There is a light that never goes out: MIR is 52 today

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Chile’s political diversity at the time of Allende is widely documented, however none of the other political parties or movements have quite gained the mythical heights than that of the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR.

Notoriously middle class yet widely appealing, the MIR founders and leaders had the ladies swooning, political establishment sweating under the collar and were pretty much clandestine for most of its existence. When the coup was unleashed, its leaders were hunted down and exterminated deemed far too dangerous to even allow to exile.

The influence of Miguel Enriquez, Luciano Cruz, Luis Toro, Bautista Van Schouwen, Andres Pascal Allende, Marcelo Ferrada and so many others, have not been eroded by the passage of time. Indeed the loss of some of these brilliant minds is ever more painful in a world ravaged by the cruel onslaught of neoliberalism.

Happy Birthday MIR!



‘Exile is golden’ Not as I remember Christmases were cards, deaths, a blue letter

‘You travelled so much’ I’m blacker than thou, the name on the list grounds us somehow

‘You learned to speak English’ But it wasn’t the Queen’s, bread on the table escaping smashed dreams.

‘Exile is golden’ Not in that small room, bedtime stories sad memories and doom.

What is your problem. You escaped the dictator. Don’t fill wounds with salt. Don’t be a hater.

Exile is golden. You ran away. Rootless don’t matter or lonely decay.

Homage to an unsung hero: the life and times of artist Santiago Bell 

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“..They either shot you, or they tried to kill you slowly. They tried to kill me slowly, by beatings, torture and madness in solitary confinement. Ten of my ribs were broken and didn’t set properly. My kidneys do not work well because of the beatings. They made me eat shit with a spoon… People say that this has made me wise. Well, I would rather be stupid, and not have had that lesson. I learnt things, but they were all dark things…”  Santiago Bell 1986; survivor of the Torture Centres and Concentration Camps: “Isla Quiriquina” and “Regimiento de Chillán”

Santiago Bell Jara was an Anglo-Chilean politician, artist & exile. MAPU founder, Intendente de Ñuble and later Minister for the Peasant Education Programme (Ñuble) for the Allende led UP government.

His vocation as an educator which led him to work with Paolo Friere and philanthropic leanings were none more evident than when fostering over 20 street children in Ñuble with his wife Myriam, some of whom to this day call him ‘papá’. His political and social convictions permeated every part of his life, including his later phase in exile, as an artist.

Santiago Bell was born in 1932 to a Scottish father and Chilean mother, the eldest of a tribe of 11 kids. He became a teacher, married Myriam Marcò and had 5 children. He was originally a Christian Democrat but became disillusioned and helped form the breakaway political party, MAPU.

His home life was equally busy. With the financial aid of the church, Santiago & Myriam set up the Hogar de Cristo children’s home for street kids in the Rosita O’ Higgins, Chillan, however, their unorthodox parenting style was criticised by the church. Refusing to bend to the pressures of the church, Santiago & Myriam went it alone, kept the children that wanted to stay with them and continued to live with their adoptive & biological children in Chillàn.

On September 12th 1973 Santiago was arrested in Chillàn. He was then taken to the Isla Quiriquina where he was held without any formal charges until 1975. Once he was released he joined his family; Myriam, his 5 children and baby granddaughter in Cambridge, England, where he and his family were granted asylum status.

In Cambridge he shared his first UK studio with local artists and held his first arts exhibition at the University of Essex, showing his piece ‘torture chair’. After a few years of adjustment in Cambridge, he briefly moved to Belgium, and then returned to the UK in the early eighties settling in the East End of London.

He described the East End of London as ‘poor but culturally rich’. It was here that he and a group of local artists set up the now world famous Bromley By Bow centre, and where Santiago would create the pieces that catapulted him into the public eye, Fame that he neither wanted nor courted.
If Santiago had ever written an arts manifesto it may have had only one rule! Art is not for sale, nor is it a commodity to be peddled on the markets.

His resistance to fame led many an exasperated agent down a long and frustrating path with the same conclusion; Santiago was adamant in his disinterest. Many influential people visited Santiago’s exhibitions including the late Lady Diana & the Archbishop of Canterbury.

