Posts Tagged With: Calama

Be Careful What You Wish For

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1...

Richard Nixon and his adversary Leonid Brezhnev. Chile lost in the translation?

Chileans have their own 9/11.  For many Chileans, September 11, 1973 will be the date that forever will live in infamy. Theirs happened 38 years ago, a full 28 years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States that shook the world to its core and today overshadows anything that happened on that day, including on Chilean soil. But to Chileans, their own 9/11 is one huge sad chapter in their history, and one that continues to cause much pain almost 40 years after.

On September 11, 1973, President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup. Dozens of people were killed that day, but thousands died in the days, months and years that followed. The dictatorship proved more harmful and certainly more deadly to Chilean society than  anything Allende’s duly elected government had done.  Growing dissatisfaction at home with Allende’s socialist policies, lagging economic conditions, and cozy relationship with communist Cuba led to the coup. But external forces as well played a key role in Allende’s overthrow and the installation of the military dictatorship. In the midst of a Cold War and an arms race with the Soviet Union, the United States worried that the Soviets would gain yet another foothold in Latin America.

U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the Central Intelligence Agencyto step up operations in Chile to hasten the removal of Allende, who as part of his socialist agenda had nationalized companies – including the mining industry – partly or wholly in the hands of American and other foreign interests. American companies, such as ITT Corp., also spent millions trying to derail Allende.

Los Desaparecidos

 ITT was a majority owner of the Chilean telephone company and openly worried that Allende would nationalize it as well. That would mean millions in losses for the U.S.-based corporate giant. So internal and external forces worked hand in hand to topple Allende. And so a ruthless dictatorship came to be. The human rights violations are immeasurable.

Every year, Chileans observe the somber anniversary with calls for justice for the men and women collectively known as los desaparecidos – the vanished. Over the course of the 17-year dictatorship, thousands of these individuals were executed, murdered, tortured and made to disappear. They were often picked up at their homes or place of work and never seen or heard from again. Some were buried in unmarked graves in the desert.
In Calama, where I currently live here in Chile, I was walking in the center of town when I came across a display and a group of women known as the Women of Calama. These are women whose husbands, sons, fathers were executed by the military regime or made to disappear. One of the women, a black and white photo of her father pinned to her chest, took the time to tell me about the display and the reason for it.

Reading...remembering

She said that on October 19, 1973, just over a month into the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 26 men from Calama were rounded up – her father included – and were never heard from again. Some were executed while the whereabouts of others was never again known.  The Women of Calama each year call for justice for the individuals whose lives were cut short by the military dictatorship led by Pinochet. Annually in the center of Calama they display the photos of the men and items that tell their stories, such as family photographs, documents and news articles.


On the day I saw the moving display, hundreds of Chileans gathered around to see it. Children learn about the events of 1973 and beyond in Chilean schools, she said, so there’s little chance of Chile’s youths not knowing that part of their country’s history. Still, the Women of Calama dust off the displays each year in October as a way to remember those killed.

The woman told me that the wheels of justice move extremely slowly in Chile and many who took part in the murders and torture of innocents are yet to be brought to justice.  She said some of the accused are old and make all sorts of claims of senility to avoid prosecution.

Some say Chileans don’t like Americans for the United States’ part in bringing the dictatorship to power. I can’t say that I blame them, if that’s indeed the case. But in my three months in Chile, I have not seen any evidence of that. If anything, I’ve been shown nothing but kindness once Chileans learn I’m American.

Certainly, the United States wanted Allende gone. But Chileans also wanted his ouster. Those two forces obviously didn’t know that a military dictatorship that would go around conducting assassinations even beyond its borders would assume control. Herein lies the lesson for the United States and others backing the overthrow of longtime leaders in places such as the Arab world : Be careful what you wish for.

Milton Alfredo – executed October 19, 1973

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No Quitting The Cueca In Oasis Called Quitor

Folkloric Ballet of Chile. Photos, slide show below

What a week last week!

Chile celebrated its Independence Day in grand style, with cookouts, a wide variety of events that involved food, music and dance, and a healthy amount of patriotic flag-waving.

I had been so busy balancing work and enjoying what Chile served up during the celebrations that stretched over a month that little time was left to share with you – in a timely manner – all that I’ve been up to. In a nutshell, unabashed fun – even at work. That’s just how Chileans roll.

Team Blue at Gaby Mining Company ready for competition

For me, the long Independence Day weekend started  in earnest at the copper mine where I teach English to corporate executives and their support staff. Company employees took to the parking lot for friendly relay races that drew laughter and then to the dining hall to watch and take part in a cueca competition. The cueca is Chile’s typical dance. It consists of some foot-stomping and fancy footwork all while the dance partners wave white handkerchiefs. I started dancing the cueca about two weeks ago and I swear I haven’t stopped. If you come to Chile during Independence Day festivities, you can bet your bottom peso that someone will drag you out on the dance floor to watch you make a fool of yourself. No matter. After a few pisco soursyou won’t give a damn.

