I knew from his accent that he was not American.
He was Santiago, a seventy-four year-old political refugee from Chile. We were in the small town of Buffalo, sixteen miles away from Niagara (the US side).
Santiago runs a shop along Allen Street, adjacent to Elmwood Avenue, amid the touristic buzz of bars, restaurants and exclusive boutiques. Many days later, Santiago would give me a long silent glance and ask: “How did this happen? You just walked in and now we are talking about me, about my past, about everything that is dear to me…”And I would hold back from saying that it was he who had prompted it: I had had the opportunity to observe how he dealt with his customers, how he always had something to offer other than the trinkets that were on sale: to a student who was enrolled at University at Buffalo, he said he was open to internships and handed a leaflet to her; to a lady who purchased a pair of Peruvian earrings, he mentioned a course that could be of interest to her. It was no wonder then, that when I first stepped into El Buen Amigo, we talked about everything else after his chirpy: “Thank you! Thank you very much for showing interest in my shop!” After asking me a few questions, and learning that I had flown into the US from London, he mentioned that he was from Chile and explained how he had arrived here. When I showed knowledge of the atrocities of the Pinochet regime, it incited him to tell me that he been a prisoner in one of those infamous concentration camps for twenty-two months. That was why, on a different occasion, when Santiago posed the question again: “How did this happen?”, and with a tone of suspicion added: “Do you work for Matahari?”, I burst out laughing.
I reckon that it was normal for Santiago to be wary of my sudden intrusion. In his youth in Chile, he had once been the leader of the rebellious front, Junta de Jecinos before the coup d’état. This revolution was headed by Augusto Pinochet, and marked by the bombing of La Moneda (the Presidential Palace), which among others, cost Salvador Allende Gossens, the then President, his life. At the time of the bombing, Santiago was looking out of the window of the tenth floor of a building that housed the Central National Police. This event occurred in 1973. Santiago probably witnessed what I imagine to be similar to the fate of the glorious World Trade Centre in New York.
Santiago was born in Chile just before the Second World War. He spoke of living conditions that were so formidable, that there were not enough clothes to protect oneself from harsh Chilean winters. It was a time when the thin walls of houses were covered with newspapers, held in place by a thick sticky mixture of flour and water. The flour would often attract insects, said Santiago, and this eventually led to an outbreak of Chagas—a life-threatening disease. Santiago went on to explain how the lack of footwear exposed Chileans to all sorts of diseases. Most people, he said, would use worn out tyres, cut out two irregular chunks to fit their feet, and tie a wire or cloth to each side for support. Despite the harshness of these realities, the exchanges I had with Santiago about his childhood were not always gloomy. He hesitated for a while before describing, in his words, “…the flood of shit and urine that covered the ground, and especially the fields”, and with an amused grin, added how it was common for a drunken man in the night, while making his way back home, to tumble into one of the “shit holes”. This anecdote was described with so much vivacity that it made me wonder whether it had happened to him or to one of his close relatives—perhaps to his father, because Santiago had mentioned that the latter was often drunk.
Santiago grew up in a one-bedroom house crowded by three beds. He was the eldest among three children. His parents had an unhappy marriage and he spoke in passing of domestic violence. He also mentioned that when he was three years old, his mother and sisters contracted Tuberculosis and had to be admitted to a Sanatorium. “Sanatoriums were places only for fresh air and regular meals,” he said. “There was no medicine,” he went on. “Penicillin had not been discovered yet. My mother and my sister were quarantined for four years.” During that period, Santiago lost his youngest sister who was still a baby. But what seemed to affect him the most, was the story of how he woke up one day in the house of people he had never seen before.
He suspects that his father must have paid them to keep him. Those strangers were to be his foster parents. I had a feeling that this part of the story betrayed a connection to his father’s alcoholism. One morning, little Santiago woke up and found himself in an open barnyard attached to their house. “There were no walls,” he said solemnly. “During the first night, I remember looking at the stars—Chile is a beautiful country, you know—and then I remember that I burst out crying. I was three years old. I remember soiling my clothes and there was no one to change them… The next morning I remember walking to the pigs, playing with them, and pulling their tails. I don’t remember the rest. I know I was given food once in a while. But I was alone. The pigs—they respected me. I could have ended up in their stomachs, but they let me play with them and they kicked me sometimes, so that I would roll over. But they respected me…”
I must admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable at that moment. I don’t believe that pigs can distinguish men from animals, make a value judgment about who to respect, or even pounce on a three year-old and make a meal out of him. But I believe that this was Santiago’s emotionally charged reaction after suffering such mistreatment by his foster parents. Four years later, Santiago was reunited with his parents. His mother and younger sister had just been discharged from the sanatorium. He remembered the bath he had just before the reunion—It was not common to have one. And he remembered the food. He had not had a copious meal in a long time. At that moment, Santiago interrupted the flow of the conversation and stated: “But we should not romanticise poverty.” I smiled. Indeed, he was romanticising poverty (and indirectly, I was doing that too, by being a party to this conversation, and loving the details that I could already imagine transcribing into a story). Across every border, this Victor-Hugo style of rhetoric had become part of the vernacular. The truth is that poverty can never be presented in any other way than in a romantic one.
