Introduction - Mario Garces

Two Stories … Two Leguinos - Blanca Saldías

Testimony - Gustavo Arias


Mario Garces

Located in southern Santiago, at a distance of one league, or "legua," from the center of the city, La Legua is a distinctive neighborhood, or "poblacion." Many factors endow the community with its unique characteristics and history. Workers, who abandoned nitrate mines of northern Chile when the industry declined, founded La Legua, one of Santiago's first poblaciones. Thus was born the section known as La Legua Vieja. Other people arrived to form one of the earliest land occupations, in 1947, at a time when the Popular Front still held promise for Chilean workers. The land occupation gave rise to the section known as Legua Nueva. In 1951, a number of emergency houses were built to pacify the housing crisis in Santiago. This section became known as La Legua Emergencia…

La Legua's special fame has another origin as well. Socialists and Communists lived their best years here. The legendary Socialist leader and legislator Mario Palestro would arrive as if it were his home… La Legua could well be considered one of the strongholds of the Communists. During those good times, the Communist Party not only had its own community center - the scene of many a lively weekend dance - but also active members, still well-known today as founders of Legua Nueva. In other words, La Legua has been and continues to be a community with a deep tradition of the left.

Due to profound social causes, La Legua has long been a place where tough guys, commonly known as choros live side by side with honest folk. Choros are persons whose trade involves infringement of the social order, in other words, petty thieves. They have stories of their own. Often they have relatively stable lives and like to pass a good time. These easy-going thieves are known in the local parlance as “choro pintao.” … In the aftermath of the military coup, many of these young people were killed without a trial, simply because they had a prison record…

The military coup of September 11, 1973 deeply imprinted this historic neighborhood of Santiago. La Legua defended itself and fought back on the day of coup. La Legua was the only urban working class neighborhood where young people resisted the coup in open combat. They resisted with their own resources and with help from the outside, including workers from SUMAR, a factory adjacent to La Legua, who had made news by resisting a house to house raid conducted by the Air Force on September 8, three days before the coup.

La Legua defended itself from police and Army troops, at noon and during the afternoon of September 11. A police van was wrecked and an Army helicopter was forced to return to its base when various projectiles reached it. … After these incidents, threats and repressive measures descended rapidly over La Legua. Three people lost their lives on the day of the coup, and many more in the difficult days that followed.

At dawn on Sunday, September 16, jets streaked low over the community, threatening to bomb it. Later, a joint operation of infantry, tanks, and helicopters harshly punished La Legua, raiding houses, abusing its inhabitants, and arresting hundreds …

From the Rettig Report and the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Corporation, we have identified at least 44 victims of human rights violations from La Legua during the dictatorship, including SUMAR workers and neighborhoods near Poblacion La Legua.

Memorias de la Dictadura en La Legua, is an anthology of essays, narratives, stories, poetry, and songs produced by men and women, young people and adults, who recreate their memories of the times under dictatorship, in a literary style. The publication presents the results of a competition and comprises part of an extensive historic memory project, conducted and coordinated by the Network of Social Organizations of La Legua and ECO (Education and Comunications)…

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Two Stories … Two Leguinos

Blanca Saldías

Those who knew him and remember him say “Loco Melon” (also known as El Pequeño), a guy everyone respected, was the type of guy who goes to work in suit, tie, and shoes shined, gleaming like mirrors, setting off his gold teeth. He played with the Norambuena team, one of the oldest soccer teams of La Legua, and was one of the best left wings we ever had.

When the jet plane brought him back to Chile, he carried a set of luggage filled with treasures. These were not just any suitcases. They bore not the slightest resemblance to the battered bags he took with him when he accepted the invitation of friends to try his luck working in the United States. It was certainly an expensive set of luggage, but more valuable was the luggage he carried in his chest that made his heart beat stronger. The pride he carried inside was visible on his face as a smile of satisfaction and kept him wide-awake during the long flight. Things had turned out just like he had always dreamed they would. He was returning to Chile and La Legua. He would share that triumph and that happiness with the old pals. September 18, Chile's Independence Day celebration, was just around the corner and he would invite the guys to drink a few rounds.

A deep sigh of contentment marked the moment he stepped on native soil again. His first step on native soil was not at the airport; that wasn't home. La Legua was home. Even though his pockets were bulging with dollars earned from gringos, "Loco Melon" had not changed. Whenever he saw a barefoot, snot-nosed kid in the alley, he saw himself and saw the same hard life he had known growing up. It was like a story that never ends, or an inheritance no one wants to accept, but which we inevitably transmit from generation to generation.

Within a couple of hours, everyone in La Legua knew he was back. Here news spreads fast. My next-door neighbor told the lady with glasses who runs the corner store and that woman is like a free circular. Once she knows, she sees to it that everyone who asks - and everyone who does not ask - hears the news. They all heard that he was back, that he was happy, that he had brought back a fortune, that he was about to buy the house he always wanted to own, in other words, that he was back for good. Loco Melon, also known as El Pequeño, had come home loaded.

