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.

To Be Or Not To Be: English

‘You’re so English’ assorted family members have muttered exasperatedly since I was able to string a sentence together. My seamless assimilation of the customs pertaining our country of refuge should have been a badge of honour, but over the years it came to mean many things. Not all of them pleasant.

My Englishness set me apart from the group I’d arrived in the U.K. with. My parents, grandparents and tíos were all Chilean, I on the other hand, was only so through genetics.

Being English came naturally to me. Schooling, friendships and interests were all anglophone, Chilean-ness juxtapositioned itself awkwardly within my daily life. It was something my parents tried to impress upon me through taking me to cultural events and encouraging Chilean cuisine & customs within the home.

As a child my Englishness and in particular my accent, was a source of amusement for the adults but this mirth gave way to umbrage as I mutated into a woman. It was here that an intense period of inter-family cultural clashes came into the fore.

As my adolescent peers sailed unscathed though the usual rites of passage: first can of Stella, first fag, make up, short skirts and gate-crashing adult parties, I had what my other friends didn’t: Chilean parents, who despite being of left wing extraction thus presumably ‘right on’, were not as liberal as I hoped. Deeply entrenched in catholic traditional & patriarchal Latin American values, the family viewed my normal English teenage behaviour as an aberration. My Britishness was a ‘problem’ and the refusal to speak Spanish or give a shit about Chile became obstructive.

The more refuge I sought in my English identity, the greater the Chilean clampdown was, until the asphyxiation became too much and I ran away from home just weeks before we were due to fly back to Chile for good.

Lured to Chile under the pretence that I would be allowed back if I did not adapt, I set about trying to make sense of the strange country my father called ‘home’.

In Latin America however, my Britishness seemed to amplify. From the clothes I wore, the habits I maintained and the inability to read or speak Spanish properly, my attempts to blend in were forever thwarted by my glaringly obvious foreignness. While it created a little bit of awe and envy among my new Chilean friends, it became a thorn in my side. At home with my father’s new wife, my English ways did not go down well. She was ultra conservative and disapproved of my liberal customs. I did not care what she thought and continued to come home drunk and smoke in my room.

It dawned on me that I could never erase my identity to make way for a newfangled one just to aid my father’s transition back to his homeland, I had learnt to speak Spanish but it was not my voice. It was time to go home although the path back would be rocky. Chilean norms in 1996 were completely indecipherable. 19 year olds seldom worked and I discovered that patriarchy dominates immigration rules: I could not leave until I reached 21 without my father’s permission and he was intent on keeping me close.

In an fateful twist of events, being English eventually facilitated my return to the UK. I found a job teaching English in Moneda, Santiago and built up an impressive portfolio of clients. Thanks to my British English accent that elitist Chileans wanted so badly to attain, I was able to fund an independent lifestyle and plan my exit back home to cosmopolitan London where I would not be called out for my identity, or lack of one.

Exile Makes Me Sick

I’m convinced I can pinpoint to the minute, the traumatic event that offset ‘the ill’.
It was in 1993 during the squalid winter of the dull rural town we were living in at the time. The conflict had arisen because we had moved away from vibrant Santiago to this colourless outback and I was furious. In my mind this was a clear act of sabotage to my adjustment in Chile. Santiago offered the anonymity and a modicum of personal freedom that all capital cities do. And now we had moved away, just as I’d planted some seedlings and carved out a little world for myself.

It was a very heated fight and at a pivotal moment I felt a little bit of my mind cave in. Suddenly the fury was gone and I sat in silence for hours, staring into the nether: I had resigned myself to losing my father to this Chile of his.

The sheer desperation of being in a situation that I had no control over nor could I remove myself from, left me slightly broken. Leaving Chile would be an arduous process that would entail finding funds and the emotional strength to leave my dad behind. It was not until 1997 that I was able to return home to England, losing my father in the process. It was several years later that I’d be diagnosed with Lupus.

When illness replaced my full time profession I began, as most people do, to seek answers to the origin of my disease. Lifestyle was the first thing I analysed, then diet. When this was insufficient I became more dependant on medication to battle my symptoms and in turn, more concerned with finding a ‘cure’, I turned to holistic approaches and complementary therapies: yoga, shiatsu, reiki and wheat-free -vegan diets, I then flirted with the raw diet, went to a shaman, guzzled peyote and bark roots. But I was never closer to the truth or relief.

