An exile’s tale of Christmas

Dec 20, 2006 at 12:00 am
Tuesday morning a thin rain hung over Santiago. My grandfather made a pile of books in the back yard and directed me to bring more from the library. Our house was a simple concrete affair, ranch style, with an enormous palm tree in the front yard. Ligustrinum bushes surrounded the courtyard where he worked and the garden that day was full of the smell of roses. Divided by well-defined sections, together the flowers and plants formed a rainbow that bloomed brilliantly in the spring. Surrounding our lot was a black iron fence, laced heavily with honeysuckle vine and providing the privacy that all Chileans by their nature require.

When the library was emptied, my grandfather told me to get the poetry books of Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda from my room. I refused, pulling away from his firm grasp on my arm. He eased off. I was 11 years old and stubborn.

"The soldiers walking in the streets now can enter the house, and if they see these books they will think that we are extremists." My grandmother, who gave me the books, watched quietly before walking away.

"Go and bring the books, otherwise I will do it, we need to hurry up before the rain is here." In my room I put the books, one by one, in a bag and brought them to the yard. Taking them from me, he laid the bag on the top of the pile and soaked them with gasoline.

The sounds of the helicopters filled the skies.

My grandfather was strapping and robust with dark green eyes. His hair turned white when he was young and his skin turned red in cold weather. He was quiet and liked to read the newspapers every day and watch soccer on Sunday evenings. He had been a builder from an early age. His houses were all over Santiago and the South of Chile. His houses were those of a man with thick hands, hands full of scars caused by torn wood and metal. That morning his hands were unsteady.

On Radio Magallanes the president, Salvador Allende, spoke to the country:


"... The Air Force has bombarded the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporation. My words don't have bitterness but disappointment and my words will be moral punishment to those who betrayed their promises ... the soldiers of Chile, Commanders in Chiefs ... Admiral Merino who appointed himself as Commander in Chief of the Army, Mr. Mendoza, the crawling General that only yesterday confirmed his loyalty and faithfulness to my government has now proclaimed himself Director of the Police.

In the face of these facts I can only say: I will not resign. I was put in a historical position. I will pay with my life out of loyalty to my country. ... [They] have cast us out but the social process cannot be stopped with crimes and violence. The History is ours and is made by the people.

Workers of my land: I want to thank you for the loyalty you always had to me the trust you put in a man who was an interpreter of your desire for justice a man who gave his word of honor to the Constitution and Laws. A man who kept his promise. In this definitive moment, I want you to learn this lesson: foreign capital with the reactionaries has brought this about. Today [those who conspired against me] are waiting in their houses to retake power and to defend their profits and privileges.


At 10 in the morning on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 1973, the music of the The People United Will Never Be Defeated played in the background of Radio Magallanes. It had been played many times before when the president gave his radio and television addresses. The transmission was interrupted by the noise of breaking glass.

With all the rest of Chile my grandparents listened to the voice of President Allende as they took turns tending the fire in the courtyard. Grandfather took a chair and made me sit down to listen too. When my grandmother returned to the house I became restless, wanting to go out into the streets, but my grandfather forbade me to.

My grandparents came from the South. They were descendents of a group of Spanish colonists who settled the area of Trovolhue in Temuco in the 1800s. My grandfather's family owned thousands of acres of eucalyptus forests, and around their farm were araucarias a thousand years old. My grandmother's mother died after the birth of her sixth child, a girl. Their family had also emigrated from Spain, but, in contrast to her husband's holdings, her family owned only a small piece of property in Puerto Saavedra, a village that was completely destroyed by a tidal wave on Oct. 18, 1960, the year I was conceived.

My grandmother, Elena del Carmen, met my grandfather when she was 29 years old, an old age for a bride in a country where people are usually married in their early 20s. She used to make jokes about him being the last bachelor in town and that she was not able to really choose because there was no real competition. Despite what she said, it had been my grandmother's dream to marry him and she would often speak wistfully of their first encounter. Ten years older and unmarried, my grandfather was much sought after, a fact my grandmother found hard to forget. She was never quite sure whether he loved her as much as she loved him. That uncertainty made her say provoking things to him, but he never took part in her game. He always looked at her and smiled quietly.

