A Walk Through Havana-Capítulo III

January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

For a young Cuban guy looking to meet girls, there were a lot of cars on the island that could help in the effort.  The economic embargo meant that the last American auto imports were in the 50s, before the revolution.  Cherry red Chevys and Midnight blue Fords drove straight out of the past, down Havana’s boulevards, like a perpetual classic car show.

Thanks to what he refered to as “the rules,” 25 year old Miguel didn’t have access to an eye popping car, they were either too expensive, or more likely shared from one generation in a family to the next. Passing things on was easier in a system that made it nearly impossible to buy and sell private property of any consequence.  Miguel’s inheritance included his father’s Lada, one of the main cars that came AFTER the revolution.  The Fiat looking Russian car was a global running joke, thanks to its propensity for breaking down.

What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill?

A miracle.

How many people in a Lada?

One.  The other three are pushing.

What do you call a Lada with twin exhaust pipes?

A wheelbarrow.

Miguel had heard all of this before.  It was simply a fact of life that the Lada needed repairs at least two days a week. Indeed Miguel and everyone else in Havana had learned the basics of fixing cars.  If Castro was smart he would have exported not just thousands of doctors to improve societies around the world, but also car mechanics.  Fixing peoples cars with a smile and some Latin flair would certainly improve global opinions about the revolution.

“The other day,” said Miguel, “I’m fixing the Lada, and I needed a bolt for the engine.  My neighbor, he stopped over to see what was wrong, and he gave me the part I was missing.” “That’s Cuba man, we help each other.  We are good neighbors.”  Indeed cars, and specifically fixing cars, seemed to define a certain way of life in Cuba.  It was interesting to observe the idea that when everything, EVERYTHING, was taken away, what people were left with was their neighbors.  It was comforting to know that reality bred community.  At least in Cuba it did.

While he tolerated the Lada, and life in Cuba, Miguel was also extremely frustrated.  Everything was regulated, everything was controlled, everything seemed harder than it needed to be.  He lived at his grandmother’s house with his sister, with no hope of acquiring the money or access to get his own home.  People simply never moved out, instead creating makeshift spaces for every additional generation that was born.  Like most Cubans Miguel worked for the government.  As a programmer he was paid around 30 dollars a month for working 8 to 5 every day, with a short half hour lunch break.  When talking about the precarious life of a Cuban, Miguel liked to share the statistic that one could kill another man in Cuba and get 12 years in prison, but if somebody killed a cow, without government permission, that was 30 years.  “A man 12 years and a cow, 30? That’s fucked up man.”

Miguel listened to the famous Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez as he drove around Havana in the Lada.  “Music, sex, and exercise, that’s how Cubans survive.”  Indeed these three things seemed like the foundation of regular everyday interaction in Cuba.  Music flowed from every balcony, people walked and walked and walked to get to their destination, and at night, there was dancing, and sex, according to Miguel, lots of sex.  “In a good year, maybe I enjoy 50 girls,” he said, calmly, seemingly oblivious to the fact that 50 sexual partners was a lifetime for most people.  Fifty girls also raised a lot of questions about safety, although condoms seemed part of the local culture too.  Government TV often aired safe sex public service announcements, sometimes even in cartoon form, reminding Cubans to have sex, but in a responsible way.  Miguel said his first experience was when he was 12, after school in his classroom.  “It was nice,” he said, “very nice.”  Cuban society was repressed in many ways, Miguel and his countrymen did their best to focus on the aspects of local life that weren’t.

As he grew older Miguel’s “Don Juan” persona was only enhanced by the fact that he was able to woo women with a ride as unspectacular as Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante, and by the fact that he lived in a small room at his grandmother’s. Granted, a lot of people in Cuba didn’t have cars and the public transit system was a little spotty, so a car, even a sputtering Lada, was still a coveted resource.

Miguel’s method was so smooth that you couldn’t really call it a method at all.  He simply went about his day, driving around Havana, and inevitably there would be a girl, with her hand up, who needed a ride.  Inevitably she was kind of cute, and low and behold Miguel was heading somewhere nearby her destination, and if that destination was a bar or a club, all the better.  Sometimes these Lada pick-ups resulted in an actual hook-up, sometimes just a phone number.  Either way, “it’s cool.”

One week there was “the girl with the dragon tattoo,”(who based on a photo on Miguel’s phone really did have a dragon tattoo), she was heading out to a bar and coincidently so was Miguel.  Then there was the contemporary dancer who was heading home.  She gave her phone number and invited him to a performance.  One night that same week, while out at a bar, Carlos noticed a beautiful blonde.  Leaving his friends to mingle, he quietly approached her in the corner.  “What must I do to know your name?” “Just ask,” she giggled.  Unbeknownst to Miguel the girl with the dragon tattoo had dropped by the same bar and noticed her lover from a few days prior across the room.  She moved in.  He calmly collected the blonde’s phone number, said he’d see her tomorrow or the next day, and headed out.  Back in the Lada Silvio Rodriguez’s powerful voice kicked in, singing a bittersweet song about love lost and found.  Some nights music took precedence over sex.

At the end of the day it was hard to tell if sex was merely an opiate encouraged by the government to get people through another tough day.  Was it just another not so subtle perception of freedom?  Like allowing cell phones, but not paying people high enough salaries so they could actually use them.  Whatever the revolution’s take on sex was, in the end it seemed like it was simply part of being Cuban, part of living on a hot tropical island with beautiful people, part of being 25 and in possession of your dad’s ride, even if it was a relic from another failed revolution.

Late night at a club, listening to a live salsa band, Miguel smoked one Nacional cigarette after another, calmly surveying the packed crowd.  He left his yellow lighter in the middle of the table, it was more than a flame, it was also his talisman. Sure enough a steady flow of beautiful Cuban women whispered in his ear, and he kindly obliged by lighting their cigarettes.  Surrounding him at the club were droves of tourists from Western countries, liberated countries, who had come to Cuba in part to meet cheap prostitutes, an economic reality in a country with a devastated economy.  These foreigners possessed the wealth, the ability to travel, and the civil liberties that were out of reach to normal Cubans, to guys like Miguel.  Yet here they were, paying for sex, one of the only accessible and free things in all of Cuba.  Miguel smiled at the scene and exhaled.  The band kicked into a fast number and tall European men danced awkwardly with their shoulders as Cuban women effortlessly moved hips in a smooth, rhythmic movement, like the nearby ocean against the sea wall.

After another song Miguel got up, lit a few more cigarettes, and calmly exited the club, alone, clutching a phone number in his left hand.  “Maybe tomorrow I’ll call her,” he said with a grin.  Then he stepped into the Lada and turned the key a few times.  Tomorrow he’d have to fix the engine.


A Walk Through Havana Capítulo 2

January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Cheers rang in the morning as two slightly overweight runners duked it out down a 100 meter stretch of dirt track.  One of the men with a gut tumbling over his jeans, and work boots, staked a lead over another man in shorts and a muscle t-shirt. It was a slow motion photo finish as they broke the imaginary tape.  A tall, black man in a tracksuit held up a stopwatch to display the winning time to an assistant dutifully recording the numbers on a clipboard.  Two more men quickly emerged from a group of around fifty, and stepped up to the starting line, peers screaming their names.  The two would be sprinters stood poised, completely focused on the task at hand.   A false start brought jeers from the crowd, indeed everybody was taking what appeared to be an adult phys-ed class extremely seriously.  Upon further investigation these were low-level government security guards, doing a mandatory physical fitness test.  While the group was only about half in shape, everybody seemed to be competitively minded, and supportive of each other.