It seems glaringly obvious now that the mind was a consideration I was intentionally overlooking. I did not want to go back to the separations, the rootlessness, the mal adjustment plus the torture and the death I spent a lifetime denying, patiently lurking in the doldrums of my mind. Despite my revulsion at exploring psychological explanations and the mind-body synergy theory, I could no longer ignore it.

Today, with what we know about physical illness and it’s deeply complicated relationship with mental health, and having given sufficient consideration to what being the child of exiles means, along with understanding the sadness and loss attached to this experience, may have enabled me to better understand the origin of my illness.

I am not alone. In my close peer group there are eight people with auto immune conditions and three with crippling mental health issues. We are all women under 50 years of age who have either arrived in the UK as political exiles as children or were born to Chilean exile parents.
While there are published studies about first generation exiles and health, there is very little about the ‘adjusting’ second generation.

Brought up in seeming normality yet facing the daily challanges of British life with its one dimensional reality, and then going home to a complex situation or indeed a parallel universe, afflicted by depression, unemployment and the overcoming of political persecution in all its guises, just may have made an impact on what were quite frankly, babies in a split dimension.

Internalising an unknown and often inherited pain has its consequences. There is strength in silence. In forgetting.. but the body has to place this somewhere. As I forced the fear and sadness out of my head, it leaked into my body like a fetid ink. I believe this is how it manifested in my body.

The only evidence I have that exile makes you ill lies in my peer group. As our lives roll on and we start to face new challenges such as coping with the death of our loved ones in exile, I can only conclude as I observe the ever increasing numbers of my peers being diagnosed with autoimmune conditions, that exile really does make you sick.

An ode to Hate

Hate has always loomed large in my life but this took time to realise. I could only comprehend its foul language when my eyes were truly open.

Like most of my Chilean friends, I’d grown up with the Chile-tragedy narrative that’d become mythical; a story ‘de los viejos’, distant and magical like unicorn tears.
As a child, Saturdays involved being whisked off to a community hall for Chilean parties, Once there I’d be skidding on my knees red-faced and running amok with the kids. Those very kids that formed the backdrop to my formative years in the UK, are now my solid life partners: the one’s who, no matter how immersed in my current British life, always take me back to the early days of refuge, solidarity and warmth of our communal lives, bound together by the grief and sadness that forced us out of Chile.

The ‘story of Chile’ didn’t even come to life for me when I ‘returned’ in early 1990. Consumed by a teenage mind far too preoccupied with rebelling against my parents and their unwavering desire to send me to Chile, when all I wanted was to sneak off to raves in the soggy English fields.

 I could not see what was around me. The inner toils of my selfish teenage world had blinded me. I wasn’t aware of the context in which I had returned to Chile, nor did I care.

I left Chile 7 years later having amassed a full catalogue of images and sounds that still trouble my thoughts on dank winter nights, such as the glum terracotta brick wall of the Villa Grimaldi on Jose Arrieta for example, where we would gather at night and harass the guard on duty. Just yards away from where perhaps my own aunty and uncle were raped, cut, beaten and discarded like cattle and then dumped into the sea via the lovely aeródromo by Tobalaba, that I would pass daily, awed by the sight of the luminous white helicopters juxtapositioned between the mountains and cobalt sky.

When Pinochet was arrested in London I was catapulted into stark realisation. It’s one thing hearing los viejos vaguely referring to the ‘terrible things happening in Chile’, and quite another to read a full length feature in The Guardian, about the violation and torture of the lovely tia you have visited nearly every Saturday for years on end, or indeed your own relative. Week after week, front page articles appeared in the press and on the radio, Chileans were on Question Time and NewsNight.

Pinochet and his crimes against humanity became a national obsession and also a personal one. I learned horrible things, that as time goes on, become more horrible and dark and unbearable. But once I learnt, there was no turning back.

From this rolled forth the avalanche of hate: this historical hatred I’d heard being detailed by my folks through their memories of their Unidad Popular years, with its scuffles and fierce divisions followed by the phantasmagoric hatred unleashed by the facist coup, spreading through Chile like a cancer.
The hate dimension now began to engulf my adult life, from social network interaction, to framing how I interpret what Chilean people are saying to me. I understand the meaning of ‘marxista’ as it’s spat out between the teeth of the blonde viejas cuicas I come across in Chillán. I now understand the strange gleam of hared in the eyes of my Chilean ex-boyfriend’s parents, whose father was in the Navy. With this clarity I can make sense of my experiences in Chile and those weird interactions I had with upper class Chileans. The language of hate has made itself apparent to me and I understand it’s key words like I never did before.
I’m not sad about recognising the hate in me and others. I see how this hate shapes the world and my personal history. The discourse of Trump. The tone of the papers. Attitudes towards refugees and black people.

