Chile: The First 9-11, Part I, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

3 Aug

Isabel Rojas-Williams has served as Mural Conservancy LA’s Executive Director since 2011. A native of Chile and resident of Los Isabel Rojas-WilliamsAngeles since 1973, she became an immediate and passionate fan of the mural movement here. Isabel pursued a business career ranging from retail sales to wholesale and import/export. She is a longtime civic activist who has served as the Mayor’s liaison to the Latino, the Asian, and the African American Heritage Committees.  Isabel earned her graduate degree in art history from Cal State Los Angeles, and joined the faculty there in 2007.  Among her numerous research works are “Los Angeles Street Mural Movement, 1930-2009,” her master’s thesis, and a video on David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Siqueiros: A Muralist in Exile,” which led to her participation on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretative Center project that was completed in 2012.

Check Isabel’s work at MCLA on the following links: https://www.facebook.com/muralconservancy

and  http://muralconservancy.org

I was born in Santiago, Chile in 1949. In the 1960s and early 1970s I was involved in the global student uprisings for civil rights. In high school I was involved in the struggle for democracy, By the time I got to college, I was fighting for the right to elect Allende in his fourth (1952, 1958, 1964, and 1970) and ultimately successful campaign to become president and then to keep his government in power in face of the pending 1973 coup by dictator Augusto Pinochet.

My father was a socialist, a political activist, and a poet who went from town to town to unionize railroad workers. He died of tuberculosis when I was two. He hadn’t even realized that he was sick; that was at the time when they just discovered penicillin, and even though mass production of penicillin began in 1948, by the time penicillin reached Chile, it was too late for my father. My mother figured out later from his symptoms what he had died of.

My mother was from an upper middle-class family. She met my father in a small town where he was organizing. He was a charming man and she fell in love. She also believed in his cause. However, my mother’s father was deadly opposed to their marriage and disinherited her. When Dad died at 33, my mother, who was only 22, was heartbroken. My parents already had two children, my sister and me, and she was pregnant with her third baby. I learned a lot of this through love letters from Dad to Mom; Mom keeps a stack of them near to her, tied with a ribbon, and won’t let us read them, but she tells us what’s in them.

After my dad’s death, my grandfather gave my mom a job as a blue-collar worker in the national dairy distribution company, which he directed. My mom had no babysitter so she’d take me with her to work, leaving the other children with neighbors. As I grew up, I watched my mother’s struggle to survive. After working all day in the dairy company, she took in piecework at home at night. We lived only four doors from my grandparents, but my mom had to rent a room for the four of us from a neighbor. To escape the poverty she remarried at 27 and had three more kids, but my stepfather was not a good man for her. She continued to struggle.

We siblings were very close, like a fist. We all aspired to education in order to escape our poverty and to help our mother.

Chile. IsabelCanalesEspinoza.Mother.12-13

Isabel’s Mother: Isabel Canales Espinoza

From the time we were 12 or 13, in order to save money for our schooling, my sisters and I knit sweaters, which we sold to members of our family; made our own clothes; and helped our mother iron garments she made for garment factories. Because of all this, I was familiar with the struggles of poor people.

My mother is my hero. She is amazing. She struggled to help feed her kids and to give them an education. She is my daily inspiration.

As a child I was very sick with pneumonia. My grandmother took me to live with her part of the time so she could take me to the hospital daily for shots—she feared TB. I went from one world to another. While at my grandparents’ house, I saw how they lived—they had a chauffeur, housekeeper, cook, and personal caretaker for me. I became aware of the disparities between the rich and the poor. I identified with the latter.

My grandmother was not a cold woman. She had sympathy for the workers; she understood their struggle, and she suffered because of not being able to help my mother. But my grandfather was physically intimidating and arrogant. He thought that he was “entitled.”

I have always been an avid reader, but once in high school I immersed myself in books. I became aware of Fredrick Engels and of Marx’s Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto.