In between irksome interruptions of phone calls, messages by the shop assistant, questions by customers, and Santiago’s well-intentioned use of the whiteboard to sketch and explain, I realised that I would have to prompt him to go a bit faster if I wanted to extract the juiciest part of the story. What interested me the most, was his experience at the concentration camp. On hindsight, I regret my fixation with that episode of his life. I now realise that what happens in those inhuman torture chambers could certainly be shocking and devastating, but sometimes we, the listeners, the interviewers, the journalists, use it as our Unique Selling Point to create a scandal, and to sell our stories to a readership that never tires of this sort of news— I had this realisation only recently, after speaking to Allan, a Burmese political refugee, who had also been detained and tortured for four days in police custody. His “crime” was that he had circulated leaflets that contained Marxist-related propaganda. “An ordinary story,” said the journalist dismissively—he was working with me on the project. “Why is it ordinary?” I asked. “Well,” was the reply, “Allan has nothing much to say about the torture he underwent. And it only lasted four days. Compare that to what many Iraqi prisoners have suffered.”
“Yes, but what about the rest of his story?” I said, referring to how Allan had crossed dangerous rivers and guarded zones, travelled in inhumane conditions and finally reached Malaysian soil as an illegal immigrant. “That’s just a story about an escape. Others have gone through more perilous journeys. There is nothing extraordinary about it that would draw the public’s attention to his experiences,” he added. After this, the journalist advised me to drop the project and find another interviewee. It made me realise how easy it was, while writing and reporting, to shun stories about human beings and their suffering, just because they did not meet the requirements of being sensational. In the world of news reporting, it seemed therefore that pain had its own index.
I am now reminded of the philosopher Michel Foucault, who moved by the realisation that the information passed on has been mostly about sensationalism, decided to reintroduce that which was not sensational in the understanding of history. B Smart, writing on “Foucault, Marxism and Critique” says about Foucault: “(He) sought to establish and preserve the singularity of events, turning away from the spectacular in favour of the discredited, the neglected, and a whole range of phenomena which have been denied a history (e.g. reason, punishment,sexuality)” (London: Routledge, 1983, pp. 75–76.)
Back to Santiago. We never managed to discuss what happened at the concentration camp. Whenever I broached the subject, he seemed hesitant to pursue it. Was it embarrassing for him to delve into that aspect of his life, or was it difficult for him to remember everything? I found a reflection of the latter idea in François Bizot’s “Facing the torturer” (Rider Publications, 2012), where the author described the memories of being in a concentration camp during the rule of Pol Pot: “It may seem hard to believe: to have endured seventy-seven days of crushing fear… coupled with a feeling of guilt made worse by paranoia, and then to emerge from that unharmed. I mean devoid of any real thoughts about what I had undergone. Nothing but weak impressions, a few reflections; no deep-reaching personal investigations (my emphasis)…” (p 37) Maybe Santiago too, had not extracted anything particularly substantial from that experience, other than the plain fact of torture. (As I am writing this section however, and despite the possible justifications I may have tendered above, I still remain perplexed about Santiago’s silence on that matter— after all, in comparison, he didn’t show hesitation later on in speaking about his solitary confinement of six months at the National Police Academy…)
Santiago moved on to describe how as a young policeman, he participated in several political uprisings against the government. Before the presidency of Salvador Allende Gossens, he explained that the ruling government failed repeatedly to respond to the prolonged exploitation of Chilean resources by the US government. Chile, with a soil rich in copper, was the main supplier of this resource to the US who used it for warfare, especially in the production of bullets. This was, Santiago added, Chile’s “contribution” to the Second World War.
But the relationship between the US and Chile was not based on equal bargaining power, and evidently, for a long time, the US imposed its own below-the-market price of copper on its suppliers. In addition, in order to exert an effective control of the market, most companies extracting copper were controlled by the US. After the end of the Second World War, the US continued to purchase copper at the War Price. Later when a Chilean Minister was questioned in Parliament, he replied that the US was still at war… this time, with Korea (in reference to the Cold War)— meaning that this justified the continued imposition of the War Price.