Then the coup struck. Houses were raided one after another. The radios announced edicts ordering people to turn themselves in. Military planes flew over La Legua. Rumors spread that the neighborhood was about to be bombed. El Loco had just come home, but he was scared stiff. They could not accuse him of anything political, but he had a prison record, and that was enough to mark him.

He was playing cards when the raid struck. The choro has the talent to have a good time even when things are bad. When you live on the edge, you develop that skill. But that day, he was only playing cards and enjoying a couple of rounds of beer. Some say his mistake was showing off too much and an envious person gave the police his name. In any case, when the soldiers came, all the guys knew what they were in for. Desperation and anxiety immediately took hold. And there was Loco Melon (also known as El Pequeño) who life had smiled upon at last. He could not fathom such injustice. What was God thinking about? Why take Loco Melon, when he had given so much?

Everything lost its meaning: the money, the jewels, the house, and the name brand wardrobe. Everything he possessed lost meaning. At that moment, at that instant that felt like an eternity, a thousand images passed through his mind: his childhood, the hunger, the humiliation, his glorious trip to the United States. Even the most unfortunate wretch clings to life. So he tried to give a last effort. “Please…" he pleaded again and again. "Take the jewels, take everything, but spare my life."

A sense of power comes from holding a gun in your hand, pointed at a being who some consider the scum of society. They took the jewels. They took everything. But, really, the dream house no longer mattered. After taking everything and filling their pockets, they killed him just the same. They killed the dear and respected Loco Melon (also known as El Pequeño).

Mites survive almost anything. They are not fragile creatures like most insects. The life of an insect - an ant, a spider, a grasshopper, or a delicate butterfly - usually hangs like a thread. Mites, on the other hand, have developed the ability to resist extreme conditions. Mites, particularly like the one I want to tell you about, have evolved to the degree that they are able to live in inhospitable environments where death reigns. The mite is a true survivor and this story speaks of courage and of how those who are regarded as insignificant cling to life.

On September 11 and the days that followed, people found out what was going on by listening to the edicts on their radios. Tension, fear, and panic overcame all of Chile, but it was more intense here in La Legua. Everyone knew what was happening and no one wanted to augment the list of casualties. The mite was no exception. That character had often lived on the edge, but he had always felt protected and never felt afraid. However, he knew that it was different this time. He knew that every process comes to an end and that life has its end as well. But he had no desire for his life to end yet. When you think about it, it made sense. After all, no one satisfied with his existence wants to die. And he was certainly satisfied with his own life. He was a good friend to his friends, who were numerous. Mites had multiplied in the neighborhood and two or three others wandered about with that same blood coursing through their veins, living from what life taught them about survival in a hostile society. Who could fault them for that?

When threatened by imminent hardship, we have two options. One is to worry a lot about it and pray that nothing happen. The other is to abstract oneself because whatever is about to happen will happen anyway. After thinking it over once, the mite chooses as philosophy of life the second option.

The day of the roundup arrived. Like the buzz that precedes earthquakes, the mite felt a pounding in his chest, announcing impending danger. The sense of heaviness that weighed down upon him that day had its reasons. He ran uselessly from one place to another in an attempt to avoid the danger. But this time, the stalkers were more ruthless, and determined to eliminate them all just because they existed, not for any other reason. They grabbed him and wrung him out without killing him. Prolonging the suffering satisfied them; and they enjoyed each moan of the victims. The mite was crowded into a military van together with many other people. Everyone was beaten repeatedly until the vehicle arrived at a place from which there would be no return.

Desolation was the mood en route. Among the bruised faces covered in blood, the mite could make out the faces of his friends. Moans, screams, and more screams, and the name of God. They, the brave, who had been beaten so many times and survived, today were looking into the face of death. In the vehicle, their tears, sweat, urine and blood mingled. The mite tasted his own blood but a glint of determination shone in his eyes. He refused to see himself reflected in the face of death, even though it appeared more enticing than ever before. At that moment, every sign indicated that they were coming ever closer to death, among the screams, moans and laughter of the soldiers. As they reached the cemetery, his instinct to cling to life was completely absurd. Clearly, they had been brought to the cemetery to be shot. There was nothing they could do to stop it and at that moment, his knees began to give way.

Large pits had been dug, near the place where crypts were built. The soldiers made them line up, brutally, and mathematically, one next to the other, around the fatal hole. The buzz that signals a coming earthquake resumed, but it was not in his chest. Now he felt the deafening buzz inside his head, scratching his brain like an infernal insect. He stood that way during a moment, that cannot be calibrated in terms of seconds or minutes; and, then, in an instant, the shots rang out. From within the large pit, only a few weak moans could be heard. In what may have been intended as a gesture of generosity, the soldiers gave them one round more, just to be sure. And then they left the cemetery.

Hours later, the survivor, the legendary mite lifted himself up from under the corpses. The panic that had taken hold of him had saved his life. He had fainted just as the machineguns burst fire and the bodies that fell on him saved him from the coup de grace. As best he could, he made his way, soaked in blood, to a neighborhood adjacent to the cemetery. He asked a family for help. They hid him until dawn and lent him clothes so he could leave. And they begged him not to get them in trouble.

