Saint Gregory’s Tonada (Tonada San Gregorio)

Song by:
Pedro Humire Loredo
Testimony by:
Pedro Humire Loredo

This tonada song* recalls the horrible situation I was subjected to in the cells of the police station in the San Gregorio district in southern Santiago. That afternoon of 11 September 1973, I was at school marking some music tests. After a while I heard a very loud bang on the door and went to open it at once. It was the police.

They immediately hit me when I pointed out that they were in a school. They showered me with insults and they demanded that I tell them who my workmates were who were not there at the time; I flatly refused to do so. Mrs María de Osan, who was the president of the parents' association, and the authority to give me instructions, said, "If he doesn’t want to speak, Captain, make him".

They brutally beat me and insulted me, but I never snitched on my colleagues, which was why I was taken away in a pick-up truck with a guard pointing his gun at me.

Once at the police station I was placed before an NCO, who asked for my ID documents, wrote down my name, hit me and then pushed me into the cells. There was only one other prisoner, but before long many more arrived, about twenty of them in a very tight space.

After dark they brought more detainees and then proceeded to brutally beat them up. I heard the police tell these prisoners that they had to take them into the neighbourhood and show them where the other "upelientos" (**) or leaders were. The police incited them to reveal the names of the local political leaders, as they beat them on the back with a of hose with a metal bar inside it.

I felt I was about to faint; I had strong palpitations. A prisoner told me to inform the police about my condition, but I didn’t. This situation continued for three days in the cells, with absolutely nothing to eat.

On the fourth day they manhandled us out into the courtyard, where they carried out a mock execution on the group. When I’d been taken to the cells three days earlier, a policeman had taken away my vicuña wool scarf knitted by my mother, and I felt very sad standing there in the courtyard after the mock execution.

I looked towards the policemen to see if any of them had it, and then realised that the policeman who had arrested me at the school was telling another to single me out for a beating, because of the way I was looking at them. An immensely huge policeman then proceeded to beat me, saying "what you starin' at." I knew the policeman who had arrested me at the school, from the time I lived in Putre, inland in Arica province.

None of us detainees knew what fate awaited us. If anyone asked for water they were ordered to pick up all the cigarette butts discarded by the policemen and only then, between insults, were allowed to drink from a tap.

In the late afternoon we were put on a bus and told to lie face down. We did not know where we were being taken. We heard the police and guards saying that we would be taken to the Tacna regiment and then to Chile Stadium, but both facilities were already jam-packed with detainees. Eventually we were taken to the National Stadium, where we were kept for two months. It was then that, in silence, this song welled up within me: “Cárcel de San Gregorio” (Saint Gregory’s Jail).

I was missing my childhood and adolescence in the north, beside my mother. I dreamed and remembered the places where I grew up and the indigenous dishes she cooked. My final wish was to transport myself, by hook or by crook, to those northern latitudes. That was how that song developed, that song I was unable to write down. There was no manuscript paper, as we were thoroughly searched and checked twice a day. It was not possible to write down, only to learn by heart.

* Tonada is a lively Chilean genre with some traits akin to cueca.

** Supporters of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity or ‘UP’ government.

Published on: 05 January 2015

Pedro Humire, launch of Cantos Cautivos, Museum of Memory and Human Rights, 2015.

San Gregorio jail,
dark prison, I am so sad.
I dream of my ravine
the mountains where I was born.

Sweet dear tree
with your heart in the ravine
Bring me your acacias
now that I am far away from you.

Little bird of the prison
little bird messenger
take my love
to my dear mother who is so sad.

At four in the afternoon
they took me prisoner
four cowardly soldiers
to jail they took me.

Then my mother arrived
distressed and crying.
Do not cry, mother, I said
I am a man, I can endure.

On the 11th of September
witness to a betrayal
the greatest one ever suffered
by the poor of my nation.