Being that this was Cuba, it was hard to know if this kind of spirit was natural, or if it was a byproduct of the revolution.  After a half-century of economic and other depravities, what people had at the end of the day were not distinguishing possessions, but each other.

Walking up from the stadium on the Avenida de los Presidentes, the promenade was full of people taking in the morning sun and catching up with neighbors on park benches.  A busy group of government worker bees pruned, mowed, raked, and swept the series of plazas around them.  Havana was, if nothing else, maintained and relatively clean compared to most Latin capitals.  Every few blocks somebody was lost under the hood of a 1950s Chevy or Ford, fixing a fuel pump here, carburetor there, and right behind them, holding a wrench, was their neighbor.  Nobody seemed alone here.  Every corner, every patch of grass, every abandoned lot, every alleyway there was a makeshift baseball game.  Some kind of music, salsa, reggaeton, son, seemed to rain down from every faded, crumbling, once majestic balcony, giving the city a flowing soundtrack.  There was a rhythm to this place, a flow, as if everybody was doing some kind of coordinated dance.  Digging deeper it was obvious that some of this Havana scene was merely a façade to cover a struggle for survival.  Despite the bright curtain it was definitely not paradise.  But it wasn’t hell either.  Hell couldn’t be this colorful, musical, beautiful.  Whatever it was, it had a spirit.

South down the Avenida the city stretched into the aging rows of Central Havana’s three story buildings.  Families were packed into the once beautiful apartments that lined up visually like a pack of Life Savers painted with limes, strawberries, and lemons.  One could walk for blocks here without seeing a formal business.  A noticeable omission compared to the chain store laden streets of the outside world.  Indeed people did not spend their days buying things, in part because there was comparatively little to buy, and also because a local salary was around 20 US dollars a month.  Most people simply couldn’t afford anything beyond the basics.

Outside the massive Estadio LatinoAmericana, the baseball stadium that played home to Havana’s version of the Yankees, Los Industriales, five retirees sat on a park bench sharing a bottle of rum and telling stories.  Hoping there was a game that day I chatted them up.  Within minutes we had covered the whereabouts of every Cuban to have ever played in Las Grandes Ligas(the Major Leagues).  My favorite was the old Industriales star Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who won championships with the real Yankees after defecting from the island.  This choice seemed to please them and I was given a nod and a slap on the back.  They wanted to know where I was from.  In any other Latin country it would have been obvious that I was a gringo, with my accent, my sunburn, and even my style of walking.  But these guys didn’t see a lot of United Statesers, we weren’t supposed to visit them, so they got lost in an argument over whether I look more British or Canadian.  Finally I established that I myself was a sort of Yankee, and they excitedly told me about relatives in Miami and Elizabeth, New Jersey.  They wanted to know about snow, and how cold it got in the wintertime.  I was offered the rum bottle, a humbling gesture from this Cuban fraternity.   I felt like a pledge who had gotten accepted to an exclusive club.  One resource that did not seem hard to come by here was the hallowed Cuban white rum.  Everybody seemed to have the ability to get a little bit of rum to cool off from the hot Caribbean sun, or maybe just to keep things smooth and calm, despite the myriad of daily frustrations.

I was out of luck, there was no Industriales game today, but my new brothers pointed West to a road that led to another stadium, Ciudad Deportiva(Sport City), home to Havana’s other team, the Metropolitanos(Mets).  I laughed.   Los Mets, perfect.  With a half hour until first pitch, I went to find out if they are as bad as their New York namesakes.

Nearing the stadium my heart was beating fast, it was Christmas and was about to go to a baseball game, in Cuba.  After paying a mere fifty cents for a paper ticket, I stepped inside the cozy, half full stadium.  A couple of hundred fans were spread out on the wood bleachers for the 1 p.m. matchup between Los Mets and Cienfuegos, a team from the center of the island.  Starving, I bought the first edible item that crossed my path, a couple of sandwiches that turned out to be simply bread and a fried mixture of sausage and grain.  It tasted like a creative use of rations.

I grabbed a seat along the first base side, a few rows up from the field.  I was immediately followed by a young Cuban in a San Francisco Giants hat who was yelling in English “my friend…my friend,” at me, as if we’ve known each other our whole lives.  I was a little wary of being followed, even though I was just there to hang out and get to know the island, so I quickly made up an alter ego to try to preserve my anonymity.  I introduced myself as Jorge, from Northern Mexico, but that I had an American mom, which is why my accent was still pretty gringo.  Eduardo, my new best friend, seemed to buy it, sort of.  He still wanted to talk to me in broken English, even though I responded in Spanish, and kept all of my references to Mexico.  “What’s New York like? “ “I’m more familiar with Mexico City” “my friend lives in Miami” “I’m more familiar with Cancun”.  And so it went, two separate narratives, me sticking to my lies, Eduardo sticking to his passion for the United States.  Thankfully we had one thing in common, baseball, and so I kept the subject on America’s pastime, which, by the looks of the game, our island neighbors had learned how to play as well, if not better, since missionaries first brought the sport to Cuba.

Eduardo educated me on who the best players were, which Major League stars they most resembled, (A-Rod, Pujols, even a Ricky Henderson reference for an aging speedster).  He even claimed to know many of Los Mets, a claim that seemed plausible as players from both teams milled about the stands in between innings, talking to friends and fans.  Eduardo’s devotion to my presence wasn’t just about baseball.  Every Cuban seemed to have an ulterior motive, which didn’t bother me as they were struggling to make ends meet.  He discretely opened up a small blue backpack to reveal a Cuban baseball hat and some pirated CDs and DVDs.  Keeping an eye out for security forces, he explained the amazing deal he was prepared to give me.

And then came Eduardo’s story, which seemed more sincere than part of the sales pitch.  He said that he didn’t normally have time to see his beloved baseball games, as he was kept busy working his job at a cigar factory.  But a few months prior he’d been laid off, potentially as part of the half million layoffs the government had announced last summer in hopes of modernizing their economy in a sustainable way.  He says he was picked because of his history, which included an ill-fated attempt with friends to reach Florida via a makeshift raft.  Eduardo says he and his four friends got close, but that the Coast Guard intercepted them, and returned them to Cuba where they were jailed briefly and admonished and fined by the government.  The worst part he said was the stigma, the government made sure his employers, his neighbors, everybody knew what he had tried to do.  It sounded like a jailbreak gone wrong, and now he was back in his sunny tropical open-air prison.  And his lot was getting worse he said.  “My girlfriend is moving to Spain, with her mom,” she got permission.  “This is going to be the worst New Years ever.”

We sat in silence, both of us contemplating Eduardo’s fate.  One of the Cienfuegos sluggers snapped us out of it with a home run that cleared the entire stadium and landed in nearby traffic.  “I told you he said, he’s the Cuban A-Rod” “Very good, no?” “Increíble,” I responded in Spanish, working on my Mexican accent.  “Increíble.”

