The material culture of Chilean exile: a transnational dialogue.

AuthorSimalchik, Joan


In the aftermath of the 1973 coup d'etat, Chileans managed to find refuge in more than forty of the world's countries. They left with the expectation that they would only need temporary asylum, but instead found themselves in a state of prolonged exile. In order to speed the day of return and as antidote to the trauma of exile, Chileans created communities in opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship. Through resistance strategies enacted in a constructed site of struggle, Chilean exile communities facilitated remembrance through commemorative practices, cultural forms, testimony, and the preservation of endangered material culture that became decisive for legal cases against impunity and as a basis for historical inquiry.


A la suite du coup d'Etat de 1973, les Chiliens ont reussi a trouver refuge dans plus de 40 pays dans le monde. Partis en croyant n'avoir besoin que d'un asile temporaire, ils se sont plutot trouves en exil prolonge. Les Chiliens ont mis sur pied des groupes opposes a la dictature de Pinochet afin de raccourcir l'echeance de leur retour et comme antidote au traumatisme de l'exil. Grace a des strategies de resistance deployees dans le lieu presume du conflit, les communautes chiliennes en exil ont perpetue le souvenir par des pratiques commemoratives s'appuyant sur des formes culturelles, des temoignages et la preservation du materiau culturel menace. Ces pratiques sont devenues decisives en matiere de defense juridique contre l'impunite tout en servant de base a la recherche historique.


A Significant repercussion of the 1973 coup d'etat, and the ensuing Pinochet dictatorship, was the need for Chileans to find asylum outside of their country. From the beginning of its rule, the junta issued proclamations pronouncing its intent to rid Chile of "the cancerous tumor" of members and supporters of the Popular Unity government. (1) The rhetoric was backed up with deed as the military institutionalized persecution of its opponents. Chilean refugees would soon find themselves to be an incipient part of an emerging find diaspora.

In its initial plan to recreate Chile based along the lines of its own ideology, the junta sought to people the country only with those who shared its objectives or, at least, with those who would not challenge them. In order to fulfill this aim, the junta decreed outright that selected Chileans would be forbidden to live in their own country. Those who were designated to be enemies of the newly evolving regime, or perceived to be so, were to be excised from the body politic. In its efforts to rid Chile of potential opposition, the military junta began to define who would be permitted to remain in the country. At the start, the category of personae non grata included leaders and members of the Popular Unity Coalition, leaders and members of socially active organizations linked to the left including trade unions, student federations, and women's groups and others deemed likely to challenge the authority of the military junta. Beyond the repressive practices that sought to marginalize opposition through termination of life, freedom, or employment, the military went further by terminating the right to live in Chile.

For those who found themselves under the gun, the distance from past to present was difficult to negotiate, especially because of the rapidity of the turnaround. Ariel Dorfman provided a flavour of this predicament in a section of his memoir entitled "A Chapter Dealing with the Discovery of Death inside an Embassy in October of 1973, in Santiago de Chile." Dorfman remembered his time inside the Argentine Embassy as one of nine hundred would be refugees where he meets

... face-to-face, the first torture victims of my life ... laid out side by side in the great ballroom of the embassy, where only a month ago tuxedoed men leaned forward to murmur compliments to women in long, shuffling dresses, where one of the fugitives himself, Allende's Secretary of the Treasury, sipped a cocktail next to the very piano under which he now tosses and turns, trying to get some rest. (2) As a consequence of the repression, hundreds of thousands of Chileans from the 1973 total population of ten million came to be living in the "remote havens of foreign lands." (3) Decree Law 81 promulgated in November 1973 and Supreme Decree 604 in June 1974 set out the rationale for stripping citizenship and refusing the right to live in Chile. The military regime drew up a National List (Lista Nacional), which included approximately five thousand names of Chileans deemed to be undesirable. An "L" indicating a name on the List was stamped on the passport and forbid entry into Chile. The List was modified during the seventeen years of the dictatorship but it was only abolished in 1989 as part of the transition to democracy negotiations. While not all Chileans who fled the regime were formally put on the List, its existence posed a constant threat to exiles who publicly opposed the regime.

