Singing for Chile
Last night Creedence Clearwater Revival was supposed to play in the Teatro Coliseo in Santiago, Chile. Instead their 70’s retro rock show was postponed, replaced by another sound from the seventies — a million Chilean voices, singing in the streets accompanied by dozens of guitars a beautiful anthem of freedom — El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (The Right to Live in Peace).
I cried when I heard it on the radio.
It has been forty years since I walked the streets of Santiago, a very different city in a very different time, its cloudy cold winter reflecting the dampening of the human spirit that befell Chile in the years after democracy died and the dictator Pinochet took over.
It was 1979. The Plaza de las Armas was the place that human rights activists scurried across, heads tucked down, on their way to the offices of Catholic Church’s human rights organization, the Vicaria de la Solidaridad. We scurried so that the DINA agents, the secret police, had less time to record our comings and goings. The Vicaria was the sole repository of hope for the families of the murdered and the disappeared.
Today that plaza and all of central Santiago is the place where a million voices sang Victor Jara’s lyrics, echoing public demands for a new social pact in a very different time, for the right to live in peace. It is the place where a dream denied and trampled has dared to abandon the whisper and engage in a full-throated shout for liberty and dignity. In spite of the police and a President who seems not to care, the people seem to have regained their voice. And, this being Chile, it is a beautiful voice.
When I lived there all expressions of hope were forbidden. The Pinochet dictatorship killed thousands, detained hundreds of thousands, exiled many more. Those who stayed learned to stare straight ahead, taught their children to whisper, imbibed fear like mother’s milk. Fear became part of us, the practiced stony face of non disclosure became an accomplishment and a survival skill. People learned to believe, for a time at least, that the authorities knew better than the people. The project of the dictatorship involved not only the dreaded secret police who could make your son disappear on the way to school, it involved enforced poverty and inequality.
The military threw the country into an economic shock worse than most places experience in wartime, all to teach the poor upstarts that their hopes for a better life under their elected Socialist President, Salvador Allende, was folly. It was a paternalistic punch and counterpunch, repression followed by recession, as if to say that people need to be punished for dreaming that they could dream of a better world.
You didn’t whistle on the street. You wouldn’t hum a tune on the microbus. The tune you chose might give you away. Victor Jara sang right up til the end. But his end was cruel. Arrest, torture, execution, in the very same National Stadium now named for him. It was as if Richard Nixon had Bob Dylan executed to send a message to the hippies and protestors against the Vietnam War. Yeah, like that.
In the poor neighborhoods that encircled Santiago, teenagers still figured out how to get together, how to dance, how to sign a song without endangering their lives. In the church halls or union halls, cement block buildings often lit by candles and heated with kerosene, small scale coffee houses popped up, cultural events known as penyas defied the darkness. They started off innocently enough, with love songs and dance tunes, but as the evening went on and the lookouts outside verified that the spies had gone home, more defiant tunes were played. It wasn’t raucous, the fear didn’t disappear, but a certain resolve emerged when the anthems of democracy, the lyrics of Violeta Parra and even Victor Jara, were sung.
At the end of my year in Chile, my friend threw a party in a home. We drank wine from the Valley of Maipo and ate chicken that my family made me slaughter. And we sang songs. I left my guitar behind. I decided that it could do more good for the youngsters in the neighborhood than it would for me. I invited them to use it as a weapon in their struggle to remember and to hold on to hope.
So the other night when I heard a million voices backed up by hundreds of guitars I cried, and then I smiled, wondering if maybe, just maybe, that old Takamine had survived these four decades, and that one of my friends was holding it in the air, strumming mightily as the whole country chanted, “El Derecho de Vivir En Paz”.
Creedence can wait.