The privilege of having a town to return to becomes more latent every day, as many of us emigrate or are exiled from them. We long to reconnect with the beach where we learned to swim and the friends we made and with whom you only played in July or August. We feel what we call magua when we think of the square where all the grandparents who are no longer here used to gather, as well as our mothers and fathers, to get fresh air and share.
This is my memory of La Jaca, on the coast of the municipality of Arico, and of my summers. The town square, the effort of my late grandfather Tomás Herrera and other neighbors in the eighties, was located right at the beginning of Verode street, in what until just over a decade ago was still a wasteland. The neighbors made this a common and coexistence space as few of us already have. Today, a gray house stands on the little square (as we said) that gave rise to many others, forming multiple streets from the top of the town (exit towards Tajao), downhill to the beach itself.
The Plaza de Santo Tomás de Aquín was not square and had three benches made of wooden slats, which I knew were painted mint green. In the center was a circular table, also made of wood, which was really an overturned Unelco wiring wheel. Later it was made of work, with beige and pink tiles on the surface that would be left over from some nearby home repair. The floor was made of dirt and picón, the kind that would get hot in the sun until it burned your hands if you picked up a handful.
Every July, when the town’s festivals are held, the figure of the Virgen del Carmen was carried on the shoulders of residents of La Jaca to the small square and placed on the table. It was their resting place, they said, to then continue the procession. During the afternoon, when the sun went down, they began to prepare the place together.
The picón, table and benches were watered and cleaned. Men hung pennants and garlands on the fronts of their houses. Around the square they installed rows of light bulbs that would illuminate it, since the Virgin always arrived at night and at that time we did not have public lighting. So, my grandfather would take out an extension cord and plug it into another neighbor’s house on the same street, so we would all have light. The red and white cloaks that covered the table were provided by neighbors who lived just a few houses down, dedicated year after year to dressing it. Decked out on all four sides with vases and natural flowers, the table displayed bouquets painstakingly made by other women also from the surroundings of the little square, including my great-grandmother Juana, my grandmother Celia, and my mother Inés. Once there, upon the arrival of the figure, the residents of the small square and those of the beach got together.
In the silence, sometimes a woman would break into song. Hand in hand with my father, but surrounded and accompanied by everyone, we would go down together to the beach, where they bathed it by sea and by air, as the sky was filled with lights with the ostentatious fireworks with which the town halls competed in the nineties. and in those of the early two thousand.
It was there, the little square, where the people met and talked. We were talking! Who knows their neighbors today? My brothers stayed there with their groups of friends in the summer at night, at the time of Super Pop, the Maquinaria Band from festival to festival and the snake game on mobile phones. My parents sat there with other neighbors to discuss life, about how cool it was and how the beach was filling up with foreigners on weekends. The little ones, like me, ran around looking for treasures in the Torreón, a place that now also occupies a house followed by many others like it: cement, tile, fence.
My grandparents took care of it: the vines that produced black grapes, the metallic paint buckets that served as improvised pots, the geraniums that dried up in the sun if you didn’t water them. The chalk-black lizards climbing the wooden slats. However, we did it together, because it was the shared space that no one owned and, at the same time, we all owned. How much does a town lose without a square! I don’t ask, I affirm. How much we have lost as a society when we prioritize the privacy of a house over a common space! When will we realize that there is room for everything, everyone and everyone?
I never asked my grandfather Tomás or my grandmother Celia who had the idea of giving it that name, Santo Tomás de Aquí-no. That information is, like the square and like them, something that only lives in the memories of those of us who are still here and have a duty to share it.