Thursday, September 11, 2008

El 11 de Septiembre.

No one who reads this needs to be reminded that this is a sad anniversary. Seven years after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, everything I did and felt that day remains engraved on my memory. As I do each year on this date, I'm praying today in a special way for all who died that day and for all who continue to mourn them.

In Chile, as some readers are undoubtedly aware, today's date has a grave significance that long predates the 9/11 attacks. On September 11, 1973, the socialist government of President Salvador Allende was toppled in a military coup that inaugurated the seventeen-year rule of General Augusto Pinochet. I won't rehash the story behind the coup, partly because the historical circumstances that led to it are far too complicated to quickly summarize without being accused of favoring one or another political viewpoint. Chileans remain deeply divided in their assessments of both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet, but it seems incontestable that the 1973 coup and its aftermath have had a lasting impact on the nation as a whole.

One of the things that drew me to Chile this past summer was an interest in questions of historical memory. How do nations remember their collective past? How do societies preserve a collective memory of traumatic experiences, particularly experiences that either generated or worsened divisions based on politics and class? How is the impact and meaning of such experiences transmitted to younger generations with no memory of the events in question? These questions are very real in Chile, particularly with the coming of age of an entire generation of Chileans with no memory of the years 1973-90.

During the month I spent in Chile, I tried to learn as much as I could about what Chileans have done and are doing to preserve the national memory of the Pinochet regime. In a particular way, I was curious to find out what was being done to memorialize the more than three-thousand Chileans who were killed for political reasons or 'disappeared' under Pinochet's rule. The photos shown above reveal some of the results of my inquiry.

A lot has done over the past two decades to honor the memory of Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected socialist head of state whose government was overthrown by the 1973 golpe de estado. A number of exhibitions and other public commemorations have been held this year to mark the centenary of Allende's birth; though the celebratory tone of these events may provide a kind of catharsis for Allende admirers who long had to hide their opinions, objective assessments of Allende's administration seem to have gotten lost in the process.

Santiago's Museo Histórico Nacional has an exhibit displaying broken fragments of Allende's trademark coke-bottle glasses (first photo from the top), which were preserved by a member of the president's staff after Allende committed suicide inside the presidential palace on the day of the coup. Not far from the palace is a commemorative statue (second and third photos) which depicts Allende as a heroic (or even prophetic) figure. The statue was understandably quite controversial when it was first installed, but I never heard anyone suggest that it should be removed.

All but one of the rest of the photos in this set were all taken at Santago's Cementerio General, the largest cemetery in the capital and the resting place of many famous Chileans (including Allende) as well as thousands of ordinary citizens. The Cementerio General includes a very moving memorial wall which purportedly includes the names of all the people who were killed or disappeared by the military regime (fourth photo). Relatives and friends of those whose names are on the wall often leave flowers at the foot of the wall (fifth photo). Nearby niches are set aside for the bodies of some of those who were killed for political reasons or died in detention during the dictatorship; visiting these graves can be an especially poignant experience, as many of the families of the people buried there have left not simply flowers but personal messages and mementos (sixth, seventh and eighth photos). Another section of the cemetery has long been set aside for pauper's graves and people who bodies were unclaimed or unidentifed after their deaths (ninth photo). A number of still-anonymous victims of the dictatorship are buried here, their grave markers reading "NN." On one of these markers, a graffiti artist with a deep sense of irony wrote the name "Augusto Pinochet Ugarte" (tenth photo). Cremated following his death in 2006, Pinochet remains unburied because his family fears that his tomb could become a target for vandals. In a sense, then, Pinochet symbolically rests among the unknown.

The best general statement I can offer about el 11 de Septiembre in Chilean memory is provided in the eleventh and final photo in this set. I spotted this small plaque - perhaps appropriately part of an exhibit on the Allende centenary - at the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda in downtown Santiago. The inscription is inspired by a line in a famous poem by Pablo Neruda (a poem that numerous Chileans I met were able to recite from memory), a poem that begins, Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche - "Tonight, I could write the saddest lines." Deep in this poem is the line Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos - "We, of that time, are no longer the same." The plaque in the photo says nearly the same thing - "We, of before, are no longer the same." Though the difference is a subtle one, I suppose that "before" draws a sharper distinction between the past and the present than "that time" does.

Repeating my earlier promise to pray for those who died on 9/11 and their loved ones, I'll be praying too for the people of Chile and for all who lost their lives as a result of the coup of 1973 and its aftermath. I also hope and pray that the coincidence of these two anniversaries inspires greater reflection among Christians on the ways in which we can help to bring peace and reconciliation to the world. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home