Chile Rises from Disaster
I had nearly finished an article on why I wrote my novel about Chile when I learned of the devastating earthquake there, the fifth most powerful to be officially recorded. After spending the day reading the news reports and checking up on friends and family, I decided to write something new.Thank you, Lyn! Let's all keep Chile in our thoughts, and if you haven't already, read Gringolandia, too.
My novel, Gringolandia, deals with a different kind of disaster that struck the country of Chile. Coincidentally, it occurred on the familiar date of September 11—in 1973. Three years earlier, the Chilean people had elected a socialist president, Dr. Salvador Allende. The United States government feared that Chile would become another Communist outpost in the Western Hemisphere and through the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) helped to plan and carry out a military coup that ended in President Allende’s death and a dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. Some 3,000 Chileans died at the hands of Pinochet’s forces, most of them in the weeks and months following the coup. Another 30,000 were imprisoned and tortured, including Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet. Bachelet’s father was tortured to death.
The first political demonstration I ever attended was a year after the coup. A freshman in college, I protested an appearance by the U.S. ambassador to Chile. When I moved with my husband to Madison, Wisconsin in the 1980s, I became friends with a group of exiles from Chile, and together we planned concerts and other events to let people know about Chile’s rich cultural heritage and to support the country’s return to democracy. Gringolandia was inspired by the experiences of some of the people I met during this time.
In the end, the Chilean people were able to win back their democracy. In keeping with the 1980 constitution that he wrote, Pinochet scheduled in October 1988 a plebiscite (a yes or no vote) on whether he should continue to remain the dictator for another ten years. If he lost, he would have to call an election for a new president and a legislature. Despite his 15-year reign of terror and control over the media, he lost the plebiscite. Freedom returned because of the brave sacrifice and nonviolent actions of millions of Chileans, people like Daniel and his father in Gringolandia.
The coup was a man-made disaster, and it divided the country. Even today, there are those who suffered terribly at the hands of Pinochet, and those who see him as the savior of the country. My husband’s family has people on both sides, and they don’t speak to each other.
In contrast, the natural disaster that occurred Saturday morning has brought people together in the way that such disasters in healthy societies often do. Chile in 2010 isn’t the same country that I depict in my novel, which takes place in 1986. In the years since the dictatorship’s end, the country has advanced economically and has a government that people trust and that can get things done. Effective building codes and emergency response prevented one of the most powerful earthquakes of all time from leading to massive losses of life. The Chilean people have the resources and will to rebuild and are proud of their ability to thrive in a beautiful but perilous land.
There’s a scene in Gringolandia when Daniel’s father, a recently released political prisoner and survivor of torture, refuses to let Daniel’s 12-year-old sister read an article he has written about his experience in prison. He says, “I want her to be able to go back to her country one day. To think of it as a place of great beauty—of sun and sea and mountains—and not of violence and death.”
The people in Chile who have written to me since the earthquake tell me how frightening it was to go through that experience, that it made them feel helpless in the wake of forces beyond themselves. However, they are confident that by working together, they will recover and make Chile a stronger country than ever. Similarly, in Gringolandia, the two teenage characters, Daniel and Courtney, confront forces that are larger than they are. The arrests of their fathers—Daniel’s in Chile and Courtney’s in Michigan, as a result of her parents’ efforts to help undocumented refugees from El Salvador—lead to both of them having to move suddenly and start over in a different place. Today, two million Chileans, many of them teenagers, have lost their homes and must start over.
One of the great things about reading and writing is that you can share and compare experiences with people who live all around the world. We can learn from each other and help each other out in hard times. Chile may be a faraway land, but it’s a fascinating place, and one worth getting to know better. And if you’d like to help—anything from raising money to writing cards and e-mails so people know you care—a good place to start is http://nonprofit.about.com/b/2010/02/27/chile-earthquake-and-pacific-tsunami-warnings.htm.