone raised their hands. Lázaro tried to intervene, saying they couldn’t vote without the governor’s approval. Then Hotus cut in. The election, he said, was a matter for the Rapanui people and the Rapanui people alone. Never mind Portilla.

This was the second phase of Rapu and Hotus’s plan: to preempt the official election and hold a truly democratic vote. Hotus pulled out a page of handwritten notes and read the names of a new slate of candidates. They were fishermen and farmers, people who had attended Rapu’s literacy classes and the Mazières’ parties. Lázaro objected, saying that the new candidates were not suitable—they hadn’t been approved by the governor. Rapu backed up Hotus. The military, he said, should have nothing to do with the elections. Against Lázaro’s protest, the gathered men agreed to reconvene two days later for an election.

Lázaro marched to Portilla’s office and delivered a detailed report of the meeting at the schoolhouse. Portilla was alarmed by the Rapanui’s subversion of his authority, but he didn’t intervene. On December 8, Hanga Roa’s men returned to the schoolhouse to cast ballots. They elected the new slate of candidates and chose Rapu as mayor. Just as Rapu and Hotus had predicted, Portilla still took no action to punish them.

The Canadian ship was only days away. Nothing mattered more to Portilla than protecting the Navy’s reputation. He couldn’t lock up Hotus, much less Rapu. What would a team of Western scientists think if they discovered the island’s charismatic schoolteacher and newly elected mayor was a political prisoner?

On December 13, the Cape Scott dropped anchor in Hanga Roa bay. Portilla, accompanied by two military officials, greeted the foreign visitors. The expedition’s leader, Stanley Skoryna, would later write of how impressed he was by the young governor’s hospitality.

The next day, Rapu met Skoryna at the island’s naval hospital. As part of their research, the visitors wanted to conduct medical exams on every member of the Rapanui community. Rapu told Skoryna that he could help secure the cooperation of the village, as long as Skoryna agreed to some conditions: Women could only be examined by female doctors. All results would be shared with the subjects and their families. The Rapanui reserved the right to suspend the exams at any time. Finally, Rapu said, if the researchers wished to donate any supplies to the island as an act of goodwill, they should deal with Rapu directly, not the Navy.

A few days later, another opportunity to defy naval authority emerged. A cable from Chile’s Ministry of Public Works reached Portilla’s desk, requesting that the lone bulldozer on Easter Island be shipped to the mainland. The bulldozer had been brought in a few years earlier to dislodge a U.S. Air Force plane that had become stuck on the island’s dirt runway. Ever since, Chilean government functionaries on the island, alongside Rapanui laborers, had used the machine to build roads and boat ramps. The community had come to regard the bulldozer with a sense of pride: It was a symbol of modernity. No one in the Rapanui community would be pleased to see it go. Sure enough, as soon as Portilla instructed Navy officials to load the bulldozer onto the Cape Scott—the ship’s captain had agreed to transport it to Valparaíso—outrage spread through the village.

Within hours of Portilla’s order, Rapu told Humberto Paté, a Rapanui mechanic, to render the machine inoperable. The mission, Rapu told him, had to remain secret. That night, as Rapu taught his literacy class, Paté appeared at the schoolhouse door. The classroom went quiet. Paté held up a burlap bag.

“Teacher,” he said, “I’ve got the—”

Rapu cut him off. “Thank you, put it in the back,” he said. Turning to the class, Rapu said, “Humberto brought me some fuel.” In fact, the bag contained the bulldozer’s driveshaft.

The next day, when Portilla’s men tried to start up the bulldozer, they discovered that it was dead. Portilla was enraged. He had restrained himself up to that point, but he couldn’t tolerate sabotage. A few hours later, Sergio Piñeiro, the captain of the Chilean Air Force contingent on the island, approached Rapu outside the schoolhouse. “Teacher,” he said, “we’re going to Portilla’s.” Rapu got in the captain’s Jeep.

When he walked into Portilla’s office, Rapu found the room full. Portilla, two Navy officials, Lázaro, and two other members of the Rapanui old guard were seated around Portilla’s desk. Hotus was also there. Rapu sat down.

Portilla launched into a diatribe, accusing Rapu of inciting a “subversive movement.” Rapu argued that Portilla shouldn’t have authority in the first place. The leader of Easter Island should be a “native,” he said. Portilla was indignant. “I’m the governor,” he said. But now Rapu was picking up steam. The Navy had no business managing the ranch, he said; it should belong to the Rapanui. The Navy also shouldn’t occupy homes in Hanga Roa, including the teacher’s house; these structures belonged to the island’s people. The Rapanui must be free to move about, to visit the lands of their ancestors, to fish where they pleased.

Lázaro pointed out that people were already free to fish where they liked, as long as they got permission first. Portilla asked Rapu to consider how much the Navy gave the Rapanui, and how much worse things would be without Chile overseeing the island. “It is the bare minimum!” Rapu shot back. “The Navy is exploiting the ranch and keeping the profits!”