His artistic process was as consequent as his ideals. He scoured skips, construction yards etc for scrap wood which he fashioned into marvellous three dimensional sculptures depicting his experiences and other interpretations of global events. His philosophy was that people, like these scraps of wood, could be invested in and become great.

In his later years he went back to Chile (1993) with his wife Myriam to a small village near Mellipilla, Maria Pinto. Here he set about building a studio, where he continued to sculpt and also gave the local campesinos free English lessons in a classroom he had built within his studios.

He spent 11 happy years in his retirement in Chile but was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005. He passed away in his eldest daughter’s home in Hackney, London on the 17th May 2005, surrounded by friends, family and comrades.

Sluts and virgins: my very female return to Chile 

My aborted attempt to return to Chile had many factors that could be attributed to it’s failure. One that is rarely covered by memory documentation however, is the feminist perspective on ‘el retorno’ or put more eloquently, the female experience of the Chilean retornéé. In effect, what it is like for a woman or girl who has been raised in liberal Europe/North America/ Australia, to come into contact with Latin American societal attitudes firstly towards women in general and then women from other cultures perceived to be liberal.

I was lucky to have been raised a feminist. My father described himself as a Marxist/Feminist in many of his discussions with his political circle. As a child I was encouraged by both parents to engage with what are normally considered male dominated activities; football, roaming the streets, Scalextric & chemistry sets and was subject to feminist perspective sex education. I was taught to pursue love and sex for pleasure and not simply to become a mother or fulfil a traditional role in society. As a teenager I expected equality in relationships and had high hopes for my future career.
Of course not everything was perfect in the UK, among my peer group there was regular slut shaming and an unequal moral code for girls, this aside, I felt free to wear what I liked and do what I wanted within reason ( and parents permission).

Then we went back to Chile. It was 1990, the tail end of the dictatorship. One of the first gender related incidents that shocked me was the first time we visited ‘el centro’. It was a hot November day, far hotter than anything I’d experienced in England. I put on my clothes and climbed into the taxi with my father. I noticed the taxi driver staring at me which I thought was gross because I was only 16 and he was old. We got to Providencia and as soon as I got out of the taxi it started. Men were saying things as they walked past, almost grazing my skin as they leant in to whisper whatever disgusting thing a man would say to a child. Within minutes I was so upset about the unwanted attention I was getting from passers by, including cars, my father took me to a store and bought me a cover up.
From then on I never went out wearing shorts and a vest again. I was furious that I had been forced out of wearing what I wanted to. I then began to understand why Chilean girls wore jeans even on the hottest days.

Next up were boys in my own age group. I was lucky to inherit my cousin’s gang to hang around with and thus went to many parties upon my arrival in Santiago, in fact, I was able to go out and consume far more drugs and alcohol in Chile with its lax laws and open-all-hours nightlife. The reason why I had more freedom was because I now had a chaperone; a male companion of my fathers trust (my cousin) which in itself is a hideous concept.
As I got acquainted with Santiago’s boys I quickly learned that they supposed because I was from England, I was sexually liberated, therefore ‘up for it’ in other words, fair game. This Chilean male idea had also infuriated other female friends from Canada, Sweden and France to the point that we began socialising at home to avoid the leeches. We also began to form romantic relationships within the retornéé community to avoid misunderstandings and the rigmarole of being taken home to meet facist parents who would recoil in horror to find out their son was dating a returning left-wing dissident’s offspring. 

It may have been just unfortunate that I spent much of my ‘return’ in conservative Chillan. The bigotry of the women never ceased to shock me. Particularly among the middle/upper class femmes. They regularly partook in slut shaming, expected men to pay for their drinks & dinner (and sometimes drugs) and held deeply catholic anti abortion views. 
In the family environment things weren’t much better. While my cousins were encouraged to go on three-night rampages, I would be tutted at for doing the same. I was also now expected to not walk the streets unaccompanied at night and to serve male family members when they dropped in for tea. Of course I defied all of these conventions but constant battling with machismo made my adjustment to Chile all the more conflictive and difficult.

Returning to a country that was previously a dictatorship when coming from the freedom of Europe requires much cultural adjustment. Add being a woman that runs with the wolves to that, and you have a very complex route to integration ahead.

