The other day, a friend and neighbor gave me (Rico) a walking tour of our community. As we navigated the steep hills and ever-present and never-threatening sleeping (and awake) dogs, we came to Cerro Carcel, so named because it is the site of a former prison until about 1999 (and currently, the Parque Cultural de Valparaíso, or Cultural Park of Valparaíso). Now, due initially to the self-organization of artists and community members (who occupied the site in 2001), what was a prison is now a place cared for by neighborhood youth and members of the ex-carcel community in the cerros of Valparaíso, a place of gardens, flowers, soccer fields, family recreation, a museum, theater, and more—and of course, of memory.

The original prison building
El Parque Cultural de Valparaíso
El Parque Cultural de Valparaíso

I don’t do well visiting prisons, even ones liberated by community folks seeking to bring light and life to places of pain and darkness. As a child, I hated zoos because I watched huge lions and tigers pace endlessly in cages twice their size in the Central Park zoo. I thought that those prisons made their animal inmates insane. And as an adult, I’ve had (and have) people I love who are locked up. I feel the pain of their spirits, and I don’t like visiting former jails, even historically significant ones I’ve been to, like the Castillo de San Severino, in Mantanzas, Cuba, an important site of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas. 

In the Valparaíso ex-carcel museum, there are plaques to the revolutionaries who opposed the 1973 coup, including one to the navy soldiers who stood with President Allende against the golpistas (coup-makers). There are pictures of survivors of the prison in their recent lives and homes, a tribute to those who fought for liberty and democracy against the violence of the Pinochet dictatorship, and others. The prison housed more than a few political prisoners during that time…

Commemorating the Naval members who stood with Allende
Remembering those who fought for liberty and democracy

I asked my friend about memory because the famous Chilean filmmaker, Patricio Guzmán (who made the remarkable La Batalla de Chile [The Battle of Chile] about the coup, see it on YouTube!), also made a film in 1997 about “obstinate” memory (Chile, la memoria obstinada, also on YouTube). Guzmán was exploring how Chileans who eventually overturned the dictatorship in 1990, remembered (or not) the past and how the deep, enduring post-traumatic stress affected them. I wanted to know if my friend thought that today’s Chileans, especially younger people and students who were born after 1990, carried the memories in their bones. He told me an interesting story…

In 2010, Chile created El Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (the Museum of Memory and Human Rights), in Santiago, as part of the historical, post-dictatorship reckoning. Despite the critique (which I shared when I visited there in 2017) that while the museum tells history of the dictatorship, it tells little of what led up to 1973 and the work of Unidad Popular (the alliance of parties/organizations backing Allende) and what type of new society they were trying to create. However, it is a major museum, devoted to memory and puts the coup squarely on the public table. My friend then told me that the current right-wing Chilean President Piñera appointed a Minister of Culture in 2018. His comments from a few years earlier surfaced about the museum, as he essentially called it a fabrication of history being used for political purposes (to enshrine the Left and demean the Right). Almost immediately, a protest of some 20,000 arose, many of whom were artists and culture workers, and within three days, the minister resigned (was forced to?). A clear victory for the people! But, my friend continued, people may not think of the coup, torture, dictatorship, prison in their day-to-day existence. Yet the memory, obstinate, is still there and surfaces in ways and times that are not easy to predict or to organize for. We continue to grapple with the question of how much the memory and legacy of the dictatorship affects the present and future of Chile.

El Parque Cultural de Valparaíso

Rico y Pauline

4 thoughts on “Memory

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