Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mi Vida Chilena (IV)

An attractive young woman has captured the imagination of many people inside and outside of Chile. Her name is Camila Vallejo, and she is clearly talented, ambitious and charismatic. As the president of the University of Chile student federation, she has been a prominent leader of protests that have been going on for months. And she is a Communist.

Vallejo was the subject of a somewhat fawning piece last month by Francisco Goldman in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (access limited by pay wall) titled “Camila Vallejo, the World’s Most Glamorous Revolutionary.” In the long, rambling article Goldman, who is in his late 50s, comes off as nearly a bit creepy as he goes on about his efforts to meet her and his desire to have his picture taken with her. He introduces us to her as “a Botticelli beauty who wears a silver nose ring and studies geography.”

To tell the truth, I can identify with Goldman’s (and everyone else’s) crush on a beautiful young Communist woman. I had my own brief infatuation with one early during my student year in Chile. But she wasn’t an activist like Camila Vallejo. She was reserved and private. It was a very different time in Chile.

She was my classmate in a German class and, soon after I met her, she happened to break up with her boyfriend. I took the initiative and asked her out. She was hesitant, probably because it was so soon after her breakup but also because I was an American. In the end, I did get her to go out with me, but only a few times.

We never reached the level of becoming pololos (the Chilean word for steady boyfriend and girlfriend), but I did get invited to her home once. The occasion was her onomástico. That’s roughly the equivalent of a birthday. (It actually refers to the day of the saint you are named after, but in many Catholic countries you would typically be named after a saint whose day you were born on.) I thought Communists were supposed to be atheists, I teased her, so why are you celebrating a saint’s day? She laughed and said that her family celebrated all the religious holidays because “the problem with being an atheist is that there aren’t any good holidays.” I met her father, who had been detained by the military during the coup and was later released. He was clearly not interested in talking to me, but her mother was cordial.

There was always an air of sadness looming over my friend and her family and, as I got to know her better, I understood why. Her brother, a Communist Youth leader, was one of the desaparecidos (the disappeared). Three months before I arrived in Chile (i.e. November 1976), he was abducted on a street in downtown Santiago. He tried to escape by throwing himself in front of a bus. Lying bleeding on the street, he yelled his name to bystanders and asked them to get word to his family in Concepción. He was taken away and never seen again. His family tenaciously pursued every means it could to have him released, but the government never acknowledged having arrested him.

While I have had no contact with my friend since leaving Chile all those years ago, I have occasionally looked for updates on her brother’s case on the internet. In 2007 (17 years after Pinochet stepped down from the presidency and nearly one year after he died), the Supreme Court finally convicted seven agents of the Comando Cojunto (a joint unit of members of the armed forces and a movement called Patria y Libertad) in the case. They were sentenced to three years and a day and granted parole, which meant that they served no jail time. While it is clear that her brother was tortured and killed, his body was never recovered.

Things were destined not to work out between me and my Communist friend—mainly because, despite the adventurousness of youth, our different backgrounds and values would have inevitably clashed. I did later make another friend who was more suited to me and who was happy enough to be my polola. We had some very good times during that year.

But I had become very aware that Chile could be a dangerous place if you were seen to be a threat to the government. That weighed on my mind toward the end of the year when I was obliged, very much against my will, to participate in nationwide vote.

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