Careful laying that egg!

After much diversion at work, that very evening I went home, took a long nap, and headed over to the office for an office party that consisted of a barbecue, Chilean food and the unavoidable shop talk. It was at the office party that I learned that the following evening there would be a free performance of the Folkloric Ballet of Chile. I jumped at the chance to attend this rare cultural treat in Calama. If this dance company ever comes to your town, don’t miss it! The troupe has toured the world with an entertaining repertoire  of traditional and modern dance, highlighting Chilean folk music and dance. I thoroughly enjoyed.

Early the next morning I headed for the bus terminal with two of my housemates – Zack and Chris – where we  met others with whom we would spend the weekend in  Quitor and San Pedro de Atacama, high in the Chilean desert. That was some weekend, spent touring, eating, dancing, swimming and having an amazing time on an estate – an oasis of pleasure and relaxation in the middle of the desert – owned by the aunt of one of my colleagues. About 20 of us ate, sang and danced there all weekend long.

Monday afternoon we headed back to Calama content and a few pounds heavier from all that good eating. I believe the word “diet” was tossed about several times. What a week it was.

The Deja Vu Wrecking Crew: (left to right) Me; Christina, (New York, USA); Angello, (Calama, Chile); Zack, (Florida, USA); Chris, (Saint Jacobs, Canada); and Maureen (Chicago, USA), all English teachers at the International Center in Chile

Stone mermaid in Quitor, Chile, on estate where weekend was spent

Pre-Inca site in Quitor, Chile. What a find!

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Pilgrimage To Ayquina

Aymara women stop for a quick prayer in the square just outside the church in Ayquina

I have to say that lately I have been too comfortable. I don’t like it. Comfort hardly ever amounts to motivation. A person gets comfortable and it makes them not want to get out and explore beyond that “comfort zone.” I get home from a long day of teaching English, weekend comes, and the part of me that wants to stay home wins out over the part that wants to get out and see the world. Too much of that and we’re in “stagnation zone.”

All week I had been talking about traveling to Ayquina to experience the annual religious-cultural pilgrimage that draws people by the thousands. People from Northern Chile, Southern Peru, Bolivia and Northern Argentina  – and tourists from every corner of the world – come to this dusty small town to pay tribute to the Virgen de Guadalupe de Ayquina, who according to legend appeared in the spot where the tiny church stands in her honor. Thousands walk across the desert from Calama to reach Ayquina.

Me, at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, giving thanks for safe travels

Chris and I arrived in Ayquina in the late afternoon by bus. We had made a last-minute decision to experience the annual religious-cultural pilgrimage in the desert town where about 50 mostly Aymara people live. Incredibly, the town swells to almost 75,000 people for this week in September. During the week, the faithful come to pay their respects to the religious icon known locally as “La Chinita.” I didn’t want to miss this event and so the voice that tells me to get out and discover doled out a bruising defeat to the one that promotes idleness.

I must say it felt good to be back on a bus headed to some unknown place. Chris and I joked that the bus company had pulled a fast one by displaying one of those new, double-decked buses with comfortable reclining seats and other modern conveniences, then at the time of departure revealing the actual bus we’d be traveling in. It was tucked way in the back, hidden from view: an old, rickety, smelly bus that had seen better days. Oh, it didn’t matter to me, really. During my travels across South America I had been on worst modes of transportation, some downright dangerous, if not cruel and unusual to man and beast aboard. I was just happy to be off on another adventure, even in a bus that looked like it could not make it down the street.

The Virgin Guadalupe of Ayquina

We arrived in Ayquina in the late afternoon and immediately launched into snapping photos. Chris – oh did I not introduce this Canadian character Chris? He’s from the sticks somewhere just outside of Toronto. He’s my newest housemate – with now five people in the house. He wears the Maple Leaf on his sleeve like some Americans wear the Stars and Stripes. I’ve never met a Canadian more patriotic. At every opportunity he talks up Canada – Canada’s tourism board ought to give him a medal – and takes good-natured swipes at the United States. We have this ongoing Canada versus U.S. banter that provides for some comic relief. But I swear the man has maple syrup running through his veins!

So Chris and I walked all around the town shooting pictures of the Aymara dancers dressed in their traditional dress. The Aymara remind me of the Incas. Their dances, their manner, their traditions are similar. The Incas did conquer this part of Chile, but their culture did not really take root because the Spaniards arrived soon after. Still, the Aymara – heavily concentrated in neighboring Bolivia – are close cousins of the Incas. In Cusco, I was fortunate to experience the traditions of the Incas. And now in Northern Chile, which was once part of Peru and Bolivia, I was now witnessing the traditions of the Aymara. It was simply spiritually uplifting.

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