Portilla, flustered, tried to change tack. He brought up the bulldozer and its missing driveshaft. Rapu denied being involved and, seeking a way to escape the office, agreed to get to the bottom of the matter and help recover the part. Portilla extracted a promise from him: Rapu would deliver the driveshaft the next morning or there would be trouble.

The following day Portilla waited, but Rapu never came. It was the final straw. Portilla decided that, to restore order on the island before the situation escalated any further, he would have to call for help. He sat down at his desk and tapped out a telegram to Valparaíso. For the first time, he told his superiors that there was trouble on the island.

“We have discovered a subversive movement carried out by the islanders against the Navy,” he wrote. “The movement is led by the schoolteacher Alfonso Rapu (a native). … We suggest transport for the schoolteacher.”

The next day, Portilla got an answer. The message read: “The Commander in Chief of the Navy has approved the return of Alfonso Rapu to the continent aboard the Canadian transport Cape Scott.

Rapu argued that Portilla shouldn’t have authority in the first place. The leader of Easter Island should be a “native,” he said.

On an evening in mid-December, shortly before the Cape Scott departed the island, there was a farewell party—a traditional Rapanui sau sau, with singing, dancing, an open fire, and a roast. The researchers who had come on the ship would be staying for a while, so the islanders were sending off the Cape Scott’s foreign crew, as well as Dr. Andrade and his family. People thought Andrade was leaving of his own volition; he and his family had long said they planned to move back to Chile when the annual supply ship came—the Cape Scott just let them do so a bit earlier.

In fact, Portilla had ordered Andrade to leave. He suspected the doctor of being a collaborator with Rapu, and he had already sent accusations of subversion to his superiors. Andrade knew he was in trouble, but he didn’t let on at the party. He drank and danced, wearing white slacks and a white linen shirt. He didn’t want to spoil his last night on the island with any bad news.

Rapu was in attendance. He didn’t know about Andrade’s situation, or that Portilla was working to have him shipped to Chile, too. But as he chatted with friends, he overheard snippets of other conversations nearby.

“…the people who believe they’re educated and superior…”

“…disappear from the island…”

“…going to scare them off like rats.”

He wasn’t sure what the comments meant, if anything, but he found them strange.

That night around 11:30, on his walk home in the hills, Rapu saw a man coming toward him. In the dark, Rapu couldn’t make out who it was. When the man spoke, it was in a Chilean accent. “You need to hide,” the man said as he passed by and disappeared into the dark. Rapu was spooked. Instead of continuing home, he followed dirt trails winding through farm fields until he reached his grandmother’s house, where he had lived as a young child. He lay down on the floor with a blanket and went to sleep.

The next morning, Portilla ordered his men to find Rapu and Hotus, whom the governor also wanted to send to Chile, and bring them to the Cape Scott. Under normal circumstances, finding anyone in Hanga Roa was a simple matter. There were fewer than 2,000 people on Easter Island, and everyone knew everyone else. But as Portilla and his men canvassed locals, they found that no one knew where Rapu and Hotus were.

Juan Edmunds, a Rapanui man from the old guard, told Portilla that Rapu was hiding at his uncle’s house. Portilla drove across town in his Jeep, but Rapu wasn’t there. Another Chilean officer heard that Rapu was at the home of a government functionary, Nicolai Escalante, who was viewed as sympathetic to the Rapanui cause. Escalante, bewildered, pleaded ignorance. Meanwhile, Lázaro knocked on the door of his nephew’s home and demanded that Hotus’s wife turn him over. She answered, honestly, that she had no idea where he was.

Still bunkering at his grandmother’s house, Rapu sent his brother Carlos, who had joined him, down to the village to find out what was going on. As Carlos approached their parents’ house, he spotted Portilla, accompanied by several military men, at the front door. Hidden in the brush, Carlos watched Portilla talking to his mother. Then he raced back to warn his brother. The Navy was after him, Carlos said.

Rapu had been in a kind of denial—he had believed that if his intentions were pure, and people understood them, the outcomes of his actions would be just. Now he understood that the Navy meant to ship him off the island like the disappeared lieutenants of Angata, the supposed prophet, half a century before. He told Carlos to descend to the village again, carefully, to gather supplies and a few trusted friends. Then they would venture beyond the Wall, into the island’s interior.


The Cape Scott departed on schedule, without Rapu or Hotus on board. Portilla had failed. The governor watched the ship leave, then returned to his office and notified Valparaíso. “It was not possible to embark the schoolteacher Alfonso Rapu,” he wrote in a telegram. “He is hiding, presumably on the island, protected by islanders. … The bulldozer was not sent to the continent [either] because it was impossible to move. … The situation is serious.”