A Walk Through Havana Capítulo 1

January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Like everything in Cuba, Maria’s sparse refrigerator reflected a hard-fought battle between ingenuity and preservation.  Recycled jars filled with homemade fruit juice concoctions crowded the entire top shelf, and the side door was filled with a collection of sweets, eaten a nibble at a time, to make sure they lasted.  It was never a sure thing that there would be more on this island, of anything.

Every morning Maria got up at the crack of dawn, although it was hard to tell if she was up, or if she’d ever really gone down.  There was no real discernible space where she rested her head for the night.  Her railroad car style apartment began with a terrace overlooking the Vedado neighborhood, considered the cultural heart of the city, and home to some of its more upscale realities including majestic hotels and clubs.

The next room was the beating heart of the place, a literal “living” room where everything happened.  Maria and her 3-year-old granddaughter Sofia held court in a wicker chair the entire day.  The younger lay spread out across her grandma’s chest like a little bib.   Intermittently they would watch one of the five state-run tv channels, take tandem naps, and greet a steady stream of friends, relatives, and vendors.  Sofia, or Sofi as her family called her, had already developed a brash, loud personality, demanding things from her family members and anyone else who ventured into her path.  Her tempestuous behavior seemed like a gift in a place like Cuba, where much of the preceding generations had long stopped raising voices about their lot in the aging 53-year-old revolution.

Next to the living room a tiny kitchen was tucked behind a gaudy mirror with an inlaid panoramic nature scene, and shelves full of expensive bottles of rum that had long been drained of their spirits.  The cupboards were filled with what Maria was pledged in her Libreta, the rations all Cubans were promised, and whatever seasonal extras she could find at government sanctioned farmers markets.  Wintertime meant bananas, guayaba and some papaya.

Down a narrow corridor were two small guest rooms she rented out as part of her “casa particular,” one of around 400 government sanctioned bed and breakfasts in Havana.  When the rooms were full she could make around 60 US$ a day, highly taxed, double what most locals made in a month.  The flip side of her small business privilege lay at the very end of the apartment, a tiny, very tidy one room where Sofia had a small bed, her parents in a slightly larger bed right next to her, and what appeared to be a folded mattress in the corner for the 67-year-old Maria.

Maria got excited when she was asked about the revolution.  She was a young teenager in 1959 when Fidel Castro took control of Cuba and she says her family was happy to be liberated from the “oppressive and abusive” Batista regime.  The only close-knit casualty was Maria’s sister who had fallen in love with a policeman, and as he fled to Florida when the government collapsed, the sister followed.  “Love is love,” said Maria, you can’t change who you fall in love with.  But love has its downside, 53 years later the two sisters still had not seen each other, despite being a mere 90 kilometers apart.  Maria would point North from her living room when she talked about her sister, as if Miami was across the street from Havana.

Every morning Maria read her copy of Granma, the ten page government paper named for the boat Fidel and his band of rebels took from Mexico to invade their own home.  And she proudly talked about the education and medical services that formed the heart of Castro’s universe.  As if to accentuate her point,  Maria got an early evening visit from a local doctor on his way home a few blocks down.  He stopped by to check the tendinitis in her left arm.  A short while later the living room featured an operating table, as the gentlemen physician wrapped her arm in a plaster cast while dinner was being served a few feet away.  Maria smiled and held her arm in the air, like a trophy, proof her country took care of her.  There was an air of sincerity, not brainwashing, in Maria’s nationalistic beliefs.  Unlike many younger Cubans who felt disenfranchised and decidedly prisoners on the island of their birth, she had lived through the alternative, the staggering disparities that most Latin countries still suffered from.

It was hard to argue with Maria on some levels, seeing an unpaid house call by a doctor was a startling concept in most countries.  Another very vivid site was the one of relative racial integration on the island.  Blacks and whites appeared to live the same reality, in the same neighborhoods, with the same resources.  Nobody batted an eyelid when an inter-racial couple walked by.  Sofia, the picture of Spanish heritage with her jet black hair and pale white skin, slept at night with a large felt black doll with long dark braids.

One of the guest rooms was occupied by an Iranian-British engineer who was able to see the revolution with a critical eye, as he had escaped a similar fate when his family fled Iran in the late 70s.  Having only recently visited relatives he barely knew back in Iran, he was uniquely able to see Cuba on a level that those who had only known freedom could not.  Eventually he was replaced by a towering 6’7″ Croatian who demanded a four egg omelet with ham and a plate of fruit every morning.  He could have cared less about food shortages or seasonal barriers.  Coming from a socialist state and a civil war himself, the Croat seemed unfazed by any uniqueness in Cuba.  Besides, he was a capitalist now, living in Las Vegas, and was here for two things, to smoke Cuban cigars and sleep with cheap prostitutes.  He had heard they were forty dollars and was deeply upset to find the night before that they cost double that.

The other guest room, more walk-in closet than living space, had a window overlooking a decaying, but vibrant sports stadium colored in faded pinks and blues with a dirt track and a cool breeze coming off the nearby malecón(sea wall).  From sun up to sun down the grounds were packed with young baseball stars pitching everything from balls to bottle caps to their friends, who would respond with broom handles, wood posts, and some real baseball bats.  Soccer players congregated in the grassy middle of the dirt track for spirited games with friends, teams playing in rotation in order to maximize resources, the losers sometimes turning over their shoes to the team coming in to challenge the victors.  Joggers did their laps in faded “Cuba” track suits.  Young men appearing to still heed the call of Che’s “Nuevo Hombre” used rusty jungle gyms to do their pull-ups, and ran sprints against co-workers of all ages.

Watching the sea of activity, intently, like a private Olympic Games, was me, a quiet American, who one month ago saw Ray Suarez broadcasting live from Havana on PBS and decided he could wait no longer.  I had been telling people for about a decade that I wanted to see the island before it changed, before there was a McDonald’s, before there was a ferry-boat from Florida.  So I went, out of fear of future regret, but even more out of extreme curiosity.  I had to see one of the last true social experiments in the world.

Dental Flashbacks

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

I went to the dentist for the first time in a loooooooong while yesterday.  Sadly this is a common reality in the world of journalism and other majority freelance industries.  And like a lot of freelancers, I wound up at the affordable and inadvertently entertaining NYU school of dentistry.  The very amiable woman who was put in charge of me as part of her coursework seemed pretty good on the teeth front, a little cocky even as she rolled through her checklist like a car mechanic, making sure everything was in place.  She got quick thumbs up from two of her instructors.  Her struggle was more on the human interaction front, where she experimented with a strange array of jokes, anecdotes, and what began to feel like pick up lines towards the end of the exam.  Her forced laughter punctuated the awkwardness.  In between tasks I tried to meditate, staring at the wall, figuring out what I needed to get done for the day.  “So, you just looking off into space? Thinking? What’s going on in there? hahaha…”  She just could not turn off her improv at the dental clinic demeanor.  So I did resort to spacing out, and my mind wandered to my last dental check-up, two years ago, right before I had to leave Sri Lanka.

I loved my Sri Lankan Dentist.  His universe was a little slice of air conditioned heaven from the brutally hot Colombo afternoon.  The small waiting room was full of plants and English language magazines.  Somehow he was able to get a hold of not so outdated copies of Time and National Geographic.  I would have gladly waited for hours as I caught up on all the extraneous informational things I no longer had time for or access to.  Actually, come to think of it, I think I went to doctor and dental offices more in my year and a half in Sri Lanka then I did the entire five years beforehand.  Part of that was getting routinely manhandled by the island, and part of it was the fact that those places in one way or another gave me a sense of comfort, of modernity, and a moment of respite from the insanity I often felt following me as I travelled Sri Lanka.

