In light of the coming 40th anniversary of the September the 11th Coup d’état in Chile in 1973, this Chilean Coup 40 years on post explores some of the issues.
Chronicle of a world never foretold.
By Verónica Alvarez-Córdova
Carmen Gloria gets out of the citro-taxi and what does she see?… the University gates chained, young conscripts stopping workers from coming in and sending them home until further notice. “Why?” She asks, “ Miss, haven’t you heard? We are in government now, all the nonsense has stopped, no more strikes, no more teachers dodging hours of work to call in sick”. “Don’t you recognise me?” the young soldier asks, pointing the machine gun at her, “I was your pupil in the twelfth grade?”
Shell-shocked, Carmen walks backwards a few steps, and heads home. She feels a great sadness,’ what is this all about?’, she asks herself. ‘ This is not possible!’ ‘Why didn’t I stay in the USA instead ?’ she says in anger.
At that moment, ambivalent feelings caught her in the midst of puzzling events. With a mixture of composure and tears in her eyes, with regrets, she recalls her years of study in the USA, prior to 1970 when truly a new consciousness took hold of her, a young woman who used to view life through rose- tinted spectacles. Exciting experiences in a foreign environment were feeding her new awareness.
Her time as a student in the United States happened in a world of contrasting lives, between that of the protected comfort of her ‘host family’ home and the precarious lives of her new friends, with whom she shared the Campus Residence Hall. During weekends she visited the homes of sons and daughters of Chicano, African-American and Puerto Rican families of tomato pickers, cotton pickers and of mothers and fathers who made a living as factory ‘nocheros‘. They lived in overcrowded and reduced spaces, where it was difficult to maintain the rituals of ‘normal’ living as at her home in Chile.
It was painful for Carmen to see the sacrifice these families made for their children to achieve the coveted graduate degree that would pave their hard way into USA society. Likewise, she was eager to absorb all the knowledge she could get from other friends in the Campus which contributed to draw aside her veil of naivety and to empower her with a new challenge to her former belief in a ‘natural order’. Now her sensibility had been touched and in her metamorphosis she felt she had crossed the threshold between pity and rebellion.
On her way back to Chile, Carmen Gloria managed to visit friends in various Latin American countries, adding another seed to her new consciousness. In Ecuador, she went to markets, plazas and communities such as Santo Domingo de los Colorados where, in awe, she could see the contrast between the opulent life of her friends and the misery in the streets: life of bitterness and sadness, drunkards and beggars passing by her side.
Another element was added to her growth, when she accompanied her friends and their lawyer father to the banana jungle, where montubios worked the fields from sunrise to sunset, with no protection, no provisions or water for their hunger and thirst. On visiting a prison located in a kind of dungeon or perhaps similar to an underground lion’s cage, she saw and heard the hard voices of a crowd of common criminals full of anticipation and hope waiting for their lawyer. The air was rare. The atmosphere was filled with the smell of urine and overcrowding, the heat, the lack of hygiene, hopelessness, and life in subhuman conditions. From the dungeons emerged dozens of rough hands grabbing the documents the squatted lawyer handed down through iron bars after shouting their names. This horror touched Carmen’s feelings very deeply. It was not hard to realise the iniquity of this unknown and ugly world. She was now being prepared to challenge the unjustifiable.
Still in shock after seeing her pupil pointing the machine gun at her, Carmen,walking home in a daze, remembers her joy of returning to Chile in the early 70s with a new motivation and eagerness to understand her own country more; to expand her new outlook about struggle, poverty and oppression and to begin where she had left off.
Her memory, then flashes back to 1970- Chile- when she meets Luciano Valderrama again in a sindicato. Luciano is a young professional and Trade Union leader, a man who also speaks of a world different from the one she understands. He seems to know a great deal of everything, especially of the history and life of the oppressed, he himself a faithful scion of that world. Luciano holds her enthralled when he speaks with the same fervour as young Afghan Mogiq, with the same intensity as Nigerian Timothy who always asserted that Che Guevara was not a bandit but a freedom fighter, and with the clarity of Jordanian Ahmed, who explained the detrimental effects of capitalism and the ‘six days’ war in the Middle East’.
In these early 70s, the Popular Unity coalition was in full swing intoxicated by the hope and joy of building a new society. Luciano urged her to participate in marches and in all teachers’ union meetings. Carmen also accompanied him on his late night activities writing graffiti and slogans on walls. Carmen sometimes went along, always as an observer, perhaps she was too shy, too embarrassed or too cynical to join in, but she enjoyed every minute of it.
Change was there, dreams were there passing before her eyes, a new world was unfolding and impacting on her previous naive experience. It was not only reflected in her own metamorphosis but also in the work of young fellow academics and university leaders,who dreamed, trusted and believed in the peaceful road to socialism; who worked and enjoyed their everyday lives with the excitement of being agents of change. A new music heralding indisputable transformation emerged sung by both young and old: drums, guitars, charango and quenas, flutes, panpipes and voices sprang everywhere in the streets of Chile. There was no turning back, they were moving forward.
Carmen witnessed students’ riots at the University: MIR and FTR groups marching under the command of Luciano supporting and protecting their Popular Unity comrades. Everybody chanted slogans of social change, flanked by the MIR and their haunting mantra of “Pueblo, Conciencia y Fusil”. Although excitement and joy were at the highest point, Carmen’s inner wish, surely everybody else’s, was that ‘fusil’ should always remain just a beautiful metaphor.
On September 11th, 1973, three thousand days later, on a Tuesday morning, these dreams were shattered: date which Carmen visualises herself standing at the chained gates of the University where she used to work and facing a former pupil turned soldier.
Today, forty years later, Carmen recalls the innocent young woman who once landed at O’Hare Airport full of hope and joy and then, the same young woman in exile landing at Heathrow Airport – full of intense and painful experiences. A thought still haunts her: if she were given the opportunity to be young again, what would she have wished for? Would she have preferred to avoid her epiphany and continue being the young woman of a provincial town in Northern Chile? Deep inside her she longs for that town which had everything a young person required to live a protected youth and just enjoy life.Wishful thinking!
Luciano went to prison and later disappeared, her friends were no longer there, her country was lost in the mist of years of oppression and today it seems a country of others. Trying to make sense of it all, Carmen Gloria Lagarrigue has built a new life, in a new world of many mazes: an unexplored world, never foretold.
citro-taxi: very low-cost Citroen-made taxi- 1970s Northern Chile.
montubios: a specific Ecuadorian ethnic group, a small % in the great mestizo variety.
Santo Domingo de los Colorados: ‘los colorados’ or tsáchilas:an indigenous group of Ecuador who paint their faces and hair red ( with achiote ) for prevention against small pox.
Sindicato: trade union
charango, quenas: pre-Colombian people’s musical instruments
MIR, FTR: revolutionary groups that embraced the armed struggle
Pueblo, Conciencia y Fusil: People, Conscience and Arms