This situation was maintained through the presidency of Jorge Alessandri Rodriguez who was in power between 1958-1964. Santiago likened his leadership to a “right-wing-Magaret-Thatcher” style of government. It was at this point that Santiago took over as the leader of the rebellious front Junta de Jecino, mentioned above. Then, in an attempt to describe one of the gatherings of Junta de Jecino, Santiago stood up from his chair and strode to the side of the door. In a movement that elicited great pride, he stood with one arm akimbo, and tapped on the door to show me how he gained the attention of a crowd of about two hundred people. He told me that he delivered a speech about dealing with the shortage of food. His suggestion was to give bigger shares of meat to families with younger children. On that day, said Santiago, everybody was taken by surprise by the command and authority that he displayed. “It was as if my voice was coming from my stomach, from within me,” he explained. It was a Friday. On Saturday, he was out of town on holiday with his family. When he returned on Sunday, his neighbours knocked on his door and showed him an edition of El Mercurio, a widely read newspaper. He was on the front page for being a “rebellious communist”. This accusation was levelled at him because of how he proposed to deal with the shortage of food. Santiago paused, looked at me intently with his clear green eyes and said: “Asking that the meat be given in bigger shares to families with younger children is not about being communist; it was a suggestion made in the interests of common humanity.” Yes, I thought, Santiago’s suggestion was indeed a practical response to poverty— Indeed, the power of Marxism lay in its ability to empower the poor, to disguise its ideology as a universal ideology, and make the suppressed the bearers of the so-called universal. Wasn’t the formation of Junta de Jecino based on freeing Chile from the reins of a powerful Capitalist? So why did Santiago vehemently deny the association of Marxist philosophy to his rebelliousness? His earlier “Margaret-Thatcherisation” of the right-wing Chilean President already betrayed his hatred for right-wing philosophy. Let’s admit it: Marxism was—is—unfortunately, the simplest and easiest weapon that poverty-ridden societies, hapless victims of neoliberal capitalism, can resort to.
The consequences of his supposedly seditious activities were that Santiago was punished by the National Police Academy. He had been posted there as an officer from the age of 18. He recounted how he was confined to a cell that was 30 inches wide, 6 feet high and 6 feet in length. Of course, I dug for details about that period of six months during which he was confined. He mentioned that the door had eight small holes that were used for ventilation. He would keep himself busy by trying to “connect the dots” in different patterns. “How was the food?” I asked, expecting to hear replies about meagre supplies, unbalanced diets, morsels and scraps… but to my surprise, he smiled and said: “I was well fed. I knew the cook. Remember: I used to work there. The cook felt sorry for me and that’s why he fed me the best dishes out of his kitchen.”
In the mean time, other questions began to be asked by the Opposition, in particular by Salvador Allende Gossens’s increasingly powerful party. Some of these questions were: “Why does the US pay for copper and not for the gold and silver that comes with it?” (Note: Where there is copper, there is usually gold, and where there is gold, there is usually silver) Or, “Why shouldn’t Chile process copper before selling it to the US, instead of the latter taking charge of the copper at source?” Furthermore, what was particularly laudable about Salvador Allende Gossens’ leadership was that he would readily tender explanations for every reform proposed, and explain complicated concepts in a simple and digestible way to the people. He was the one who sought to tackle the epidemic of cholera by explaining its link to the dysfunctional and more often, inexistent sewage system across the country. His method won the approval of many and he was easily elected into power. He took over in 1970.
Salvador Allende Gossens kept his promise. As soon as he was instated, he laid down the condition that the totality of Chile’s natural resources would be handled by Chilean authorities, with no involvement whatsoever of US corporations. He also demanded monetary compensation for the severely reduced price of copper sold to the US in the past. According to Santiago, this was what prompted the anger of the US government. Everything done by them thereafter, said Santiago, was done to cause an uprising and to justify the overthrow of the Chilean government. There was a shortage of food, and farmers were even compelled to throw milk away into the river instead of selling it to the people. Richard Nixon, the then President of the United States, in alliance with Henry Kissinger, his advisor, it is believed, were the ones who instigated the coup d’état which overthrew Salvador Allende Gossens and brought Augusto Pinochet into power. Augusto Pinochet, charged many decades later, with mass killings of Chileans was tried in the House of Lords in 2001.
Santiago described the period during Pinochet’s leadership as a time when concentration camps were set up, and people were subdued through torture and other violent means. In the small room annexed to his shop where we were having this chat, I looked up at the map of the world that was affixed to the wall on one side. The continents looked more narrow and elongated compared to what I was used to seeing. This was the historian Arno Peters’ move to restore the world to its right size, after a supposedly colonial upper hand on how it was made to appear.