Being aware of this hate while painful and irreversible has equipped me for this era. Yes, the world looks gross through shit tinted lenses, but it’s dark force is not to be underestimated as we enter a new post-hope political epoch.

The Hunger Games: Chile’s debt to a whole generation

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Imagine that you are young and full of hope. The President you campaigned for has won the election despite international interference: You are elated. The world will become a better place and you will help make it happen. You do voluntary work in the community, you see how milk is being distributed to poor children. Access to education is a real thing. At work, salaries and conditions have improved. You spend summers cultivating the land with the campesinos and help local kids understand the world better through workshops and community events. There are outpourings of international solidarity and people from across the world come to join this wonderful social experiment.

Suddenly there is an announcement on the radio: the President’s final speech drips through the speakers like superglue. Gunfire,smoke and chaos abound. The President is dead: the military are on the move. Surely not to get me? the community worker/teacher/ artist? Your friends go into hiding. One by one they vanish. You try to make contact with others but it’s impossible with the curfew and lack of telecommunications. You see the military police roaming around the streets picking people out, kicking doors in, smashing heads..but are powerless to act. You remain silent.

One night your front door is rammed in. Shiny leather Prussian boots stomping all over your home. You mother is weeping in the corner, Your father has already been taken. You quiver in your nightgown begging to be taken without harm being done to your younger siblings. The shiny boots and broken glass on the floor are the last you see of your home. You dare to look at your terrified family as they roughly blindfold you and bind your hands behind your back. You feel as though you have nothing to tell these beasts, but they know better.

You spend an hour in the darkness of the stinking vehicle. Sweat and desperation permeate the air. Your stomach is dizzy with anguish and uncertainty. You hear more people being bundled onto the truck, women and men…you imagine what they look like. Someone is crying, you ask for some help but the butt of the gun shuts you up. You taste sweet thick blood. It will be all you drink for a while.

You are gruffly pulled off the truck. It’s the dead of night. Silently the phantasmagoric group shuffle towards the building. Your blindfold slips and you can make out the ghostly figures under the glare of the moon. You squint and try to make out distinguishing features to memorise where you are.  You spend the night in a small cramped room with over 30 terrified hostages, all wondering what their fate will be: all equally convinced that there has been a mistake, that they will soon be in the warm glow of the family home. Suddenly the mundane, like a simple cup of tea and a roll up seem extraordinary.

Thoughts are abruptly interrupted by a cruel game of Russian roulette entailing smirking guards picking out the next victim. This time it’s you. They fish you out and yank you toward the basement. There is a chair and a neatly combed official taking notes. There’s also a nurse on standby which ought to bring comfort but somehow the clinical white uniform seems sinister and out of place in the grubby room. The official begins with simple questions but soon the polite becomes perverse. The neat man leaves the room and you are given a cup of tea which you quaff desperately, mistaking this small glimpse of humanity as a sign that the ordeal is over. How wrong you are. Two other men come in. They are wearing civilian attire. They have eyes but no soul. They laugh at you as your clothes are ripped off your shivering body. Muffled screams emanate from the depths of the building. You aren’t sure if the whimpering is human or some poor pained beast. Then you realise that beast is you.

For days it goes on. You think you have reached the depths of humiliation and them, the depths of depravity, but there are secrets in your eyes and they want them. You repeat and wail that there is nothing to tell. All you had was a dream and now this is a nightmare. The fug of the cell is unbearable. You feel relief when there is one less person in the cell that night. It may not cross your mind that they may have been murdered. This will haunt you for many years.

One strange day you are let out. You daren’t exchange glances with anyone else for fear that this is another cruel mouse trap. You slowly leave the cell, swollen feet barely able to fit your shoes. They laugh at your pained efforts to move and warn you to never speak of this again. You meekly sign a document and they blindfold you again. You smell their cigarette smoke and hear their small talk .The last contact you make with the anonymous bastards is a parting kick in the ribs when they haul you off the truck and dump you on a side road.