My Sri Lankan Dentist was Muslim, highly educated, and comparatively rich. His little office was off a dirt road lined with frangipani flowers that led to my coworker Jacobo’s house.  He loved having Jacobo and I as clients because he could have intelligent conversations in english and talk about the war, something he said he avoided doing with other locals for fear of running afoul of fanatics.  It was refreshing to get a local perspective from somebody who was more thoughtful about, than ethnically invested in, what was tearing Sri Lanka apart.  My interaction with Sri Lankan professionals was not always so congenial.  One doctor I visited at a local hospital scolded me for being in Sri Lanka, telling me I was the real problem, that I was supporting terrorists.

My dentist saw the war one way, and one way only, it was bad for business. “Everybody is losing money, and when people lose money, they begin to cut out expenses, like going to the dentist.”  “I  used to be booked, now I have free time.  I must take up golfing, but I am a terrible golfer.  What will I do?”

Then he told me my teeth needed whitening if I wanted to look “top notch.”  Paying for a brighter smile to help offset the war ravaged economy, that was a new one.  I said I’d think about.

Two years later I awakened from a daydream, told my teeth were fine, and was sent back out into the freezing rain.  I missed my old dentist, and wished myself back to his office, with hours ahead of me to get lost in conversation, and a month old magazine.

My favorite family

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

In a rough and tumble neighborhood where police precincts play neighbor to public housing units, resources come in the form of the diabetes inducing dry goods found at bodegas and dollar stores, and ambulance sirens pierce every night, there is a place of respite, of goodness.

On a Saturday morning the rhythmic spinning of twenty washers and twenty dryers adds to the calm of the small laundromat on Dekalb avenue.  In the corner of the shop a young Latino couple steal a kiss behind a dryer, the girl giggles. They grab their finished laundry and say thank you as they walk out into the cold, arm in arm.

A Latino mom is methodically arranging an assembly line of clothes to fold.  There are sweat shirts and jeans in at least five different sizes.  Immigrant families buy for durability.  Saturday might be her day off, which simply means she is working for her family instead of somebody else’s.

A young Jamaican man listens to his reggae music turned all the way up, his makeshift headphones become makeshift speakers.  He’s shaking his head to the beat as he watches his clothes go into a spin.

Above his head is a children’s clock with Snoopy in the guise of a hobo.  Next to the clock are a few signs with the store rules printed in broken english, which works just fine for the mostly immigrant clientele.  “No Sitting and Eating.”  “No sneaker in dryer.”  A flyer sits on a side wall offering moving services to African Americans ready to get out of New York and head to the South.

A couple of Korean students from the local design school stop in to do their laundry.  They have an animated conversation in Korean, perhaps about Friday night adventures.  Indeed everybody seems to have their comfort zone here at the laundromat on Dekalb avenue.  An older African American man walks in with an eye popping pink jean jacket, personally greets everybody as he passes by, and heads straight into the bathroom, closing the door authoritatively, as if it were his office.  He doesn’t come out for twenty minutes.  Another African American man sits, arms folded, eyes fixated on a TV set above the dryers showing an hour long infomercial about a miraculous new vacuum.

At the front of the store a man stares out the window at the avenue.  He’s dressed smartly in grey khakis, a dress shirt, and a matching grey sweater vest.  The characteristics that set him apart are his extremities, on his feet he’s wearing a pair of bright blue Nike Air Jordans, and on his head, a turban.  He’s a Sikh, and this is his family business.  A few personal items in his back office hint at his past life in the Punjab province of India.  A calendar featuring photos from Ananpur Sahib, a Sikh holy site, and a photo of the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

Printed on the window to the right of him are his shop hours, OPEN EVERY DAY, 7-9.  He does not take days off.

Walking to the back of the store he helps a few patrons with their washing machines, slamming one on the top with his fist, and smashing another on its handle.  Both begin to work instantly.  Waiting for him in the back of the store, behind a service door, are his wife and daughter, both dressed in saris with gold nose rings and earrings.  The door used to be open, but after an armed robbery they installed a thick piece of glass to offer some protection.

The wife speaks little english, so the daughter translates peoples’ requests.  Mostly they reach into an old coffee can full of quarters to make change.  Sitting on a chair in the corner is the man’s father, also dressed in a turban, and with a white beard that extends down towards his stomach.  He sits silently observing the store.

A young mother comes in with her just walking toddler son.  He breaks free and begins to roam the store.  The owner and his wife and daughter are captivated by the boy and begin to play with him.  They even greet him with a few words of spanish, “hola”.  The daughter of the owner is beckoned away from the fun, her beautiful intricate sari swaying as she heads off to help a tall Jamaican woman with her dryer.

Normally the overriding poverty of the world means these far flung citizens would never meet.  But here they are, figuring things out on a Saturday morning, together, at a laundromat on Dekalb avenue.

The Colony

January 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am standing in front of a large metal gate and I am about ninety percent sure I do not want to know what is on the other side.  My cab driver, who is a dead ringer for the poet Pablo Neruda complete with wool cap and sweater vest, motions me on toward the intercom.  I press it, step back and wait.  A few moments pass.  An army of honeybees mark the seconds with their buzzes as they pollinate everything in sight.  I press the intercom again, nothing.  I turn to walk away.  In a flash the intercom lights up and spews out an unintelligible string of Spanish phrases which we miss completely.  I throw my hands in the air and walk back toward Neruda who is enjoying the whole scene. He woke up thinking he was going to have the same day he always has, driving old ladies around his small town, and he is not about to leave.  We just drove an hour on one of the worst dirt roads ever constructed to get to one of the most notorious places in all of Chile and he is convinced that the best cheese this side of the equator lies inside.  Neruda strides up to the pink Bavarian-style cottage which sits outside the gate. It is surrounded by an inviting array of flowers but its façade offers only dark tinted windows.  He bangs on the door with his fist as hard as he can.  “Alohhhh….?”  Nothing.  He keeps banging turning every few seconds to smile back at me.  I step back afraid of the bees that may be inside the house.  Neruda knocks long and hard enough that a response is inevitable.  Suddenly, a German woman who is extremely pale, except for her face which is an angry red, rushes out of the house shouting at the top of her lungs, “Mal educados, Mal paciencia…”  The rest we can’t understand.  Neruda joins me near the cab as her outburst continues. He still smiles.  Finally the Queen Bee (as I think of her from now on) stops shouting and says “Espera,” or wait. She returns to the house and closes the door.

As we wait I begin to wonder how I wound up here, a place people on the outside are deathly afraid of, and people on the inside are set on keeping secret.

I first came to Chile ten years ago as a naïve college student.  The 17 year reign of Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet had just ended.  His rule left the country with thousands disappeared, tortured and executed, a legacy of political and social repression, and a free market economy.  During my first stay in Chile I developed a deep affection for the country and a deep sadness passed on by friends and teachers who had lost loved ones during the dictatorship.  I also experienced my first real understanding of human rights, a concept that has brought me back to reconnect and see how everyone is doing.  After a week of reading stories in the Santiago newspapers about a strange German colony south of the city at the foot of the Andes, a place where horrors were essentially allowed to happen, it became clear human rights are still a huge issue in Chile.  I had to go find this place.

