Chile Journal #4: What Courage Looks Like

Tito, in front of his childhood home where his parents were arrested.

“Why were they imprisoned, your parents?” I asked my new friend, Tito, who was introduced to me through a mutual friend, someone in fact who had baptized him into the LDS church some twenty-five years ago.

“Why was anyone? Look, my father was a government functionary. He had retired to a small community outside of the city in Pichidegua. He was democratically elected in 1972 as a regional delegate tasked with implementing the measures of Allende’s government. I met him, you know. Salvador Allende. He wouldn’t be called Senor Presidente. He was Compañero Presidente. Very warm man. Down to earth. But not all of what my father was expected to do could he bring himself to do. He was reluctant to force the appropriation of lands to the state. He tried to work with people to see if he couldn’t achieve effectively the same results with more modest reforms. On the morning of the 11th of September, I was on my way to school, I was fourteen, and when I got there, practically no one was there, and someone told me to return home immediately. So I did. And when I got to my house, President Allende was giving his radio address to the nation. I heard it live. Unforgettable. He knew he was going to die, had no time to write anything and gave a speech for the ages. He was not going to give those men the pleasure of being killed by them, so after the speech was when he shot himself.

“I heard the speech actually at the Museo de la memoria.”

“Amazing, isn’t it? My father knew what was coming. Within very short order the police arrived. Here I was, all of 14 years old, the oldest of six children, and they beat our parents in front us. One of them hit me in the face and struck me with his baton twice in the ribs, right here, after making me lean against the wall with my hands up. They took my parents to jail. I mean these were good people, as good as any parents you might have known, kind and loving and good to their children, contributors to their community,” he said through tears.

“Mom had worked at a center for mothers in town. She was loved by all who knew her. Imagine your own mother being taken and beaten like that. We were allowed to bring them things once a week, but I didn’t see my father for almost four months. I could see my mom, who was treated better, because she was staying with some nuns. The torture was on and off during that entire time for my father. Of course they have never spoken to me of any details about exactly what they went through, except that years later my mother mentioned being hung upside down for two hours from her ankles. And that has to be just what she could tolerate saying. Years later, before he passed away from problems related to his torture, my father developed excruciating pain in the right side of his head. When we took him to the doctor, the doctor asked if he had ever been electrocuted. At first he denied it, but then he finally admitted that he had been laid on the parrilla.

“The parrilla?”

“It was a metal slab on which victims were laid and then electrocuted. The absurdity of it was that they were convinced that Allende’s government was hiding arms from the Soviets or from the Chinese, and they arrested as many of the government officials as they could and demanded to know where these nonexistent weapons were hidden. That’s also why they threatened me. They thought I might know. And they tortured us children psychologically. They kept telling me that my parents would die on such and such a day, the day would pass, and they would tell me I was lucky, that I had a second chance, and then they would announce they would die again. It appears they meant to kill my dad eventually, but somehow my father managed to get a letter out of jail to his sister, intended for a man who was a conservative and a high ranking official who had known my father to be a good and honest man, who could attest that his actions were honorable during the previous years. And it worked, just in time. You know, I didn’t believe it when they told us to show up at the jail. I remember they released several others that day, and as they came walking out of the jail, a man came up to me, skinny, skinny, nothing but skin and bones, bruised face, and no hair. And he said, with a broad smile, “Do you not know your own father? He told us a joke. That’s the way he was, always telling jokes.” Tito was weaping again. “I didn’t believe it at first but he held me and said he loved me and I finally accepted that it was him. That’s what is the most emotional thing for me, seeing him come out looking the way he did and shining with his inner dignity still in tact. It is the most painful and most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Mom was quiet, I remember, but she almost couldn’t let go of us for days. The thing is, you think that would have been the end, but it was just the beginning of a living hell. You see, every time someone came to the door, every sudden noise, everything put us into a panic. This was the grip that the dictatorship had on the entire country. It was more difficult for my parents than it was for us children. It took my parents a couple of years to be able to function semi-normally. Me, I think it was the darkest time of my life. It’s hard to describe, but that kind of violence and evil, it forces a decision upon you. I thought, “This is the end. I will be filled with anger for the rest of my life and I will die a guerrillero.” I felt assigned by fate, by forces far beyond my control. And I lost plenty of friends that way, I tell you.”