When he was a young man, my grandfather was willing to do whatever was necessary to escape the tyranny of farming. When he was older he left Temuco for Santiago to begin a new life. Grandmother never hid her disappointment when they moved to Santiago, leaving behind his patrimony and her family and friends. My grandmother always remembered the big house in the South, the furniture and the life they abandoned. During the many years my grandmother lived in Santiago she never really accepted or opened the door of her home to strangers. She was always fearful that they would run off with the silver or copper. It was my grandfather who brought people home, and, though she was a polite hostess while there were guests in the house, once they left she made known her unhappiness. For consolation she would turn to her embroidery or her garden. There were always bouquets of freshly cut flowers throughout the house. In these flowers, she found a way to keep her longing for the South alive.

Sometimes my grandfather's father visited us in Santiago, bringing salamis, cheeses and wines from the farms in Temuco. My grandfather accepted gladly the presents but he always refused money, to my grandmother's great distress. She believed they needed the money. I often heard them fighting or came across her holding her head between her hands as if she was trying with all her might to understand the man she had married. But he could never make her happy.

On the last visit my grandfather's father made to us, he was accompanied by one of the Mapuche Indians who, as a child, used to work in his house when his wife was still alive. My great-grandfather always had a soft spot in his heart for this girl. Though some expected they might marry after his wife's death he never did. But she was with him on every trip North.

The Mapuche Indians were one of the bravest and most persistent tribes in South America. They resisted the Spanish crown for 300 years before they were defeated by the colonists. In fact, it paid off; their culture has been preserved and, now, their language, Mapudungun, is spoken by over 400,000 Mapuche in the Central Valley of Chile.

My grandparents had four daughters and a son while living in Temuco. Idelia del Carmen, who was my mother, Claudia del Carmen, Hilda del Carmen, Gladiz del Carmen and Aurelio Andres.

The radio interrupted again:


I speak to the young people, to those who sang and gave their happiness and fighting spirits to our struggle. I speak to the Chilean man, to the worker, to the farmer, to the intellectual, to those who will be persecuted. ... I speak especially to the silence of those who had the obligation of saying something about it and said nothing. History will judge them.

Radio Magallanes will be silenced and the calm metal of my voice will not reach you. It doesn't matter. Remember that I will always be with you, a decent and a loyal man.

Workers of my country: I have faith in Chile and its destiny.

Other men will transcend this gray and bitter moment where treason intends to impose itself. You need to know that sooner or later our Alamedas will be open for free men to pass to build a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words. My sacrifice will not be in vain, I will persist in my attacker's conscience, a voice that will punish the felonious, the coward and the traitor.


Not long afterward, the national radio stations announced the first message of the military junta; a directive to public and private media to stop broadcasting any messages or news in order to avoid later sanctions or destruction by the air force.

My mind returned to thoughts of my family.

When I was 3 and living with my parents their marriage fell apart. It took me many years to piece together what had happened. Details concerning my family history were rarely forthcoming. There was always a point when my mother, father, grandmother or other member of the family would become uncomfortable, look around uneasily and then change the subject. It was always at a crucial moment. It was as if there was an unstated agreement to keep me in the dark. I would keep going back to the year I turned 3, as if it held the key to how I might go forward in life. But when I would ask questions, my grandmother would say that the past is like a ghost that should never be awakened.

For some reason, my father was never brought into our conversations. My father brought with him serenity and calm when I regained contact with him at age of 6 or 7. The first thing that my grandparents agreed to was a visit to his house accompanied by my grandmother. He worked for a steel company from the age of 19. He had started engineering studies but never finished them. He was an active member of the Christian Democratic Party and a tennis player in his heart. He lived in a suburb in the port of Talcahuano, in the same place where he bought his first house, which had grown through additions over the years. He also bought his cottage in Pucon, an exclusive resort area in the South of Chile, where we, my brothers and sisters and our children, would spend and share many wonderful times. He sent his three children by his second wife to college where they got degrees in engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering and management, among others. Despite being dictatorial about pursuing engineering degrees, he was regarded as a good father, a good husband and recently a very good "tata" or grandfather.

My father's mother was a Castillian woman with so much temperament that she could burn the hair off a body with the look of her eyes. She was dying of cancer when I saw her for the last time and she still was walking through the house giving orders to the people around her. As in my mother's family, in my father's family there was no lack of strong, temperamental women.

I learned of these stories in steps, like the small pieces of a big puzzle. People in my family didn't understand that the only way to make a new future was to go back and accept where they had come from.