Some Chileans began life in exile after enduring long, tedious, and bureaucratic immigration processes such as the one begrudgingly undertaken by Canada. (4) Some languished for months in limbo-like conditions in foreign embassies in Santiago or in interim countries such as Panama while they awaited resettlement. Many Chileans were not able to choose the country to which they were going, and had no time to prepare or plan for the journey.

The problem Estela de Ramirez had when she arrived in Canada was that she had nothing to hold on to. At most some pictures in an issue of National Geographic from who-knows-when ... when Estela de Ramirez was told that tomorrow she was going to Canada, nothing came to her mind. Canada. (5) In the aftermath of the coup d'etat, Chileans managed to find asylum in more than forty countries throughout the then-divided first, second, and third worlds. (6)

This group of exiles left Chile with the expectation that they would only have need of a temporary safe haven. Their commonly held belief predicted that exile would be short because the military regime was expected to collapse under the combined weight of Chile's democratic history and civilian political tradition. These were not immigrants seeking a new land, nor were they refugees hoping to be permanently resettled. This group of Chileans, who self-defined as exiles, intended to return to their country to continue their thwarted political project as soon as it was possible to do so.

As testament to the notion of inevitable return, El Retorno, deposed President Salvador Allende was frequently invoked. In his last radio address, broadcast shortly before his death on the day of the coup, Allende appealed: "... to keep the faith. Neither criminality nor repression can hold back history." He anticipated: "May you continue to know that sooner rather than later the great avenues through which free men walk to build a better society will open." (7) These words round themselves inscribed on banners and pamphlets, and became a watchword in the early days of the Chilean exile. "The hope of return helped us not to be separated emotionally from out history with Chile." (8)

In order to speed the day of return, Chilean exiles reconstituted themselves as the political expression of those silenced in Chile. Chile's pre-existing political, ideological, and social divisions now included a geographical dimension. Chileans were separated from each other spatially and were designated according to their location "inside" or "outside" of the country. In truth, the exiles inhabited "... a space that in territorial terms does not coincide with one particular country but falls in between two or more countries." (9) Along with the geographical divide of the exile condition, there exists a temporal disruption: "... the exile lives in two different times simultaneously, in the present and in the past." (10) The tension of maintaining a balance between shifting coordinates of time, place, and memory serves as a particularly demanding burden of exile.

This group was distinct from many of the previous exile movements in both number and type although the experience of forced migration in the twentieth century was not unique to Chileans. The Garden of Exile in Berlin's Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind conveys an expression of the experience of German Jews before and during World War II. The museum's tour begins in the basement Hall of Decision with the visitor forced to choose between continuing on the tour upstairs or entering the Garden of Exile, a concrete maze with slanted floors. (11)

The Chileans, though, like the Spanish Civil War refugees before them, bridged the shift from E. H. Carr's notion of the few select political leaders, The Romantic Exiles, (12) to those masses composing the new movement of asylum seekers termed the "age of refuge" by Edward Said. (13) The Chileans would be distinguished by their intent to return to their homeland and presaged the large-scale refugee movements that would characterize much of the latter part of the century. In 1973, many countries in which Chileans sought asylum were ill-prepared to meet the challenge. For those countries that had signed the United Nations Convention on Refugee Status, most had not established the necessary framework in order to execute a process for refugee determination. (14) In many cases, Chileans round themselves to be the bridgehead for the development of refugee policy and (re) settlement services.

While the process of migration has been established to be a difficult and stressful time for anyone, forced displacement poses additional problems for people who become refugees. (15) The multiple series of losses involved with the state of exile compounds the difficulty of refugee settlement. Loss of community, language, and culture and separation from family, friends, and comrades all put into sharp relief the gap between home country and host society.


To continue reading

Request your trial