Chile: The Social and Spatial Organization of Terror, Survival, and Healing

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I have been here for several weeks now, and research continues to deepen and shift as I go. My original project involved extensive ethnographic research at a number of memory sites in Santiago, Chile. Having now visited a number of former detention centers, including Villa Grimaldi, where many Chileans were detained, tortured, and killed — and which, after having been razed by the military as an attempt to hide the evidence of gross human rights violations, has now been turned into a Parque de la Paz. I’ve also been to the Cementerio General, where Salvador Allende is buried, Pablo Neruda’s home (generally understood to have been the second-most-important communist figure after Allende, his house was raided and ransacked almost immediately after the coup. He died literally days after Allende, of both cancer, and, it is said, a broken heart, for when Allende fell Neruda lost the will to live), and many other memory sites. What I have found, however, is that I am often the only person there, or one of a sprinkling of tourists. While that is significant in and of itself, I am also interested in speaking to people about memory, human rights, and progress. Because of this, I have sought out a number of interviews with a broad swath of people, ranging across profession, age, class, and political party. This has been without a doubt the most meaningful part of my trip so far, as people have not only been incredibly generous with the sharing of their very personal, often painful pasts, but it has also helped me to really understand the extremely divergent interpretations of what happened and why.


An oppressive and violent dictatorship that resulted in the irrevocable loss of both human life and the dream of a different future for one is the necessary return to order for another. It is very striking to, in the same day, have one person tell you of literally hearing his loved one be tortured to death for no other reason than because they were a liberal academic, and then have another person say that, as far as civil wars go, the casualties of this one were really not that bad. It has been important for me to remember that my job here is to listen and to learn, and that I am honored people are choosing to be vulnerable and open with me, even though I am not from here, and often (as a liberal academic) clearly operating within a different set of moral and political values.
While I have hit a number of obstacles (gaining access to the archives is starting to feel like some sort of crazed joke), as a whole I am very satisfied with what I have learned, and have found my time here very meaningful. Next week, which is my last week here, I will be spending much time at the university and with artists, looking at the role that themes of memory, human rights, torture, testimony, and oblivion play in creative work. The beginning foray into this I made this week makes me think it will be incredibly interesting — as a quick example, there is a student performance group at the university currently in final production for a play called “The disappeared and the dinosaurs,” for, as they said, they think the time has come to be able to joke about this past. The professors, several of whom are involved in performance groups that use the testimonies of survivor/victims as the starting point for their work, are horrified. At any rate, I hope to be able to see both performances and talk to both students and professors about their work, so stay tuned!
Kaitlin McNally-Murphy, PhD Candidate, Performance Studies

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