For some, military rule meant fear, but for others it meant opportunity. There was a man who had once lived on our street in Santiago whom everyone was afraid of. They hadn't always been afraid. He had once been everyone's neighbor. But when he replaced his car with one with tinted windows, people became fearful. The shades in his house were always drawn. Sometimes he came home with men in sunglasses and suits. Sometimes he came home in the middle of the night with other men who had left the morning before the sun rose between the mountains. He didn't talk to anyone anymore. Eventually he moved out and the house was sold to a young couple whom I only saw from a distance. We heard that he had moved to the South of Chile. His name was Mr. Monzalves.

The day of the coup Mr. Monzalves visited us. He sat on a sofa in our living room beneath a print of Picasso's "Guernica." My grandfather occupied one of the loveseats. Later I came to know that Mr. Monzalves worked for DINA [National Department of Intelligence]. My grandfather did not talk about what Mr. Monzalves said, but it was obvious that he knew that my grandfather was a sympathizer of Allende's and that he had come to deliver a warning.

My grandfather was a leader and an activist dedicated to providing housing. From 1959 between 3,000 and 5,000 families registered to get their own houses through the housing ministry, CORVI, but after five years of waiting they became impatient and organized themselves. The Neighborhood Junta became the key organization in this movement. The mission of this organization was to expropriate government property and create homes for people who needed them, including the organizers themselves.

My grandfather and many other leaders armed themselves with rifles and organized with the conviction that it was not possible to continue to wait and believe the government's many broken promises. They expropriated uninhabited properties in San Pablo, a neighborhood in west Santiago, and founded the Village Manuel Rodriguez, named after Chilean hero who made possible the independence of Chile from the Spanish crown. Three years of violence, armed watch duty at night and full-time work as a builder during the day made his dream a reality. People took turns facing down the police who surrounded the area in continual efforts to remove the people from the property. The clashes between the community and the police became an explosive political issue.

For the first time, the poorest of Chile defied the housing authorities and the workers got their homes. Finally, in 1968, the county government was forced to act by the increasing numbers of families who had come from all over Chile to Santiago. It passed a law that recognized and legalized all the existing neighborhood organizations. The law stated that all organizations in the zone of Barrancas were an "expression of solidarity and organization of the people in the context of territory, in permanent defense of their associates and that they were associates of the authority of the state and its county."

The movement created and developed under the title of "Revolution in Freedom" transformed the county but also transformed the views of politicians toward the community. President Eduardo Frei and his Christian Democratic Party, finally recognized that the masses could be mobilized on the government's behalf. Frei's party aspired to expropriate and nationalize the copper companies, expose the hold American corporate interests had on the political and economic life of all Chileans. Yet Frei's re-election was not certain. In real ways, Frei did not know how to handle the forces he had unleashed. The economy was in a disastrous state because of striking workers. The polls showed that the majority of the people in Chile wanted to nationalize the copper mines, the source of Chile's largest export. His political opponent, Salvador Allende, had promised to nationalize them.

The U.S. government, intent on thwarting Allende's political bid, pumped millions into Frei's campaign in exchange for concessions to U.S. companies, International Telephone and Telegraph and Kennecott Copper among them. Frei defeated Allende in 1964, and the people were betrayed. Frei's administration also promised that the leaders of the housing movement would be replaced by men controlled by Frei himself.

By 1970, when Allende again ran for the presidency, the tensions between the government, the private sector and the armed forces were nearly explosive. Again the United States spent millions of dollars to block his ascent. But this time, he won.

The people themselves were never the same afterward. My grandfather was always loved and respected by his neighbors because they remembered he was one of those who had helped them get their first home. Our neighbor Monzalves knew this as well. His own home had been acquired this way.

After Monzalves left, my grandfather closed the curtains of the house and he looked through the corner of a window to make sure no one could see into our courtyard. He turned on the radio, which had been silenced by Monzalves' visit. By then Radio Magallanes was operating with an emergency generator because the armed forces had bombed its power source. He returned to the back yard.

That day Allende did not call on the people to oppose the coup d'etat; the Chilean army numbered 95,000 soldiers. It would have been a massacre. No political parties or institutions were resisting. I wondered if they were also burning books in my classmates' houses. I remembered suddenly that a brother of a friend of mine was in the army. Would he be sent to the streets and check if people had dangerous books? But what can be so dangerous about Mistral or Neruda? After all, both received a Nobel Prize in literature and we read them in the school. Could it be that my grandfather hadn't read them? I asked my grandmother timidly about why we were doing this and with a hug that smelled of lavender scent she told me that I would understand better when I was older. "Don't you worry; your tata will take care of us."


