The Lasting Impact of the 'Smallest' Stories

Flamingos flock to a patch of open water in the  Atacama Desert in Chile. i

Flamingos flock to a patch of open water in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Bonnie Jo Mount hide caption

itoggle caption Bonnie Jo Mount
Flamingos flock to a patch of open water in the  Atacama Desert in Chile.

Flamingos flock to a patch of open water in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Bonnie Jo Mount

Special Six-Part Series

The Sounds of Latin America

Among the hours of recordings for her three reports in this series, Julie McCarthy captured small moments that still linger in her thoughts:

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Flags promoting the national soccer team dress up Rua Redentor in Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema district i

Flags promoting the national soccer team dress up Rua Redentor in Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema district for World Cup 2006. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
Flags promoting the national soccer team dress up Rua Redentor in Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema district

Flags promoting the national soccer team dress up Rua Redentor in Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema district for World Cup 2006.

Julie McCarthy, NPR
Grafitti Row in Sao Paulo i

"Grafitti Row" in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where artists take the medium to a new level of sophistication. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
Grafitti Row in Sao Paulo

"Grafitti Row" in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where artists take the medium to a new level of sophistication.

Julie McCarthy, NPR
Woman in traditional dress attends the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet in Chile. i

Woman in traditional dress attends the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
Woman in traditional dress attends the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

Women in traditional dress attends the inaugration of Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

Julie McCarthy, NPR
Young woman at a rally for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva i

Young woman at a rally for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who tells the crowd: "I am one of you!" Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
Young woman at a rally for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Young people at a rally for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who tells the crowd: "I am one of you!"

Julie McCarthy, NPR

I arrived in South America one year ago and was immediately swept into the current of its historic change: The colorful Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez squaring off in his inimical style with the Bush Administration; Evo Morales assuming power as Bolivia's first indigenous leader in 500 years; and former political prisoner Michele Bachelet, an unmarried mother of three, becoming Chile's first female president.

But in my wanderings covering the hurly burly of a continent's transformation, I stumbled upon hidden treasures of the sort that didn't fit into any one particular stories but that linger in the mind long after a trip is done.

Under the category of "least expected," was a discovery in an old colonial homestead in northern Chile. The scent of mildew clung to its cloistered rooms. A Life magazine dated 1954 sat on a table collecting dust. But it was the contraption in the corner that caught my eye with a front panel that read: "The Victor Talking Machine of Camden, New Jersey. Close the Lid while Playing." Owner and farmer Fernando Gonzalo Gray cranked it up, and after a few false starts, music, decidedly scratchy, began to pour forth, transporting us to turn-of-the-century Chile. I stood listening in silent wonder, thinking that these sounds had wafted thru this valley in the early 20th century. Farmer Gonzalo pointed out "that this music came even before electricity came." The volume control was marvelously uncomplicated — adjust the loudness by simply opening or closing the cabinets.

Further north in the Atacama Desert, I learned of a remarkable tale of perseverance. The story of the Women of Calama begins with the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 by Augusto Pinochet. A military helicopter heads for the Atacama with orders to eliminate "subversives." Soldiers murdered 72 people, victims of what became known as the "Caravan of Death." For the next 17 years the wives, daughters, and mothers of the dead search the desert, digging for the remains of their loved ones. In 1990, they discover a mass grave. Photographer Paula Allen chronicles their ordeal in an exquisite book titled Flowers in the Desert. Writer Isabel Allende says of this must-see work: "In the hallucinatory photographs of Paula Allen, the lunar landscape of northern Chile's desert stretches toward the horizon like a sea of grief.... The tiny figures of women with shovels in their hands, scouring that plain baked by brutal climate, are in these photographs converted into eternal symbols."

In Bolivia, it was graveyards that intrigued. I wandered around the cemetery of the hardscrabble town of El Alto, searching for the memorial honoring those who had died in what became known as the "War in Defense of Gas." Tombstones of the townspeople were lined up in tight rows, many weed-entangled, many erected in a distinctive pattern of countless pebbles piled on more pebbles. The Alto Plano, the high planes of Bolivia, lies nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and on a crystalline day, you feel you could touch the sky. I stood at one end of the graveyard recording the sounds — families who'd come to picnic beside gravesites, children romping over the untended grounds. Then from a distance came the ethereal sounds of singing. I looked up from scribbling in my notebook to find a man with a guitar, strumming beside the grave of a loved one, while family members huddled nearby. A mournful melody carried by a lone voice, it was a remarkable remembrance.

The tinkling of bells in the market of Cochabamba signals the sound of folk healers, or "yatiri," an Aymara Indian word suggesting an ability to "see" — including the future. The men, some of whom are blind, bless everything from baby clothing to bathroom fixtures, softly murmur over the assortment of things clients put before them. It somehow revealed the misnomer of the "New World." In those soft whispering you could hear Bolivia's link to its ancient past where people practiced healing arts and drew comfort from superstitions long before the Catholic Church or the Conquistadors arrived.

The "middle men" who distribute coca to Bolivia's markets, where it is legally weighed and sold, were an eye-opener. They gathered one afternoon, complaining about new regulations on the amount of the green leaf they could sell. There was one man, the rest were women. They resembled nothing so much as a PTA meeting, dressed like housewives and school teachers. It was another reminder of how coca is embedded in the culture in ways that are difficult for outsiders to comprehend. It's everywhere in Bolivia. Bowlfuls are openly offered in hotel lobbies to help guests stave off effects of altitude sickness. I've seen city council meetings in towns around Lake Titicaca convene with the requisite bag of coca (for chewing) laid out on the table beside the minutes of the last meeting, so customary is the use.

In the cacophony of events, it can be the single individual who leaves the indelible impression. Last May when members of a prison gang inside their cells ordered their foot soldiers on the outside to attack police, banks, and busses, they paralyzed Sao Paulo. "The state simply vanished," said social psychologist Nancy Cardia, and debate raged about what could have triggered it all. But the words of the public defender Carlos Veis struck me more than all the others. "If you look at these criminals, what do they want?" Veis asks. "They want things," he says. "They don't want to make a revolution — they want a car, they want new tennis shoes. They want to be consumers, because if you can't consume, you are nothing. They are," he said, "the fruits" of a world obsessed with consuming.

But for sheer exuberance, nothing beats Brazilians during the World Soccer Cup. The world's fifth most populous nation simply stops on game day: banks close, supermarkets shutter up. Crime declines. Even the government shuts down. I was chasing interviews in Brasilia the day Brazil played Ghana and was told by officials hurrying home for kick-off: "We're closing at 11 this morning. Call back tomorrow!" I traipsed off to a local watering hole for the noon game where soccer fever was running high. But there was a spoiler in the crowd — an obnoxious young man blowing a horn for the duration of the game. People began to shove 50 Real notes ($23) at him to make him stop. When I asked why people didn't tell him to be quiet, they told me: "He could be the son of a powerful politician and we don't want to get on his bad side." It provided some insight into how corruption can flourish here, and does.

But so too does music and art. The painted walls and garages along the streets of an artists' enclave in Sao Paulo take graffiti to new heights. They reveal as well how Brazilians are able to elevate the simplest of things into their own art form.

The object of our series on Latin America is to tell the story of its historic transition. But the smaller, surprising discoveries I made along the way were just as captivating as the larger canvass of change.

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