It’s not that I don’t have fond memories to recall. But I have a haunting memory that I need to get out of me. I’ve been thinking about my childhood; I’ve been trying to reconcile with my past, a past that I try to put together a piece at a time for my children to understand. But my mind returns again and again to these haunting thoughts.
Even now, after so many years since I left the narrow-shaped country of Chile that I call home, I am still reminded of my past. Although, I’ve been on the other side of the world for nine years, it seems that people, situations and especially places scheme to get these memories off my chest. So here I am once again, revisiting my childhood.
Maybe it’s because we are in the middle of one of those unique moments in time when people, tired of the meanness of their rulers, have come together to say “No More!”. That’s the environment that surrounds me these days in the Middle East. There is a viral attitude that is spreading to the rest of world; people are aware that future generations are depending on them to stand up for their beliefs today. I guess it’s spreading to me too. When I try to think about my childhood, there is one moment in time that stands out like no other.
I can’t remember the exact year that this event took place, although I’m sure it was between 1989 and 1991, years that were crucial to the future of my country. I was 12 or 13 years old, and I was vacationing with my family. When I say ‘family’ I mean more than just my immediate circle; it includes my parents, two sisters, two uncles, two aunts, and four cousins. And this was the minimum number of family members who would vacation together every summer for at least 10 years. Each summer was another adventure, a time to explore new things, to get to know new people, and to basically enjoy life. Among my cousins, there was Andres. He was only 4 months older than me, so we became like twins for those 10 long years. He was the brother that life neglected to give me; he was my partner during those important years. One of the things that Andres brought to my life was the great gift of music. He had a guitar and a good voice, so it was a frequent thing for us to sit on the beach at night, or under some bushes during the day, and start singing like it was the only way to live.
Music, as with other kinds of art, came mostly from local artists during those days. Those folk musicians had a message that was too deep to be absorbed by my juvenile soul. When we sang, the lyrics were just words for me during those years. At least that was what I thought. But after listening to them for years they started to penetrate, and began to do justice to their authors. They began to raise an awareness of the situation of thousands of other Chileans just like me. Those songs pierced my consciousness and caused pain I had never felt before. I thought my childhood was taking place in a calm environment, but I woke up one day to understand that the innocence of my young years had only blinded me to the pain and horror that hit my nation, my own people.
So I have these haunting memories of a summer when, besides being awoken by those songs, I got a book in my hands that forever took the innocence I once had. That book was forbidden by the government; was on the black list. There’s something about intellectual work that is so dangerous to these rulers. There isn’t a bullet or a gun that can harm them as badly as a book, a song, or an image. The book that changed my life is call “Los Zarpazos del Puma”. It is the story of a general that traveled throughout Chile, along with his “caravana de la muerte” (caravan of death), and put to death all political prisoners that had been held at detention facilities in 1973 and 74, the first years of a long dictatorship in my country. That book finished the work that was started by the folk songs that Andres brought to my life. Everything seemed to be destroyed by the stories in that book. All the idealism about this world, and especially about my own country, fell dead to the floor. It seemed that with every drop of blood in those stories my own existence was coming to an end. That was the turning point in life, when I went from being a child that enjoys life to an adult that breathes hate. There was a song years later that explains perfectly how I felt that day. It says… “I have never wish harm to anyone, but this is my first time”.
The emptiness of that moment will stay with me forever. That moment was so enormous, so vast. I’m really thankful for that summer. Although it was hard, it helped me become the person I am today. My awareness of this world is due to those moments.
Now, after more than twenty years, and after having moved to Iraq, I feel that that last season of my childhood is coming to life again. The work of those songs, the book, the artists, and the environment, I feel it all coming to life. Especially in the year that just passed. I wonder about the children today living in the same situations. I wonder about the next one in line; the child not killed by a bullet, but who loses his innocence to the horrors and decisions that some leaders choose to give as a heritage. I hope that child will encounter an inner voice that will grow, and go out, and speak out to the world about these issues. And hopefully that child will become one of those artists that will awaken the consciousness of other children before is too late.
In the memory of all the artists that have given their lives to bring about justice… to each of them, thank you!
NOTE: I’m re-publishing this article here this time, as the Blog where I published it previously, for unknown reasons, has been deleted. Here’s another post about the process behind this story.
NOTE 2: After Matt Brandon (@digitaltrekker) reminded me that the original post had a video with one of the greatest singers in Chile, during those decades, Victor Jara. He was assassinated in a detention facility, as the one I have photographed in Iraq. “In the hours and days that followed, many of those detained in the stadium were tortured and killed there by the military forces. Jara was repeatedly beaten and tortured; the bones in his hands were broken as were his ribs. Fellow political prisoners have testified that his captors mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them as he lay on the ground with broken hands. Defiantly, he sang part of “Venceremos” (We Will Win), a song supporting the Popular Unity coalition.“
I don’t sing just to sing
niether because i have a good voice.
I sing because the guitar
makes sense and has a reason,
It has a heart made of earth
and wings of a little dove,
It’s like holy water
it blesses glories and sadness
Here my singing got stucked
just like Violeta used to say,
a working guitar
with a spring smell.
A guitar that doesn’t belong to the rich ones
nor anything like it.
My singing comes from the scaffoldings
used to reach the stars.
Because singing makes sense
when the veins palpitate
from whom will die singing
the truthful truth
not the brief flatterings
or the foreigner fames
but the singing of a lark instead
until the bottom of the earth.
There where everything arrives
and where everything begins
The song that has been brave
will always remains as ‘canción nueva’*
*new song: movement in latin-american folk music in the ’60s.