The Original 911: Once de Septiembre in Chile

For most people in the world, September 11 is remembered for the bombing of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 2001. For Chile, however, the memory of that day goes back much farther and much deeper.

On September 11, 1973 Chile’s military forces overthrew the government of President Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected socialist president. The military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, would remain in tight control for the next 17 years.

I wasn’t here on Chile’s Once de Septiembre—nor was I, by the way, in the US for its September 11. I arrived in Chile in 1991, a year after it had returned to democracy, to learn Spanish in preparation for anthropological field work that would take me into the world of the families of the detained and disappeared. My experience with the women who used folklore to protest the disappearance of their loved ones, who danced the Cueca Sola and who sewed patchwork arpilleras will wait for another time.

Today I will concentrate on September 11, 1993, twenty years after the day that changed Chile forever. A day that I was in fact present. The following is the entry from my field notes for that day… as is, without further interpretation or benefit of the 16 years that have passed since that date:

Saturday: 11 de SEPTIEMBRE de 1993: 20 AÑOS DEL GOLPE

What a day! The (in)famous “Once de Septiembre” marked the 20th anniversary of the golpe militar, and there has been a lot of commotion over the event. Things do not feel stable here, although no one believes that there will ever be the possibility of another coupe. There will be presidential elections in November and all the various factions are battling it out in many diverse ways. Pinochet has been doing and saying very strange things, which riles up the left and incites them to violence, which is scorned by the right, and the majority in the middle are rather confused.

I had every intention of participating in the various planned activities for the 11th:

Ecumenical Liturgy in the San Ignacio church downtown near Los Heroes metro stop and just 1 block off Alameda
March past La Moneda in homage to Allende, with plans to lay a wreath beneath the window of the room in which he died.
Romería (March) to Cementerio General up Avenida La Paz
Memorial Service in Cemetery at Allende’s tomb and ‘Patio 29’

There was already tension in the air as I approached the church for the inter-denominational liturgy. The carabineros (police) were setting up barricades and the different factions were gathering outside, and the PC (Partido Comunista) had taken an entire corner with enormous red flags and banners.

The service itself was really very nice, very peaceful and heartfelt. The women of the AFDD (Agrupación de los Familiares de los Detenidos Desaparecidos / Association of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared) entered carrying a big cross that symbolized their pain and suffering. They did the Cueca Sola (twice). Many people spoke about the past 20 years. Many prayed for forgiveness for the human tendency to forget too soon, to slack off in the fight, to get caught up in their lives and not do that little (or big) extra thing for our neighbors. It lasted about 1½ hours and I felt good and calm as we left, as if some transition had occurred that morning, as if something broken had been mended and that the world was just that much closer to finding peace. But the feeling didn’t last long.

The carabineros were waiting outside the church. The police had said well in advance that no one would be allowed within 4 blocks of La Moneda, and they meant it. The Partido Comunista is particularly outspoken these days, and they had also said well in advance that they were going anyway. And they meant it too. I certainly had no intention of being in the front lines, but I naively thought that I could hang back a bit and see what was going on and take pictures from the sidelines. Sounded like a good idea to me at the time.

The church is one block from the main street (Alameda) of the city and just about exactly 4 blocks from La Moneda.

The enormous doors of the church opened onto a very different setting. It felt like walking into a war zone. The street was barricaded, helicopters hovered, stationary, over head (helicopters have always made me very uncomfortable–really paranoid–call it “helicoptrophobia”). As the two factions met–those who intended to march with those who intended they didn’t–things got ugly. The crowd started turning angry and many young people picked up the barricades and started advancing on the carabineros at the intersection.

I was standing with an older Maryknoll priest who has been here since 1965 (Ernie, who I had met in the población Huamacucho). He said, “Here it comes…” “What?” I asked. “Can’t you smell it? It’s tear gas.” And sure enough, it soon came wafting our way. Not pleasant, but not unbearable.

Things continued to heat up and the crowd started getting panicky. I was beginning to have my doubts. Another priest told me about a young woman who had been deported last week just for being too close to a demonstration. I began to worry about my own rather shaky tourist visa (!!) and decided that things were getting too weird and that I was NOT going to try and cross la Alameda, but I still wanted to rejoin the march on the other side and get to the cemetery.

The crowd made a push toward the front and we heard gunfire. A teargas bomb exploded nearby and everyone made a dash for the church. I was standing in the doorway and saw several hundred panicking people running toward me. As I turned to get out of the way I got hit full face with the big cloud of tear gas and couldn’t see, breathe, or move. I was glad I was next to a wall and could hold myself steady until the worst of it passed. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in the street with people running in all directions and be hit with that stuff!

People were trying to close the big wooden doors of the church while others were still outside pushing to get in. Not a pretty sight! Inside an elderly woman was laid out flat and suffering horribly. Many people had come prepared and were passing salt and lemons, which start the saliva flowing again and help the burning pass much more quickly.

One of the priests came running toward the church shouting to make room. He and a couple other men were carrying a young man who had been hit in the chest with the actual tear gas canister and needed an ambulance desperately. I later read in the paper that he was in serious condition.

