Return, with a withered forehead,

the snowflakes of time gave me silvery temples!

To feel that life is but a short breath,

that 20 years is nothing!…”

“Volver” (Return), A tango. By Carlos Gardel & Alfredo Lepera

I grew up in the South of the American continent. “Volver” (Return) a tango sung by the famous Argentinian crooner Carlos Gardel, accompanied me more than the other “Volver, Volver,” of the also iconic Mexican singer Vicente Fernández.

My parents sang that tango all the time. They did it very well. Since I was a little boy, I heard that “20 years is nothing!” and the phrase twirled inside my brain. How could that be true? “How can it be that 20 years is nothing?” I asked myself. My question made sense. At 8 years of age, life seems infinite. If we are lucky, life will regale us with a countless myriad of emotions and places to discover. 20 years, when you are a child, is a long space. An eternity.

As we go on living, new experiences regale us with new perspectives.

Sept. 11 of this year 2023 will mark 50 years since the Military Coup in Chile. 50 years! 

It truly seems an eternity. Today, I can sing the verses of Gardel’s “Volver” and really feel that 20 years is nothing. Especially if we sing the remembrances of that fateful Sept. 11. Alive, still burning in our brains. “Our little Sept. 11,” many Chileans say, with more than a bit of irony, comparing it to “the Other Sept. 11,” the one that occurred in the USA in 2001.

All over the world, Chileans and people from all nations prepare to commemorate that “Little Sept. 11,” which ushered 17 years of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Today, that dictatorship has been replaced by a fragile and puzzling democracy, not as representative as it could be.

From Europe, a Chilean exile asked me to write about “a thing” which I hid when the military Coup happened. Something which I simply could not abandon. Books, music, photos, weapons?

Of course, I hid things! I believe that many of us, people forced to disguise, rapidly and radically, whichever we think or are because Death hovers all around us, still might take the time to safeguard a significant something.

Illustration: Bruno Ferreira

Before any mentions of objects, I think that we must first remember people, those human beings who also had to hide. Or disguise. Because they had to leave the country, or because they chose to keep on fighting in Chile in a militant secrecy…or simply to survive the untied fascism. Fascism capable of killing anyone for the mere sin of having a beard, or long hair, or because they might possess “a dangerous book.” A book on “The Art of Cubism” (CUBA!), long hair, a beard, or “a foreign accent”, caused the death of many people. I know, personally, of a few examples.

When Sept. 11,  1973 happened I was in my mid-twenties and living in Chile. At that fateful time, I discovered how precarious was the situation for those of us who defended the government of Salvador Allende. 

On the second night of the military-mandated curfew, when the time to stay off the streets was getting close and death was the likely penalty for wandering after 10 p.m., various persons knocked on the door of my house. That night — and for straight 3 weeks — many young leftists, men and women, some of them well-known leaders in their respective parties, came to my house for temporary asylum. I never learned how “the word” was spread that I was a trustworthy “helper.” Three weeks later, for reasons that I also ignored, the knocks on my door ceased.

A great reason for the problems that the Left has had (and keeps on having), not just in Chile but worldwide, is the lack of mutual trust, the absence of open communication, and sectarianism. During those three weeks after Sept. 11., when my house was mysteriously designated “a safety house,” extremely compelling conversations took place. My temporary guests engaged each other eagerly. Those exchanges should have happened earlier and more often. They are still necessary. In the precarious safety of that 1973 house, the passionate arguments happened sotto voce: the neighbor — a retired Army colonel — supported the new regime.

I am sorry to say that some of those friends who came to briefly hide in my house, later lost their lives. Some were cruelly murdered, and others fought until the bitter end, trapped in very unequal confrontations with the military and police forces of the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

When “The Coup” took place we learned right away that saving a life is more important than saving anything. Houses, cars, books, everything was abandoned with neither doubt nor repentance.

Nevertheless, I did not only hide people. I also helped to hide books, paintings and even weapons. In this last category, I recall a night when one of the members of our dance/theater group came to my house with her elderly mother. They wanted to hide some old weapons, two pistols, used in the Spanish Civil War of 1936. That family of exiled “Republicanos,” losers of the war, had treasured those pistols for many years. Although already useless, they were beloved relics from another event that had forced people to abandon everything, except life.

While burying those weapons, we felt more sadness than fear. We experienced a deeply felt “Farewell to Arms,” like the title of the book by Ernest Hemingway.

Many of us were able to survive and restart our lives — inside or outside of Chile. 50 years after that terrible date, as we remember those cruel events, the lesson remains clear: nothing is worth more than life itself!

(Dedicated to the memory of Bautista, Alejandro and Carmen, who passed through that safety house) By Carlos Barón, for “El Tecolote”. May 15th, 2023.