There were more interruptions. It was at this point that my interlocutor started showing signs of weariness. He asked me to go for a walk with him. I put on my jacket, and was about to step outside, when he asked me to take my pen and my writing pad too. I smiled at the thought of this image of us walking, talking, sitting perhaps, while I was expected to be taking notes. We walked to the garden behind Theodor Roosevelt’s Museum. At first sight, it reminded me of a Japanese Garden. When I drew closer to it, I noticed a few imperfections and saw more and more of them as Santiago pointed them out. We stopped at a bridge, and Santiago began fiddling with a crack in the concrete. “See, this happens when you place two different metals together,” he said, while showing me the crumbling pieces of concrete. In another spot, he leant over and plucked out the weeds that were growing. “Nobody takes care of this place,” he said. “There is only one man who comes here regularly. It’s not enough. People don’t care about preserving history.” I smiled inwardly. To think that back in the East where I was based, this criticism was common, and that the critic always mentioned the West as a role model in the domain of conservation.
“Look at this place. Isn’t it beautiful? I like looking at the flowers, at the birds…everybody is too busy in their world. They don’t have time for all this,” he said. Didn’t these words sound familiar to me? Hadn’t I met at least a few poets, a few thinkers who had voiced the same thoughts, and read these words in at least a few books? My thoughts were suddenly flowing with the bitterness of postmodernist thinking.
We walked back to El Buen Amigo. Santiago told me about his wife. “She doesn’t like to go out much,” he said. “I don’t like to discuss all these matters I discussed with you. She refuses to listen. She thinks all I want is some publicity.”
With no other evidence about Santiago’s personality than those few hours I had spent in his company, his wife’s comment exerted an effect which I am sure, he would not be too pleased with: I was tempted to believe that Santiago desired the publicity. He wanted to place that heroic moment of his past in the spotlight. He wanted to reinforce his existence, be more present, create a stronger impression, fulfill the dream most of us have of being known, of being famous… But then, what was wrong with that? What was wrong in wishing for significance over insignificance? While walking along the edges of Allen Street, nearing the shop, Santiago bent over and picked up a coin, rubbed off the dirt and slid it into his pocket. I smiled to myself. I could have asked him why. But I didn’t, because I knew that he would say something along the lines of: “Everything matters. Even the smallest could make a difference.” Santiago fitted so well into a certain archetype that one meets in absolutely every part of the world.
With this thought, I was reminded of the Character Tower that he so zealously described when we first met. “You must do it too,” he said. “It takes about forty-five minutes.” Then, while pointing at my linen trousers, he added: “Wear those when you come next Saturday, because you will have to sit on the floor.” The Character Tower was a game he had devised which consisted of placing irregular blocks of wood on top of one another. The aim was to make sure that the structure did not topple over. In the end, I didn’t get the chance to build a Character Tower, but I had the opportunity to go through a collection of testimonials from student-volunteers who did. Here is one by Ruth Garbanzo recorded on 2nd of July 2015:
“While building the tower, emphasis is stressed upon gathering the proper pieces that match height and width. The blocks stacked signify our morals, values and propositions. The height to which we stack them to is a representation of our life span. As I built my tower, I attempted to perfect the alignment of my blocks as best as I could. However, during the attempt, my tower had fallen to pieces. I realized that since the tower signifies myself, a human being, perfection simply couldn’t be reached. Once I finally completed stacking the eight levels of blocks, I had noticed that my tower beared towards the left side. Santiago explained that the leaning of the tower signified negative aspects or choices we make.”
In essence, Santiago’s objective was to translate that physical experience into a philosophy of life. He wanted students to infer that stronger parts of one’s character help to support the weaker ones, and that the latter are as necessary as the former. I was not very comfortable with such facile inferences, but then, this was Santiago and his world, and I was merely a visitor.
After our walk, as we entered the shop, he told me that he had been offered citizenship in the US. He had turned it down. “Why?” I asked. “It’s a question of honour and dignity,” he said. “They took me away from my country and forced me to embrace theirs. It’s not right.”
Then he showed me newspaper cuttings of the many times he had been interviewed by the main papers in Buffalo. Art Voice and Buffalo News were two of them. “They want to hear about my life here in America,” said Santiago. “They don’t care about what happened before that. They just don’t want to know.” I remembered that Santiago had mentioned this on the first day we had met. He had blamed their attitude on “The American Way”: “They want to erase your past,” he said. “They care about you only when you’re on American soil. That’s what it is.”
I wondered why those newspapers were not concerned with his past. Based on what I read, it seems that he was usually interviewed so that he could highlight the work he was doing in El Buen Amigo, a shop selling Fair Trade goods from Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Buffalo was all about the tourists who passed through on their way to Canada or to the US. Maybe that explained why it was not relevant to discuss a past so strongly charged with political innuendos. Furthermore, Santiago’s past, his story, his resettlement in America, was perhaps too ordinary and common. I imagined that there were thousands of Chileans in the US who had similar stories to his. Some of them were maybe authors, academics, or people who had a closer connection with language and writing.
—Or maybe their story of torture in concentration camps was better than yours, Santiago.
Image of Santiago in the garden, provided by the author