September 11, 1973

(Edited 11-9-12: added pictures of the old and new 10 peso coins)

¡Hola todos!

This post will be slightly different from the others since today is a special day. Millions of people around the world are aware of the significance of September 11, the day that thousands of people lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the United States. What they may not realize is that this date is also important in Chilean history.

Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors, is a Chilean novelist who in her book Mi Pais Inventado: Un Paseo Nostálgico por Chile (My Invented Country: A nostalgic journey through Chile) writes:

By a blood-chilling coincidence–historic karma–the commandeered airplanes struck their U.S. targets on a Tuesday, September 11, exactly the same day of the week and month–and at almost the same time in the morning–of the 1973 military coup in Chile, a terrorist act orchestrated by the CIA against a democracy…That distant Tuesday in 1973 my life was split in two; nothing was ever again the same: I lost a country. That fateful Tuesday in 2001 was also a decisive moment; nothing will ever again be the same, and I gained a country.

On September 11, 1973, the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army, Augusto Pinochet, led a military coup d’état that resulted in President Salvador Allende’s suicide (he refused to leave La Moneda, the Chilean equivalent of the White House) and the installation of a military dictatorship for the next 17 years. Although there is a lot of controversy surrounding the politics of the time–including whether or not Chile was better off under the military regime–it is known that Pinochet’s dictatorship was responsible for countless human rights violations.

An interesting note: after Pinochet took over, a new 10 peso coin was minted:

In the center: a winged woman lifts her arms in victory as the shackles binding her hands together break. The words around the icon read “Republica de Chile” and “Libertad”. Above the word “Libertad” is the date 11-IX 1973 (September 11, 1973–the day of the military coup).
This coin was minted from 1975-1990. They aren’t exactly rare since they’re still in use, but it’s not too easy to find one.
For comparison, this edition was minted after 1990. The portrait is of Bernardo O’Higgins, one of Chile’s independence leaders.

So as you’ve probably noticed, my study abroad program includes several field trips that take us to places of interest in and around Santiago. About a month ago we visited Villa Grimaldi and el Cementerio General (the General Cemetery). It’s been a couple of weeks since the trip, but this was a complicated post to write,  and as we got closer to September 11 I figured it would be appropriate to wait until today to post it.

Villa Grimaldi used to be owned by a prominent Santiago family before it was used as a torture center by DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional), dictator Pinochet’s secret police. Before the coup d’état in 1973 that resulted in President Allende’s suicide and Pinochet’s rise to power, the villa was a meeting place for Chile’s brightest intellectuals, including progressive minds like Pablo Neruda and other political activists. The DINA took control of the villa in 1974 and used it to torture “political prisoners” (they weren’t officially political prisoners) over the next four years.  After the dictatorship destroyed it, Villa Grimaldi was converted into a memorial park and museum to honor the memories of those who passed through its gates.

A placard on the inside of the gates: “Through here began the prisoners’ journey. The old entrance. This door will forever remain closed.” –Photo credit: Eliza Collison
As part of the renovation of Villa Grimaldi, the path taken by prisoners has been turned into a sculpture. Put together by three Mexican artists in a show of international solidarity, the materials used were part of the original Villa Grimaldi. Prisoners were blindfolded before being brought in and what they saw was limited to what they could distinguish by looking straight down at the ground through the gap in the blindfold. –Photo credit: Eliza Collison
The entrance gates, locked forever. –Photo credit: Eliza Collison
Pedro standing outside the black gates. –Photo credit: Jaclyn Provencher

We were incredibly lucky to have Pedro Matta as our tour guide for the day. Our understanding of the tumultuous years of Pinochet’s dictatorship  was enriched by his personal account of what took place inside Villa Grimaldi: in 1975 Pedro spent 13 months imprisoned and tortured by DINA at two torture centers, of which Villa Grimaldi was the second one. He was a student of law at the University of Chile in Santiago and a member of the Socialist Youth, a group that supported socialist president Allende, which is why he was arrested. After being released in 1976 he was granted asylum in the United States and moved to the East Coast. From there he went on to live in San Francisco for a number of years before moving back to Chile in 1991. Since then Pedro has worked on finding out the truth behind Chile’s desaparecidos, or “the missing/disappeared”.

A brief digression:

In Latin American countries with dictatorial pasts the word desaparecido isn’t used lightly: it’s exclusively reserved for people who “disappeared” during times of political turmoil. For example, today if someone were to ask you where your friend went, you shouldn’t reply, “Oh, she was here a second ago, but she seems to have disappeared (ha desaparecido).” That would probably make quite a few people uncomfortable. In Chile desaparecido refers to people who were kidnapped, tortured and killed by Pinochet’s government. But wait, you say, if the person was killed, how are they still “missing”? The term desaparecido is a misnomer: saying a person was “missing” didn’t mean that they could still be alive–they were most definitely dead. What you didn’t know was when and how they were killed and where their body was disposed. Crudely put, “missing” refers to the physical state of the body/bones/whatever was left of the person.