Another ten minutes pass before our German host, now calm, returns to see what we want.  I explain I am a journalist looking for some archeologists.  I hand her a credential and she looks it over, curious as to what an American is doing here.  Evidently it impresses her enough to warrant a call inside the gate.  We pass muster and the enormous electronic gate opens.  Neruda is delighted; like most locals he has never been inside the enormous fifty-five plus square mile compound draped in barbed wire and lined with watchtowers.  We drive slowly along the noticeably smoother inner road, realizing the outside path is wretched for a reason.  The way is lined with beautiful groves of fruit trees and fields of hops, alfalfa and corn.  The snow capped Andes Mountains sit mere kilometers away.  Such beauty is tempered by what I have read about this place, that it hides a dark heart.

Villa Baviera as it is called now was formerly la Colonia Dignidad, the Dignity Colony.  People outside the gates prefer to call it Ex-Colonia Dignidad, as Chileans are not quick to change opinions or the names of things.  This place has more ghosts and rumors swelling around it than a haunted house.  For thirty years it was ruled by a former Nazi medic, Paul Schaefer, who imposed a ruthless and rigorous life on its inhabitants.  He put his constituents to work, creating a system of forced labor that bordered on slavery some say.  Schaefer also preached a religion steeped in anti-semitic and anti-communist rhetoric.  He created a community where children were separated from their parents at birth, and men and women lived in separate spaces.  Schaefer alone had the power to pair men and women, and sex was a taboo. Over a period of twenty-five years few if any children were born to Colony members.  According to the few people who escaped, Schaefer was sexually molesting and raping young males, many of them Chileans who came to use the Colony’s hospital and boarding school.

In the 1970s Schaefer is said to have allied himself with the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, receiving continued autonomy while allowing the secret police to keep a detention and torture center inside the Colony.  This was an ideal relationship according to human rights groups, because the military needed somewhere to hide the hundreds of dissidents who would become the “disappeared.”  The Colony continued until recently to act as a clandestine state within a state, abiding by its own rules. Horrors were not exacted solely upon Chileans and Germans.  In 1985 Boris Weisfeiler, a Russian born mathematics professor at Penn State University, passed through while hiking and fishing.  He was never heard from again. Various accounts claim that Weisfeiler was captured by Schaefer and accused of being a Russian or Jewish spy, or that he was executed by Schaefer, or even that he may still be somewhere inside the enormous Colony.  His bearded image is in my mind as Neruda and I slowly make our way.

The entryway to the colony is lined with old wood barns and workshops.  Elderly German men in faded overalls, flannel shirts and thick work coats quietly converse.  If I did not know better I would venture to guess this was either a fashion shoot for the Salvation Army or we had somehow stepped into the 1920’s.  The latter image is validated by a couple of teenagers who ride by on what look like World War II era rusted bicycles.    We pull up to a small store looking for our contact Victor Briones.  He is leaning against a nearby picnic table chewing on a piece of straw. Dressed in khakis and a golf shirt he stands out smartly from the others.  Briones is Chilean but he speaks German too. He is one of the few locals indoctrinated into the Colony society and now serves as a spokesperson to the outside world.  “Buenas…” he says, “que quieren,” what do you want?  I explain I am looking for some forensic archeologists, and for any other reporters who might be around.  The archeologists recently uncovered a series of underground chambers and tunnels, presumably used to hide prisoners.  They also found a cache of weapons, enough to field a private army, and a couple of car motors potentially belonging to three Chileans disappeared by the dictatorship.  There is hope they will find bodies too.

“La cosa es, no hay nadie hoy día.” Nobody’s around he says, they aren’t working today.  He smiles, shrugs his shoulders.  Although I know Briones is not the enemy, his demeanor is creepy, as if he is almost too happy to open up the gates to people like me who have come to document horrors and potentially bring his Colony’s world down.  Frustrated, I stutter and try to think of a reason to stay, not wanting my triumphant entry to end so quickly.  Neruda comes to my rescue.  Quiet up until now he notices my resignation and clears his throat.  “¿La tienda esta abierta?”  “Is the store open?” he asks… “Sí,” says Victor, “Pasales…”

Inside Neruda goes directly to the refrigerator and eyes the huge bricks of homemade cheese.  He is in edible heaven and could care less that the stuff was made by people who are under investigation for hiding the possible remains of some of his neighbors.  I look around at the two German women in long white celibate dresses.  Neruda has already made friends with them and they are happily preparing samples of cheese.  He hands me a nibble.  “Que rico…” he says nodding.  A number of Chilean kids run into the store to buy ice cream. They go to the school managed by the Colony.  Again it is hard not to associate their presence with the past, with the kids who were manipulated and violated in this place.  I grab some homemade honey for a souvenir and walk out.  Neruda follows with a piece of cheese the size of a small stereo.  He got what he came for.

Realizing the Colony is not the kind of place where people can just come and hang out we collect our things and leave.  As we pass back through the enormous electric gate the Queen Bee buzzes alongside waving and acknowledging us with a “¡ya!” which amounts to neither “nice to meet you,” nor “never come back”. This parting gesture seems to sum up the Colony in its current state, somewhere between what it was, a never come back, and what it is struggling to be, a nice to meet you.

Neruda spends the hour long trip back to town telling me the story of his bout with stomach cancer.  He tries to show me the scars as he drives but he struggles to pull his shirt up over his belly.  Most of the time he is speaking so fast and the sound of the road is so loud I have absolutely no idea what he is trying to say.  I nod a lot and laugh when he laughs, which seems to work just fine.  Unlike his namesake Neruda proves to be a pretty uncomplicated guy.  He is happy to have his cheese and he will eat it and enjoy it without thinking about suffering Chileans.  I on the other hand will consume my honey with great unrest.  Neruda drops me back at the small train station in Parral.  Fittingly this tiny town is also the birthplace of the real Pablo Neruda.  I pay him forty dollars which for a two-hour cab ride into enemy territory seems about right.  He got me there and back safely and I am thankful.

I head toward the small Plaza de Armas to sit and gather my thoughts.  People stare at me with my red hair and bright red baseball cap.  Admittedly I stand out but I am not uncomfortable here, Chile is a place I know.  The familiar smell of melted sugar from candied peanut vendor carts sweetens the air and the screams of Catholic school kids kicking a soccer ball as they run with abandon in their black and white uniforms.  On the outside there is an innocence here that has somehow found a way to survive all these years.  This innocence is not shared by all local residents.  Walking the streets of Parral I ask around and eventually track down a local journalist who runs an internet café.  After listening to the story of my adventure to La Colonia he sends me in the direction of some local ghosts.

Entering the home of Mercedes Fernandez I am greeted by her son, Luis, whose picture sits surrounded by carnations on a small table.  Behind the photo is a porcelain plate bearing the likeness of Che Guevara, a nod to the family politics that led to Luis’s disappearance more than thirty years ago.  He would be fifty now says his mother, who in a few weeks will turn seventy.  She sits her tiny body on a chair beside me, placing her right hand gently over the left on her lap, her huge glasses rest on her withered face.  I do not talk much; she is content to tell his story and her own uninterrupted.  Fernandez says her biggest frustration is that her son was not a bad kid.  He was mixed up in politics through the University but he never hurt anyone, he was never violent.  Fernandez longingly recounts how he would come back at one in the morning after being with his friends and wake up his parents to drink yerba mate.