Another young man was tying a bandanna around his mouth and nose and preparing to go back outside; his mother was helping him. It suddenly dawned on me that all these years that I’ve seen various militants with bandannas over their faces that I always thought of it as an act of disguise and solidarity–but now I understand that while that is certainly true, there’s also the practical dimension of keeping out the tear gas!

I started to feel that we could be trapped in the church for hours and began to feel a bit panicky. My teenage daughter was home alone, and I was afraid that if she heard the news about the near war that was being raged downtown that she would be extremely worried. I also knew that my partner (now my husband) was not happy about me going in the first place and had himself refused to go. In fact a rather militant acquaintance of his had called him a few days earlier to tell him about the march and insisted he come. He told him that he would not. When he told me about this I said (quickly and without thinking), “Well I’M going!” and he suddenly became very quiet.

He later told me that he knew it was likely to become violent but hadn’t said anything to me because he knows me well enough to know that I would have gone anyway. In the end he just said, “You be very careful and don’t take any chances.” I appreciated his concern, although the advice was unnecessary, because while I’ve never thought of myself as timid, I’m not stupid either.

An hour into the confrontation, I sized up the situation. There was mayhem all about and panic both inside the church and out. Things were heating up, both sides angrier and more determined. This was not going to calm down anytime soon. The priests who were looking out for me (Ernie, Mike Bassano, and another of their group, Maryknoll’s all) agreed—rather, insisted—that I should get out of there, that it was going to get really ugly and there were likely to be serious injuries before the day was done. Ernie volunteered to take me home. He had wisely parked his car BEHIND the church, and he led me and a handful of others through the back corridors of the church and out the rear exit.

All city traffic had been rerouted away from La Moneda and la Alameda, and it was very difficult to maneuver through the city. There were carabineros in full riot gear (helmets, bullet-proof vests, etc.) with machine guns at every intersection, and more truckloads of carabineros kept passing us on their way downtown. Pretty scary stuff! I’ve been to my share of protests and demonstrations in the States, and I’ve marched on Washington with half a million other people—and know that protests can get a bit rough, but at least in Washington I know that they might push me around or even arrest me—but they won’t kill me! I had no such sense of assurance that day here in Santiago, and I know I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. The looks on the faces of the people running back into the church was of terror…or defiant anger.

People have always told me that during the military years it was very easy for those living in the ‘better’ neighborhoods to be oblivious to what was happening in other parts. The poblaciones could be in the midst of total destruction while the people in Providencia were watching reruns of Mr. Ed (the talking horse, who also speaks Spanish, it turns out). This came home to me that day when we finally got away from downtown and back into my own neighborhood, and aside from a few more planes than usual, everything here was calm and ‘normal.’ Neither my daughter nor my partner had heard a thing about what was going on downtown, no more than 20 blocks or so away!

We later learned that two people were killed and many were wounded and in serious condition in various hospitals around town. One of the two killed was an older man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had nothing to do with the demonstration, was apparently deaf and never heard the commotion behind him. He was run over by two different police vehicles that were racing down the street. The other was a young man (18 years old) who was shot in the neck by the police in the cemetery. No details have come out as to the specific circumstances (if they were aiming at him or he just got in the way). I know a Lutheran pastor (from Kentucky) who lives in his neighborhood who said that they were all pretty shocked and silently mourning his death. My guess is that there may be later retaliation. Hard to say…

For more on this topic:

See: Chilean Arpillera: A chapter of history written on cloth. (2010)

See what Eileen (from bearshapedshpere) wrote on the topic at Matador.com The Other September 11. (2009)

Also see what Emily (Don’t Call Me Gringa) has to say at:  September 11th in Chile. (2009)

15 responses to “The Original 911: Once de Septiembre in Chile

  1. That’s an incredible memory to share. Thanks.

    And the better neighborhood/worse neighborhood dichotomy continues, as we all know. Violence in Villa Francia last night, and I biked down from Las Condes the whole way to Barrio Brasil and saw nothing, absolutely nothing. No busses, no people. It was an auto-toque de queda. eerie.

  2. You’re right–a self-imposed curfew…
    People divvy up on Sept 11…. some go out looking for trouble; most go out of their way to stay out of it.
    Downtown shops close up (and board up) early and let their employees go home before it gets dark (and dangerous). The Universidad de Chile was closed all last week to avoid problems.

  3. This was such a great read, very powerful. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks Abby- it was a pretty incredible time and a real eye-opener…

  5. It’s so interesting to read your notes. I was there a few years later, 96, and remember being warned that as a gringa it was better to lay low. I would have gone, I think, to see a protest, if I had had an “insider” as a guide. I have some of that “anthropological” curiosity.

    My suegro told us that two people were killed this year as well… very unfortunate

  6. The whole “gringa lay low” thing is a complex issue. Basically it’s a case of people seeing it as foreigners getting involved in something that has nothing to do with us. Some are genuinely concerned for our safety, and others resent the presence and potential interference of outsiders. We can never truly know the experience of being Chilean during those years, and regardless of best intentions and a true desire to understand, this is one area in which we can never belong.