Portilla wondered if the Rapanui who denied knowing where the men were had done so not out of ignorance but to deceive him. What if the whole village was behind Rapu and Hotus? Portilla’s fear only deepened when Lázaro came to see him and reported a rumor: Lázaro claimed that Rapu’s true objective was for Easter Island to secede from Chile. The schoolhouse election, the sabotage of the bulldozer, Rapu’s flight to the interior—these, Lázaro said, were the opening salvos in a revolution.

The accusation was false—Rapu had never sympathized with the secessionist agenda of the Mazières, who had departed the island in November—but the truth was not what mattered, at least for now. Portilla believed Lázaro’s claim, and it frightened him. It seemed clear to the governor that Rapu was the main instigator of the brewing rebellion. Now Portilla tried to mount a haphazard counterinsurgency campaign. He held conciliatory meetings with members of the Rapanui community at the schoolhouse and in his office. He hoped to show that he did care about the people, their well-being, their future.

But on December 23, after two days of these meetings, Portilla saw how futile his outreach had been. That afternoon a new rumor—another false one—spread through the village: Rapu had been detained, and the Navy was holding him as a political prisoner. By the evening, virtually every resident of Hanga Roa had heard this report, and Rapu’s supporters took to the streets. Wielding clubs and farm implements, they marched down the village’s roads. They descended on a government building where they believed Rapu was being held. In the dark, they shouted in Rapanui and Spanish, demanding the teacher’s release, until the crowd, realizing that Rapu was not there, dispersed.

The next morning, Portilla sent yet another telegram to Valparaíso. This time he asked for reinforcements. “The community supports the subversive movement,” he wrote. “The goal is to secede from Chile.” It was “necessary,” he went on, “to send a ship as soon as possible.”

Portilla did not know that another message was on its way to Chile. Sister Esperanza, a nun who was friendly with Rapu, had secured passage from Easter Island on the Cape Scott. She was carrying precious cargo: Sealed in an envelope and tucked in her bag was the letter addressed to President Frei, signed by Rapanui leaders, demanding liberty for their people.

Chapter Four

On December 26, in Valparaíso, second lieutenant Germán Goddard Dufeu of the Chilean Navy received word that there was trouble on Easter Island. The news was confusing—and alarming. There was talk of insubordination, foreign influence, and mutiny by a Chilean naval official (meaning Andrade). Dufeu and his crewmates soon received orders to prepare their ship, the Yelcho, and a contingent of marines to depart for Easter Island. At the Valparaíso barracks, men assembled supplies and armaments for the mission. Based on the little information available, they assumed they would ship out soon to quell a violent rebellion.

That same day, the news leaked to Chilean papers that there was trouble in the country’s island colony. Reporters in Santiago peppered government officials with questions. “Everything is normal on the island,” a Navy spokesperson said, insisting that the military was not in any way cruel to the Rapanui. The denials had little effect, and the news of turmoil on Easter Island soon appeared in international papers, including The New York Times.

On December 28, Frei met with his top cabinet ministers at his official residence. His administration was already under pressure from some domestic critics and a handful of international allies to reform the regime on Easter Island. The last thing Frei needed was a charismatic freedom fighter capturing news interest and intensifying these demands.

Another threat loomed—or at least the administration believed it did. Portilla had accepted as fact that Rapu wanted Easter Island to secede from Chile, and he had conveyed as much to the government. Now, in the December 28 meeting, defense minister Juan de Dios Carmona told Frei that a French warship was sailing across the Pacific toward Easter Island. It was a coincidence that the French vessel was in the ocean at the time, but that’s not how the government ministers understood it: They saw a provocation—a first move, perhaps. After all, Francis Mazière, one of the people who had encouraged the Rapanui to secede from Chile, was French. Maybe the ship was on its way to help the cause of independence.

Dios Carmona told the president the ship could not be allowed to reach the island. Frei ordered the Yelcho mission to proceed; he wanted troops in Hanga Roa as soon as possible.

The day after the cabinet meeting, the Cape Scott dropped its ramp onto a pier in Valparaíso. Reporters, Rapanui expats, and curious Chileans crowded the dock. As the press clamored for answers, Sister Esperanza emerged from the ship in her black habit. She ignored the questions shouted at her and advanced through the crowd, Rapu’s letter to the president still safe in her bag.


Rapu didn’t know that he had sent his letter to a government that now viewed him as a secessionist, a traitor. Five days earlier, as the Cape Scott departed Easter Island, he had ridden into the island’s interior on horseback. He traveled with two of his brothers, Rafael and Carlos, and a friend, Sorobabel Fati, who had become a trusted lieutenant. With military Jeeps roving Hanga Roa’s dirt roads searching for him, Rapu decided that his best option was to disappear into the countryside. The Chilean Navy had never bothered to master the terrain. With the Rapanui confined within the Wall, and only a few government functionaries managing the sheep ranch, why would it?