CommunistManifesto

I became a firm believer that capitalism was the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” and was run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit. I felt that the only way to blur the lines between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was socialism. Raised in a country at a time when education was extremely Euro-centric, I was aware of the European student movement of the 1960s.  This phenomenon caused political activism among students all over the globe, including in the Americas. I was one of those political activists. As I approached the end of high school, I became involved with students who attended La Universidad Técnica del Estado. This was the college where most of my left-leaning friends attended and where I studied for one year. We thought of ourselves as Bohemian intellectuals who wanted to make a difference. Growing up in Chile during the 1960s and early 1970s, I was—like many of my generation in countries around the world—politically and culturally aware. We championed labor organization, land reform, anti-imperialism, and anti-Vietnam War causes. These were the sentiments that guided Chileans to elect socialist president Salvador Allende in 1970.

Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende

[Note by editor: “Salvador Allende known as the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country through open elections. As president, Allende adopted a policy of nationalization of industries and collectivization. On 11 September 1973 the military moved to oust Allende in a coup d’état. As troops surrounded La Moneda Palace, Allende gave his last speech vowing not to resign, and then committed suicide.” (Source: Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Allende)]

However, Allende was not allowed to govern freely. The right-wing opposition and the Catholic Church were displeased at having a socialist for president; tensions grew with foreign corporations. The Chilean economy suffered as a result of a U.S. campaign against the Allende government. It was widely known then about the U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, following orders from President Nixon to do whatever was necessary in order “to get rid of him [Allende].” (The now declassified documents can be read here: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm.)

[Note by editor: “The violent overthrow of the democratically-elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende changed the course of the country that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described as “a long petal of sea, wine and snow”; because of CIA covert intervention in Chile, and the repressive character of General Pinochet’s rule, the coup became the most notorious military takeover in the annals of Latin American history.   (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

Pablo Neruda and Allende

Pablo Neruda and Allende

So to keep our dignity and our voice while our rights were denied, a cultural resistance was born. Mural brigades expressed political views on Chilean walls (“…podrán cortar las flores pero no podrán evitar la primavera…,” which means “they can cut the flowers, but they can’t keep spring from coming.” Other slogans were: “Another Chile is possible,” “Let’s build a new Chile,” “Children are born to be happy”). Pablo Neruda’s poetry was circulated underground from hand to hand, and we reveled in Victor Jara’s songs of love, peace, and social justice. This was the environment in which Chileans like me lived.

Chile.Victor Jara.Santiago.ifsa-butler.org

Victor Jara

[Note by editor: Victor Jara (September 28, 1932 – September 16, 1973) was a Chilean teacher, theater director, poet, singer-songwriter, political activist and member of the Communist Party of Chile. Shortly after the Chilean coup of 11 September 1973, he was arrested, tortured and ultimately shot dead with 44 machine-gun bullets. His body was later thrown out into the street of a shanty town in Santiago. The contrast between the themes of his songs, on love, peace and social justice, and the brutal way in which he was murdered transformed Jara into a symbol of struggle for human rights and justice worldwide. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%ADctor_Jara)]

One of my professors in college offered me my first “real” job, as a secretary in the Registro Nacional de Comerciantes (National Register for Businessmen). The purpose of this organization was to pull together under one umbrella all the smaller business organizations such as the Chambers of Commerce around the country. One of the directors of the Registro was the president of the Santiago Chamber of Commerce; many years later he was to become my husband. At the time we became friends because he, unlike many of the other businessmen, gave money to charity and was more middle-of-the-road than the others. He would speak up on behalf of poor people. I felt I could trust him and a few of the others. My future husband did not know about my political sympathies and activities; neither did my family.

