By Cecilia Alvear
(Published in The World Post. Posted: 03/16/2009 and updated: 05/25/201)
Sixty years ago on the night of February 12, 1949, the Martians landed in my hometown of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. And here I am as a visitor to this now big city reminiscing.
In that distant year, Quito was a small city of 250,000. Set high in the Andes, next to a volcano and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it retained its Spanish colonial charm with white-washed houses, narrow streets and magnificent churches.
I was a 9-year-old school girl and lived with my parents and two sisters in the old colonial downtown area. I also had two older brothers.
In that pre-TV era, our main sources of entertainment were the occasional movie and the radio. Our favorite station was Radio Quito. It ran music programs and the best soap operas or “radio-novelas” as we called them. The station had news, but that was for the grown-ups.
In 1949 two programming executives at Radio Quito, in search of cutting-edge entertainment, decided to air an Ecuadorian version of “War of the Worlds.”
Never mind that when Orson Welles aired the program in the United States in 1938 it created widespread panic and led thousands to believe that invading Martians were spreading death and destruction throughout New Jersey and New York. The panic persisted despite an announcement at the top of the broadcast that this was just a dramatization of the H.G. Wells classic story.
But 11 years later in Quito the broadcasters made no such announcement. A serious mistake.
On that fateful night most of Quito’s homes were tuned in to our favorite station. A famous duo performed an Ecuadorian folk song, but halfway through the performance an announcer broke in with urgent news. He said that Martian flying saucers had landed in Latacunga, a town about 25 miles south of Quito.
Breathlessly, he proclaimed that Martians with their “death rays” had destroyed Latacunga and that the alien hordes were now headed for Quito.
A “reporter” then did a remote report from Cotocollao, the area near the Quito airport, relating how the Martians had overtaken the Ecuadorian Air Force base and destroyed it. This “remote” ended abruptly as the “reporter” gasped for air as a cloud of “deadly gas” enveloped him.
Another “reporter” claiming to be on top “La Previsora” bank building, at six stories the tallest in Quito, described the “monsters” wreaking destruction on their path toward the city.
To further add to the “magical realism” of the event, actors impersonating government officials issued “communiqués” asking women and children to evacuate the city and able-bodied men to remain to fight the invaders.
Panic overtook Quito. Police and firefighters were dispatched to the airport area to confront the aliens. The cadets at the military school, including my brother Eduardo, were ordered to take battle positions along the perimeter of the campus. My older brother Alfredo a law student had just finished an evening class and witnessed how men, women and children, still in their night clothes, took to the streets. Some tried to leave the city, others sought shelter in the many churches that opened their doors.
Convinced that this was “el fin del mundo” – “the end of the world” – thousands tried to confess their sins to overwhelmed priests. One priest allegedly instructed a group of faithful to confess their sins aloud so that he could grant them a mass absolution. Many did so and confessed to infidelities and other transgressions within hearing distance of their spouses and neighbors.
It took a while but finally the programming executives at Radio Quito realized that their re-creation of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” stunt had gone too far.
They announced that this was a dramatization, that it was all fiction, that there were no Martians and Quito was safe.
At this point the comedy ended and the tragedy began. Instead of calming troubled waters, the announcement fueled tremendous outrage among the populace.
A mob marched to the building that housed both Radio Quito and the main Quito newspaper El Comercio. They threw rocks and some brought gasoline and set the building on fire.
To put the panic and its subsequent anger into context one must understand that only eight years earlier, in 1941, Peruvian military forces invaded the southern provinces of Ecuador in a war over territory disputed by both countries. To settle that war Ecuador ceded a large chunk of its eastern jungles to Peru. As a consequence the then President of Ecuador was deposed and the country suffered through political convulsions that saw four heads of state installed and quickly replaced through coups or countercoups in a period of four years. To the men who marched on the station fear of an invasion was very real and they felt the radio hoax was a cruel insult that stripped them and their families of their dignity.
In their fury the rioters did not take into account the one hundred or so innocent people who were working in the newspaper offices and the radio station. One can only imagine their terror as they tried to escape the fire by jumping out of windows or leaping over to neighboring buildings.
The firefighters and police were delayed in arriving because they had to make their way back from the airport area where they had gone to fight off the “Martians.”
The fire was finally put out, but the building was destroyed. The casualty figures vary, some accounts put it at six, “Time” magazine’s count is fifteen and other publications go as high as twenty dead.
And in our home, we slept through it.
When the news announcement interrupted the musical program my sisters and I decided to go to bed. Remember, we thought news was boring. Little did I know then that I would end up a journalist and news would become my passion and my career.
My parents listened for a while, my father vaguely remembered having read about what happened in New Jersey, and when the disclaimers were eventually made, they also went to bed.
The following day, a Sunday, we woke with no paper and no radio.
We went to mass and then walked to look at the smoking ruins of Radio Quito and El Comercio. One could only imagine the horror of those who perished.
In a show of solidarity the other daily paper in Quito, El Dia generously offered to share its plant with El Comercio and for a while we had a front page with both their names. Eventually Radio Quito and “El Comercio” were rebuilt in another area of town and remain to this day. In the aftermath of the tragedy there were stories -perhaps urban legends- of several divorces, separations, and lawsuits as a consequence of information obtained through the mass confessions.
The radio Quito programming executives lost their jobs and were indicted. One of them went into hiding and fled to another country. As for the Quiteños – they earned a new nickname, for a while other Ecuadorians mockingly called them “Los Marcianos” – “The Martians.”
And perhaps fears of another Martian invasion were finally put to rest in 1955 when Cuban composer Rosendo Ruiz Oquendo wrote “Los Marcianos llegaron ya” or “The Martians have already arrived.” The popular tune describes the Martians as a happy go lucky group dancing their way out of their space-ship to the rythm of the rica-cha, the Martian version of the cha-cha-cha. It became a dance hit throughout Latin America.