  7. Really interesting post. I’ve never been at all involved in any protests – even though I studied at Macul, I didn’t have class on Thursdays, and we were let out of class early and told to go home (or at least the exchange students were) one day when a protest was scheduled.

    As Eileen touched on, I think a lot of the fear surrounding el once now, at least in the barrios altos where nothing really happens, is self-imposed. I’m all for being cautious, but I really don’t think that having dinner in Providencia is somehow more dangerous on that day…maybe that’s because people do take precautions, but from what I’ve seen it feels to me like those precautions in those areas aren’t necessary any more.

  8. Hi Emily- Things have really changed since those times, and the violence seems to be increasingly isolated to specific areas. Eileen commented that she rode her bike through downtown at 11:30 pm on the 11th–this would have been unthinkably suicidal not all that long ago… now (she reports) it is eerily quiet and peaceful as people try to stay out of the way of trouble. There ARE areas, however, that always have problems, but I honestly don’t think the reasons have as much to do with politics per se as they do with taking advantage of a “safety valve”–a way of letting off steam that ironically usually involves destroying what little infrastructure and order there is in a given neighborhood.
    What is so unfortunate is that this kind of behavior takes the seriousness away from people who want to make legitimate complaints.

  9. Wonderfully retold! I can almost feel the adrenalin pumping through the panic and tear-gas induced chaos.

    I was witness to a skirmish in La Pintana, this was in 2001. They threw chains over the electrical wires to blackout the neighbourhood, so we were using candlelight inside and peeking out the door onto the mayhem outside. There was a surreal moment where the police and rioters had a stand-off and were just jeering at each other at a safe distance, through wisps of tear-gas and the occasional stone flying through the air. The insults they threw at each other came with customary Chilean creativity and enthusiasm with insults. A particularly imaginative one addressed to their mothers by a boy no older than twelve even had the police chuckling.

    There was this sense of complicity, as if they were all actors in a script which had been written and rehearsed many times beforehand. It was just something to do on September the 11th in Santiago.

  10. You’re right Thomas–in some senses it really does seem to have a ritualistic and “expected” aspect that is hard for someone outside the loop to understand. Today it seems to have very little to do with anything political. Even back when I was working with these women they complained that their legitimate causes were continuously compromised by what they called “lumpen”–delinquents (almost always young men) who usurped the moment for a misplaced release of testosterone that resulted not only in physical injuries and material damage to public and private property, but in serious damage to the integrity and credibility of their cause.

  11. Yes, totally agree with your response to my comment and Thomas’…I actually just wrote my own post about how I don’t see any specifically political protesting but rather people just using the excuse of the day to break things.

  12. Hi Emily- I went back and linked in both your article and Eileen’s…

  13. What I don’t get is why people don’t tell the other side of the story. I grew up during the 80s and I don’t come from a rich family. My parents still work hard every day and we had nothing to do with Pinochet nor with Allende. However we are still discriminated for not feeling “sad” each September 11th.
    Has anybody of the people you have met in Chile told you about what was it to be walking a street and suddenly seeing how a bomb exploded and people died? Or how was that my mom was forced to stop in the street to give money to support “the cause” and shout things against Pinochet? The 80s were not a pretty time for many Chileans, but the ones that protest today are not the only ones that had a bad time. We normal middle class Chileans also had a bad time because we were caught in a conflict in which both sides didn’t care about us.
    I don’t support many things that happened during Pinochet time. I saw with my own eyes, how people were detained so I don’t need anybody to tell me that. But I also had the experience of having my school shut down because of the alert of a bomb left there for those “idealistic warriors” that were fighting against Pinochet.
    Ask around what MIR, MAPU and Lautaro were and what their “means” of war were.
    The reason why many people don’t like foreigners getting involved in this is because of they never tell a full story. It is either side A or B but the big chunk of Chileans is never taken into account. Of the 16 millions of Chileans, all that matters is less than 10000 that caused disorders. Why can’t anybody tell the story of a normal Chilean person?

  14. Thank you Carlos- I think you just did.
    When I first came to Chile I thought I knew what I was getting into, that it was all very black and white, right and wrong, all clear cut… but time has shown me over and over again that that is definitely not the case. That there are many shades of gray, that what one person experienced was very, very different from what others experienced. That there are many ‘matices’ to what happened here during those troubled years.
    My reason for coming here in the first place had to do with one group–a group that was very vocal abroad–but many long years of being here have shown me that that group represents one very real side of what happened here, but certainly not the entire picture.
    Your question about telling the full story has many answers… and truth be told, a lot of it is just that real people doing everyday things is not news… people want to know what is different, and let’s face it, they love sensationalistic. Everyday people going about their lives doesn’t get much attention… so even though they may outnumber those who are involved in a struggle, they do not get the attention that others do.
    En fin… thank you for presenting your side…

  15. Pingback: Chilean Arpilleras: A chapter of history written on cloth | Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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