She was eleven, and she didn’t understand why everyone was frightened.
She was eleven, and could not feel her country boiling beneath the surface. She did not understand the old men arguing on the television, or the strikes of the businessmen. She couldn’t see the increasing costs of food and fuel, but she could feel hunger.
She didn’t understand why a President a continent away would howl for her economy to scream, or what an economy was for that matter. She couldn’t see the talons of foreign powers strangling the place that had raised her, but they were there.
She understood that she loved the sun, that she loved walking through it on her way to school, holding the hand of her mother, skipping and giggling. She didn’t know why men and woman marched down the streets holding up banners bearing the picture of a mustached man in thick rimmed glasses, but she smiled and waved as they passed.
She didn’t know that the roaring high above was the sounds of jets swooping low over the city, she didn’t know that the booming concussions pulverizing the night were the sounds of tank artillery crashing into the facade of the Presidential Palace, she didn’t know that the sharp explosions that shrieked from the streets below her bedroom window were the sounds of bullets and men dying.
She didn’t understand why her uncle was taken away, she didn’t understand why boys and dogs were shot on the streets, she didn’t understand why their bodies floated along the Mapocho.
She didn’t know the man who appeared on the television, clad in dark grey military uniform and decorated with glittering gold medals, but she hated him.
She was eleven, and she was frightened.
On September 11th, 1973, in the midst of an economy crippled by Western economic terrorism, the democratically elected government of the President of the Republic of Chile, Salvadore Allende, was ousted by a military junta lead by General Augusto Pinochet. Politically and financially supported by the US government and CIA, the coup lead to the suicide of President Salvadore Allende, and brought an end to democracy and civil rights in Chile, ushering in a new era of human suffering and economic shock policy to the South America nation that lasted until the 1990’s.
This post is not meant to be a history lesson, this post is about my experiences living in Santiago during the anniversary of the military coup, the original 9/11, and specifically the conversation I shared with my cleaning lady, Rosa, or as I affectionately call her “Super Rosa”.
There was a sense of tension throughout Santiago during the days leading up to September 11th, I had been told that there were strong views on the coup from both sides and it wasn’t uncommon for clashes between the two sides to flash up during the anniversary. The day of the 11th I had seen some footage in the news of parades denouncing the coup clashing with supporters of Pinochet but there was no significant altercations. Late that night I heard glass smashing and yelling and assumed it was similar flash-points of anger. The next day I spoke to Rosa about what I had heard and she explained that it was probably fights between the two sides but that anything significant wasn’t very common in the area of the city I lived.
And this is where things got heartbreaking.
Rosa was like a Chilean mother to me, and therefore I felt comfortable talking to her about anything, and I didn’t think anything of it when I asked her:
“Were you alive during the coup?”
“Si” she answered.
“How old were you?”
“I was eleven.”
“Do you remember any of it?” I asked, conscious that I might be wading into extremely personal waters.
“Yes I remember all of it.” she answered without any sign of agitation or emotion.
“Can you tell me what it was like?”
“It was frightening, I was only a little girl and it was very frightening. I was sitting in my parents apartment and I could hear gunshots and they frightened me, and I heard people screaming.. and more gunshots.. and I could hear men…”
And then Rosa, the woman who I saw almost every single day, who never was too busy to chat with me, who I spent my days following around the apartment helping, who was the best Spanish teacher I ever had, who never had anything besides a smile on her face, broke down into tears and ran out of my room, and my heart broke.
I knew it was an extremely emotional and personal topic, talking politics is dangerous enough, but this was a real experience, she had lived it, she had heard it, she had smelt it, and 40 years later I had dragged it all back up into her memory, and I regretted it.
I followed her trying to apologize and comfort her but she said she just needed a minute. I returned back to my room, sat down at my desk and hated myself.
Fifteen minutes later she entered my room apologizing for running off, I told her she was crazy for apologizing and how truly sorry I was for bringing it up, she told me it was okay and that she would like to talk about it.
She told me how she had listened to gunshots and men screaming on the streets below her window, how she had heard the planes swooping over the Presidential Palace and the artillery booming across Santiago. She told me of boys and dogs being shot alongside La Vega, the produce market I visited every week, and how their bodies were thrown into the Mapocho, the muddy river that cuts through the heart of Santiago. She told me of the aftermath of the coup, how political parties were outlawed, how freedom of assembly was destroyed, how political dissidents and left-leaning chilenos were rounded up and taken away, for interrogation and torture, some to never be seen again. She told me how her Uncle was taken away by the military police, how he was interned in the Estadio Nacional, the biggest football stadium in Santiago, once filled with the cheers of passionate fans, it became a mass jail cell filled with suffering.
We spent the afternoon sat on my balcony together, her reliving the horrors of the military coup, of the terror of Operation Condor, of the return to democracy, she spoke and I listened.