Art & Activism: Chile 2007
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Powerful trip. We did so many things, met with so many people, it felt like eight trips. Here are my notes, not in graceful order, but I hope you can get a sense of the journey.
Chile is a beautiful and complicated place. One might guess that simply by looking at the map. I am asked in every interview, “If Chile has been so important to you, why has it taken you so long to come visit?” It is not asked in a mean spirit. I explain that during the dictatorship it seemed that our work was in the US to oppose our country´s involvement and to expose the dictatorship. But after that, I have no excuse. And that is true. There is however, perhaps a further explanation. I live in a rather isolated country, one that is self-absorbed. One that will spend lots of money on things but say we cannot afford to travel. We fear the unknown, the discomfort we will feel in another land, another language. Chileans say Chile is the last country anyone comes to. Even Latin Americans think of it as so far away. But I am here to testify that it isn’t that far away. And I am so glad I made the journey to Chile.
Today, as in the US, there is a myth that Chile is now a settled democracy. However, the pressure on the new president is huge, from both sides. The hope for relief that people had after the dictatorship were large and of course could not be satisfied to the extent they had imagined. The progressives know she is an improvement over terror and repression. But people want more than the lack of war. They want food, shelter, culture, health, dreams. Enter a woman like Soledad Puebla who I write about below and who says she is not waiting for the president.
EPES (Educación Popular en Salud Foundation) celebrates 25 years with a commitment to women’s health and sustainability. EPES was founded in 1982 during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet as a health training project of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile. One of the founders of EPES, Karen Anderson, now lives in Albany, NY. That is where I first met her and where she continues to work in women’s health. I did a workshop with her staff. Later on I got a call from her asking me if I wanted to go to Chile. She said I was receiving an invitation from Margarita Romera and The Park for Peace in Santiago to participate in a December 10th, 2007 event. And that EPES would like very much to help host the visit. This trip would not have been the same without the energy, research, logistical brilliance and good humour of the people at EPES. When we arrived at EPES office, there was such a warm, calm feeling - women and men working together in an obvious harmony. As is the way in Chile, we were greeted with kisses and refreshments.
The Childcare Center
We went to visit one of the projects EPES admires. It is run by the Lutheran Church. This is child care at its very best. There are infant rooms and a different space for toddlers and a third area for pre-school. When we arrived I immediately initiated a soccer game with 3 and 4 year olds (about my skill level!). I started with catch and quickly remembered that Latin Americans play catch with their feet, i.e. soccer. Sandy O and Pat Humphries of Emma’s Revolution and I went from room to room singing. We sang "This Little Light Of Mine" and "What Color are the Clothes You Are Wearing." The children sang to us. A good time had by all.
It is here we met Soledad. She is one of those people put on the earth to remind us that nothing is impossible. She was one of the leaders of a massive land takeover in the early 80’s where 20,000 people moved on to public land in the middle of the night and stayed. She is a powerhouse of a community leader focusing on women’s well being. She is one of those against-all-odds stories, coming from poverty and repression to getting a college degree. She was trained by EPES in keeping with their philosopy that training leadership is one of the best investments to be made to empower community.
Soledad spoke about her life and work. Several things stuck out in my mind. She said that machismo doesn’t allow men to advance as they get stuck in the cruel stuff of patriarchy. However, she said that out of a necessity to survive, women advance. (I don’t think she was suggesting to keep machismo in place in order to inspire women!)
She spoke of the 60 some women who have been killed by their partners in 2007. She works, as does EPES, to do education in the community around violence against women. Recently there was a large demonstration responding to the violence. A man on his way to the demo saw a woman being beaten by her partner. He did intervention and was shot by the perpetuator. The bullet put him in a wheel chair for life. 12 cities participated in the demo against femicide. 5000 marched in Santiago. Often the first conversation that comes up for women is when they report their children are being abused and that leads to women opening up and talking about the abuse they themselves are experiencing. We toured radical murals painted on the street walls protesting violence against women— some really bold public art.
