Learning from the Past

Megan Anger Arcadia in Chile


June 9, 2017

Over the past four months, I’ve gotten a chance to see and understand a different part of Chile that isn’t quite visible on the surface.

In my classes at PUCV, I’ve learned a lot about the history of Chile, and specifically about the time of the dictatorship. Through projects, films, and readings, I learned about the government, the coup, the protests, and the human rights violations that occurred during Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973-1990. I saw how different groups of people were affected by it and how the country is still dealing with the aftermath and working to move forward. It’s given me a new perspective on the places I visit and people I meet in Chile. 

I took a trip to San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile a few weeks ago and spent time exploring the Atacama Desert and the Andes Mountains. I was in absolute awe of the power and greatness of the desert, but while I saw its beauty, I also saw its painful past.

In my Latin American film class, we watched a documentary called Nostalgia de la Luz which draws a connection between astronomy, the desert, and Pinochet’s dictatorship. It tells the story of a group of women who have dedicated their lives to scouring the Atacama Desert for the remains of their loved ones. Pinochet used the geography of the country to hide the bodies of the people he kidnapped, tortured, and killed. He disappeared thousands of people in the Atacama Desert in the north, Andes Mountains in the east, and the Pacific Ocean in the west. When I saw the desert with my own eyes, I thought about the people who lost their lives to the dictatorship, whose bodies may never be found, and the loved ones who may never receive the closure they need. I realized how incredibly strong the women who search the desert must be to face such a powerful and ever-changing force each day and to still have hope that they will find their loved ones.

My favorite place in all of Valparaíso is the ex-carcel, which was the city’s old jail. During the dictatorship, it was used as a detention and torture center, but has now been transformed into a cultural center and park in the hills of Valparaíso. It has spaces for workshops in music, art, dance, and theater at little or no cost and hosts events all week long for the community. It’s one of the few green spaces in the hills and people of all ages come to attend cultural events, have a picnic, or take an art class, all in a place that holds so much history for the city and country.

The ex-carcel is a great example for how Chile and Valparaíso are now working to preserve their history and memory and use their historical places to teach the next generation. During the era of Pinochet (and this even continues today), the government destroyed a lot of places that were used as detainment and torture centers to try to erase that part of the country's history. Recently there's been a bigger push to acknowledge what happened and learn from it and changing the ex-carcel into a cultural and community center is the perfect way to incorporate that history into everyday life.

This past month, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. It’s very well done, and I think it’s one of the most important places to visit in Santiago. In its three floors of exhibits, it teaches about life before, during, and after the dictatorship. It gives first-hand accounts of the human rights violations that occurred in Chile during the dictatorship. The part that most impacted me was the wall expanding the three floors covered with thousands of picture frames. Most of the frames contained pictures of the disappeared but some were blank for those who were doubly disappeared - physically and in memory. To actually see the faces of those disappeared by the dictator humanized the statistics. And then to see the blank frames mixed in truly showed the importance of memory.

Before arriving in Chile, I didn’t know about any of the dictatorships that are part of the history of many Latin American countries. I’ve realized how very little I learned about Latin American history in school growing up and how little Latin America continues to be represented in the media today. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to live here long enough to learn about this part of Chile’s history and see how it’s affected the nation’s culture and people. When I get back to the US, I’ll have to head to the bookstore and pick up a book or two on Latin American history.