My job was to take shorthand at the directors’ meetings, and I was the secretary of the organization’s legal department. I met the ministers of various government agencies and three presidents (Jorge Alessandri, Eduardo Frei, and Salvador Allende). I was 19 and got to travel throughout Chile. From all this I learned what was happening within the power structure. At the same time I was still demonstrating in the streets, living a double life; I worked with the right-wing businessmen during the day and I was a left-wing political activist at night. After work and school, I would join my political activist friends. The more artistic ones would design slogans that were mimeographed in multiple paper copies. Some of us would mix “engrudo” (wheat paste made of water and flour) and then go to paste political affiches [posters] on the walls. Soon mural brigades were formed and youth began to paint political slogans empowering the people and striving for social justice; this is how The Ramona Parra Mural Brigade was born (BRP). At the same time, along with my activist friends I took part in the frequent student demonstrations to support Allende’s government and to oppose foreign interference (“Yankees go home,” “Este es un gobierno de mierda, pero es mi gobierno” (“This is a shitty government, but it’s my government”).

Chile.Demo for Allende

Most high school and college students, as well as the great majority of Chilean intellectuals, were socialists and communists. By now I was attending classes at the Faculty of Law, Universidad de Chile, where two of the lawyers whom I worked for taught. We suspected that the CIA was involved in Chile. US president Nixon did not keep it a secret that he feared Chile could become “another Cuba.” This knowledge was learned from the foreign press. The U.S. cut off most of its foreign aid to Chile and supported Allende’s opponents in Chile during his presidency.

[Note by editor: “Revelations that President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream’ in Chile to ‘prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him,’  prompted a major scandal in the mid-1970s, and a major investigation by the U.S. Senate. Since the coup, however, few U.S. documents relating to Chile have been actually declassified—until recently. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, and other avenues of declassification, the National Security Archive has been able to compile a collection of declassified records that shed light on events in Chile between 1970 and 1976.”  (Source: George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm)]

After Allende won the election in 1970, the U.S. and others began an embargo against Chile. There was nothing to eat whether you had money or not. I was lucky; because of my job with the business organization I worked for, we were able to have access to the basics—beans, rice, flour, and sugar—through their connections, which they shared with me for my family. The upper class, who owned businesses and who were the ones opposing Allende’s government, were hoarding food, which forced people to stand in long lines to get the little food available. I became disgusted and stopped accepting food from the connections at my job.

My friends and I increasingly rebelled. We wanted to keep Allende in power and we fought against the intrusion of the CIA. As the situation became more tense, many of us were at risk of being exiled, disappeared, or even killed. At this time many wealthy right-wingers were leaving the country out of fear of the people. Meanwhile, intellectuals and left-wingers were leaving for safety in order to organize the resistance from abroad. I was terrified about my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth.

To protect each other, none of us activists talked about our political work. I wasn’t even aware that my brother, who is seven years younger than I, was involved in the resistance that opposed Pinochet.

Augusto Pinochet

Augusto Pinochet

Years later and during Pinochet’s dictatorship, my sister found pamphlets in our brother’s briefcase. I learned through my sister that they were terrified about our brother’s participation in politics. People who opposed Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship were tortured, disappeared, or killed. I, as well as my family, were happy to see my brother immigrate to Switzerland in 1981; he was able to return to Chile in 1989.

My last memories of Chile, the country that I left in a rush in 1973, are chaotic. Two months before the violent September 11, 1973 coup d’état that killed democratically chosen President Salvador Allende, I narrowly escaped being killed by a shotgun pointed at my neck. I was 22 and a college student. I was terrified for my family’s future and—as a committed political activist working towards a world free of violence and poverty—about my own chances to survive the violence affecting my country of birth. Five long years passed before I was able to see my family again!

[To be continued in Part 2 of 2 about Isabel’s life after she came to the United States, including pictures of some of the murals in Los Angeles.]

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One Response to “Chile: The First 9-11, Part I, by Isabel Rojas-Williams”

  1. Maria Manetta August 4, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    My understanding of the death of Victor Jara, from his wife (forgot her name, but remember her touring the U.S. with Joan Baez shortly after the Chilean atrocities) was that he was playing his guitar in the Coliseum, singing songs of peace and justice to the crowds (as people were being killed by the Pinochet guardsmen) while his fingers were cut off one by one and eventually died there. Joan wrote a song from an album at the time which tells of this story.
    Maria Manetta

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