Soledad backs up to an earlier time. When she was a child, she and her uncle heard big trucks moving in and out of the shanty town late at night. They climbed a tower to see what was going on. What her young eyes saw was a line up of people standing blindfolded in a spot light and then they were all killed. For a long time she did not tell anyone what she saw. However, she did see a nun pulling bodies out of the river. She went to help her. She learned that Christianity is not sitting around praying. Even now, she is still called to testify as the struggle to find the disappeared continues, and of course the need to have those guilty of these crimes come to trial.
Soledad went to work at a church. She heard the president of the church yelling at someone. A young woman came out, crying. Soledad suggested they go get a cup of coffee. The young woman was Karen Anderson who later co-founded EPES. So I felt a long time back connection to Soledad. Sitting over coffee and cookies, I sang "Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida" we all cried together.
In 1981, poor people didn't even have band aids. By 1982, Soledad was trained by EPES and worked for 12 years as a health promoter. She learned that health is a right, not a privilege. She also learned to see the world consciously through women’s eyes. EPES does not just train individuals. They train organizations in prevention and awareness. Communities learn that there is no need to go to the hospital if it is something that can be cared for in the home or local clinic. EPES teaches community diagnosis, helps people identify the problem and to use resources that are available to them.
Soledad spoke of what motivates activism. She said in the 80s it was hunger. Later, it was the struggle for democracy and rights and discovered that is more complex than hunger.
This year there were about 165,000 illegal abortions, 28,000 had to go to hospital due to complications. Some of the women who gave the abortions are in jail. And yet the subject is not on the president’s adjenda. There is little to no government discussion of abortion. Soledad knows that president Michelle Bacholet is trapped. She is constantly having to weigh in on what issues on which to break rank as she does not have support inside the government. But as Soledad says, the people can not wait for the president.
On December 9, 2007 we joined human rights activists and relatives of the detenidos-desaparecidos at the Parque por la Paz—better known as Villa Grimaldi—for the closing ceremony of a year-long initiative to honor and remember the women "disappeared" by the Pinochet dictatorship. Some 4,500 people were imprisoned in the Villa Grimaldi detention center between 1973 and 1978; most were tortured and 226 are among the desaparecidas who have never been seen again.
I sang my song, Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida. The song calls out the names of the disappeared, names which I took off a list back in the '70s when I wrote the song. It was overwhelming to stand before the wall of names and see the names of women whose names I had sung out so often Although Pinochet denied this interrogation/torture center. families of the disappeared as well as survivors from the prison have turned this nightmare into a healing and renamed it Park for Peace, a place of historic memory. I was honored to be asked to carry the plaque of the unknown prisoner.
We met with families of the disappeared and spent many hours with one of the survivors of this torture prison. They gave us a private tour of the space before the event so we would have time to take it all in before I had to sing. Our guides did an amazing job of telling the story, walking that delicate line between telling the truth and not hurling so much at the listener that their system shuts down.
At the ceremonies, there was a slide show of the women who "disappeared" from this center. Music played behind the presentation. It took eight songs to get through the slide show. So many women, so young. A young woman watching with me began to weep and shake in my arms. It is very hard to take all this in. One of the survivors says that it is impossible to think of this place, this cruelty, with a rational mind.
Some people refer to the Pinochet era as “a period of exception” or “a state of exception”. Some just come right out and say it was a dictatorship. In 1973 when the military coup took place and Pinochet took power, all government offices were shut down except the judicial branch which formed a committee to create laws, defacto laws, or decree laws. Although thousands were imprisoned, tortured, and “disappeared”, the regime denied it was happening. Pinochet even said “the left” killed each other. When people tried to use habias corpus, they could not because there were no bodies. Then finally, in 1978, bodies were found and there was some proof and the cases could go forward. 1000’s of cases have been filed but only a handful have been accepted. One of the great champions of the legal pursuit is Fabiolan Letelier, sister of the murdered Orlando Letelier who had been the ambassador from Chile to the U.S. during the Allende years. His car was bombed in Washington, DC and he and his assistant, Ronnie Moffiet, were killed.
At the Park for Peace event, Isabel Letelier (Orlando's widow) sought me out to say hello. It had been years since we had seen each other in Washington, DC. She lives in Chile now. Isabel brought to the peace park a rose bush added to the garden in the name of Ronnie Moffiet. I was so moved by this act.
