MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The first Elvis song that Chilean miner Edison Pena heard was "Heartbreak Hotel." Pena was in high school at the time, and it was the start of a lasting devotion to Elvis that will bring him to Graceland this week week as part of the late singer's birthday celebration.
"Muchas gracias," said Pena, a national hero of Chile who will get a chauffeured ride in a 1956 pink Cadillac to Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., as part of his visit.
Pena was among the miners who survived 69 days this year buried in a caved-in gold and copper mine almost a half-mile below ground. When Graceland learned that he is what he calls an "Elvis fanatic," it arranged to send an MP3 player filled with Elvis music into the mine shaft for him.
After his rescue with 32 other miners, Pena accepted Graceland's invitation to Memphis, among other invitations. In November, he fought a knee injury to carry the Chilean flag across the finish line of the New York City Marathon. The New York trip included a visit to the "Late Show with David Letterman," where Pena, who speaks no English, belted out "Suspicious Minds" in English. "If you like something, it's not hard to learn it," he said by telephone this week from his home in Santiago.
Pena, 34, spoke Spanish during a cell phone conversation that crackled at times. What came through clearly was his gratitude for Graceland's invitation, with side trips planned to Tupelo, and to the Cirque du Soleil production of "Viva Elvis" in Las Vegas.
"Muchas gracias," he said five more times. Pena will cut the giant cake on the front lawn of Graceland on the Jan. 8 observance of what would have been Elvis' 76th birthday. He said whatever his hosts want to show him is fine with him. "I'm not a greedy person. I'm a person who receives gifts that life has given me."
Graceland spokesman Kevin Kern said Pena will get "the King-sized Elvis visit" with a private tour of the home, airplanes and car museum. Graceland collaborated with the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau, The Peabody hotel, Delta Air Lines and American Dream Safari for Pena's visit.
After his Graceland tour next Friday, Pena will attend a Memphis Grizzlies basketball team practice with a chance to meet Spanish-speaking players Marc Gasol (of Barcelona) and Greivis Vasquez (of Caracas, Venezuela). He will sample barbecue at the Rendezvous and serve as honorary duckmaster at The Peabody before attending an Elvis-themed Memphis Grizzlies-Utah Jazz game.
After attending the cake-cutting ceremony on Graceland's front lawn, he will have a private recording session at Sun Studio before attending the Elvis Birthday Pops concert by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
His Tupelo visit on Jan. 9 will include the Cadillac ride to a ceremony in which Pena will receive a key to the city and a visit to the Tupelo Hardware Store where Elvis got his first guitar.
He has a 3-year-old daughter with his common-law wife and said that while trapped in the mine, he feared he would never see them again. He said the mine ordeal left an impact. "I thought I wasn't going to get out. And I did. It's moving." But, he said, he now struggles with anxiety, doesn't like waiting and doesn't like enclosed spaces.
Since his rescue, he has appeared on national TV, including the "Today" show, and he has accepted invitations to Germany, Italy, New York and Los Angeles. "I have to work now, traveling," he said.
Pena said he hopes to travel as a motivational speaker. "I'm going to teach many people the meaning of life: to believe in God, to believe that it's possible, to believe that, yes, there's a way out."
(Daniel Connolly and Michael Lollar are reporters for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.)