He made his way back to La Legua, where rumors of his death had preceded him. Events had taken on the aura of a nightmare, or a pessimistic futuristic movie, when suddenly he reappeared. There was the mite, trembling, but still alive. First there was laughter and shouts and then they were crying over him, as he reappeared like a ghost. They wanted to touch him again and again; it was so unreal to see him.

His friends, the others like him, were all members of that confraternity of one for all and all for one, and now he was the one. They raised enough money to send him to the other side of the cordillera. There he met up with other Chileans and again he fooled death. One guy wanted to kill him to avenge a brother. The mite was able to free himself because the other guy had no idea who he was dealing with until it was too late, and he had departed for the other world. And there the mite continues to live, or survive, rather. That's what he is, a survivor. A being who subsists on very little. A simple being, whose only quest is to live; a mite.

Today, 27 years later, I have seen the look of confidence on his face and heard his firm but silent footsteps that say he no longer is afraid to walk the streets of the Eternal City.

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Gustavo Arias

From the time we were small children, we have lived in conditions of repression and marginalization because we are from La Legua. We had to learn to survive hunger, poverty and indifference of those who have more, but we proudly persist all the same.

When I was eight years old, I already knew how to earn a few coins to help make ends meet at home. I would go to the market on Sundays with my cart and offer to carry groceries for neighbors, who would thank me and give me a couple of coins.

I went to school every day but not because I liked it. I would go to school for the daily breakfast of milk with oatmeal and the tasty cookies donated by Caritas Chile. At lunchtime, I always helped wash the dishes so they would give me leftovers to bring home for my younger brothers and sisters. As I grew older, the teachers realized what my home was like, and they taught me to value myself as a person. The school principal paid me to bring the kiosk home every day, helping me to stay in school. I became one of the top five students of my class. It made me very happy to realize that my economic situation did not have to be a barrier to happiness and a sense of dignity.

Still, the reality of children in our neighborhood was different. None of us had ever been downtown. Our playground was a canal and fields where we picked fruit to bring home. As time passed, it became more difficult to stay in school. Our family was large and we were a handful for our parents.

In mid-1973, the repression was already notable in the factory and in the scarcity of food. The poor were becoming increasingly more impoverished. The school would give us milk and rice for our families.

We were in school when the military coup took place. Around 10 in the morning, the teachers sent us all home. I crossed the entire neighborhood of La Legua with my brothers. Military trucks filled with soldiers with their faces painted and armed with guns, passed along the streets as if it were a war. They would insult and curse us, and acted as though they were furious with us. They seemed not to realize that we were just as Chilean as they were. Tanks roamed the streets and helicopters hovered overhead, intimidating the people and creating panic. People were running, children were crying. It seemed to be the end of the world. We thought the neighborhood was about to be bombed at any moment. Whoever was caught on the street was made to stretch out on the ground, face down. Some people were made to remain like that all afternoon; others were taken away someplace. The desperation was so great that many made mistakes that they paid with their own lives. One felt so powerless to see how the military abuse their fellow citizens. It was a war of Chileans against Chileans and the neighborhood became like a prison camp.

The days passed. Even though curfew had been imposed, confrontations continued. We went out to play all the same, taking care not to stray from our neighbor's yard, and listening for gunfire. One day my little brother went out to play and he did not come back. The 6 PM curfew was approaching and he still did not come home. My father became worried and went out to look for him when the gunfire quieted down. He found my brother but, just as they reached the door to our house, gunfire rang out again.

On the corner of Alvarez de Toledo Street and Toro Zambrano Avenue, in front of the medical clinic, soldiers were on the rooftop of the bakery. From that location, they shot at anything that moved. In attempting to protect my little brother, my father was struck by a bullet in the shoulder. He managed to throw my brother inside the house as he dragged himself in the door. He had been badly wounded.

We were terrified to see how he was losing blood. We didn't know what to do. My mother told my 15-year-old sister Miriam to ask the neighbors for help from the backyard. The neighbors passed her alcohol and gauze to cover the wound. My father was dying but he was so brave that he had us heat the blood he lost in a pot and then he swallowed it. That kept him alive all night long so he would not bleed to death, and he was able to keep awake until morning.

The next day my older brother, who worked at the slaughter yards, found a pickup truck and took our father to Barros Luco Hospital. The hospital was filled with wounded people and others who were dead. My father was placed on a stretcher in the corridor, but there was no doctor to assist him. The whole day passed until someone assisted in stopping the hemorrhage. The bullet could not be removed because it was lodged near the heart. In these conditions, the hospital sent him home.

My older brother took our father to his own house to take care of him. We younger children stayed at home with my mother to help take care of the house. The soldiers had no feelings. They knocked down doors and destroyed everything in the houses. Abusing their power, they acted worse than animals. They acted with such ferocity that they seemed to be drugged. They had no respect for age or private property. Our house was raided several times. All the family -children, women and elderly - had to line up against the wall.

We felt such a sense of powerlessness in our own home. It had taken such an effort for my family to build our small home, and the military destroyed the few possessions we had. I don't know what they were searching for. Weapons? Money? Jewels? But we were only a poor family who struggled every day just to feed ourselves. As small children we had such a cruel experience that affected us and left its mark to this day.

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