People stare but keep moving. You realise you are bleeding out of every orifice and try to clean up before getting home. Your mother weeps when you enter. You remain silent for weeks. Outside the world keeps spinning. A enforced sense of normality gathers pace and you try to stay sane. You try to regain your old job but you are regarded with suspicion. Your injuries are taking too long to heal. At night you weep but can’t tell your mother about your ordeal, she has suffered enough. Your father never comes home and searching for him becomes priority. The years go by and you can’t shake it off. You never really recover from the broken ribs and find relationships difficult.

This story was lived by thousands of Chileans. Some of them are our uncles, grandfathers, aunties, mothers and family friends and yet nothing much has been done to compensate or commemorate these death-squad survivors. Far from being recognised as the heroes that they are, many have endured a lifetime of disability, exile and trauma.

Adding glass to salty wounds, the Chilean government has announced that the heinous suffering that includes kidnap, rape, torture and even exposure to chemicals, all of which contravene human rights agreements that Chile itself is subscribed to, amount to the compensatory sum of around £5 per day. In a country found to be as expensive as England, the notion that a pensioner whom may have special needs as a result of torture and trauma, can live from a measly £150 per month, is risable.

The hunger strike undertaken by ex political prisoners, many of them now pensioners, has reached its 30th day as the world continues to doze on, while those who survived the most inhumane brutalities decide that it’s better to die than to live in the current status quo.

Just like the putrid waste of the greedy salmon farmers overflows into neighbouring seas, the stench of Chile’s violent indifference towards generation torture has become overwhelming and impossible to ignore.

No Going Back: When Exile Becomes Eternal

It began with the ‘No’ campaign. Chileans around the world, many of whom famously kept their suitcases packed till the day they could return safely, were filled with optimism. Then the transition to democracy engulfed us in a euphoric sense of hope that maybe, slowly, things could be edged back to the middle ground and we could safely return home. True, the mass influx of people from Europe, North America and Australia would bring with it problems: language barriers, cultural confusion and readjustment but finally exile would be finished. And this was the dream had in my family.

Sadly we did not anticipate what lay ahead. Language barriers were the least of our troubles in a country that was unwelcoming in every sense. Education and professional qualifications had to be certified which cost much time and money, flats could not be let to us as we had no financial history in Chile, so a years deposit was required. And then health care; we had no insurance so £20 per visit had to be shelled out (soon I learned to ignore colds and minor infections). The expense of bureaucracy and the premiums we had to pay for a lack of financial history soon took their toll, as did the price of my college fees. Soon our little mound of pounds began to disappear and I began to understand that I may not be able to progress in this country. Not only was it alien, it was exceedingly hostile. A place where only those who swim in gold can access the basic things that we take for granted in the developed world.

Among the financial barriers that many exiles faced, there were invisible political barriers that we were naively unaware of, not having been subjected to the brainwashings of a military dictatorship for years on end. I now understand that my inability to insert myself in the social spheres around me, despite my best efforts, was an inevitable side effect of societal prejudice woven tightly for many years, by the Junta’s media machine.

The biggest disappointment for the  returning population, was finding itself witness to the political lie that was the ‘transition’ to democracy. Alarm bells rang at the release of the Rettig report: a whitewashed shambles of a document that just added salt to fresh wounds. Harder still, was having to live side by side with former torturers & delatantes and seeing the best positions in politics and business filled by ex military and secret servicemen. It certainly didn’t feel very democratic or safe.

The rocky road back to Chile was like a cruel cat and mouse game that many would never win. We had neither the means nor the will to adjust to this cruel bear pit of a country, where Pinochet was still casting his shadow long and dark over every aspect of Chilean life. And so the bounce-back commenced, destroying families and yet again draining yet more funds and emotions. Leaving Chile meant having to pick up the pieces once more but this time, for many, there was truly no going back. Making the choice to come back meant I left my father behind but there was no place for me there. Chile was demanding an unreasonable compromise: insertion into a damaged amnesiac gorila nation with nothing much in return. With all them sticks and not a whiff of carrot, it was the end of the road for me.

As a community, the acceptance of eternal exile has been hard. We all dream of someday returning but for many, especially the elderly, who depend on healthcare and social services, or those who have already made a life here, the only viable option is to choose the country of refuge. Chile is barely able to accept and face the horror of its recent past; A politically immature nation, where the power of the beast is king. It’s poor handling of even the most basic fulfillments makes me wonder if it will ever have the social sophistication to handle the complex needs of a rather battered retuning population. That is why coming back is the start of a long goodbye.