On Fridays we take excursions to different locations or organizations to learn. We have gone to one of Pablo Neruda’s homes on the coast to learn about the life and works of one of the world’s most influential poets and social activists. Another trip has been to a leftist labor organization and in the same day to a conservative think thank for lectures about what they do and their thoughts on certain issues facing the country. Our most recent was an excursion to Villa Grimaldi, which was one of the major torture centers during the dictatorship. We began our Friday with a class about human rights during and a background on those that were disappeared after the ’73 coup. Those that opposed the dictatorship, or were suspected of working or organizing against it, were taken by the carabineros, the government police. A Chilean woman explain that she thinks this period where thousands of people were disappeared has contributed to the Chilean culture of being more reserved with those you don’t know. She said she thinks it is harder for Chileans to trust others around them because during the dictatorship they experienced the trauma of having their loved ones taken or fearing they would be taken themselves if the wrong ears heard them saying the wrong thing. After the coup a mother may come home to the absence of her sons with no idea of where they had gone and what became of them and she lives to this day without that knowledge.
There was an old mine discovered in the more recent years. Looking at it what would strike you is the beauty of the surrounding landscape. There is an eerie mysterious feeling of old forgotten life because the entrance to the mine, a tall castle like structure, stands out as worn away by time and weather, seemingly abandoned. But the feeling of eerie forgotten life becomes all too real when you enter the small doorway and find the deserted building full of bodies. Unknown remains fill the space, the bodies hundreds of people taken after the coup and buried alive in attempts to suppress the forces that were rising up against the oppression and torture. This is what befell the first people to discover the mine after the dictatorship ended, now it is almost entirely destroyed, leaving little evidence that such a horror existed there.
Being disappeared was one threat that Chileans faced after the Military Coup of 1973; another was being taken to a torture center like Villa Grimaldi. They say the centers were to extract information from the opposing forces, but many believe that they were also used to strike fear into those that had hope of overcoming the military government.
We arrived to Villa Grimaldi in the afternoon after our class. Without the sign reading “Villa Grimaldi, Center for Torture and Extermination”, you might believe it was a park, an old open space for wandering and admiring trees and flowers. That was the original purpose, it was the Villa of a rich family, with a large house, outbuildings and gardens to relax and enjoy the space before the military took it over and made it a secret torture center. It’s pretty unsettling recognizing the contrast, especially when victims tell of their experience while contained within those four high fenced walls. How while they were being tortured the smell of roses wafted in by a breeze. The area itself tells its own story; you feel it just by standing on the grounds. But we had the amazing and truly powerful experience of being guided through the Villa by a woman who 40 years ago was brought to this very location and tortured. But she continues to tell her story and share her experience because for her remembering and learning from what has happened and working to make sure it never happens again is most important. She walked us through her experience; we entered through the gates she was brought through when she first arrived. She showed us where she was kept; small dark wooden boxes where they would have to take turns sitting and standing because there wasn’t enough space to all sit. She showed us where they were taken to be tortured and told us stories and moments she remembered. She brought us into the tower were they were tortured then locked away in small compartments in complete darkness and where others were exterminated. We walked up into this tower. I was alone and it was completely dark, sun pierced through the slits between the wooded boards of the walls, but other than that you were left with yourself, your thoughts and the stories you had been told. This experience became all too real to me in a way that was truly unsettling and very moving. It was something that words, stories in books or history documentaries couldn’t convey, because walking through the Villa, the feelings and stories you sense take form.
Now Chile has harnessed the power of this experience in a way that so directly fights against what happened within those walls not all that very long ago. Now the Villa is a memorial park, a place that embalms those experiences erasing ignorance. It is a place to remember and honor not just those that passed through Grimaldi’s gates but all those that faced oppression, torture and unexplainable horrors in the face of transforming their country and bringing about justice. What strikes you most while walking through the Villa is the indomitable power, vision and perseverance of those that said no to the military government and fought with all they had against the system of injustice.