In the 20th century, Chile ruled the island with a mixture of paternalism and benign neglect. Older residents remember an island without electricity or running water, run by Chilean naval officers "as if the island were a ship and we were all sailors."
Chilean educators encouraged the parents of Easter Island's "best and brightest" to send their children to mainland boarding schools.
Haoa, the Rapa Nui teacher, was sent off to Chile when she was 9. She suffered an unbearable loneliness for months on end, rarely hearing a word of her native language. "The nuns told my parents I was too smart, that it would be a waste to let me stay on the island," she says.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Easter Island -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about Easter Island incorrectly reported the number of flights to the island. There are four flights each week at the height of the tourist season, not four daily flights.
As an adult with a Chilean university degree, she returned to the island to work at the local clinic -- until the day her oldest daughter started kindergarten at Easter Island's elementary school.
"I had always spoken to her in Rapa Nui because I knew when she grew up there would be pressure to speak in Spanish," Haoa remembers. After that first day of kindergarten, Haoa discovered that Rapa Nui was being treated "like an alien language" in her daughter's class, which was conducted entirely in Spanish.
Soon Haoa was volunteering to organize Rapa Nui workshops at the school. Eventually, she became a full-time teacher there. "It was urgent that we have our children speaking our language," she says.
Because Rapa Nui has no equivalents for modern words like "computer," Haoa and other teachers have coined new terms. A computer, for example, is a makimi roro uira, which literally means "brilliant mind machine."
Creating new words helps encourage invention and creativity in a language, an essential part of keeping it alive.
"We've proved that it's possible to teach science in Rapa Nui," Haoa says. But more important, she adds, "we're preparing our children for the outside world by giving them a stronger sense of who they are and where they come from."
Mauricio Valdebenito, a Chilean and a cabdriver, is among the parents whose children will start the Rapa Nui immersion program soon, when the next kindergarten class begins. His wife is Rapa Nui, but she and their 5-year-old daughter speak mostly Spanish at home.
"To me, all learning is a good thing. The more the better," Valdebenito says. "I wouldn't mind hearing her speak it more. It's part of her culture."
Haoa tries to spread the same message outside the classroom. On her kitchen door there is a sign asking visitors to speak in Rapa Nui. "Hare vanaga i te reio henua," it says. "In this house we speak the voice of the people."
Haoa believes she's making progress. The other day, she was walking across the playground when she heard something she hadn't heard for many years, a sound that transported her to her own childhood.
A group of small children were arguing in Rapa Nui.
"They were starting to scream, but they weren't hurting each other," she says.
So for a moment or two, all she did was listen.