Pedro was a great guide and obviously knew a lot about Chile before, during and after the dictatorship. The information in this post, as you might have already figured, comes chiefly from Pedro’s tour. As much as I love unbiased points of view, I want to clarify that I am not presenting an unbiased point of view. The first thing Pedro said to us as we gathered before the start of the tour was, “Yo no soy neutral. I am not neutral.” He wanted to tell us his story, his personal account of what happened, the way he remembers certain events. It’s a great story for anybody who is curious about the dictatorship from the perspective of a torture victim, but it is by no means the entire story (more on that soon!).

After a brief introduction to the topic of the dictatorship our group took a bus to Villa Grimaldi. When we walked through the entrance I was surprised by how small it was. I was imagining it to be this great estate or something, but it turned out to be no bigger than a high school football field. The apartments, small corner stores, and the busy road that sit right outside and around the old torture center belie its significance and status in Chilean history; none of those existed back in the 70s.  A lot of the original buildings were demolished thanks to the dictatorship (Pinochet always denied its use as a torture center) but some things, like the front steps of the main house and the watch tower, were still standing. There’s a scale model of Villa Grimaldi during its torture center days where parts that still remain today are painted in black (the rest of it is painted white).

I wasn’t able to take an aerial picture of the place so you’ll have to settle for my doodling skills!

Overhead view of Villa Grimaldi.
The entrance (black gates) and the road leading inside Villa Grimaldi.
Where the main house used to stand.
Buildings 3-8 included torture chambers, bathrooms, and dorms (which weren’t for sleeping).
In the northeastern corner stands the watch tower and in front of it is a rose garden. One of the prisoners said her most vivid memory was the scent of roses in bloom mixed with the scent of urine she smelled while being held captive in the tower.

I’ve numbered the buildings that were involved in the actual torture process. The numbers proceed in chronological order of a person’s stay (i.e., after going through the gates and walking past the front of the main house, prisoners were taken to building #3, then #4, etc.). Although Pedro was very candid about what happened to him and others at Villa Grimaldi, the details don’t really belong in a blog post, so take my word for it when I say things were pretty bad.

Once brought to Villa Grimaldi, prisoners were assigned a number and were never again referred to by name. This is a common technique used to dehumanize a person, to objectify them so they appear less human. Doing so accomplishes two things simultaneously: it’s a great way to psychologically maim the victim and the people who are doing the torturing have little to no problems inflicting pain since they can’t empathize with victim (who is no longer a person but an object). If you think being called by a number is not a big deal, think again: Pedro still remembers his–# 209–and hasn’t been able to get it out of his head since he first entered Villa Grimaldi.

Another thing he learned to do during his stay there was to force himself to sleep: “La mejor manera de recuperarse es dormir. The best way to heal [your body] is to sleep.” He learned to sleep standing up, with bright lights in his face, on an empty stomach, and listening to other prisoners’ screams, because he knew that his best chance for recovery was to let his body rest as much as it could.

After Villa Grimaldi, most detainees were taken to holding places until their scars healed and were then sent to detention centers where their families could see that they were still alive. However, if their name was ever mentioned in any torture center they would be sent back.

What was surprising to hear was that most people who were taken to torture centers were eventually released: 5% of the detainees were killed, a number that is unusually low for periods of political instability (e.g., during dictatorships). According to Pedro, Pinochet killed as few people as possible. The idea was to maintain terror among the populace without doing as much perceivable damage. In fact, the people who were released did far more damage than the killing of thousands of people: they were zombies, living reminders of what the government could do if you weren’t careful. The hardest thing Pedro had to overcome after being sent home was living with the knowledge that he was part of the human race, just like the torturers, just like the government; a race that was capable of so much evil. He said this with such emotion, his eyes watering as he talked, that it was obvious that the revulsion he felt 37 years ago was very much still there.

Throughout the tour I had been wondering about something since we first entered Villa Grimaldi, and before leaving I worked up the courage to talk to Pedro about it. “How can you come back here, knowing what it was, knowing what it did to you?” I asked. He didn’t say anything for a moment, and I silently hoped I hadn’t crossed some line. Then he smiled, “Thank you for asking me that,” he said, “It’s something I always hope students ask me.” Even though he remembers, in excruciating detail, what happened in Villa Grimaldi, the reason Pedro is able to come back time and time again (he does this tour between 25 and 50 times a year) is because for him Villa Grimaldi was “un paso adelante, a step forward”. He clarified: “Villa Grimaldi was the second and final torture center I was taken to. In my mind, this means a step towards freedom. There are many people for whom Villa Grimaldi was the first step in their detention and they can never come back. In the same way I can never ever give tours at the first place I was held. If I were to go there my speech would be incoherent, I would get panic attacks, and probably suffer a mental breakdown.” Another reason Pedro comes back to Villa Grimaldi is to pay his respects to friends and colleagues who lost their lives there. “I know that if I were to have died here, I would have wanted my friends to come and remember, to tell people what happened here, and to always keep me alive in their memories.”

This was a very emotional day, to be sure, and I’m very thankful to Pedro Matta for being there with us, for opening doors that he would rather have left shut, and for showing us that if the human race is capable of evil then it is also capable of great compassion.

“There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them,” my mother explained shortly before she left me. “If you can remember me, I will be with you always.”

–Isabel Allende, Eva Luna

Que estén bien. Be well.

One Comment Add yours

  1. suhani mody says:

    wow Mahika
    this one brought me to tears
    also you are your father’s daughter in the art work you do
    love Suhani aunty

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