At the end of every year my grandmother had me make a Christmas package for my mother. In it were my report cards and my latest school photograph. My grandmother insisted on this ritual even though as I got older I resisted. She said, "She loves you as much as I do" and "remember she is your mother." My grandmother loved her daughter, but considered her immature and spoiled. I grew up in the space between them, dividing and binding them in their love for me. That is what I believed. Perhaps my grandmother felt guilty because she didn't let me return to my mother, and in order to find peace herself she let my mother have only the love of a child longing for her presence. The empty space my mother left was immeasurable. When my grandmother came to kiss me goodnight, I would close my eyes, imagining that it was my mother's lips touching my forehead. She was so young and beautiful, verbally gifted and not quiet like grandmother. I wanted her to comb my hair with the same delicacy I saw her combing that of my sibling's. I never received a thank-you note card for the Christmas gifts I sent to her. Her Christmas cards were directed only to my grandparents.

School was an easy task but most of the time it was boring and that got me in trouble. Many times my grandparents were called to the school to hear complaints from the principal and threats from the teachers. One day my math teacher told me that children like me should not be born in a country like this one. I did not understand what he meant. He told me to ask my grandparents to come to the school. They did. He asked them for money. He asked the same thing of the parents of a classmate, who also had a son in the military. They lent the money to him. He disappeared the day after Sept. 11, 1973, and his family never found him.

My grandfather came in from the back yard with wet hair. The rain had begun in earnest. His hands had stopped shaking and he looked more composed. My grandmother decided to prepare lunch earlier than ever and put me to peeling tomatoes. Senora Doris, who regularly came to help my grandmother with the household, didn't show up that day. What could be better than grandma's spaghetti! To help reclaim our equanimity from the chaos that ensued, she offered me "mate," an herbal tea made from the dried leaves of a shrub of the holly family that grows wild near the Paraguay River. Sometimes when grandmother had her relatives from the South home, the gourd was passed around in a social hour. This day she made an exception with the mate; she made caramel sugar to put on the top and replaced the boiling water with milk.

Other broadcasts continued on the radio. The largest union put out a call to all the workers of the country to, first, carry out an immediate occupation of all workplaces, including agricultural fields, public services, etc., and, second, for organizations of workers to be ready to move when they got the word. The Union pledged to defend the government; to stop the fascist coup d'etat; to defend the conquests of the workers. Long live Chile!

My Aunt Gladys, my mother's sister, owned a couple of supermarkets. One night I was visiting her and I helped her unload a truck that came very late and dropped off at least 20 or 30 sacks of sugar, rice, flour and big containers of oil. The next day there were hundreds of people standing in lines waiting for the shops to open. But my aunt and uncle insisted they had nothing. The people started to pound at the entrance to the supermarket and scream "fascists!" In a panic they called the police who arrived and dispersed the crowd of people outside the supermarket with tear gas. My grandfather was shocked to hear that his daughter was hoarding food and though she promised to share whatever she had with her parents, he never returned to her shop. Instead, we went early to different supermarkets to get the food and bread that we needed that day. I asked my aunt why she didn't want to sell the food to the people even though she had so much. "Oh, be quiet! Stupid little girl," she said.


Around 11 a.m. on Sept. 11 the military broadcast a new warning. There would be a curfew in the entire territory of the Republic from 3 p.m. Anyone who went out into the streets would risk arrest. Citizens would no longer be permitted to carry guns. Anyone caught carrying a gun would be arrested and be given a wartime military trial. From that point onward, all broadcasts calling for the defense of the government were in violation of the new military order. No further instructions came from the central workers union.

Around 11:20 the Air Force bombarded the presidential residence of Allende in Tomas Moro even though they knew that the president was at the Presidential Palace La Moneda. It was a clear warning to Allende to surrender since members of his family were in Tomas Moro. His wife Hortensia Bussi de Allende escaped through the fence of her back yard to the house of the president of the Bank of Inter-American Development. She asked for and obtained asylum in the Mexican Embassy. Allende's neighbors in Tomas Moro ran to the street to applaud then entered the house and stole everything that hadn't been destroyed. The police surrounded the area and helped the people carry out furniture. Allende's three daughters escaped to different countries. Isabel was allowed to enter Mexico with her mother. Beatriz was at La Moneda with her father. Because she was pregnant, her father forced her to leave the palace before the troops arrived. Later she learned that her closest friends had been tortured and killed. Four years afterward, she would commit suicide in Cuba. Carmen Paz, the third daughter of Allende, lived in Mexico and later in Cuba. Laura Allende, the sister of the president, also sought refuge in Cuba after an exile in Germany. She committed suicide by jumping from a seventh floor in La Havana.

