It was said in passing, while we were killing time in a bar near the sports center, waiting for someone to drop off our tickets to go see Tani Loayza’s grandson. That was the big news: Tani’s grandson was debuting. He was a kid who’d grown up in northern Argentina, but who considered himself profoundly Iquiquean – I almost said Chilean, but really that would be imprecise, because Chile has never given the kid anything, while Iquique has: a place, a name, a practice space and all the facilities needed to make him into a boxer of his grandfather’s stature; Iquique, land of champions, land of Tani Loayza and Arturo Godoy, men who went off to New York to compete for the world title, who made history in spite of their defeats and showed the world that a city in northern Chile, a salt mine port town slinking away from the Atacama Desert, was the cradle of the best boxers from the end of the world.
So there we were, killing time before going to see Tani Loayza’s grandson, a couple of beers in, when someone offhandedly brought up the name Chungungo Martínez, though no one skipped a beat, no one said anything; it happened fast – the name, his story or a piece of his story: they were talking about moral victories, and how Chile was just that, a bunch of defeats hiding behind a couple half-wins, a title here, a championship there, a fleeting joy that would enable an endless harangue about lo chileno and our talent for bouncing back from adversity. That was how the name Chungungo Martínez had popped up. Though first someone had to mention, of course, Tani Loayza and his feat in New York that night in July of 1925, when he contended for the middleweight world championship and lost to Jimmy Goodrich because the ref stepped on him, typical Chilean bad luck, an injury pulled him out of the fight and that was it, the dream of becoming world champion ended there, and so the legend began, the moral victory, the what would have happened if . . . We’ve lived a whole life off of that, same as with Arturo Godoy’s fight against Joe Louis, in Madison Square Garden in February 1940, when he withstood all fifteen rounds only to lose in an evenly split vote, once again that rotten Chilean luck, that hair’s breadth away for the guy who had Louis up against the ropes – the Brown Bomber himself, one of the most celebrated boxers of the twentieth century, the greatest heavyweight in history. ¡Viva Chile, mierda! someone surely cried, and then the subject changed and everything was lost to the background noise and the beers and glasses of pipeño wine, and then the name Chungungo Martínez came up and no one wanted to run with it, even though he was the only one – out of all those mentioned earlier – who had been a world champion, the first world champion Chile ever had, though not in boxing, no, this is Martínez here, the marine otter, the chungungo, that’s what they called him, the man who would dive into the ocean and hold his breath underwater for seemingly forever while he slid around the rocky bottom, hunting whatever crossed his path. That’s how he moved under the water, they said, like a chungungo, a Chilean otter, the ‘marine cat’ that lives among the rocks, sometimes swimming on its back, letting the currents carry it out to sea. And maybe Chungungo Martínez would be there too, not in the bar, but walking toward the sports center to see Tani Loayza’s grandson debut against the Bolivian boxer Churata. It was the event of the year in Iquique and the whole city would be going to the sports center, or else they’d be close by, near Plaza Condell, hoping to hear something of the fight, the shouts, the cheers. The important thing was to be there, to be part of it, spend time with family and friends, buy a chorizo on bread from a street vendor, maybe a few sopaipillas, hang around till the fight began, the debut – and hopefully it’d be a dream debut, the start of a story that would put Iquique back on top and really earn all that talk about the land of champions. With any luck Tani’s grandson would take the Bolivian out quickly, that was the key.
They were chattering about all that in the bar and no one remembered that the name Chungungo Martínez had even come up, because Chungungo Martínez was cursed. Or so said the rumor that had been going around for decades, after he’d gone missing for several long years because he’d seen what he shouldn’t have seen. But things had gone bad even before that.
Maybe it all started that winter morning when a group of men went into Caleta Negra – a small fishing cove about eighty kilometers south of Iquique, just a couple wooden houses and not much more – where Martínez worked as a fisherman. We’re talking about the beginning of the seventies here, the last gasps of the Frei Montalva presidency, a Christian Democrat government that the CIA supported in order to keep Salvador Allende from ascending to power. It was during those years when this group of men headed into Caleta Negra to find Martínez and offer him a spot on the Chilean Underwater Spearfishing team. The sport’s 1971 world championship was going to be held on the beaches of Iquique, and they needed to put together a competitive team that could hold its own against the Cubans, the Italians and the gringos. Those teams were the cream of the crop. They were the capos, the most dangerous. That’s why these trainers were traveling around to all the fishing coves in northern Chile, those lost towns between Arica and Coquimbo where a handful of families had settled, looking for a better life, a livelihood. The Chilean trainers knew the only way to face the championship with any dignity was to search out the best, the ones who’d been raised there, in the ocean, those boys who headed out in boats before sunup to hunt the depths with a harpoon or whatever was on hand, holding their breath to descend several meters and spear whatever swam by. No one knew what was down there better than they did, the Pacific’s trickery, its seaweed forests, the rock formations and the habits of the fish. They were the men who would lead the Chilean team, and the trainers had already spent several weeks combing the coves when they reached the one where Martínez lived – his name had already been circulating, people said no one could stay underwater as long as him, that he could bring down anything that crossed his path, that no one had stamina like his. Their offer, strictly speaking, was to let him compete with the thirty other boys they had already selected: of that whole lot, only six would remain, the six official members of the Chilean Underwater Spearfishing team, the ones who would go off to seek glory by plunging into the depths of the sea.
‘Go on, Chungungo, you’ll take ’em all for sure,’ said his friends, the other fishermen he’d lived with in Caleta Negra for several years by then. They were his family, they’d known him since he came there as a child uprooted from the desert, a little kid who’d learned to swim in the Loa River and was astounded when he saw the ocean for the first time: he couldn’t understand what it was that moved those waves with such force that they crashed onto the shore, didn’t understand why that blue stain never ever stopped moving, as if it were a sleeping animal that could turn wild at any moment.
Soon, he learned to distrust the sea. And he quickly understood that you can never let your guard down in the water. A slight distraction and everything could fall apart: life, future, dreams. You never had options in the sea, and Chungungo Martínez knew it.
So, he said yes.
He came in second.
The trainers confirmed everything people said about him, and still they couldn’t believe the strength that let him stay under for two or three minutes and surface, always, with some hefty, significant catch: a conger eel, an albacore, a sea bass that weighed three, four, five kilos. And then he’d start over again. And on and on, for almost two hours. That was spearfishing, which he had never practiced as a sport, it was simply his everyday work. The only difference here was that whoever speared the largest catch and accumulated the most weight was a winner. In those two hours, he competed against the other thirty boys and managed to bring in a catch of almost fifty fish, mostly sea bass and a couple of conger eels. He didn’t come in first only because he wasn’t familiar with that area of the Pacific where they competed – one of the beaches where the championship would be held, near Los Verdes – and so he’d gotten lost more than once down there amid the seaweed forests that obscured his view.
The trainers didn’t tell him so, but they were already convinced there was no limit to how far Chungungo Martínez could go, and the possibility of winning the world championship was, for the first time, very real.
That was March of 1970. A few months later, Salvador Allende would win the presidential election and read his first speech, his victory speech, that early morning of 5 September 1970, when the Popular Unity government was inaugurated.
Exactly one year later, in the early morning hours of 5 September 1971, Chungungo Martínez and the people of Iquique were celebrating his achievement, his triumph at the World Underwater Spearfishing Championship. His face was plastered across the newspapers, and the city shone in those photos the world over; the port city, the northern Chilean city, a slice of land between ocean and mountains that could up and disappear on any given day if a tsunami decided to make it so, to erase the entire landscape so all that remained would be those tall, gray hills, like an inviolable wall. A little further on was the desert, then the border.