Although confined for generations, the Rapanui still had knowledge of the landscape, passed down through oral tradition and preserved by whatever trips to the interior had been possible over the years. Rapu headed for the island’s caves. With the entrances hidden from view by tall grass, the caves were subterranean pockets in the island’s volcanic foundation. For centuries the Rapanui took shelter in them at moments of crisis: during the battles against the pirate Dutrou-Bornier, and during the Chilean crackdown following Angata’s revolt. Now Rapu needed them. He spent his first night as a fugitive in a cave just beyond the hills over Hanga Roa. (Hotus was hiding elsewhere, lest the two men be caught together.)

Down in the village, Portilla, Piñeiro, and their subordinates continued searching. Most of Rapu’s supporters didn’t know where he was—he’d kept his journey to the interior strictly need-to-know—but dozens of them decided to show their solidarity by setting up camp in his parents’ front yard. They held curantos, sang traditional songs, and debated the island’s political future. It was a kind of vigil, and also an act of resistance against the Navy.

Rapu moved to a new hiding spot every 24 hours. He spent one day at the base of the Terevaka volcano. The next night he trekked across the island and camped on the Poike peninsula. Friends shuttled food and supplies to him. During the first week, they also brought information, tidbits they’d gleaned from sympathetic Chileans who knew what was happening on the mainland. Andrade arrested in Valparaíso. Armed marines on the way.

In Hanga Roa, Rapu’s supporters sensed that a fight was coming. One evening, a Canadian doctor was walking with a Rapanui friend, a woman, when Portilla sped by them in his Jeep. The Rapanui woman gestured toward Portilla, as if holding a rifle. “There will be blood,” she said.

With military Jeeps roving Hanga Roa’s dirt roads searching for him, Rapu decided that his best option was to disappear into the countryside.

On January 5, 1965, the Yelcho anchored in Hanga Roa bay. The men on board were prepared for battle and its aftermath. Commander Guillermo Rojas would lead the contingent of marines onto the island. A Navy prosecutor, Aldo Montagna, was on hand to initiate criminal proceedings against any captured rebels. And John Martin, the brutal former governor who had ordered Rapu’s brother beaten in the street, was there as a purported expert on the island and a liaison to its people.

As the three men approached land, they heard singing. Drawing closer, they saw women on the coastline dancing in grass skirts. When they stepped onto shore, the women approached and hung flower garlands around their necks.

The Chileans were stunned, which was exactly what Rapu had hoped for. While in hiding, he had engineered the welcome party with the goal of psychologically disarming the marines. The plan seemed to work. Rojas took the welcome party as a sign that the Rapanui viewed him as their savior. “Extraordinarily affectionate reception for the Delegate,” he wrote in a report to his superiors, referring to himself. “Frightened community anxiously awaited [my] arrival.” (Rojas also concluded that Martin was “very loved” by the people.)

As the marines set up camp, Rojas marched into town. He had gotten wind of a meeting at the schoolhouse. When he arrived, he found the building full. Rapanui women and men—all supporters of Rapu—had gathered to draft a list of demands. When Rojas strode in, the room went quiet. He began explaining how he would solve the island’s problems. He would restore order and Navy rule. He spoke slowly, deliberately, as if to children. The Rapanui, he later wrote, lacked “sufficient mental agility to relate or comprehend multiple consecutive ideas.”

Rapu’s supporters responded politely and moved toward the exits. Rojas was pleased. “Very good disposition toward the Delegate,” he wrote in his report. “[The] meeting dissolved within five minutes once I explained how I am going to solve the situation.” Rojas concluded: “It appears the inhabitants do not desire laws that would deprive them of the Navy.”

Like his response to the welcome party, Rojas’s gullible reaction to the schoolhouse meeting seemed to lessen the risk of bloodshed. The next day, Rapu felt safe enough to come out of hiding for an interview with Rojas and Montagna, the prosecutor. Rapu still clung to the hope that if only he could explain what he wanted—integration with Chile, basic rights for his people—the authorities just might grant it. Perhaps, Rapu thought, Rojas’s mind had been opened by what he’d seen on Easter Island so far.

The men met at the courthouse. Rapu sat down across from Rojas and Montagna, and a Navy officer asked him to identify himself.

“Alfonso Rapu.”

“Twenty-two.”

“Single.”

“Literate.”

“Native of Easter Island.”

As the interview proceeded, Rapu presented himself as a leader of his people, but also as a good citizen not trying to cause trouble. “Throughout 1964, I carried out my work as the island’s teacher and met the obligations of my job in the normal manner,” he said. He emphasized that his loyalties lay with Chile. He had disliked the Mazières’ pro-Polynesian “propaganda,” because he viewed it as “anti-patriotic,” he said. Portilla, he claimed, was the true source of conflict, a volatile and paranoid leader who had brought Hanga Roa to the brink of violence. Rapu laid out some of the demands that Portilla had refused to accede to—demands, Rapu said, that came from discussions with his fellow Rapanui. Chief among them were that natives be allowed to move freely about the island, and that the results of their democratic elections be respected by Chile.