Fit in or fuck off: The anatomy of an identity crisis

The daunting theme of ‘Fitting in’ has featured heavily throughout my life whether I chose to admit it at the time, or not.

When an infant and although of a pale complexion, in a sea of Gaelic faces, while my face was pleasing, it didn’t quite fit. Growing up a dark-haired avocado eater in the midst of blonde and ginger crisp-munchers was no easy feat. Then again, justifying my Englishness at home wasn’t much fun either. As I drifted into adolescent years my contempt for Chile was big. It was a place to be dragged to, away from cosmopolitan London where finally, save for a Birmingham accent that wouldn’t budge, I was learning to find my niche.

Alas, as I turned 16 I found myself a ‘retornee’ in Chile where I was constantly hounded by my relatives and anyone I came into contact with, about whether I liked the UK or Chile most. Deeply nationalistic were the Chileans, so despite their admiration for the UK, could not feign their disgust at my rejection of the homeland. It seemed to me that the very things I loved about the UK, were the things that conservative Chileans abhorred about England; Diversity, tolerance and sexual freedom; particularly female or gay sexual freedom.

After six fruitless years in Chile I returned to the UK aged 22, trying to escape the impending identity crisis looming before me but I was back in a quagmire; My time in Chile had led me to acquire unforgettable friendships and new knowledge about my racial origins and in a sense, converted me into a hybrid.

I threw myself back into British life by embarking on a degree in a faceless university in a new town (Bristol) and upon graduation, various jobs in the stiff black and white corporate world but my existence seemed shallow. Not even achieving many of my career milestones made me feel whole. At the time I also became engaged to an English builder becoming the ‘foreign chick’ in a family so blonde, they were extras for a BBC drama about the Nazis. I endured eight awkward years of pubs, nightclubs & Sunday roasts.

While in that life, Pinochet was arrested in London and I became politically active for the first time. Those eighteen solid months of political awakening and grief at discovering the horrors mine and so many families went through, brought with them a new conscience which was at odds with my life. I became distant from my English boyfriend, a feeling stemming from a huge sense of alienation and displacement. Finally I got sick and moved away to London.

The capital offered a Latin experience unavailable in the rest of Britain. I spent a time among the Colombians, Ecuadorians and Chileans on the south side of the river. It was an attempt to ‘ Be Latin’. This phase was quite possibly the most ridiculous in my identity quest. Try as I might to emulate Latin-ness I was always approached in English and considered ‘gringa’ by any fleeting boyfriend or friend. My pale face and inability to understand Colombian Spanish also worked against any attempt to fit in. My ‘English’ ways aroused suspicion & misunderstandings with potential partners. Soon I stopped trying, stayed North of the river, got some tattoos and a fringe and set about discovering who I really am.

Despite completing many other life cycles including motherhood, the feeling of being an actor within my own life has never left me. An ‘Imposter’ even within my personal narrative I have never shaken off the feeling that my interactions with others is a construct merely to fit in to that particular situation at that particular time. This, I have discovered, is called Imposter Syndrome. I have spent so much of my life changing colours like a chameleon, that I no longer know what my true hue is.

Fitting in is all about denial. In this case denying my own identity, not just that of being Chilean but also my political history, that of being a genocide survivor. In order to live in this life knowing what I know, there has to be constant repression; a denial of my past, in order to be functional.

The shoes don’t fit but somehow I choose to keep walking.

Jorge and Claudia

She was working as a personal secretary for a TV personality; A giggly bubblegum-blowing teen on her first assignment at the nation’s largest television studios. Her mind was preoccupied with fashion, parties and ‘la nueva ola’. Despite the incumbent violence of the newly established political regime, her life was filled with the niceties of showbiz. One day her lifelong best friend and underground political party member asked her for a favour.

It turned out that he had this friend, ‘Jorge’ who was on the run from the secret police and she needed to look after and hide him. It was the end of October 1973 just a month or so after the coup and the country was being purged of all political opposition. Despite the risks, she agreed to carry out the rather curious favour, after all this was her childhood friend asking. The following week she finally met Jorge.

Her first impression of him was that he was rather arrogant and had impeccable manners. His calm blue eyes and impressive stature were not what she originally expected of her new daytime companion. She stood there chewing gum and shyly observing him in the rather tense room. The man, Jorge, was a serious chap. Extremely handsome with long elegant fingers, immaculate fingernails and a very confident quiet manner.

