Chile: New Leader, Fresh Optimism, Old Obstacles

Last week, a few days after I returned to my native Chile from a prolonged, pandemic-induced absence, my face suffered an unfortunate accident. During an early morning walk, I stumbled on an uneven pavement and, staggering to regain my balance, ended up bashing my nose violently against the window of a parked car. Nothing broken, but blood galore drenched my aching face and body and a deep gash opened just above my nasal septum that required stitches, antibiotics, and an anti-inflammatory injection.

The primary fault, of course, lies with Chile’s woefully neglected sidewalks, but blame can also be laid to my wandering mind, which was not attentive to my physical surroundings but looking to the sky, full of wonder at the air of freedom I was breathing in a country where voters had, just last month, given a resounding victory to a young revolutionary leader, Gabriel Boric, who promised to make the land more just and equitable. As I ambled along, I could not conceive that anything bad might happen to me, not with such a joyous dawn of dignity ahead of us.

Though my nosedive can be understood as an isolated, random event—only noteworthy in terms of one individual’s pain and disarray—I am prone as a writer to interpret all my special experiences as portents or revelations. In this case I was also inspired by Pablo Neruda, our country’s greatest poet, who had sung the marvels of Chile’s mineral world—the music in rocks and sand, pebbles and boulders. In many odes to the piedras of the nation that had given him birth, Neruda had asked them to speak from their silence. The stones had been here before humans inhabited this volcanic land and had witnessed all the sorrows, dreams, and frustrations of men and women who labored to make this a true Residencia en la Tierra (the title of Neruda’s most extraordinary collection of verse), patriots who struggled and often died so la tierra, the earth, would be a residence for all and not just for a few.

And so it felt natural to ask myself, what were the prophetic stones of Chile trying to tell me by brusquely interrupting my glorious, optimistic morning walk?

The most obvious response was that, as we venture forth on an experiment of wresting control of the economy from the super-rich minority that has exploited the people for so many years, we had better keep our feet on the ground and advance slowly, as the road is full of pitfalls and the going will not be smooth or easy. A message of prudence: If we do not step carefully, we risk getting bloodied and battered and bruised by the twists and pitfalls of hard reality

But why not read into the stone that upended me and sent me sprawling a less cautious, more imaginative message?

For the 30 years since democracy returned to Chile, as I have walked the streets of Santiago, Valparaíso, and other cities, I have been concerned by what I did not know about what had happened in the houses I passed during the 17 years (1973–90) of the Pinochet dictatorship.  Who had been dragged from there in the dead and dread of night? Who had never come back home from the detention center—or came back destroyed by what had been done to him, to her? What pain was hidden behind each door, and inside those who had survived?

Which was why I was glad to hear from my friend and former student Francisco Estévez, director of the Chilean Museum of Memory and Human Rights, that the museum had started a small pilot program to memorialize victims of the dictatorship, imitating the Stolperstein initiative that started in Germany in 1992 and has spread across Europe to commemorate Jews and others (Gypsies, communists, homosexuals) exterminated by the Nazis by placing an inscribed brass plaque slightly above the level of the pavement in front of the house where those taken away once lived and ate and loved.  The idea was that anyone passing would be stopped by that stein/stone, would stumble against it and be awoken to the secret truth of that site. In the case of Chile, five plaques were inaugurated at the end of 2018 in the town of Limache. The program was called “Residencia de la Memoria.” Besides signifying that memory now resided in this place, the name alluded to Neruda’s magnificent poems, answering his demand that we consecrate in stone what we collectively remember.

And so, in the days that have followed my own stumble against a stone, I have asked myself, now that Chile is about to inaugurate a president who is a fierce champion of human rights, whether it is not time to amplify these Residences of Memory, so that Chile overflows with plaques that stub the toes of our citizens as they go about their daily, oblivious lives. After all, millions of my compatriots—fully 44 percent of the electorate—voted against Boric and for José Antonio Kast, an ultra-right admirer of the Pinochet dictatorship, a man who had threatened to close the Museum of Memory. If there had been plaques with the names of those who were damaged irreparably by that dictatorship scattered across the country, perhaps Kast would have had less support; perhaps this would be a land where nobody would dare to aspire to become president without repudiating those crimes against humanity.

Given my advanced age, it’s probably inevitable that in some near future I will trip against a Chilean stone. Along with hoping that this time I am not hurt, it would be a considerable consolation if the reason I stubbed my toe was because I had been stopped by a Residencia de la Memoria, positioned there to make me and so many others aware of our country’s tragic history—a reminder that we must never regress to a traumatic past.

This essay first appeared in The Nation.