The interview ended, and Rojas dismissed Rapu. At the very least, Rapu felt that he had achieved a kind of détente, and he returned to his parents’ house to decide on his next move. Hotus was also interviewed by the Chileans and released.

These conversations convinced Rojas that Rapu was the leader with ideas and influence. Rojas wasn’t alone: Events on the mainland were raising Rapu’s profile—and changing the state of play on Easter Island once again.

On January 6, the Santiago newspaper Última Hora published the Rapanui’s letter to the president. “Exclusive! Pascuenses send a letter to Frei,” the headline read. “They describe abuses committed against them.” Along with the letter, the paper ran a glowing profile of Rapu. “Alfonso Rapu, a 22-year-old teacher, is the leader of Easter Island,” it declared.

The letter caused a sensation. In the following days, other newspapers in Valparaíso and Santiago covered it or ran excerpts. Inside the government, the letter heightened the sense of emergency. The schoolteacher seemed to have outwitted Frei’s administration, influenced media coverage, and shaped public opinion from 2,000 miles away. Among the letter’s accusations of head shavings, whippings, and other abuses, one line stood out to Chile’s leaders: “We have heard from people from other islands who share our Polynesian blood that our conditions would be better if we joined the Union of the Islands of Polynesia.” Rapu had tried to hedge, writing in the next sentence, “We don’t want to consider these propositions.” But it was the implied threat of secession—not the disclaimer—that attracted notice.

The Chilean congress passed emergency legislation that changed Easter Island from a territory into a “sub-commune” of the Region of Valparaíso. The new status was intended to more firmly attach the island to the country, making secession a complicated prospect. On the morning of January 8, word of the letter and the legislation reached Rojas on Easter Island via telegram. The message highlighted the risk of Easter Island joining the Polynesian Federation. It listed the name of every man whose signature appeared on the Rapanui’s letter. And it requested that Rojas and his men “investigate veracity of … the accusations” of abuse made against the Navy.

Rojas was blindsided. He had thought the situation on the island was under control. What the telegram reported was an outrage and a humiliation. The Rapanui were publicly questioning the integrity of Chilean officers, including John Martin, now serving by Rojas’s side.

When Rojas finished reading the telegram, he ordered his men to search Hanga Roa. They were to round up every Rapanui man who had signed the letter.

Within hours, officers were interrogating the men one by one. When Papa Kiko, the leader of the children’s song and dance troupe, was asked if he had signed the letter, he said that he had. Asked if the letter was accurate, he said that it was. Martin flew into a rage, his face turning red. He had known the Rapanui, and Papa Kiko in particular, to be docile, compliant. He was frustrated—offended even—that the old man had joined Rapu’s rebellion. “Now I’m hearing you’re with them, too,” Martin said. Papa Kiko refused to budge; he stood by the letter. The marines led him from the office and locked him in the House of Stone.

Other Rapanui men who affirmed their support of the letter were thrown in jail. Some disavowed it under pressure. And those whose signatures had been forged said as much—they blamed Rapu and Hotus.

Following the interrogations, Rojas sent a missive to Valparaíso. Rapu and Hotus were the authors of the letter, he reported, the contents of which were false. The signatures, he added, had been obtained “fraudulently.” Both Rapu and Hotus would be arrested.

Since his interview, Rapu had been at his parents’ house. On the afternoon of January 8, as Rojas and Martin questioned and jailed his supporters, Rapu received updates from friends. He saw that his options were narrowing. Judging from the reports he was receiving, the Chilean soldiers who had arrived on the Yelcho were becoming increasingly agitated. Even if he fled into the hills again, he could not hide forever. When the headlights of a Navy Jeep strafed his parents’ windows that evening, Rapu decided to turn himself in.

He walked out the front door to find Martin and a marine, both armed, waiting for him. Martin told Rapu that he was under arrest. The former governor also instructed him to summon his brother Rafael, who was only 17, but known to be one of Rapu’s most active and loyal helpers. The Navy wanted to speak with him, too. The two brothers walked down the steps from their parents’ patio and clambered into the Jeep’s back seat. As the vehicle rattled down the dirt road toward Hanga Roa, Rafael looked down at his elder brother’s legs. They were trembling.

When Rojas finished reading the telegram, he ordered his men to search Hanga Roa. They were to round up every Rapanui man who had signed the letter.

The Jeep rolled to a stop outside the courthouse. Martin escorted Rapu inside, to the same room where he had been interviewed before. Rojas and Montagna were there, and so was a Navy officer sitting behind a typewriter. (Portilla, whom Rojas had decided was an ineffective leader, had been sidelined.) Martin instructed Rapu to sit down, then Rojas placed a piece of paper on the table in front of him. It was the telegram Rojas had received that morning, describing the letter sent to Frei.

“Did you write the letter?” Rojas asked.

Rapu said that he had.

