When Katia Chornik contacted me a few years ago asking me to provide my testimony about my musical experience in prison, I thought I didn’t have much to say.
I had spent most of my detention held by the DINA(National Intelligence Directorate) Secret police of Pinochet’s dictatorship between 1974 and 1977., at the house on José Domingo Cañas Street, called the Ollagüe Barracks. Then, I was held in solitary confinement at Cuatro Álamos and spent just a month in the Tres Álamos concentration camp.
As is widely known, many of the musical activities took place in prisons, in the concentration camps and in those places where prisoners were publicly acknowledged as such.
I did find, during the month that I was held in Tres Álamos in December 1974, that the musical activities were very intensive and embodied a way for us to feel united among the other female comrades, to share hope, emotions and create a collective body that went beyond each individual.
But in terms of my own life, this period was short and I felt there were already enough testimonies about this type of experience and that I didn’t have much more to contribute. Later, rethinking Katia’s proposal, I remembered the times I spent with the DINA and at Cuatro Álamos and realised that, contrary to my first impression, music had been present in both cases, albeit in a very different way.
In regards to the DINA period, the testimony of Julio Laks, who was also there at that time, will tell you about some of the moments experienced at the house on José Domingo Cañas Street.
Here I will focus on what happened at Cuatro Álamos, where we sang almost every day, as I was lucky to find myself in a cell which was very much full of singing.
For those who do not know about Cuatro Álamos, I can tell you that it was a transitory camp under the command of Orlando Manzo Durán, an officer on the prison service, and that it was run by the DINA.
The rooms were small, very tiny, about nine square meters, each with two bunk beds, and we would be kept in these rooms 24 hours a day.
Even though, here, contrary to the camps run by the DINA, we were fed and in general we were not interrogated, the toughest aspect of this place was the fact that we had come from torture centres, and most of us were in a very poor physical condition, and we were held here for long periods, sometimes months, at the disposal of the DINA who might again drag us out for interrogation for hours, days or weeks at a time.
The rooms at Cuatro Álamos were the first place where the experience of torture was shared and this helped us to face the situation we were living through.
At Cuatro Álamos, pick-up trucks full of detainees came and went day and night, and from there many of our comrades were taken away and have never been seen or heard of since.
In cell 3 there were generally 11 or 12 of us, and we’d spend the day sitting two or three at a time on each of the bunk beds.
A significant part of our exchanges was through singing, which could not be too loud as this could incur the guards’ wrath and lead to subsequent punishment. So we sang almost in whispers.
The songs were part of our leftist musical culture: protest and political songs, the inevitable bolerosTerm referring to both the Spanish bolero of the 19th century and the Cuban bolero associated with the trova genre and tradition of itinerant musicians. and other Mexican songs that Amalia would sing in her low, deep voice.
During those hours of immobility and tension, singing allowed us to feel alive and even to laugh and make jokes. It was like a space of resistance, a collective space that belonged to us, and which they, the bringers of death, could not enter.
Some of those songs have remained in my memory as an indelible mark of those times, and on the whole, I cannot or do not want to sing them. I would like to tell you about one of those songs, which I never knew what it was called nor its author, nor did I ever try to find out. It was taught to us by Cecilia Bojanic, a young 23-year-old woman who was a member of MIR(Revolutionary Left Movement) Left-wing political organisation founded in 1965 at the Univ. of Concepción. and who had been arrested together with her husband Flavio Oyarzún.
It was a fairly well-known popular song with lyrics that go 'Yo me pondré a vivir en cada rosa…' (I will live in every rose...), do you know it? It was the song that Cecilia and Flavio had fallen in love listening to.
At Cuatro Álamos, Cecilia would ask to be taken to the bathroom and, taking advantage of being closer to the men’s cells, she would quietly sing the song from the window in the hope that Flavio would hear it and that he would then know she was alive, she was fine and she was thinking of him.
I seem to remember that once, she returned from the bathroom very happy because she’d heard someone whistling the same song and thought it was Flavio answering back.
In our cell, we’d whisper this song as a way to support her when she was feeling sad, and also to send strength to Flavio, even though he couldn’t hear our voices.
Cecilia and Flavio had a two-year-old child, whom she called Lalito and whom she’d constantly talk about to us. She was also about five months pregnant and by then had something of a belly.
Since I used to sleep with her curled up in a 'spoon' at the head of the bed – while another person slept at the foot - I sometimes felt the slight movements and small kicks of the baby she was carrying against my back. These brief moments of life passing between entwined bodies are some of the most powerful experiences I have ever had.
In November 1974 - I do not know the exact date - Cecilia and Flavio were taken from Cuatro Álamos and to this day, the two of them, along with the unborn baby, are still missing.
The memory of this song, which I do not want to forget but can never bring myself to sing, will forever remain with the surviving prisoners of cell 3. Remembering this song today is a way of keeping that family alive, and that’s why I think this project is so important.
I wish to thank Katia Chornik and the Museum of Memory for this initiative, which for several reasons is very inspiring.
First of all, because Katia is a person from another generation. I think for us this is both healing and totally miraculous, and something that we’d never have expected 30 years ago, to see young people taking up this memory, journeying through this past and making it their own. Making some sense of it.
I also think that everything related to music is part of an affective memory, a memory of bodies, of affections, of the emotions in which are rooted the reasons why we struggle.
A sensitive expression is the space where society’s ideas and projects are transformed into life experiences.
Before finishing, I want to tell you about an example from Paris on the subject of memory. When Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, I had been intensively working in Paris for several years with a team of fellow former political prisoners, collecting hundreds of testimonies for use in the judicial processes in London and Madrid.
At that point, we became aware that many people had never talked about what they had lived through, not even to their families, or partners, or children. Many individual and collective reasons explain this silence, but two were particularly common.
The first was that there had been self-censorship regarding the importance of each individual's own experience. How could a person who had survived worry about what they had lived through if this meant nothing compared to the fate of the missing and the executed? The second reason had to do with the ineffectiveness of testifying at that time.
In 1998, providing a testimony had no legal or political consequences. The only situation in which people testified and revealed details of their experience was when they were called upon to say something about a missing person. Since then much water has flowed under the bridge.
And I think the most important thing is that a collective memory has now been set in motion, the construction of a collective memory that materialises in many different forms, one of which is this project. It is a memory that transcends us and goes beyond each of us.
Affective memory is important because all these details appear through it, all those things from the past that sometimes cannot be told in words, things that enable us to share these experiences so that they can have an impact on the present.
Published on: 08 November 2015
and in every lily beheld by your eyes
In each bird song I will sing your name
so you don't forget me.
If tearfully you contemplate the stars
and your soul fills with impossible thoughts
It is my loneliness that comes to kiss you
so you don't forget me.
I will paint the horizon pink
and paint the wallflowers blue
and gild your hair with moonlight
so you don't forget me.
If gently you walk in your sleep
through a world of diaphanous gardens
think of my heart that dreams of you
so you don't forget me.
And if one evening on a distant altar
held by another hand, they bless you
as they place on you the golden ring
my soul will be invisible
in the eyes of the dying Christ
so you don't forget me!
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