prof back from filming documentary on Newfoundlanders
6, 2000, Gazette)
Eliza Lewis chats recently with David Quinton, producer/ director
of the film, Letters from Eliza, at Puerto Santa Cruz, Patagonia,
Argentina. She is holding a bottle of Bidgoods bakeapple jam,
a gift from Newfoundland. Her interest in Newfoundland, her birthplace,
has never wavered.
Margaret Ann (Elliott) Downer, three unidentified friends
in Patagonia and Will Downer. At the sheep farm, the Horkitas,
near Puerto Santa Cruz, Patagonia, Argentina. Circa 1940.
By Pamela Gill
In 1914, a teenage girl left
her home on Fogo Island and sailed to Patagonia in southern Argentina.
Today, Eliza Lewis is nearly
100 years old. Though now a Spanish speaking Argentinean citizen,
she has not forgotten her childhood days in Newfoundland.
Her memories of boats laden
with codfish, caplin rolling on the beach, icebergs drifting
by and the dancing Northern Lights have been kept alive through
the letters shes written over the last 80 years to the
relatives she left behind.
Among those relatives is Dr.
Don Downer, an environmental science professor at Sir Wilfred
Grenfell College. Fascinated with Elizas letters, Dr. Downer
recently returned from helping to film a documentary on the life
of Eliza, her 80-year-old son Leonard, her 26-year-old grandniece
Susanna and the 50 or 60 other descendents of Will and Margaret
Ann Downer, the first Newfoundland settlers in Patagonia. Dr.
Power also is researching a book on Will Downer, Margaret Ann,
their story from Fogo to Patagonia and their descendents today.
And how exactly did Newfoundlanders
end up in Patagonia? Before leaving for Argentina on Sunday,
March 12, Dr. Downer explained that his relative Will had originally
set out from Fogo to make his fortune in the California gold
rush. He was shipwrecked in a storm off Cape Horn around the
turn of the century, and began a new life in Argentina.
After almost two decades of
sheep herding and raising horses, he decided to make his way
back to Newfoundland. There, he married Margaret Ann Elliott
who had three children from a previous marriage: William, Daisy
and Eliza. Shortly thereafter, they set sail for South America.
When complete, the documentary,
titled Letters from Eliza, will record Elizas first meeting
with a Newfoundlander in 87 years. Dr. Downer, producer/director
David Quinton and videographer Howard Pack made the trip to Argentina
and drove up the coast to Puerto Santa Cruz, Elizas home.
There, they recorded not only a family reunion of sorts, but
also the way of life that these Newfoundland descendants have
carved out for themselves in a country in another hemisphere.
When we arrived we were
met at Rio Gallegos airport by two cousins, Roberto and Mario
Arbegia, and their wives, said Dr. Downer upon his return.
They had a big sign boasting the name Downer
and were grinning from ear to ear.
Today, members of Elizas
family run a 12,000-hectare farm with roughly 5,000 sheep, almost
100 chickens and 40 horses.
Their adaptation is demonstrated
through the language they speak: Eliza, who is primarily English,
now speaks Spanish functionally. Her son Leonard is fluent in
both languages, but Susanna speaks only Spanish. Nevertheless,
Eliza has passed on her love of Newfoundland to her grand niece,
and Susanna now writes letters too in Spanish.
Eliza has been writing
letters to the relatives she left behind since 1914, says
Dr. Downer in his Grenfell College office. Behind him on the
wall is a black and white photograph taken in 1927 of a much
younger Eliza, which she gave to him during his visit. Though
she never came back to Newfoundland, shes maintained very
strong links with her family in Newfoundland.
Dr. Downer and his two counterparts
had the experience of seeing for the first time many kinds of
animals theyd only heard of before: small South American
three-toed ostriches (rheas), miniature camels (guanacos),
condors and even pink flamingos.
After travelling for two weeks
throughout the region where Eliza lives, the documentary team
returned from Argentina on March 27.
It was a wonderful experience;
I dont think Ive had quite an experience like it
before, for two reasons, said Dr. Downer. One, because
this is a branch of my family Ive never met before, they
live so far away. And two, because of the exotic country we experienced.
It was enormously interesting. Even the soil: Id take it
up in my hand and let it fall through my fingers. There were
cyan coloured lakes, magenta hillsides with fall colors, towering
snow-covered mountain peaks and vast blue-green ice fields. The
colours were truly spectacular.
Perhaps Dr. Downers young
cousin Susanna will have the opportunity to sift through her
fingers the land of her forefathers: the teams hope is
to bring her back to Fogo so they might film the Newfoundland
side of the story if the remaining funding can be found.
Others involved in the documentary
project include Elizabeth Reynolds, another cousin and co-host
with Dr. Downer; Ken Pittman, associate producer; and Jim Byrd,
executive producer. The documentary to date has been made possible
with support from the CBC, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial
University of Newfoundland and personal finances.