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September 11th/Once de septiembre

Today, my friend and coworker took me to La Moneda, the Chilean equivalent of the White House.

In Chile, September 11th is the anniversary of the 1973 golpe de estado, ousting left-leaning Salvador Allende and installing General Augusto Pinochet as president. The resulting military dictatorship would last decades, making it the longest and one of the bloodiest regimes in el Cono Sur.

Having studied human rights in Latin America, I have always had a special interest in the Pinochet dictatorship. I’ve been to the Museo de memoria, the detention centers, I’ve seen the murals, visited the shrines. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a survivor of one of the torture centers and of helping to tell her story.

At La Moneda, the police had blocked off the entire area to pedestrians, but they waved us in, believing I was foreign journalist authorized to be there. It was a small, somber gathering. There were bouquets and floral arrangements at the door from which Allende’s body was taken out. Some placed photos of the “disappeared,” or desaparecidos, by a statue of Allende. A little boy left a red carnation at the makeshift altar.

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My friend’s mother began to cry as she recounted seeing bodies thrown into the Mapocho River. “It was the first time I ever saw a dead body,” she told me. She mentioned that the militares came to her uncle’s house and burned all his political books in one giant pyre. Most dissidents were either shot on the spot or taken to detention centers where they were tortured until their deaths. She didn’t say what happened to her uncle.

“It must have been hard to raise children during that time,” I said.

“There were no diapers, no food. The wives of the militares sometimes brought things to the hospitals. There was nothing.”

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This reconstruction of collective memory and processes of reconciliation are just as salient in the U.S. as in Chile.

Thinking back to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., I remember being shuffled in and out of classrooms, teachers refusing to disclose any information about what had happened, and my mom finally coming to pick me up from school.

I like stories of human resilience, of solidarity. I recently saw a Nat Geo photo of onlookers in New York, gathered on a rooftop, watching the Towers fall. Two were kissing, three men sat together in awe, and one person just lied on his back, looking up.

Photo credit: Robert Clark, National Geographic 

My mom and I didn’t hug and cry and tell each other how much we loved one another that day. We didn’t console each other. We wouldn’t have made a great story of human solidarity by any stretch of the imagination. I probably demanded McDonald’s on the way home and she likely conceded. We were invariably quiet in the car, my angsty pre-teen scowl doing most of the talking.

But at La Moneda, there is a sense of connection, a coming together to commemorate the past. A mother and her daughter stand hand-in-hand by the statue. The tears falling down my friend’s face are mirrored by a dozen other santiaguinos’ gathered there. Slowly, the group of police officers surrounding the shrine grows increasingly impatient. We move on, taking our time maneuvering over the cobblestones.

“Es una falta de libertad,” a nearby woman whispers to her daughter, nodding to the police. It’s a lack of freedom. Her hair is graying and she leans on her shopping carrito for support. Who knows what she had seen at that very spot decades ago? Her daughter will never know the fear her mother felt, the scrounging for bread, the desaparecidos who were her uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. All she will have will be her mother’s stories.

What stories will she tell?

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