Fernandez says her son’s disappearance was traumatic, especially for her husband, a retired police officer.  Fernandez was eight months pregnant at the time and the two of them would make the rounds searching for any traces of their son.  The local police acknowledged Luis had been detained but gave his dad no preferential treatment despite the fact he had served in their ranks.  They said his son had been sent to nearby Linares to a boot camp where some of the dissidents were being held.  When they got there the head officer handed them a list, Luis’s name was not on it.  None of the names of the forty-eight mostly young men and women taken from Parral were on it says Fernandez.  They kept searching.  Over the years Fernandez heard rumors her son was inside Colonia Dignidad and she is now convinced the answers to his mysterious disappearance are there too.

Having a child disappear is a tragic experience.  But to be told repeatedly that nobody knows anything, that somehow more than a thousand people got lost or were misplaced like books in a library, to watch as your other children struggle to find jobs, marked by local employers because of their missing brother and the stigma of communism left by the military regime, is to know something about the pain of the last thirty years of Mercedes Fernandez’s life.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I start to think that maybe he’s still alive, that they have kept him working somewhere.  And if he is dead, where are the dead, a place where someone like me can go to leave flowers.  It would be a huge satisfaction to know where he is buried.  It is a very deep pain to have your son taken from your house and years later not be given a single bone.”

She begins to cry.  Her tiny body is trembling.  Fernandez’s daughter-in-law walks by, staring at me, wondering perhaps why I have come to open wounds.  Mercedes assures me that she is o.k. and that it helps to talk about the past.  The past is what occupies her time; protests, support groups, petitions, lawsuits, these things keep her sane. I get up to say goodbye.  In order to give her the customary goodbye kiss I bend down.  She pecks my cheek, her eyes are red and full of tears.

The next morning I wake up in Parral.  I pass the train station on my way back toward the Plaza de Armas.  Neruda is sitting in a pole position with other cabs waiting for tourists to disembark from the 9:30 train.  I stop by the cab to ask him how the cheese tasted.  He tells me excitedly about how he has been collecting the appropriate provisions, avocado, tomato, and some sausage to eat with it later in the afternoon when he is off work.  He tells me the cheese is best when toasted a little on the bread.

Parral starts to come to life, dogs are running through the streets and newspaper stands are opening their shutters.  In the Plaza de Armas charter buses are beginning to arrive from different parts of Chile, north, south, and Santiago.  The posters and signs taped to the windows and sides of the buses let passersby know that these visitors are not here to see museums or taste the local delicacies, these are the families of the disappeared and they are here to unleash their anger.  The group numbers in the hundreds, most of the women are grandmothers displaying photos of their missing children on their lapels.  The men are not as prominent; a noticeable quirk being that this is Chile, notorious for its culture of machismo.  Many of the men are young enough to be the sons of the mothers present, most of them narrowly escaped the same fate, although brutal torture and exile hardly constitute an escape.

Silvio Ortega Quiroga, a fifty-four-year-old father of four, is standing next to me so quietly I almost do not realize he is there.  Like a veteran of any twelve-step program he begins to tell me his story without any prompting, it is what defines him.  He was arrested by the police, detained at a jail in Parral and tortured for days.  He says his body shakes whenever he has to pass by the police station to pay a fine or take care of other mundane tasks.  Quiroga was a third year college student when he was arrested. He says that by the end of the year only fifteen of his thirty-five classmates were still walking the streets.  His eyes light up when he talks about his college years, like a fraternity brother remembering the “big game,” except his fraternity was the Communist Party.  “We had Projects!” he proclaims, “profound ideas,” “We had a vision for social compromise, to move our country forward”  “We were a generation you won’t see again for one hundred years.”

Quiroga is still a Communist, they could not beat that out of him.  His political leanings are mostly manifested in his role as head of the local chapter of ex political prisoners which allows many of his old friends to gather and still talk of “Projects!”

If General Augusto Pinochet’s intent was to disprove communism and socialism through a mixture of neo liberal economics and torture, he lost the battle against Quiroga and his friends.

Quiroga expresses empathy for those who sided with the regime, who inflicted pain and suffering on him.  He points to an ex police chief who detained and tortured political prisoners in Parral.  Quiroga says the man was tried for human rights violations and now walks the streets of Parral a shade of his once powerful self.

“Yes we’re ex political prisoners but we have an objective, we are still fighting for something we believe in.  What he was fighting for is over.”

“His side is paying a bigger price, We paid our price.  He is paying for something he didn’t realize would be so big.  He’ll take what he did to his grave.”

Quiroga is finished talking and he quietly slips away.  He is not making the trip up to Villa Baviera today with the others.  He says he doubts anything revealing will ever come out of that place because the military and the Colony hierarchy were too smart to leave any traces of what they did.

You would be hard pressed to convince Mercedes Fernandez of this.  She marches by with a picture of her son, off to make photocopies so she can paste his likeness on every surface from Parral to the Colony.  She is wearing a floppy gardening hat, a red sweater and a determined face.  She is ready to do battle.  The buses start their engines and begin the ascent up to the Colony.  I hitch a ride with Fernandez and the rest of her families of the disappeared cohorts from Parral.  As my bus rambles along the twenty or so passengers put the finishing touches on banners and posters and discuss their plan of attack.  I ride in the back with a couple of social workers from Santiago who helped organize the event.  They explain that after thirty years of protests these groups are beginning to show some wear and tear.  For many, especially the aging mothers, this is all they have and events have become increasingly marred by internal politics.  This is evident as the ladies on my bus are yelling at the driver to speed up to overtake the bus from Santiago, this is their turf and they want to lead the charge.

As we begin to wind our way into Colony territory we see fence posts and walls covered with hundreds of pictures of the disappeared.  A few carloads of people arrived early to put them up.  The caravan eases up to the pink Bavarian house and the looming metal gate is quickly decorated with pictures and banners.  A group of younger protesters head over to the flagpole to attach a Chilean flag and raise it.  Meanwhile the elderly majority is still easing off of the buses and getting organized.  The Queen Bee is nowhere to be found although it is hard to believe someone is not watching us from the other side of the tinted windows.  The crowd of more than 250 protesters form a circle and begin a series of passionate chants and songs.  The crush of people is so great that the crowd begins to trample the carefully arranged bed of flowers at the foot of the house.  I get stuck against the side of the house with several policemen, there to keep the peace, and members of the Chilean press.  After about twenty minutes of being called Nazis and worse, the two spokesmen for the Colony, Victor Briones and Micheal Mueller, emerge from a side door.  Both men have their arms folded across their chests trying to look stern instead of scared.  For a brief moment I glimpse through the open side door and see other people standing at the tinted window, a few German men and women are watching the event, including the Queen Bee.