As the questioning continued, Rapu feared that it was little more than pretext, and that the marines would soon carry him to the Yelcho. He was certain that if he boarded the ship, he would never make it off alive. He imagined being thrown overboard, and the marines explaining themselves when they reached Valparaíso. They would say he leapt into the ocean like other Rapanui men before him, those who a century before had chosen death after being captured by slavers. Rapu would become a martyr to the Rapanui, but he would always be a fool to the Chileans, like Riro, the poisoned king.

After an hour, Rojas stood up. In the name of the government and the Navy of Chile, he said, “Lo declaro reo”—you are a prisoner.

Outside, unbeknownst to Rapu or his interrogators, a rescue operation was under way. After Rapu was arrested, his supporters had mobilized. Their plan was slapdash: The road to the government building where Rapu was being questioned was separated from the rest of Hanga Roa by a ditch dug into the street, with metal slats laid across it to allow vehicles to pass. Martin’s Jeep had trundled over them to deliver Rapu to Rojas. Now several of Rapu’s supporters pulled up the slats and threw them aside, leaving the road unpassable by vehicles. If the marines wanted to take Rapu to the Yelcho, they would have to do it on foot—and get past the Rapanui.

A mob of women, including Reina, Rapu’s mother, amassed behind the stone wall outside the courthouse. Their men stayed behind them; Rapu’s supporters had decided that women should form the front line, because the marines would be less likely to shoot them. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the women watched the building’s door, waiting for Rapu and his captors to emerge.

Inside, Rojas ordered two of his men to take Rapu to the marines’ encampment, to prepare for his removal from the island. As he was escorted toward the door, Rapu heard a murmur of voices outside. As soon as he walked out, the Rapanui women climbed over the wall and rushed toward Rapu and the marines, yelling. As the mob closed in, one woman, Herencia Teao, grabbed Rapu’s arm and pulled him toward her.

The marines tried to wrestle Rapu back into their custody, but the women struck them. One marine fired a pistol into the air—a warning shot—but the women did not relent. Keeping the marines at bay, and Rapu protected in their midst, the women moved as a group toward the coastline, until they reached the edge of the camp where the foreign researchers who had arrived on the Cape Scott were staying. This, the Rapanui believed, was the only safe harbor on their occupied island. As they pushed their way into the camp, chests heaving, several women told the bewildered researchers to start filming—the Rapanui were sure that the only thing that could protect them from foreign guns was foreign eyes.

Seconds later, a handful of armed marines came into the camp. One, brandishing a pistol, rushed toward Rapu. But Rojas, who entered the compound next, ordered the marines to stand down. Rapu, who had been hunched over catching his breath, stood up to face his adversary.

Rojas had two options. Outnumbered by the Rapanui, and in full view of Europeans and North Americans, he could try to take Rapu by force. Or he could deescalate. Rojas told his men to wait outside the camp and asked the foreign researchers to attend to any injured women. For the next two hours, Rojas and Rapu did a strange dance. Rojas walked through the camp speaking with groups of Rapanui, asking them to go home and assuring them that Rapu would not be harmed. Rapu, for his part, kept his distance. He did not want any Chileans to come near him. Eventually, Rojas sent Rafael Haoa—Rapu’s uncle, a Navy translator—to speak with him.

Were the rumors true, his uncle asked—did he want to secede from Chile? Rapu insisted once again that he wanted nothing of the sort. He wanted Easter Island and the Rapanui to be more Chilean, not less. The uncle returned to Rojas, conferred with him, and then delivered another message to Rapu. He was free to go, on one condition: He had to meet with Rojas peacefully the next morning. Rapu agreed.

Outside the camp’s rear gate, Rapu’s brother Rafael and another supporter were waiting for him with a horse. Rapu mounted it and rode out of the village alone, to spend one more night hiding in the interior. The next day, he had insisted, he would not go to the courthouse again. This time Rojas would have to come to him.


Rojas arrived at Rapu’s parents’ house by Jeep, accompanied by Martin. Rapu told the men that Martin wasn’t allowed inside, so Rojas agreed to meet with him alone. The naval commander had come to make a deal.

The balance of power on Easter Island had shifted. The Chileans had guns, radios, Jeeps, and the only ship for thousands of miles, but Rapu’s little revolution had managed to render all these resources moot. It was clear he wouldn’t be taken without a fight, which was likely to create a political nightmare for Chile. The Rapanui wouldn’t stand for it, and the foreign researchers would bear witness to whatever happened. Plus, since the publication of the Rapanui’s letter, public opinion on the mainland had swung in the islanders’ favor.

Rojas told Rapu that he needed his help. Together, they had to turn down the temperature on the island, lest the circumstances become explosive. Rojas asked Rapu to reassure his followers that Rojas could be trusted. In return, Rojas would give Rapu something no Chilean had ever offered to the Rapanui before. “We’ll hold an election,” Rojas said, for local officials. If Rapu really represented the people’s interests, as he claimed, they could elect him mayor. Or they could vote for the old guard and choose the status quo. “We’ll let the people decide,” Rojas said.

