Can a hero full of flaws and weaknesses still be a hero?
We know very little of the private lives of those that the elites have chosen as our nation’s symbols. With Bernardo O’Higgins, for example, we have one of the biggest paradoxes: the so-called “father of the nation” had no father himself, and had children he did not recognize as his. O’Higgins was a victim of one of the strongest prejudices of those times, that of becoming the “guacho”. With time, his situation has helped to vindicate the legitimacy of those children that are so regularly born outside marriage, and who could not get an official legal status until the year 1998.
In her historical novel Déjame que te cuente (1999), Chilean writer Juana Gallardo presents the unknown mother of an O’Higgins’ child, completing one of the biggest legends about our national hero private life. This is part fact, part fiction, and does not aspire to historical rigor, and is based on several rumours that have been spread around the soldier figure and the references of different authors’ testimonies about his life.
The novel starts with a big surprise, introducing Rosario Puga, the mother of O’Higgins’ only child. His name is Demetrio Puga, who later becomes Demetrio Jara when he travels to Peru, meets his father and accepts seeing him introducing him as “my godson”. The kid is not able to use his father’s name until his death. It’s then he becomes Demetrio O’Higgins. Somehow, the son repeats his father’s history, and inherits the social rejection that Bernardo O’Higgins had to deal with just for the stigma that then meant being a “huacho”, a merciless word to identify those who had been born outside of marriage.
Rosario lives as O’Higgins’ lover and never gets to be formally united to him. She’s already married to a man she met as a teenager and whom she left after some years, in a very bold decision for the times. There are several “huachos” in her life story as well, those her husband has with the maids when Rosario seems incapable of giving him a child.
The tradition of illegitimate children in the O’Higgins family goes all the way to a third generation, with Antonio, the girl that Demetrio has in Peru and who he does not recognize either. The chain seems to end with Carmen Demetria O’Higgins, Demetrio’s second girl, born inside a marriage when he was way over fifty years-old. Carmen kept both her legal names, but had to grow without her parents. Her mother dies when giving birth, and her father commits suicide not long after that. This whole soap-opera still has the stories of Nieves Rodriguez Riquelme, Bernardo’s younger sister (by the line of his mother, Isabel Riquelme). Nieves father is none other than Manuel Ignacio Puga, Rosario Puga’s uncle.
Such a family chaos and succession of lies throughout the years were enough to make a man as important as O’Higgins, see the benefit of hiding his past, which partially explains the big ignorance there is among Chileans about his biography. Besides, there’s an unavoidable idealization of the man who is considered to be “the nation’s father”. The whole problem of the “huacho” is very much rooted in Chile’s cultural identity because of the example of this big hero. The novel has the very eloquent words of Candelaria, Demetrio’s maid (mother of illegitimate children herself): “Huachos is all of us”, she says.