Rodrigo Rojas de Negri -“To be a Photographer During the Dictatorship Was a Political Act”

We don’t have the words for this. We just came back from an event commemorating Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, a young photographer who had attended Colegio Pablo Neruda, the public neighborhood elementary school in our cerro. Rodrigo, born in 1967, went to the school during the dictatorship, after the 1973 Coup d’Etat. But his family was political militants and after the coup, the military detained his mother, Veronica de Negri, and Rodrigo was sent to live with family in Canada. When his family was exiled to the U.S., he rejoined them. Rodrigo’s passion for photography began at the age of 6. In high school he took photos of school activities and student protests.  But Rodrigo kept Chile in his heart, and wanted to return. As a nineteen year old, he went back to photograph and document the developing movement to liberate Chile from the grasp of fascism.

In July of 1986, Rodrigo was photographing a demonstration against the Pinochet regime, when he was picked up by military police along with Carmen Gloria Quintana. The military soaked them with gasoline and lit them on fire. Carmen Gloria survived with 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 62% of her body. Rodrigo died two days later. His last words were, “los militares me quemaron vivo” (the military burned me alive). His funeral in Santiago was attended by thousands and attacked by the military.

Rodrigo’s Funeral

The commemoration was an incredible intergenerational memorial, cultural experience, and call to the young generation to continue the struggle for the dream of the Allende period. After the school day ended, school and neighborhood members blocked off the street and put chairs in front of the school. Rodrigo’s mother, Verónica, who came back to Chile for the event, was the guest of honor, along with veterans of the 1970’s and 1980’s who sacrificed and suffered so much, young adults in the struggle today, artists, teachers, and children from the school. The organizers unveiled a mosaic of Rodrigo that the artists had created on the outside of the school by the main door.

For over two hours, as a damp Pacific fog drifted in, dropping the temperature 20 degrees and saturating the air almost to the point of rain, each person who spoke or performed told of the impact of Rodrigo’s murder on their political formation and consciousness, and its significance for the dream of a new world. Those who spoke included the Mayor’s representative, the head of Valparaíso schools (Silvana, our compañera), artists who created the mosaic, the 12 or 13-year old young woman president of the student body, a woman who danced the cueca sola (a traditional Chilean dance usually done in male-female pair, but one that feminist activists during and after the dictatorship re-articulated to a solo dance done by women to commemorate those no longer with us, done, this time, with a camera to symbolize Rodrigo), and Rodrigo’s mother Verónica, who spoke of her deep emotion, continuing resistance, and firm commitment to fight (pelear) for a better world. 

Verónica and Rodrigo Mosaic
Silvana Sáez, Valparaíso Schools Director

When school administrators decided to create a memorial for Rodrigo, they explained his story to the first graders and asked the children what to do. The 5- and 6-year olds told them to make something permanent on the outside of the building, that couldn’t and wouldn’t be defaced, destroyed, torn town. From that, the school approached a local artist collective who created a mosaic portrait of Rodrigo. At the start of the event, the mural was covered with black cloth. Its  unveiling was to be a highlight, but during the speeches, Rodrigo’s spirit intervened and the cloth dropped to the ground, laying bare the mosaic, inspiring and delighting all of us as someone shouted his name and we shouted, ¡presente! Verónica had talked to every class in the school, from grade 1-8, explaining who Rodrigo was, and each class did their own representation and response, some of which we share below. All were on display inside the school’s large public hall after the commemoration service.

The outside program ended with un payaso (a clown) who mimed, danced, and made balloon animals and flowers which he passed out to children and adults, as people laughed and sang. A trio of music students played a few songs with a teacher and another adult, and the event moved inside for coffee, tea, and sweets, where it continued with more music and a gallery walk of the responses from the school’s students to what they had learned of Rodrigo from Verónica. 

Collage in Colegio Pablo Neruda
Rodrigo Mural

Today Valparaíso’s young progressive city administration is a fruit of each decade of a persistent movement that we can trace to the Allende period and before (Verónica), through the resistance to the dictatorship in the 1980’s (Silvana, the mayor’s representative, and Rodrigo) to the mayor himself (a leader of the 2011 student strike), to the musicians, poets, dancers, and clown, and the children in the school. This event was hosted by a public school in a working-class neighborhood. Here was the mayor’s representative talking about being in the streets at the same time as Rodrigo, the city’s minister of education giving the key, political, militant speech, and a public school hosting this event and politicizing students. Afterward we asked Silvana if this was a particularly progressive or militant school. No, she said, “a regular school.” 

Video homage to Rodrigo Rojas de Negri (español)

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