He observed the girl, about 12 years his junior in skintight jeans and platforms. She was annoying and loud and talked constant gibberish.
How awful to be in this predicament so far away from everything he loved, he pondered, And he would have to spend his days with her…He turned to the girl and asked her to stop tapping her feet as it was making him nervous. She looked at the man, ‘Jorge’ and rolled her eyes at the absurd command which she begrudgingly observed. The mutual friend intervened in the awkward standoff between the raucous teenager and serious political figure by pronouncing ‘Your new name is Claudia’ and smiled mischievously whilst ushering them out the door with precise instructions.

They made their way downtown on foot and boarded the bus which was a shock to both of them. Her, because she was from the plushest part of town and him because he was from Concepcion and not as familiar with Santiago as his more urban brother-in-arms ‘Carlos’. The bus was hot and heaving with poor people and weird smells. After an hour long ride they reached their destination; the posh suburbs, and walked to her gated community where he finally achieved a good rest and decent cup of tea.

As the weeks uneasily drifted by, despite their differences they became rather fond of each other. Her anti intellectualism and giddy youth was a welcome respite from the political militancy that had separated him from his son. She learnt lots from him too, he helped balance her frenetic energy and taught her to hold her tongue and maintain composure.
One tedious afternoon he asked if she’d read Marxist-Leninist theory, ‘what is that?!’ She screeched, first to his horror and then to his amusement. Claudia said it was one of the few times she really saw him do a proper belly laugh. After the tough job of gaining his trust she managed to get him to loosen up a few times, not be such a square. There was one frisky afternoon where she briefly sampled his masculinity and another occasion in which she managed to persuade him to come along to a party. She discovered that he was a wonderful dancer but he soon wanted to return back to the quiet, away from the giddy glitz, so far removed from the reality of his possible capture and most likely, immediate execution.

Most of the time he’d be solemn, listening to music and international news on an ancient pocket radio he kept on his person at all times, and expressed his sorrow at being separated from his little son. She listened to him lament not seeing his child grow up: not being able to hold him. She asked him to let her help, her dad could pick up his son and bring him, even just for an afternoon, but Jorge just welled up and nodded no. The risks were too great.
She felt sad for him so isolated, on the run and having to spend his days between meetings and sleeping in safe-houses. On days they had enough money they would get around the city by car but mostly they used buses as they were cheaper and less easy to follow by the secret police.
She tagged along to many meetings and even got to meet ‘Carlos’ the enigmatic first man of the outlawed political party, but mostly nobody paid attention to the young girl and she found their rambling meetings a little dull. Sometimes she would be sent on risky missions to meet a nurse for medical supplies as he suffered from a progressive colic condition.

Over those damp autumn days she became Jorge’s ally, She cared about whether he ate or had proper underwear or the cigarettes he loved to smoke. Their routine had now become like second skin. Her lack of political awareness shielded her from the reality that protecting this man could cost her the things she held dear. Namely, life as she knew it.
Her mother constantly fretted about Claudia’s whereabouts and insisted on knowing why she spent so much time with that older man and had become his chaperone but Claudia kept to her word and brushed off the questions whilst wangling extra money to keep them afloat.

As the indiscernible days agonisingly stretched out before them, Jorge became increasingly agitated. He had not settled into his routine and bad news continually filtered through the networks. In effect his dead-man-walking status haunted him which is why he and James, who was also living in phantasmagoric clandestinity, decided to change tack and go into hiding someplace else where their scent wouldn’t be detected.
James thought that they should take cover in a church downtown. Jorge wasn’t so sure, Claudia intervened, seeing holes and risk in their plans but was promptly brushed off. She pleaded with them to let her hide Jorge in some private land that belonged to her family. They said no and dismissed her ideas as absurd. Undeterred she conjectured that the centrally located high footfall church would not be safe, but her words fell on deaf ears.

The last day she saw him alive was on December 10th 1973. Three days later, the church where they took refuge was raided and Jorge and James were taken by military personnel never to be seen again. It was on that day that ‘Claudia’ discovered ‘Jorge’s’ real name. And then it was her turn to run.