September 11 in Santiago

It’s the 11th of September and I am driving down Avenida Recoleta into La Pincoya.  I pass what looks like a fun event in the local Plaza; there are children playing, kites flying, food on sale. I excitedly ask Luis if we can stop because it looks interesting.

“Every year!” Luis exclaims roughly and drives right on by.

“Luis why can’t we go?!” I ask, annoyed.

“Helen don’t you see what that is? It’s a communist rememberance event. They do it every year – when will they get over it? None of those people were even alive in 1973!”

Quite a strong statement, I know. I am in Huechuraba, one of Santiago’s oldest barrios that has always been home to a strong left-wing movement.  This is a place that turns unrecognizeable at night, when all traffic is blocked on the main throughfare, Av. Recoleta, due to protests.

In 1973 Chile suffered its own September 11 tragedy – a coup d’etat – that saw a violent militarial uprising led by Augosto Pinochet against the socialist president, Salvador Allende. This event killed thousands but scarred millions, and Chileans have never quite been the same since.

What I never realised was that the coup hadn’t come as a surprise.  Derek Paterson is a New Zealand writer who was imprisoned during the coup and wrote about his experience in his new book, Second Time Lucky.  I recommend giving this one a read because he paints a remarkeable picture of Chile during the 70’s.

“It’s a lovely day.” I remark to Luis, “It was probably a lovely day in 1973 too.  I can’t even imagine my normal life being broken in that way – a normal date that is now forever different.”

However, in saying that, Huechuraba seems to be moving as normal. People are laughing in the street, flying kites in the sky, working, commuting, eating lunch … does anything really happen once the sun sets?

Driving around Huechuraba Antigua on Sep.11

This time 2 years ago,  I went to a party in Recoleta and walked home. The streets were looming and black thanks to the power being cut, and the only sound was the whirring of helicopters overhead. There was no-one around and every footstep sounded like thunder amongst the gloom. I remember clutching Luis’ arm with my keys at the ready, shaking even more when he told me what to do if someone should attack us.The Diagonal – a prominent street that slices through residential pockets – was ablaze with mountains of fire that we tiptoed past. A new sound joined our footsteps, this time there was the crunch of glass and in the distance we could hear laughing.

Needless to say, we made it home safely. In 2014 we lit the candles as we waited for the obligatory power cut, and watched movies while listening distant hum outside. Now here we are, in 2015, on our way to Luis’ father’s house in Huechuraba.

I spoke to Ana Fuenzalida and asked her what the date meant for her:

“It means nothing to me really. I was only a baby in the south of Chile when the coup happened.  Today its just a night when the flaites take control and burn tyres and break glass. I won’t be scared; the same happens every year.”

I asked Boris Bastian what exactly would happen:

“The people on Av. Recoleta will prepare their homes against possible attacks. Late at night, around 10pm or later, flaites will begin causing trouble on the road, setting things alight, ripping out plants to burn, throwing things and breaking windows.  The police will come and they will attempt to regain some control but there is not enough police. Sometimes they come straight down the Avenida with tear gas and water cannons, sometimes they try to be clever and come in from the back or side. There will be thousands of people out, some of them with genuine intentions but mostly young people out to do what they can. There are no rules.”

Throughout the day I speak to many people.  Luis points out the marks and holes on the road along Av. Recoleta where previous fires have melted the tarmac. But in general the day seems like any other –  am I missing something?

We return home to Recoleta around 8pm to find our street bursting with party atmosphere. Jose is selling his usual empanadas, there is music playing and everyone seems to be having a good time. Inside I prepare the candles, get Emilio tucked up in bed and wait … but nothing happens. The night passes uneventfully. I hear nothing. The next morning Luis’ father turns up for Emilio.

“It was very strange,” he tells us, “nobody did anything in front of our house like they normally do. Everything was very quiet.”

When I later ask more people from Huechuraba, they tell me that not much happened on Av. Recoleta either.  On Facebook, the expat groups are buzzing with pepole sharing their experiences, with tales of “dogs barking more than usual” and “no-one was people smiling or laughing” during the day.  I am not sure if dogs really were barking more or if maybe they wrote that because they expected it, but in all honesty the day passed as normal here with much less activity during the night than previous years.  How did it go where you are?

* There is an excellent ethnography by the anthropologist Clara Han, who actually attended the chaos in La Pincoya a few years ago. She writes of how one year the police simply did not show up, and how no-one then knew what to do. It’s interesting how Sep. 11 has evolved in Santiago, less as a date of rememberence and memorial or protest, but as a date when all rules in existence are to be broken.  You can download her work here.

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