We sang at a free concert with Inti Illimani in a working-class neighbourhood of El Bosque hosted by the mayor with the spectacular behind-the-scene support of EPES.
El Bosque is a sector of southern Santiago. The event was co-sponsored by the Casa de Cultura (Cultural Center). It was such fun to see the community pour in to the little stadium, Lo Blanco. Often the big concerts closer in to central Santiago require transportation and they have high ticket prices so folks can't attend. This event was a great treat. The children danced in the front and took pictures with their cell phones!
Inti Illimani and I sang together (after 23 years!) and emma's revolution and I sang. Chilean singer, Rebecca Godoy performed with her band giving a lively set. A fabulous group of young people did a drum/movement presentation using tables and chairs and plastic cups—they were terrific. I wish I had caught their name.
At the centennial Anniversary of Santa Maria Masaquer in Iquique I sang "Gracias a la Vida" with Quilapayun. I think I did the solidarity movement proud. The audience seemed surprised and pleased to hear that song sung by a gringa who has a pretty good accent and a lot of passion! Quilapayun performed "La Cantata Santa Maria de Iquique" that tells the story of these killings. Written by composer Luis Advis, this powerful piece is known and loved in Chile. People sing along on certain arias. It is powerful and moving.
We also sang in a men's prison. It was all too familiar to notice the skin color of the prisoners darker than the general population out on the street. It was a spirited concert. A delicate balance always to get the spirit high enough for some release but not so much that it gets out of control and the guards move in and hurt someone. When Quilapayun sang "El Pueblo Unido," some of the older prisoners stood as if it were an anthem. The guards on either side of the room—who knew what they were thinking? Were their parents supporters of Allende? Disappeared? Or were they puppets of the Pinochet regime? This is the question that is in the back of my mind whereever I go in this country. Who are you? And how are you moving on?
The history of this nitrate mine and the Santa Maria Masaquer is grim. We drive up the mountain to vsit what is now an historic site. As we walk around, there is a heat that could kill even a dead dog!
Hundreds of historians are gathered there to visit. There is a cultural event to close out their visit. The minister of education attends uninvited. The students demand she leave the room. Speakers are shouted down. She is not popular with the students as she has not responded to their need for lower tuition and other demands. The police arrive but the students shouted them down as well. Finally the minister of culture left, the police left. We had a very “Chilean” experience!
During the shouting, the musicians were the only ones who can proceed. So they sing the story. They take on the challenge of performing the famous cantata that tells the story of the siege of Santa Maria in 1907 when over 26,000 workers and families walked away from the nitrate mine, away from the poverty, the despair, the punishment, the heat, the company store that strangled them even on a cool day. They were paid in tokens that they could only spend at the company store (as in the mining towns of our own Appalachia). The price of goods went up, the pay stayed the same or went down. There was no way to stay even, much less get ahead
The workers and their families went to the nearby town of Iquique to ask for a reply to their demands. As the cantata says, some understood—the carpenters, painters, tailors, cart drivers, boatmen, bakers, defenders of poor people. But the gentlemen of Iquique were afraid. It was too much to ask for them to see so many workers. And after all, they thought poor people were thieves and murderers. Houses and businesses closed. The workers were taken to the school of Santa Maria. The general of the army berated them for being clowns and told them to stop this foolish display. One worker spoke out that he would not. He would wait until they responded to the demands or they would have to kill him. So they did and then opened fire on all of them. They killed and killed and killed until thousands were dead.
As we drive down the hill we share our van with students. I ask them if they talk about the past and how do they deal with the fact that some of their families sided with Allende and some with Pinochet? How do they discuss the past if one father was a torturer and one was a victim. They said they don't talk about it and then they immediately began to talk about it—my father, my uncle, my mother, my grandmother. They made it through the ride home without any accusation, only telling their own stories.
Now we return to Santiago. No, first we stay up all night at a seaside cafe drinking the famous Chilean pisco sours! We have a last farewell lunch with EPES, sharing memories of the trip as well as laying out suggestions as to how to improve our international exchange. We all have learned something and will integrate the lessons into future work. Then we share Christmas Eve with Karen Anderson and The Letelier family. They are so generous to include Donna and I in their family holiday.