A memory of Paine

In June of 2004 the relatives of the disappeared political prisoners of Paine, a rural town 50 kilometres south of Santiago, began work on a memorial in honour of their loved ones. Carmen Rodríguez talks to some of them.

On 11 September 1973 a US-backed military coup overthrew the democratic Government of Salvador Allende in Chile and installed a 17-year dictatorship headed by Augusto Pinochet. Allende died when the presidential palace was bombed, while thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Many became ‘desaparecidos’ – their bodies never returned to their families.

‘My dad would be very proud of our mosaic: we’re showing the good part of who he was, not the sadness that remains with us,’ explains María Amparo Gaete. More than 30 years after her father was abducted, María has joined with other families in their small community to erect a memorial for the missing. Her father, Luis Alberto Gaete Balmaceda, disappeared at age 21, a few weeks before she was born.

‘He loved to play the guitar, so we decided to draw a guitar. Inside it, we put our town, our house, my pregnant mom, and the fruits of the earth that he loved to grow: melons, corn, tomatoes. Over there, my grandmother’s house, where she’s waiting for him, and over here, the hands of my children, the next generation. And, of course, the earth with its greenery, its trees, and the ever-present Andes as a backdrop.’

The memorial will transform the ‘absences’ of Paine into a concrete presence in a public process of recall and healing. Recollections will take the form of public art on an esplanade the size of a soccer field. Tall wooden poles will mark 70 absences – circular mounds housing colourful mosaics made with pieces of painted clay and small rocks. Each absence will illustrate the family’s memories of their loved ones.

José Luis Toledo, a Santiago art teacher helping with the project, says the disappeared of Paine were poor campesinos but enthusiastic supporters of a land reform movement which began in the late 1950s and continued during Allende’s Government. ‘The workers expropriated many estates,’ he adds. ‘They transformed them into asentamientos, collectively owned and operated farms. That’s why the landowners were furious. The military took particular pleasure in killing the peasants here.’

Paine had the highest concentration of disappeared in the country: 70 out of a total population of 5,000 in 1973. ‘On this block alone, 20 men were taken away,’ Toledo adds, pointing to the small adobe houses that line the street.

The men of Paine were murdered for a simple crime. They wanted better lives for themselves and their families.

‘All they wanted was to have their rights respected, to be paid a just salary, to have decent working conditions,’ nods Teresa López. Her husband, José Ignacio Castro, was a campesino leader in the region.

Her daughter, Lorena Castro, whispers: ‘Somebody told me once that I must be proud of my dad because he was a hero – he died for an ideal, for a piece of land, for a better life. That’s what I teach my children: to love and honour their grandfather because he was a hero.’

Carmen Rodríguez, a Chilean-born Vancouver writer, is the author of and a body to remember with, a collection of short stories, and Guerra Prolongada/Protracted War, a volume of poetry.