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!

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Burn The Witch: Me V social conservatism 

I’d always imagined that adjusting to life in a foreign country would be a challenge: Cultural differences, language and lifestyle lags obviously lay in wait, However, I was ill prepared for the unexpected and fierce battle with staunch social conservatism, a phenomena largely alien to my UK life, that would sabotage any attempt to adopt Chile as my potential home.

Within days of arrival in the Chile of 1990 I gathered that racism, homophobia and misogyny were endogenous to the Chilean linguistic landscape. On one occasion, watching the World Cup final with the family and having ‘onces’, I grew so tired of my relatives calling black players ‘niggers’ and ‘monkeys’ that I smashed up my crockery and left.

Another time, a boy I had been seeing lured me to his car to question me on whether it was true that I had been with a black American in Concepcion, when I remarked that I had and that it was rather enjoyable, he assaulted me, smashing my head against the window and punching me in the stomach. Calmly he drove me home in awkward silence as I bled into my lap.

My unwillingness to fit into the norm made me a target. For some reason this made people angry. Especially men. More than once I was backed into a corner by angry males, furious that I would not sleep with them yet was known to be brazenly dating a ‘negro’. And then a Mapuche. Far from being afraid, I was amused by the antics of the socially conservative youth, neurotic and tightly packaged into their neat, safe clothes, fearful of being caught slipping.

Like many countries in the taught grip of strict Catholicism, the townsfolk of Chillan groaned under the strain of keeping up appearances, However by night the town I nicknamed ‘Twin Peaks’ would show its true nature. Beneath yellow moons and confetti skies the night vibrated to the tune of distorted shadow egos and werewolves.

It was on one of those such nights that due to my youth and inebriated state, I ended up in a small house on the dodgier end of the city with some posh boys; the son of a distinguished, wealthy Palestinian and the other, the son of a corrupt right-wing local politician. They had been leering all night, making lewd comments about ‘gringa’s’ and derisory references to exiles. They were getting rowdier and seemingly angrier the more they drank and snorted. Overhearing their whispered scheming, I began to suspect that their plan was to rape me. I managed to escape but not before the debauchery reached an unexpected crescendo and one began to felate the other. After that I was then threatened to keep quiet lest their gay secret be made public.

I grew to expect this hypocritical way of being from ultra conservative types but depressingly it came from everywhere. Seeping and constant, the incessant stream of prejudice became too toxic to bear: from burying a friend who had died from AIDS, saying it was in fact cancer to avoid public knowledge that he was gay, to always shouldering the blame for my cousins for any drugs found in the house.

I was always to blame. The degenerate outsider. Easier to believe, easier to digest.

The prejudices spawned by conservatism in Chile no doubt anchored by years of state endorsed classism, ingrained casual racism and the absence of political and sexual freedom seemed to manifest in many guises. From the constant public molestation of women, to open racism towards the Mapuche, contempt towards poor people, opposition to all types of reforms and the demonisation of the left.

After six difficult years in Chile I decided that although language can be learned and social codes undeciphered, the impenetrable force field that had locked Chile into its anachronistic mindset is impossible to smash.

 

Golden

‘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.