The other day I fancied a wander. – I think I should increase my use of the word “fancy” as a verb. – Having had such fancy come over me, I packed a bag o’ stuff for the afternoon including a camera, water and some tiny oranges. I had a head full of ideas of where to go, but nothing set in stone and wandered off through the hot Santiago sun in the direction of downtown, eventually following my footsteps to the Paris-Londres Barrio. It’s really just two lovely streets that wind around each right smack in the middle of the bustling city center off of the main street Alameda. As I approached I noticed the Museo de Arte Colonial de San Francisco (Alameda N. 834) calling me in, having passed it on foot countless times. I was in for a treat. This place is a giant, unexpected space of peace, tranquility and creepy art from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The center is a large square with benches and plants that happens to be home to cats, chickens and peafowl. I heard the male squawking in a tortured way before I saw him. Who knew such a lovely thing to behold makes such an ugly squeak?
Three of the four sides surrounding the central square are filled with paintings and sculptures, many of which feature the typical church fare of centuries gone by including decapitated John the Baptists, disembodied baby heads that are likely angels plus all manner of virgins, Biblical scenes, strange miracles, floggings and self-castigation. This particular church being dedicated to San Francisco de Asis has a large hall filled with 44 paintings of his life that were commissioned in the 17th century and done by a Peruvian artist. Each is about 2 by 3 meters in size and have descriptions of the scene in an older version of Spanish. One small room is dedicated to Gabriela Mistral, the Nobel winning poet who was also a schoolteacher and later in life an ambassador for Chile.
The ‘saint’ statues dressed in multicolored robes provoke both the heebie-jeebies and the uncontrollable desire to laugh. The wooden choir benches were hand-carved in the 18th century out of Chilean cypress trees.
In addition to viewing the art and relaxing in the oddly peaceful plaza, they also frequently offer religious concerts. A mixed vocal choir was practicing as I roamed about. I asked about going to the second floor and they informed me that it is the monks’ convent. Still! From here I took an immediate left when exiting the church and found myself on the beautiful street called Londres. Currently it houses a large number of boutique hotels, coffee and tea shops, a couple of educational institutes and a few government offices. I thought I’d have a beverage when I noticed these little squares on the cobblestone street.
I saw that after all the names – a fairly 50/50 mix of male and female – they all said either MIR or FP after the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria [Revolutionary Left Movement] and Frente Patriotico [the Patriotic Front] respectively. They were leftist groups that were working against the government post-coup d’etat of 1973 and it was pretty clear that the names on those squares are for people that were disappeared intentionally and never found. It was then that I saw the entrance to “Londres 38”, a memorial center that opened to the public in 2010. It housed detainees who were tortured for information and then killed and either dumped into the sea or into mass graves, many of them in the endless Atacama desert of the north.
Side note: Nostalgia de la Luz is a fascinating documentary film that contrasts and compares astronomists’ search for the origins of life in the northern skies with family members still to this day looking for – and now finding – shared graves where there loved ones bodies were dumped throughout the military dictatorship. Initially the link between the two searches is unexpected, but the piece unfolds elegantly. Another interesting film is called La Ciudad de los Fotógrafos and documents the experience of photographers in Santiago right when the ‘golpe de estado’ was first news.
There are a number of memorial centers throughout Chile, which are mostly just former homes that were turned into extra-judicial holding cells where thousands of people were tortured. This particular location also undertakes social activities such as protest art creation groups, photo exhibits, short documentaries and provides space for reflection. They are currently involved in an effort to get thousands of secret documents made public. They are part of a larger conglomeration of groups marching at La Moneda [the equivalent of the US White House or Argentinean Pink House] this Wednesday December 10th, 2014 at 1 PM calling for open documents and respect for human rights. This last image is script taken from a letter written by one young woman named Muriel Dockendorff Navarrete to another named Sandra Machuca who were both detained at Cuatro Alamos. The letter was dated October 1974 and the author was disappeared after its writing. It says “Me recuerdo cuando te conocí en la casa del terror… En esos momentos en que una luz era un sueño. O un milagro, fuiste luz en esas tinieblas. Fuimos una en un revés. Hoy miles de reveses. Más tarde te veo como entonces como sé estarás hoy, en Algún sitio, siempre mirando al frente. Nos encontraremos a través de la niebla que despejaremos. No me olvides.”
In English: “I recall when I first met you in that house of terror… In those moments in which light was only a dream. Or a miracle. You were light in that place of darkness. We were one in that tragedy. Today, thousands of tragedies. Later on I’ll see you as I did then, as I know you will be today, in some place somewhere, always looking straight ahead. We will find each other through the fog that we’ll dispel. Don’t forget me.”
Her words cut through me and slice up my heart into little pieces.
Outside there are people wandering, leaving work on a Friday evening and meeting friends on the patio cafes. I snap some more pictures of these harmonious streets and I’m amazed by the fact that during all of these centuries this convent with its monks was right there in the middle of downtown maintaining their daily life in the midst of political tumult, a darkened detention center only a two minute walk away.