US anthropologist Kathleen Skozcen recently visited Chile for the first time and left with much to remember—and much to think about. She begins sorting through what she saw, heard, learned, experienced, and felt, forming her own memories while reflecting upon the city from the bike lane…
Santiago: Memories that make a city… and a city that makes memories…
Guest Post by Kathleen Skozcen*
I rented a bright green bicycle from Bicicleta Verde on a gorgeous summer day in January, and was they told me to head straight down Av. Las Monjitas and into the heart of the city. Riding a bike in Santiago is enough of a risk without worrying about dogs (more on that in my next post), but I have to say it’s a risk worth taking. Santiago’s neighborhoods are distinct and worth exploring on wheels.
Just getting started here–See more! The many paseos, or pedestrian-only streets offer respite from the taxis zooming around you and the less friendly Audis trying to run you down, although these streets, like the sidewalks, are often overflowing with people. Did I say overflowing?
It reminds me of NYC on Black Friday, but here that kind of crowd in Santiago is only a daily lunch hour. As I moved further west, past Plaza de Armas, the distinct neighborhoods and charm of the past reminded me of a rich, colonial history that would probably take years to fully appreciate. The architecture—what has survived the many earthquakes—is precious if seemingly under-appreciated.
There is evidence enough of what the earthquakes have claimed, but every now and again, a beautiful old 18th century building has been or is being restored, keeping the past alive and giving it its due.
Not having explored every corner of the capital, it’s hard to imagine anywhere that would capture the romance and detail of the past the way this area does for me.
The ubiquitous graffiti also suggests a richer meaning beyond the entrancing paintings. Winding my way through the neighborhoods became that much slower as I had to capture this mural, then that mural, then the next…. its easy to see why the average Chileno is so much more cultured than most Americans with all this expression going on around them. If graffiti is scribbling on walls–and it is in most of the world–then we have to say that in Chile (at least what I’ve seen), empty walls are canvases and art is a robust form of life. Can you not help but love this place?
I rented a bike with the idea of not only seeing the city at a more intimate proximity, but also of making my way down to the Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos. This contemporary building in the midst of colonial South America draws you in immediately. The haunting rocks drowning in water that guard the unyielding chiseled and commanding square block building, the concave concrete that pulls you down was enough, even for those who already knew what was coming, to suggest that this museum would be unlike any other.
If the museum’s exterior is meant to jolt you out of your comfort, it is only so that you can brace yourself for the cruel reality of our world. It begins with a global overview of truth commissions, visually and through text, documenting the many horrors that remind us Chile is far from unique in its embattled history. As one takes time to review each of the 30 countries represented, photos put a human face to the victims of such heinous atrocities. Then you can move into the museo and into the history of the Chilean military coup and its aftermath. That the coup (the golpe: root word ‘to hit’) is so well documented that it gives testimony to the fact that this was no popular revolt against a Marxist regime.
Surrounded by carefully presented documents, film footage, photos and memories, we are pulled into a dark chapter of Chilean history. Allende is alive and speaking to us from the past as suddenly as the Junta then explains their motives and justifies their actions, even before the worst of it has begun.
Gazing occasionally out the window to pull yourself back to the present, you are confronted with a distorted vision of the outside world, covered by gauze, keeping reality blurred, as if to remind you that you have been captured in the past and cannot escape without completing the journey. No third world country would be able to give such a measured, thoughtful, and careful rendition of its past.
A father called to his wife and kids to come and see the document they were looking for—an archive of a victim recorded on a computer screen in a hall with faux candles that are at once burning with memory and crystals lit with electricity and a brilliance that exudes a hope for the future through the careful documentation of the sacrifice all around you. Leaving this family to its own history (was it a father, brother, cousin, neighbor?), I moved on through film footage of family members arguing with soldiers, letters to fathers who would never read them, notes scratched on paper and cloth as final pleas for help. Up you move, from underground to the skyline, out of the dark history and back to the sunlight, and to the completion of the story: the end of the dictatorship, but also a sense of justice and purpose for the victims.
On the top floor, looking out over the Santiago skyline I reflected on the workers who must live in this history day in and day out. How do they manage it? I did not leave exhausted by emotion, however, but renewed and reverent of the Chilean people; you can’t but admire their perseverance and ultimate victory over the evil: oh that my own nation would be so brave.
To be continued…
Leave your comments below and then click here to see Part II: Of Dogs and Men…
Dr. Kathleen Skoczen, PhD, is Chair of the Anthropology Department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven CT, USA. She has done extensive research on issues of human health as well as tourism, primarily in the Dominican Republic. This was her first visit to Chile.