The hero, says the author, is never studied. “Instead he is accepted as if he were another historical fact, a man who personifies some historical event. . . . This is a serious error. We must question why and how a man reaches this status. . .” (p. 3). With this caveat Professor Sater begins the study of Arturo Prat’s heroic image. Prat, it seems, has been Chile’s “man of all seasons,” the plastic hero who can be molded to meet the nation’s needs in any crisis. Sater demonstrates convincingly that Prat’s popularity and usage were shaped by internal conditions; as these changed his image was transformed to meet new needs. Heroes are thus made and remade.
Son of a Catalan immigrant, Prat graduated from the Naval Academy, earned a law degree, and taught in a free school for workers. His sense of dedication wedded him to the Navy. When the War of the Pacific began he asked for sea duty. Because the admiral did not like “literate sailors” he was assigned to the Esmeralda, an antique vessel already stripped of its ablest seamen and equipment.
At Iquique the Peruvian ironclad Huáscar hammered the unarmored Esmeralda for three hours then rammed her. When the Huáscar struck Prat gave the order to board, then leaped onto the enemy’s deck and to his death accompanied only by a sergeant. When the Huáscar struck again a lieutenant and a dozen of the surviving Chilean seamen boarded it and were also killed. The Esmeralda sank with colors still flying.
Prat became a symbol of the nation’s death-struggle, and Chileans renewed their efforts to win the war. Opposition politicians also used Prat’s name to attack the administration. When a crisis arose over the parliamentary government’s ineffectiveness and corruption, Prat’s name became the symbol of dynamic leadership, spiritual superiority, and private morality. Later his name was associated with the movement for national unity, and the press invoked his image to prevent reforms. Socialists employed his name to harass the government for its economic failures. In the last presidential election Clarín asserted that if Prat were alive he would vote for Tomić or Allende.
In concluding this excellent study of the manipulation of a hero Sater states: “Prat remained popular because the virtues he exemplified and the acts he performed could be used to meet the needs of a changing society. The hero, then, can embody the quintessence of a nation’s aspirations and desires and thus become a symbol not of an age but of man’s eternal search for perfection” (p. 157).
Parenthetically it might be added that Chilean youths may no longer accept Prat as presented. A joke the reviewer heard in Santiago a few years ago concerned Prat’s last words as he leaped to the enemy deck; clutching his posterior with both hands, he was said to exclaim, “Who struck me with that bayonet?”