The next morning, a Sunday, Rojas and Martin gathered the Rapanui community in the plaza in front of Hanga Roa’s Catholic church to make an announcement. Martin addressed the crowd in Spanish. New elections for mayor and three councilors would be held on Tuesday, he said. Any Rapanui could be nominated—no approval from the Navy was required. Then he described the qualifications for voting, including one important change: For the first time, Rapanui women would be allowed to cast ballots.

At eight o’clock sharp on the morning of January 12, voters lined up outside the schoolhouse. They wore their Sunday best: men in blue and tan suits, hair parted and gelled; women in dresses cinched at the waist. Each voter identified themselves, and then approached a chalkboard where a list of candidates was written. Alfonso Rapu was up there, as were Germán Hotus and Jorge Tepano, another of Rapu’s lieutenants. Representing the old guard were some of Rapu’s adversaries, including Felipe Pakarati and Miguel Teao. Each voter called out their choice, and a Rapanui official repeated it. A stick of chalk was used to add a mark beneath the candidate’s name on the board.

By four in the afternoon, there were 286 marks. Only four candidates had received more than ten votes. Pakarati and Hotus each had 56 votes, while Tepano had 65. Rapu, with 99 votes, had won decisively. He would be mayor, and the runners-up would be the village’s three councilors.

The next morning at the governor’s office, before a crowd of supporters, Rojas swore in Rapu as Hanga Roa’s first democratically elected mayor, recognized by the Chilean state. Navy officials hoisted a Chilean flag, and Rojas led a rendition of the national anthem. “Beloved homeland, may you be either a tomb of the free or a refuge from oppression,” the Rapanui and Chilean marines sang in unison.

When the anthem ended, Rapu’s supporters surged forward. Singing now in Rapanui, they embraced Rapu and threw flower petals in the air. Then they formed rows and, behind their new leader, paraded through Hanga Roa, singing songs passed down from their ancestors.

Chapter Five

The transition from military to civilian rule was not immediate. The Navy maintained some authority for another year, and there were setbacks even as the institution relinquished control over the island. In early 1966, a new naval governor, appointed by the Chilean government to replace Portilla, overturned the results of the mayoral election, the one Rapu had won, and installed Miguel Teao in his place. But the Rapanui wrote a new letter to President Frei, complaining of the usurpation, and Rapu won back his position in the next election.

No one accepted responsibility for the excesses of the regime. The only Navy men penalized for their conduct on Easter Island were Portilla and Andrade: Portilla for failing to control the Rapanui, and Andrade for supporting Rapu and his allies. (Andrade was convicted of mutiny and jailed; his son says that he was tortured in prison, and he later went into exile.)

In February 1966, Frei signed an act that came to be known as the Ley Pascua, the Easter Island Law. It granted the Rapanui the full benefits of Chilean citizenship and the same civil rights as those living on the mainland. The law’s passage marked the final triumph of Rapu’s movement: His people could no longer be abused with impunity. They could no longer be detained on their own land. They were no longer serfs.

One of Rapu’s first acts as mayor had been to install a freshwater well. He turned his attention to electricity next. Water, light, food—he started with the basics, eliminating the material deprivation that his people had long endured. After the Ley Pascua was enacted, modernization accelerated. The Wall, now an unpatrolled artifact of the old regime, was dismantled bit by bit and repurposed as fencing around Rapanui farmers’ fields. By the end of the 1960s, supply ships were arriving twice a year. The following decade, it was every three months. In 1984, the president of Chile appointed Sergio, Rapu’s brother, as the island’s governor—the first Rapanui to serve in the role.

By then, Rapu himself had long been out of power. After his two-year term as mayor, he had declined to run again, even though some of his supporters urged him to. He withdrew from politics and became a farmer.


There is little trace of the revolution in present-day Hanga Roa. There is no Alfonso Rapu Avenue, no memorial honoring the women who rescued him in January 1965. It may be because Rapu himself simply got on with his life. His supporters did the same, or left the island for good. Germán Hotus was one of the first to go. After Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, Hotus fled to Tahiti, where he lived the rest of his life in exile. Rapu’s brother Sergio eventually made a life for himself abroad, studying archaeology in the United States, before returning to the island and making major discoveries about its ancient history.

Some surviving members of the old guard eventually had a change of heart and decided that Rapu’s revolution was for the greater good. Others told me that Rapu “did things the wrong way,” and a few still insisted he was a separatist, despite all evidence to the contrary. Lázaro, Rapu’s onetime nemesis, was suffering from dementia when I met him in 2012. A niece tried to help us talk, translating between Spanish and Rapanui, but Lázaro grew frustrated: It seemed that he remembered the events I was asking about, but couldn’t form the sentences to describe them. Finally, he gave up and told me, haltingly, “You should go talk to Alfonso. He’ll tell you everything. But don’t tell anyone I sent you.”

