Grand Aunt Eugenia Pirzio-Biroli de Godoy (1907-2003)

General Alessandro Pirzio-Biroli’s only surviving child Eugenia, was a woman of many parts, a distinguished athlete, married to a Chilean professor and opera singer, (the baritone Genaro Godoy Arriaza), had two children by him, became a lay missionary, a philanthropist, founded Puerto Cisnes in Chile, becoming its mayor for decades, as well  as astrologer to General Pinochet.

She won the European Championships for discus, high jump and sprinting; founding the first female rowing club in Rome. She was extraordinarily emancipated for her time, and it was she who introduced shorts as female sportswear.

In 1947, aged forty, she left Italy for Chile. She met Chilean President Gabriel Gonzàles Varela, who was fascinated by her dynamism, supportive of her endeavours. In 1948, she met Padre Pedro Calvi with whom she sheltered abandoned children. She soon moved her orphanage to Puerto Cisnes (Swans’ Harbour), a pristine, backward, and isolated area in the Aisén, the IXth Region in Southern Chile, near Cape Horn.

In 1965, she was elected “regidora”(town councillor), and in 1973, “alcaldesa” (mayor) of Puerto Cisnes, and held that position until 1989. In 1992, aged 86, she ran again, this time against 12 candidates, and was re-elected as her stars had predicted, but sadly was unable to take office due to terminal illness, dying at Coihaique, Aysen’s capital, on 22nd February 2003.

When Zia Eugenia arrived in Puerto Cisnes, there were just four houses, a few fishermen and farmers. The reason of her move was to find a place that wasn’t “socially polluted”. She loved the place, and felt she had met her destiny. She founded the city from scratch, conceivably the most Southerly city founded by an Italian. Her whole inheritance was spent on building a town hall, a ten-bed hospital, an elementary school, a church, a fire station, a gym and eventually a public library , which she designed as a Greek temple. Zia Eugenia also cared for the social welfare and the cultural identity of the local population. When she saw women washing on the riverbank, she bought forty washing machines to be distributed among them. She was repaid in eggs, milk, cheese, jam, lettuce or fish. As there was no doctor in town, Eugenia used to stitch  wounds together.

Her creativity and entrepreneurial spirit blossomed making her Patagonia’s key personality, recognized throughout Chile. Puerto Cisnes became a construction site: one more school, an air-strip, an electrical power plant, a proper town hall, and eventually an ultra-modern wireline telephone service. With her family’s army background, she worked in close co-operation with the Chilean Army and Carabineros.

Her tenacy in lobbying the National Ministries in favour of Puerto Cisnes was legendary. She believed that one had to stir up Divine Providence, because things didn’t occur by themselves. To get a dirt road to Coyhaique built, Mayor Eugenia used such tactics as going to Santiago and sitting outside the offices of cabinet ministers with her knitting until they received her.  Her main inspiration was Saint Francis “God, make of me an instrument of your peace.” “Nothing can be disappointing – she said – if you have devoted your life to others.”

“Dona Eugenia”, was the principal female personality in Patagonia’s collective imagination, but she was not an easy person to define. She had two fatherlands: Italy and Patagonia, and two families: her own and Puerto Cisnes. She was an adventurous idealist and a pragmatic achiever. Her style was autocratic, although she liked to talk things over with her ‘flock’. She could out talk anybody with her arguments until her interlocutor agreed with her.

I had been yearning to meet her. The occasion arose in February 1992, when a group of American environmentalists invited me to join a rafting expedition down the Bio-Bio river, south of Los Angeles in North-Central Chile. The purpose of the expedition was to protest against Pinochet’s project of building seven dams for electricity generation on this river, which would have displaced some 50,000 Mapuche Indians living along banks.

As we had never met before, when I called her from Washington, D.C. I thought it was expedient to first explain who I was. I was, astonished when she briskly interrupted me saying, “You don’t need to explain who you are. I know everything about you. I have drawn your astrological birth chart and have had it on my desk for half a century. When are you coming?

When I landed, I saw Dona Eugenia waiting for me at the margin of the air-strip, surrounded by three carabineros in uniform. She was standing straight, with an Indian-style black turban on her head. She had long legs, a short body,  and a big nose. But what an aura of authority, grace and bonhomie  she radiated!

I was struck by the poverty of her house and garden. During the few days I spent with Zia Eugenia in Puerto Cisnes, I noticed that she never spoke of herself, but only of the community.  Eugenia liked to listen to Italian opera arias from an ancient tape recorder, notably those sung by her departed husband. The population revered her as became clear at an “asado al palo” evening she had organised as a welcome party for me. We danced the “queca” around the fire until beyond midnight. The locals loved to see us dancing. Her other main interests were national and world politics, which she followed through the BBC World Service, and occult sciences. She was well read in occultism, be it tarot cards, Chinese I Ching, Indian mithology, sufi philosophy or Mapuche indian astrology.

She was profoundly convinced that the scientific character of astrology was rooted in nature and that the moon influenced our lives, defining who we are. She had strong doubts in the capacity of astrology to predict the future. Her doubts were probably not as strong as she claimed. She felt our lives were the result of a conflict between our own free will and our preordained fate, whether we prefer to call it  God’s will, or destiny.

Was it fate or will, – I asked – that she came and settled in Cisnes to found a city? She wasn’t sure. She felt surrounded by phenomena that we  fail to see. Astrology could help draw our attention to some of them. But, it was not for us, she felt, to penetrate the mystery of life written at our birth. Perhaps, coming to Cisnes was her destiny she said, but creating a city and a comunity was her will.

In partial contradiction with her denial about the predictive role of astrology, Eugenia considered herself a political astrologist. She studied the constellations to predict the future of Chile’s key and emerging politicians. She was Pinochet’s recognized astrologer.  She monitored Pinochet’s actions since he took over the Chilean Army and subsequently became President, informing him at his request about the likely consequences of potential political decisions. This she did until the referendum that Pinochet arranged to seek  public endorsement and thereby allay Western criticism against his unelected status. But on that occasion –Pinochet did not consult Eugenia before fixing the referendum date. He told her that his nearest collaborators had informally tested public opinion, and estimated that there was a majority in his favour. If this conclusion was wrong, what should he do? – he asked. “Change the date!”- said Eugenia. But Pinochet felt he could not do so, because he would have been unable to find an acceptable excuse for that. And so the poll went 54%  against him and forced him to resign and go back to heading the Army.

Before I left Cisnes, we visited the hot springs of Puyuhuapi, including one named “alcaldesa” in her honour, she swam with me in “her” swimming pool. There she floated on her back, oblivious of her internal fight between – in her son, Stanislao’s words – her rebellion against her gradual aging and the sensation of the approaching eternal rest.

Her last project was left unfinished – the creation of an international centre for the protection and research of the environment, flora and fauna on Magdalena Island. She had called it “Patagonia 2000.” To act for the protection of the surrounding environment proved more difficult than creating a new city from scratch. She tried to warn her fellow citizens about the consequences of unmanaged progress, and the risk that development could be accompanied by the environmental destruction. “The social tragedy – she would say – is directly connected with the greed of those who exert their power without caring about the needs of the common people.”

In kissing goodbye, she said, “I am glad you came. You are a true Pirzio-Biroli. You will do greater things than you expect.” To my surprise she predicted an artistic phase in my life. This must be this museum.

She died at the age of 96. During the eulogy at the Cisnes cemetry, a former Mayor of that city said that Donna Eugenia had shown that it was still possible to exert public office without looking at anybody, and without  asking anything in return.