Most of the protesters are too busy singing to notice them.  One older man, whose brother is considered by many to be one of the first prisoners taken to the Colony, sees the two representatives on the porch and screams directly in their faces.  He wants to know, “what the hell happened to my brother.” “Where is he?”  The rest of the protesters turn to see what is happening and begin to chant loudly at the two Colonists.  Victor Briones, arms still folded, calmly explains to the man that he cannot hear a word he is saying and that if the rest of the protesters are willing to quiet down he would be happy to have a conversation.  He is wearing the same fake smile as yesterday.  “ I don’t want to have a conversation,” says the angry man, “ I want to know where my brother is.”  Briones and Mueller, who has not said a word, are resigned to getting nowhere and return to the side door.  As they go inside the same group of German spectators can be seen glued to the window looking frightened.

It is obvious that the time for formalities has passed.  The family members of the disappeared want answers not conversations.  They sing and yell out the names of their loved ones for another hour.  Eventually the crowd tires, they do not have the same stamina they once did.  At the end of the day these events are also a chance to catch up with old friends and many of the protesters congregate in small groups to talk about soccer and politics.  Some of them have noticed that unlike the Chilean press, which sits off to the side, I am moving inside the crowd, talking to people.  A group gathers around me asking me questions.  One man who is looking for a place to deposit his remaining anger tells me I look a lot like the Colonists and how can he be sure I am not one of them.  I laugh and tell him I am puro gringo, which unbeknownst to me is a label given not only to Americans in Chile, but Germans too.  He keeps at me until I show him an ID card.  Another elderly man sees the card, a Minnesota driver’s license, and starts yelling “Moandahle” at me.  After a few attempts this connects as “Mondale”, as in former presidential candidate Fritz Mondale.  This man spent twelve years during the dictatorship in political exile in Norway, and knew of Minnesota and Mondale because of Scandinavian ties.  I have to laugh at the circumstances. I am used to my country being associated with BayWatch.

As the crowd begins to disperse it leaves behind a patchwork wallpaper of faces and slogans on the gates of the Colony.  Old friends help each other manage the difficult first step back onto the buses. It is time to go back to homes and naps and to start saving energy for the next protest.  Beyond the obvious there is something overwhelmingly sad about the whole event.  Maybe it is the fact that it has become a routine, something as frustratingly repetitive to those left behind as the continued reality of waking up every morning without sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives.

I see my bus start up and my new friends from the Parral coalition of the detained and disappeared are looking for me.  I explain I am going to wait around with the other reporters and try to talk to the Colonists.  The collection of print and broadcast reporters hang out under a shady tree.  It is a Saturday so nobody is in much of a hurry to get back and produce stories.  Considering the interaction between the protesters and the colonists, it is surprising when we are eventually allowed to enter the Colony.  Spokesperson Micheal Mueller has agreed to give a statement.  I hitch a ride inside with a radio journalist.

The group of press vehicles congregates at the Colony store, it is 2 o’clock and everyone is starving.  Chilean reporters buy the place out, hauling off sacks of potatoes, sausages, cheese, and other assorted goodies to their cars.  Some go inside the store to an area that serves as a small restaurant, but I stay outside with a group that starts breaking out beer and snacks as we wait.  A young German Colonist walks up with a bicycle and greets the crowd. He is wearing a red leather jacket so old that it is hardened and peeling.  We invite him into our circle and pour him a beer. He smiles and seems excited to be in our company.  The young German stares intently at our group, his attempts at Spanish are tentative and broken, and after ten minutes in his company it becomes painfully obvious that so is he.

The reporters start to squeeze out some information from the curious German. He is twenty-seven, was born at the Colony and has recently enrolled in a nearby University to take a few classes in Veterinary Science, a useful skill in a farming community like this.  Knowing that he’s lived here twenty-seven years and only recently been allowed to leave these walls is sobering.  Knowing the things that happened inside, confirmed and unconfirmed, makes it hard to not wonder what he might have seen, heard, or experienced.   It is likely he was a victim too.  He quietly drinks a beer as the rest of us grab our equipment. Micheal Mueller has arrived and is ready to talk.

Chilean formalities contend with my journalism impartiality as I watch the female reporters, who make up half of the group, give Mueller and Briones a greeting kiss. The press conference is short in part because Mueller’s Spanish is limited and tough to understand with his heavy German accent.  To my surprise he seems to catch all the questions that are shot at him with rapid fire.  He says the news of the car motors being discovered on Colony grounds was a huge surprise, and while he understands the protesters’ pain, they are misguided in blaming the entire Colony.  As has been customary since the recent capture of Paul Schaefer Mueller deflects any blame and evidence of human rights abuse on the former leader.  If anyone knows anything about a secret detention center during the military regime or the remains of the disappeared they aren’t talking.  For some of the old guard inside the Colony the fact that Mueller is talking at all is a problem.  “Yes, I worry about it,” he says, “I walk around here half camouflaged.”  In an interview with a Reuters reporter Mueller, now in his late forties, admitted that until Colony rules broke down a few years ago he was not allowed to marry the woman who is his now wife.  It becomes obvious that he suffered too.

The reporters have their sound bites and it is time to leave and let the Colony get back to the business of reshaping its image.  For the most part the younger generation says it is determined to imitate its host, Chile, and move away from the closed-door policies of the past.  Short of the discovery of human remains on its grounds the Colony begins to seem less like a last hope for many of the families of the disappeared and more like a lost hope.

I return to Santiago to think about the things I have seen and the people I have met. Searching for the archeologists again I head to the University of Chile where they claim to be in residence.  My cab driver drops me two blocks from the campus because the road is blocked off by policemen. He tells me something is going down near the school, “¡Cuidado!” I proceed toward a thick cloud of smoke and as I get close I encounter police in riot gear.  A few students mill about across the street from the main gated entrance which is tied shut with a garden hose.  Through the smoke I can see students half-camouflaged in handkerchiefs, hats, sunglasses and hooded sweatshirts.  One of the policemen laughs and shrugs his shoulders when I ask him how long until the school will open.  As I near the curb I am nearly run over by a heavily armored military van that charges through like a bull and screeches to a halt, burning rubber.  Students begin lobbing beer and wine bottles over the fence, many of them hitting their target.  The police retaliate with metal canisters.  It is then that I realize the smoke sitting above the crowd is not smoke, but tear gas.  My eyes begin to swell shut and I struggle to breathe.

I cough my way to the next intersection hoping the front entrance to the school is open.  The back entrance proves tame compared to the apocalyptic scene I encounter.  Bonfires are burning in the middle of the streets and students are running crazed, tossing Molotov cocktails at enormous green armored police buses.  Students not directly involved in the battle are watching the street theater like a sporting event, cheering when their cohorts get a direct hit, and the outside of the green vans explode with fire.  Two particularly cocky protesters drag a park bench into the middle of the street and sit down, posing with sunglasses on.  They are attempting to recreate the famous photograph of General Pinochet sitting, arms folded, expressionless, eyes covered by tinted glasses.  They have added their own twist by flipping the police the bird.  I pick up a piece of paper at my feet that reads, “Dia del estudiante combatiente…” It appears I have walked into an annual event, a violent commemoration of the deaths of two students in the 1980s.

I check my fear realizing the whole scene, while destructive and potentially dangerous, is mostly exhilarating and entertaining.  Students are getting their kicks and the police are essentially training, making sure their tear gas and water canons still work.  Visual similarities aside there appears to be little in common with protests in the 1970s and 1980s when young Chileans were risking their lives to confront the military government.  There is comparatively little to fight over now with a stable democracy and free market success, which makes the violence somewhat perplexing, as if the act was passed on from previous generations but the purpose was not.