“What was it that led you down a different path?”

El matrimonio y el tener hijos. Tener hijos es algo sagrado. I kept thinking, I can’t give hatred to my children. I can’t pass on that legacy. I needed something else. I wasn’t sure what it was for a long, long time. I found out later where the policeman was living who had beaten my parents in front of me and who tortured them. I was in the car one day with my parents and without telling them, I drove to his place. I told my parents to wait in the car, and I approached the door and knocked. He came to the door, older yes but unmistakably the same man. I said, ‘Do you remember me?’ He didn’t respond. I said, ‘You beat and arrested and tortured my parents in 1973. You struck me in the face and hit me with your stick in my ribs, right here.’

‘You are mistaken. You are confusing me with someone else. I was never a policeman.’ he said, and he turned to go back into the house.

‘My parents are in the car right over there. They remember you too.’

‘You are mistaken,’ he repeated.

Just then a neighbor walked by, and I asked the man if he would tell me the last name of the man I was talking to. He said his name.

‘And what was his career before he retired?’

‘Policeman.’

He went pale with fear and seemed eager to get back into the house.

‘Hey! I am not going to do anything to you. I am a believer in God. I just wanted to see your face and for you to see mine. And to remind you of those two good people in that car over there who are my loving and forgiving parents.’

“I went back to the car. My parents had watched from the car in astonishment and perhaps with some fear that things would get ugly. ‘We are done here,’ I said. That’s what I said. “I am a believer in God,” but you know the truth is, at that time, I wasn’t. But maybe it was a premonition. I came to accept God later, when I met the missionaries, and it has helped me to have the power to move forward and not be filled with anger. Para que nunca mas en Chile. That’s what this is all about. You know, I can look at my fellow countrymen, and it is easy to let the thought of those criminals wandering free make you crazy. And I am not going to pretend that it has been easy, but I have many conservative friends, and they have their feelings about the dictatorship, about how it brought much needed order to a disordered reality. They remember the food lines, the shortages, but they don’t know what I saw. One night my father and I were walking home late in the evening and we saw a truck full of milk and coffee dumping the entirety of its load into the river. This was the kind of thing that was done to create the shortages and the desperation that laid the foundation for the coup, an act that was supported by the majority of the country. I mean, here the Junta announces on national television within hours of the coup that they pose no threat of vengeance to liberals and to Allende supporters in the country, that they assume this responsibility out of altruistic motives to restore order, these the same men who swore loyalty to Allende only days before. I can understand that without witnessing the lived reality of people taken prisoners, tortured, or disappeared, it was all too easy to take fiats like that as truth. But you know the time has come to no longer see differences as the enemy. You can’t build a civilization on hatred. You can and should build it on differences, but differences do not make people my enemies. We have our differences, but we must learn to live together. It’s hard to be a victim, but the villains have their own hell, either now or later to look forward to. A great number have committed suicide. So this commission, this work, is about a clearer idea of justice, but it is not by a long shot a perfect method nor will it ever be complete.”

Tito finally looked up the names of his parents’ captors after 40 years and posted this inside of his home.

“Cuantos hijos tienes?” I asked.

“Three. Well, if you include our four adopted children, a total of seven. That’s another long story, but we took in three siblings, one of whom was pregnant. The mother was completely poor and unable to take care of them. And the father, no one knows where he is. He abandoned them early. We have made them our own as much as we have been able.” His eyes shone brightly.

“Tell me about your faith in God?”

“Well, I admit that I have not gone back to the church for a long time and I don’t really have any great reason, but I have never stopped believing in the God the missionaries showed to me. I believe he has been with me, that he has helped me to have patience, to be forgiving, to live in peace with others. I will never forget the names of those who tortured my parents. But I do not hunger for vengeance. Like most people in this country who have suffered similar things, I want justice and transparency, not vengeance, and I want to make sure we never return to such days.”

“Tito, you know you are always welcome to return. Church members would be better off for having known you. I know I am.”

“That means a lot. Thanks.”


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