My only lasting memories as a young child are associated with the military coup in Chile in 1973. I remember a mixed collection of facts, experiences and emotions. All of them have in common a sense of loss, of being denied a happiness which could have been.
As a child, one of three at the time, I can’t say I knew who Allende was back then. But I do remember the first house we had of our own. It was actually two little prefabricated houses we put up with our grandparents, on some rural land in Melocoton, a small village near Santiago.
These mediaguas, as they were called, were given to many workers and poor by the Allende government. They were four walls and a roof made of heavy cardboard covered with weatherproof paint. We put ours up in Melocoton on some spare land of distant relatives.
Many other Chilean workers and their families did not have such land, but they organised themselves, sometimes armed, to take over land from wealthy landowners and landlords. My father and uncles would sometimes help with such takeovers—assisting families moving in and providing protection from the thugs that landlords hired to evict people.
I remember as a kid visiting some of these urban barrios set up by working people, when we were looking for places to live and set up our mediagua. The houses people put up in a day were always so colourful. I like to think now that these colours represented the happiness people felt when they had a little house of their own.
I remember helping my mum, dad and grandparents put up our little mediagua in Melocoton. We put it right next to a little stream, from which we ran a hose to get our water. I remember how cold it was at nights. The mediaguas did not have a floor; ours had the dirt floor we swept every day and some rugs. Mum used to cover us up in what blankets we had plus newspaper, to try to keep us warm when we slept.
But it was our little house, something like the litre of milk a day that Allende’s government had given to the poor and working people of Chile. Most of all though, the Allende government gave our family and many more something you can’t really understand as a kid, but you can feel it—hope. It came from a sense of power over our destiny—as if we could really shape the world we were living in. We could make things the way we wanted.
It wasn’t going to be easy, though. My dad used to argue with his brothers about it all the time. Two of his brothers were members of the Communist Party and Socialist Party. They both believed that we could change things a little bit at a time, supporting the Allende government to make small reforms while trying to keep the wealthy class of Chile onside.
But my dad and his oldest brother, a member of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), did not agree with their brothers. They believed that the wealthy would do whatever it took, violence included, to keep their privileges. My dad and his brother Tito thought that you needed to smash all the old structures of power in Chile and build a whole new and different society—in which councils of workers could make the decisions, not political parties and the wealthy who backed them.
I remember how much fun it was playing in the backyard of my other grandparents’ house in Poblacion Juan Antonio Rios, in Santiago. I especially recall the great fun we had playing on the big cement tube they had in their backyard. As it turned out, this tube had an important purpose. This is where my uncles hid their weapons and documents when the repression started in the lead-up to and after the coup.
The Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) had a slogan: “Pueblo, Consciencia, Fusil ... MIR, MIR, MIR!” It means “Working people, Consciousness, Gun ...” The MIR believed that to change Chile, working and poor people had to take their destiny into their own hands, organise themselves, become conscious of their own collective power and creative potential and be prepared to fight against the wealthy class, who would not allow working people to build a new equal and just society.
On the day of the military coup, 11 September 1973, like thousands of Chilean workers, my father did not return home from work. We had no idea what would happen to him. In his factory, like in hundreds of workplaces, the workers debated what to do.
His factory had ample supplies of petrol, and some workers argued to use this in an attempt to engage in armed battle with the tanks and soldiers invading the streets of Santiago. Hundreds of thousands of workers heeded President Salvador Allende’s call that morning of 11 September: “I call on all workers to occupy their workplaces ... the people must be alert and vigilant. You should not allow yourselves to be provoked nor to be massacred; but you must also defend your gains”.
In their factories the workers hung on every word from Allende. He told them he would not resign and would pay with his life defending the “Chilean revolution”. The workers waited for direction—how were they to resist? Allende sent a message through his daughter, Tati, to Miguel Enriquez, general secretary of the MIR. “It’s the hour of Miguel”, Allende said.
After that morning, everything changed. We were now living in Santiago with my other grandparents. We couldn’t play or do much. Every night at 6pm the curfew would start. We would hear army sirens and everyone still on the streets would run into their homes, or wherever they could to get indoors. After that, as it got dark, you would hear the gunshots. These were the workers being killed by the Pinochet military regime. These were the workers like Miguel Enriquez, who would not give up their dreams for a better society. They kept fighting. On some days you could see their bodies float by on the river Mapocho, through the city centre of Santiago.
Now everyone was on the run. Three of my uncles were being followed by the military. One of them, Rafael, had been in training to be on Allende’s bodyguard staff. He was at one of Allende’s homes with Allende’s family when the coup happened. They managed to get Allende’s family out. Rafa, as my uncle was and is known, was now on the run.
One night, my dad and another uncle helped Rafael get to the Mexican embassy and jump its walls. I remember trying to visit him at the embassy. They wouldn’t let us in, but I could see hundreds of people in the embassy grounds. It was just packed. Mum told me later that I argued with the soldiers who would not let us in. They made me very angry, and I suppose people like this still do.
I also remember visiting my uncle Tito in jail. Dad told me years later about the day he was caught. Dad was visiting Tito at his workplace—a bank in central Santiago. Tito ignored him and gave him a signal. That’s when dad knew the military were in the bank and had come to get Tito. It was very lucky dad was there. Our family was able immediately to report Tito’s arrest to journalists and foreign authorities. Otherwise Tito might have become one of the many “disappeared”—people who were arrested and never taken to prison but shot instead.
I remember Tito’s jail quite well. To this day, I think I could sketch the detail of the prison walls. I remember also all the little things—handmade jewellery and stuff—that Tito made in jail and sometimes gave us on our visits. My uncle Tito has passed away now, after living in exile in France for three decades. I sometimes think about how much he was tortured in jail and how he never gave the names of any of his comrades. He was like Miguel Enriquez—a fighter to the end.
It took the Pinochet regime over a year to catch up with Miguel Enriquez. Miguel and the MIR leadership had been organising the resistance against Pinochet and his military regime. Pinochet’s brutal secret police, the DINA, learned of Miguel’s whereabouts in late September 1974. Miguel and some other MIR leaders were in a safe house in Santiago.
The military moved in on 5 October, with more than 500 troops, armed vehicles and air support. Miguel and a handful of MIR leaders fought them off in combat. He and the others were able to fight their way out, but he went back to aid a wounded comrade, Carmen Castillo. He was subsequently killed by a grenade, and Castillo was captured.
A year later, and we were also on the move. We could no longer live in Chile. I left my friends behind, some of whom later died fighting in the resistance against Pinochet. I remember when we left Chile, my dad insisted on wearing a red tie and handkerchief—to symbolise his continued support for revolution and his opposition to Pinochet. After that plane trip, I don’t remember much.
This piece was written for my sons Miguel Enriquez and Inti Pablo, on the 40th anniversary of el golpe militar. They are both named after important and valiant fighters for justice and equality: Miguel Enriquez, the leader of the MIR; Inti Peredo, who fought alongside Che Guevara, and Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and revolutionary who died twelve days after the military coup in Chile.