I track down Jose Miguel Guzman a social worker I met when visiting the Colony.  We talk at his office in Santiago and he breaks down the Molotov cocktails and more for me.  He says many Chileans have yet to deal with the repercussions of a long repression.  Anger, anxiety, and a host of other emotions are still working their way out he says.  Guzman has spent the last fifteen years working with ex political prisoners and families of the disappeared.  He is also the intake coordinator for new clients and says after more than thirty years people are still coming forward.

“So many times I’ve heard the phrase, this is the first time that I have ever told this story.

When you hear this, you get emotional, you get goose bumps.  Still.”

Tens of thousands of Chileans have participated in truth commission hearings documenting both disappearances and torture.  Guzman says if the government opened up hearings again for new testimonies those numbers would double.  He says the government’s offering of reparations to victims and family members has helped draw some stories out but mostly it is the psychological satisfaction of releasing fear and frustration.  Newspapers and magazines have been reprinting some of the testimonials, which signifies an important shift in public dialogue.  Guzman tells me that for torture victims, and specifically for the families of the disappeared, things continue to be difficult.  After thirty years of waiting for answers the only reparations they are interested in are the bodies of their kin.  He says this long wait has begun to manifest itself not only in psychological trauma but in serious physical ailments too.

Guzman says the real lasting effects of a sixteen year repressive regime can be seen not only on the faces of the direct victims, with whom he works, but on those who claim no association or experience with the more brutal elements of the dictatorship.  He says he has spoken to many exiled Chileans who left with photographs of the old Chile and came back to a new one they hardly recognized.  Guzman says a trip through the center of Santiago will show you that nobody smiles, nobody laughs like they used to and that people avoid physical contact.  These are the after effects of a marriage between terrorism and neo liberalism, he says, ultra consumers who ignore their neighbors.

This assessment seems a little drastic as most Chileans are still pretty friendly, more likely to walk with me to my destination if I am lost than simply give directions.  It is evident that economic success has made many blind to the human rights sacrifices of the past.  One upper class Chilean friend of mine insists on defending Pinochet saying he was the “menos mal,” (least bad) dictator in the world, “Compared to other dictatorships not that many people got hurt.”  Fewer people are defending Pinochet since it became public that he stole millions of dollars from the country. They won’t stand for fiscal corruption here.  Socially speaking Chileans are still learning that human rights means everyone is protected.

On the other side of Santiago Hernan Fernandez is racing up and down the stairs between floors of his law office.  It is 6 p.m., a time some still consider afternoon here, and there is much to do before his day ends.  Fernandez has spent his career defending juvenile victims, a crusade that put him on a collision course with Colonia Dignidad leader Paul Schaefer.  Many agree Schaefer would not be behind bars right now if Fernandez had not spent the better part of six years tracking him down, never giving up on the notion that he could be brought to justice one day.  Fernandez knows the dark history of Colonia Dignidad and he details how the original Colony was organized to serve the local community through a school, top-notch hospital and other resources.  Then, he says, Schaefer showed up and began to twist things.  The Chilean government continued to support the Colony financially and politically even after news started to emerge of the human rights disaster inside.  The Colony successfully defended itself in numerous court cases using the money it made from exploiting state resources and its own people to hire the highest paid lawyers in Chile.  Finally charges against Schaefer stuck and he fled the Colony, seemingly disappearing into thin air.

Fernandez says a testament to Schaefer’s power is the fact that the hundreds of witnesses he left behind refused to say where he went.  He says while the leadership vacuum Schaefer left behind was huge, the Colony continued to operate as it had.   People physically and psychologically remained in fear of their guru.  The place remained closed, so much so that two years ago two elderly couples had to be rescued from the compound because they could no longer withstand the forced labor.

Fernandez says Schaefer’s capture starts a new and hopefully revealing chapter in the history of the Colony, but he says Schaefer himself is not necessarily the key to what comes next, especially since he has shown no interest in cooperating. He says that the mystery of what happened to political dissidents taken to the Colony by the dictatorship has a greater chance of being solved if the witnesses, the Colonists, are given freedom from their own nightmare, Schaefer.  Collectively Fernandez says Chileans have failed to acknowledge that as far as human rights issues go Colonia Dignidad was even more twisted than Pinochet’s contribution, mainly because nobody would bear witness.

“Unlike the other torture centers of the Pinochet government, nobody denied the existence of Colonia Dignidad.  It already had existed for years.  People went to their German restaurant and bought their food products.  The other torture centers, Villa Grimaldi, Calle Londres, they were demolished after awhile.  Colonia Dignidad has kept going until now.  Only now human rights groups are saying, symbolically, you have to close this place.  Too many horrors happened here.”

Fernandez’s cell-phone rings, apparently there has been a break in the search for some of Schaefer’s accomplices.  He has to get back to work repairing the decades of self-inflicted damage Chile has caused.

In a last attempt to understand where Chile is more than thirty years after it began to symbolize human rights to many around the world I visit Santiago’s enormous general cemetery.  It is fall and the leaves are beginning to turn.  The miles of stone and marble mausoleums are appropriately silent.  I pass by the gravesite of former president Salvador Allende whose swift rise and fall now seems like a quick historical blip compared to the painfully long aftermath.  Off to the right near a side entrance sits an enormous marble wall guarded by a faithful soldier.  Ninfa Espinoza stands watch with a broom and a plastic bag.  Espinoza is the Municipality of Santiago’s official caretaker of the wall and the unofficial tour guide.  As she takes me through the list of names one in particular stands out, Emiliana Espinoza.

“She left my house at approximately five in the afternoon, she said, at nine, I’ll come back.  I waited a long time.  I never saw her again.”

Espinoza’s sister worked for Victor Diaz, one of the Communist Party’s chiefs and had gone to check on his safety.  Diaz’s name recently turned up on a declassified military list of disappeared whose dead bodies were dumped in the ocean.  Emiliana Espinoza is still considered missing.  Ninfa Espinoza says her father felt responsible for his daughter’s disappearance because he had exposed her to his communist beliefs.  Life for the family was never the same says Espinoza, who other than her son is the only family member left.

“My dad’s tears can never be repaid,” she says.  “One day he said to me, daughter, I am going to die, you will die too, and we’ll never know what happened to Emiliana.  That’s how it is, he said, I know that’s how it is.  And now, that’s what is happening.  In a little while I am going to die, and we will never know.”

Ninfa Espinoza is crying when she finishes talking.  Her father’s tears have become her tears. She manages some optimism. She is hopeful with Paul Schaefer’s capture that information will come out and that her sister’s body will be found.  Espinoza says she once heard a rumor that all female prisoners were taken to Colonia Dignidad.  The mystery and the hope continue.

Right now it is 2 o’clock, her lunch break, and she picks up her broom to walk home for a rest.  Soon Espinoza, like thousands of those who have lived the last three decades without brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, sons and daughters, will disappear themselves.  There is no wall for their names or the names of the surviving human rights victims, a group that now includes hundreds of German transplants, some of them tortured and imprisoned in a country that they still hardly know.

I sit for another hour trying to take in the silence that surrounds this wall and its names. One woman lays an armful of flowers under a photograph of a young man at the base of the wall.  Most Chileans drive or walk by, quickly glancing, then turning, fearful of what might look back at them.

Where Am I?

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