Women march in black carrying candles and signs reading, "Nunca."

Women march in a commemoration of the coup against Salvador Allende the night before its 50th anniversary.

(Photo: Robin Breon)

Red Wine and Empanadas: Remembering the First September 11

Museum exhibitions, concerts, theater, film screenings, colloquia, and marches mark 50 years since the Chilean coup on September 11, 1973.

Throughout Chile today, there is a massive outpouring of artistic and cultural activity to commemorate the events of September 11, 1973, when the democratically elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a brutal military dictatorship that was supported by the Nixon administration through the aid of Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who helped to orchestrate the events that led to the coup. Thousands of Chileans were arrested, disappeared, tortured, or driven into exile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet who went on to rule the country for the next 18 years.

Allende famously proclaimed that his Popular Unity government would “have the flavor of red wine and empanadas.” And it is in that spirit that hundreds of events are happening throughout the month of September.

On the political front, both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have visited the country and met with Chilean President Gabriel Boric. In an interview with The Guardian, AOC stated: “I believe that we owe Chile, and not just Chile but many aspects of that region, an apology. I don’t think that apology indicates weakness; I think it indicates a desire to meet our hemispheric partners with respect.”

The idea that a country might develop a peaceful road to an alternative economy not based on rapacious greed, war mongering, profiteering, and the myth of the meritocracy was inspiring.

Tonight (September 11) a concert featuring three foundational music groups of the Nueva Canción Chilena (“New Chilean Song”) movement, Quilapayun, Inti-illimani, and Illapu will perform (along with other musical performers) outside the Estadio Nacional in a “Homage for Salvador Allende and the victims of the dictatorship.”

As part of a series of exhibitions, panel discussions, and cultural presentations, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights opened a new exhibit on September 6, entitled, “Judging and Filming Trials Against Humanity,” mounted as a collaborative project with the National Archive of France. Thematically based, it traces the experience of Chile, France, and Argentina explicating the history of legal trials against those who perpetrated crimes against humanity. This is one of a number of events that the museum is sponsoring.

The theater company La Situación is presenting an immersive, site specific experience that will allow spectators to relive the dramatic moments at the University of Santiago de Chile at the time of the coup, when students, officials, and academics were all set to attend the opening of an exhibition entitled “For Life…Always!”, which was to open on September 11, 1973, with Allende in attendance. The narrative unfolds through the spaces of the university where a group of 15 actors become the protagonists of what happened on that historic day.

The renowned ICTUS theater company has been presenting a reprise of their highly acclaimed 1984 play, Primavera con una Esquina Rota (based on Mario Benedetti’s novel and translated as “Springtime in a Broken Mirror”) in its own theater space since June.

Now celebrating 60 years of ongoing socially committed theater in Chile, ICTUS is the company that produced the internationally acclaimed play Something in the Air in 1985, based on the tragic murder of José Manuel Parada (the son of actor Roberto Parada) by the agents of the Carabineros Communications Directorate. The play is a a testimonial work (which starred Roberto Parada) where the story of the kidnapping already experienced is told in fiction. Something in the Air was given a North American premiere in 1988 in Toronto, produced by Toronto Workshop Productions and directed by Robert Rooney.

Another site specific event will happen on the eve of the coup at La Moneda, the presidential palace that was bombed by the military and the place where Allende died after delivering a final live radio broadcast to the nation. The commemoration is a woman only event, and organizers have asked those attending the silent memorial to dress in black and come with a candle and one sign for each woman that reads: “NUNCA+ (never).”

Professor Lidia Casas is director of the Institute for Human Rights at Diego Portales University. She explains the significance of the march this way:

The gender dimension of torture was silenced by most survivors and human rights organizations, today there is a new political scenario with negationist narratives from hard liner right-wing politicians. A congress woman declared sexual violence was an urban myth. For us feminist women, embracing in a human chain around the government palace is an act of resistance and a cri de coeur for a “never again” and remembrance.

Professor Casas also recently presented an open lecture on sexual violence at Santiago’s former Estadio Chile, inviting students to the women change room. The stadium was the largest site used for detention and torture in the days following the coup.

“Victor Jara. Two looks. 50 years,” is a photographic exhibition honoring the folksinger, theater director, and composer, Victor Jara, who was also a leader in the Chilean New Song movement of the 1960s and 70s. These photographs are seen through the lenses of Louis Poirot and Antonio Larreat, two essential names in the history of Chilean photography. The photographs and negatives comprise a collection of images that survived the dictatorship by being hidden within the country as well as being exported for safe keeping abroad during the period of the dictatorship.

Jara, often described in North America as the Chilean Bob Dylan, was one of the earliest victims of the coup when he was arrested by the regime and taken to the then-named “Estadio Chile,” where he was brutally tortured before being executed by the military on September, 16, 1973.

In further tribute to Jara as one of the leading cultural figures of the period, the Victor Jara Foundation has organized the Arts and Memory Festival. This four-day arts and music event, running from September 28 through October 1, is being held at the Víctor Jara Stadium (actually an arena now; the former Estadio Chile, where Víctor was held and killed).

The impressive lineup of artists includes Inti-Illimani; celebrated pianist Roberto Bravo; singer-songwriters from the period including Eduardo Peralta, Luis LeBert, and Mauricio Redolés; the iconic rock band Los Prisioneros; the Santiago Youth Symphony Orchestra; the Haitian-Chilean band; LA FA MI; and a whole host of plays and presentations by theater and dance ensembles as well as independent solo artists. The 2023 Joan Jara Arts and Memory Award will also be presented at the festival.

In Chile this month there is certainly “the flavor of red wine and empanadas,” throughout the country, which is how Allende described his uniquely Chilean experiment with democratic socialism. In September 1973, I was 25 years old and enrolled as a graduate student in education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. During that bleak period that saw Richard Nixon being sworn in for a second term as president of the United States, the events in Chile seemed so encouraging. The idea that a country might develop a peaceful road to an alternative economy not based on rapacious greed, war mongering, profiteering, and the myth of the meritocracy was inspiring. To then see this fragile movement succumb to the iron fist of reaction and brought to such a cruel and tragic end was equally depressing. Up to that time in my life I was never much of a joiner, but later that week when I read that a group called the “Chile Emergency Committee” had been formed, I joined immediately.

Now, fast-forward 50 years (and it does seem like just the blink of an eye), I’m seeing a whole new progressive movement still struggling to get a grip just as Popular Unity tried to do five decades ago. Here we are in North America looking South to the Chileans again with many of the same hopes and aspirations that were embodied in the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende. Once again, so many of us are rooting for the Chileans to find a better way.

I read that Gabriel Boric, at 37, is the youngest president ever elected in Chile and he is the third youngest head of state in the world. I read also that he is the first president ever to have visible tattoos, one of which is apparently a lighthouse. A lighthouse! What a powerful metaphor as once again Chile tries to light the way—and all the while not wanting to forget its past.

As many Chileans today still proudly proclaim: “Salvador Allende presente!”

This article was written with research assistance from Patricio Mason in Santiago.

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