When I arrived at Rapu’s address, I passed through a gate in a wall made of maroon volcanic stone. Inside was a courtyard bordered by banana trees. Rapu’s modest one-story home sat on one side; on another was a row of motel rooms. At the time, Rapu and his wife, Carmen Cardinali, rented the rooms to tourists who came to Easter Island, mostly to see the moai. Rapu, who at 69 was tall and tan, with a lightly weathered face and a slight stoop, emerged from a sliding door and welcomed me inside.

We took a seat at the kitchen table, and he poured me a glass of ice water with a pale-yellow tinge. He had used a pineapple shell to imbue the liquid with flavor, he said. He didn’t like to waste any part of the fruit that was his livelihood; Rapu now spent his days growing and harvesting pineapples.

Over the next several weeks, we met for hours at a time to talk. Rapu told me about the movement of 1964, but eventually he tired of sit-down interviews and said that if I wanted to hear more, I should join him on his farm. He could use another set of hands anyway. We would drive out to his fields after lunchtime. The route took us over the hills that border Hanga Roa and past his grandmother’s house, where he spent much of his childhood and first took refuge when the Navy tried to capture him. We rattled over dirt roads—Rapu drove a rusted pickup truck with barely functioning suspension—until we reached the low, rolling hills of the island’s interior. They were covered in high grasses; when the wind blew, they looked like waves. Before Rapu’s rebellion, this space was off-limits to any Rapanui not employed by the sheep ranch. (The ranch ceased operations in the 1970s.)

I asked Rapu if he harbored any resentment toward the people who had stood in his way. For instance, Lázaro could have gotten him killed—his whisperings to Portilla were a key factor in escalating the conflict between Rapu and the Navy. As we pulled up the weeds threatening to choke his pineapple plants, Rapu insisted that Lázaro and his ilk hadn’t meant any harm. “They were ignorant,” he said.

If his words sounded dismissive, he didn’t mean them that way. He was sympathetic to the Rapanui who had been trapped inside the Wall for generations with no way out, their only option survival by any means. They hadn’t benefitted, as he had, from leaving the island and seeing what was possible. “They didn’t understand what we were doing,” Rapu said.

We reached the low, rolling hills of the island’s interior. They were covered in high grasses; when the wind blew, they looked like waves.

One of the people who did understand was Cardinali, Rapu’s wife. They married in 1966. Like him, she had studied in Santiago, and returned to Easter Island to be a teacher. They had encountered many of the same difficulties: being an outsider on the mainland for years, only to feel alienation among their own people. During an interview in 2020, Cardinali lit up as she talked about their months of courtship, of falling in love. They married at Rapu’s parents’ house.

According to a relative, Cardinali’s mother did not attend. She found him rude, and brusque with guests, contrary to Rapanui custom. I always found Rapu to be deliberate but gentle—exceedingly so. Once I helped him lug a bucket of slop to a pen that contained a pig that must have weighed 400 pounds. “It was a gift,” Rapu said of the animal. He was supposed to have slaughtered it years before, for meat. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “He’s my friend now,” Rapu said. This was a man frugal enough to reuse pineapple shells, and so compassionate that he would commit to feeding a quarter-ton pig for life.

But he was also just that: a man. For all the ways that he had shifted the Rapanui’s political fortunes, he hadn’t escaped his people’s oppression, poverty, and trauma unscathed. According to three of Cardinali’s siblings, Rapu had hit his wife throughout their marriage, like his father before him. When I interviewed Cardinali, she was not living with Rapu anymore. After nearly 50 years together, she had left him.  

Rapu told me that he never struck Cardinali. In fact, he said, they had only one major argument in their marriage. When I asked Cardinali if Rapu ever hit her, she said that some things are private. “There are things that are mine that I don’t talk about,” she said, adding: “Nevertheless, I respect him.” Then she changed the subject—or so it seemed.

“A lot of people come to the island and ask for stories from before,” she said. “They ask about the society, the history, which is all fine and good. But they don’t ask about survival. Do you understand?”

I wasn’t sure I did.

“There is a sad story of water and survival here. I’m going to tell it to you. We had droughts. The earth became so dry that it cracked. The people had to go in search of water. I lived that, and it was a hardship.”

“We looked for water in the caves,” Cardinali continued, “where we knew there had been water before. But sometimes you had to search further, in other caverns, or in the crater of the volcano. Descend into the crater on horseback. Carry clothes to wash. Take water and carry it up again to the crater’s rim. It was a hard life. A mother would hand you a jar of water and say bathe yourself with this. You had to bathe yourself with that water. The scarcity of water—it was the most basic necessity.”

It seemed as though, for a little while, Cardinali hadn’t been talking to me exactly. But now she fixed her eyes on mine. “You realize,” she said, “this is true anywhere. If there’s no water, there’s nothing.”


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