At 11:55, the Hawker Hunter aircraft of the Chilean air force attacked La Moneda where Allende and his ministers and some of his personal aides still remained. After these attacks, the aircraft withdrew and the ground troops arrived.

When a fire started in the area where Allende and a handful of loyal supporters were in hiding, the president asked his supporters to leave. The commander of the ground troops waited for Allende to emerge and, when he failed to, he ordered the air force to resume its attack. Sherman tanks were positioned on the streets surrounding the palace. A couple of bazookas were fired from inside La Moneda at the soldiers. This time the commander was able to advance under the cover of the bombers. Around 2:55 p.m. the soldiers took the palace. The commander of the ground troops called his commander in chief and delivered the news: Mission accomplished. Moneda taken. President dead.

When they found him, the body and hands of Salvador Allende were covered with gunpowder, proof that he had fired back on the tanks and air force for a long time. He died defending his government and he didn't surrender, just as he had promised. (I don't believe the claims that he shot himself and committed suicide.) There was no resistance in the country because it didn't exist. The Russian armaments that the right said Allende and his government had didn't exist either. Neither the clandestine weaponry nor the Cuban guerrillas ready to fight for Allende existed. All of that only existed in the minds of Allende's opponents.

The entire Chilean armed forces were on the streets that day. Three thousand leaders of organized labor and political parties were murdered. By the end of September, there would be 15,500 civilian casualties. Six thousand five hundred of them were in the city of Santiago alone. Almost 3,000 people disappeared. At the time, Chile had a population of 9,248,000. One million would eventually be forced into exile under the dictatorship of the new "President" Augusto Pinochet.

I would become one of them.

Pablo Neruda, hospitalized with cancer at the time of the Chilean coup d'etat, died of heart failure 12 days later on Sept. 23. Neruda's death became charged with an intense symbolism that reverberated around the world. Pinochet had denied permission to transform Neruda's funeral into a public event, but thousands of grieving Chileans disobeyed the curfew, flooding the streets in tribute. Neruda's funeral became the first public protest against the Chilean military dictatorship.

That Christmas, I wrapped the usual package with my grades in it for my mother. Two "diplomas" were included, one for the Best Grades and the other with the award for being the Best Friend in the class. We didn't buy any Christmas tree that year since my grandfather and grandmother used the Christmas budget to support the underground newspaper El Siglo.

In the years to come our Christmas tradition would return to normal again. Christmas trees would be bought, my grandparents would buy new books for our library, filling every bookcase beautifully, and new stories would be told at Christmas Mass to bless us with their charge of meaning and emotions. Those stories would give us a respite from the daytime nightmares like the five torture facilities established by the military in Santiago alone.

We all know that Christmas is never a good Christmas without a tree, the aroma of clover and cinnamon, the noises of children playing in their yards, without the beauty that impregnates our hearts with joy. For the first time in many years I didn't have poetry books to read or poetry to recite for relatives as my grandmother was used to having me do.

After that time I remember a city dense in smoke and hate, glowing in red, soldiers walking the streets with their weapons. Many of my dearest friends would disappear at the hands of Pinochet's secret police in the forthcoming years. My grandfather used to think that when people don't believe in good and evil anymore, only beauty and hard work can bring them back to their beliefs. When asked why he worked with stencils and mimeographs, he would only say: So that people know, this is true and this false. After that my grandfather's hands were frequently dirty with blue ink from the "subversive" materials aimed at ending our tragedy and reinstating the time when Christmas was a time of plenty.


Editor's postscript: Augusto Pinochet held the presidency in Chile until 1990 and exerted his influence over the country as commander in chief until 1998. He spent the final years of his life fighting lawsuits over the human rights abuses of his rule. He died Dec. 10 of complications of a heart attack at age 91.

Mariela Griffor is a local writer whose forthcoming book of poems, Exiliana (January 2007, Luna Publications), is dedicated to several compatriots, including her fiance Julio Santibanez, who died at the hands of Pinochet's secret police. The poems are inspired by her years in exile during Pinochet's reign. Griffor is the founder of Marick Press, a nonprofit literary publisher based in Grosse Pointe. She reads poems from Exiliana at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 26, at the Grosse Pointe Artists Association, 1005 Maryland St., Grosse Pointe. Call 313-407-9236 for more info.

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