La Victoria, Chile: Half a Century Building Another World

La Victoria settlement in Santiago, Chile, recently observed its 50 th anniversary. It was one
of the first organized occupations of urban land on the continent and in a half century built an
alternative city, defied the dictatorship, and continues to find ways to break out of the neoliberal

Avenue 30 de Octubre proudly sports dozens of murals painted by the settlement’s brigades of muralists.
To the visitor, they mark the arrival at a different neighborhood, distinguished by a population that
made, and keeps on making, history.

“Do you see that window where the candle is?” Macarena points toward a miniscule opening
at the top of a modest home that is almost identical to the other self-built houses in the settlement. “That’s
where Father André Jarlan died. A bullet killed him while he was reading the Bible, the very
passage that says, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.'”1

Other testimonies say the priest was reading the De Profundis psalm [Psalm 130: “Out of
the Depths”] and even state the precise passage he was reading when he was killed by a bullet
fired by the national police, or “pacos” as t hey are called in Chile. In any event, Father
André Jarlan is part of the abundant mythology that surrounds La Victoria. His death occurred
on Sept. 4, 1984, within the framework of a national protest against the Augusto Pinochet regime. That
day police entered the settlement shooting into the air, as they did each and every time they entered
the neighborhood after the Sept. 11, 1973, coup d’état. Upon learning of the priest’s
death, thousands of people lit candles and marched to his home.

Thirty-three years after the coup, on Dec. 10, 2006, upon learning of Pinochet’s death, La
Victoria was one big celebration. “Neighbors came out of their houses, embraced each other, and
cried. They opened water faucets and doused themselves like in Carnival, shared wine, and danced,” recalls
Macarena. In this battle-hardened neighborhood, few are the families without a relative killed, imprisoned,
or disappeared by the military dictatorship.

A Turn in History

The night of Oct. 29, 1957, a group from Zanjón de la Aguada, a five-kilometer by 100-meter
belt of poverty in the center of Santiago with a population of 35,000, prepared to carry out the first
organized, massive seizure of urban land. At 8 p.m., they began to dismantle their shacks, tied strips
of cloth over their horses’ hooves to prevent making noise, and gathered “the three sticks and
flag” with which to create the new settlement. Around 2:30 a.m., they arrived at the chosen site:
a state-owned property in the southern part of the city.2 “The
darkness made us advance step by step. With the first light of dawn, everyone began to clear his piece
of brush, build a hut, and raise the flag,” recalls one of the participants.3

The “encampment” withstood police eviction actions, and families began to build the settlement.
From the first moment, they themselves defined the criteria they would follow. The construction of
the settlement, which they called “La Victoria” [victory], was “an enormous exercise
in self-organization by the settlers,” who had to “join forces and invent resources, putting
into play every bit of knowledge and all their skills.” The government did not throw them out,
but neither did it assist in the construction of the new settlement.4

The first aspect that distinguishes this action from previous struggles was its self-organization.
The first night there was a large assembly that decided to create committees for neighborhood watch,
sustenance, and health, among others. From then on, all important decisions were screened via collective
debate. The second distinguishing aspect was its self-construction. The first public buildings, constructed
by the settlers themselves, were the school and the health clinic, which reflected the inhabitants’

For the school, each settler had to contribute fifteen adobe bricks; women brought the straw, young
people made the bricks, and teachers stacked them one on top of another. The school began to function
within a few months of the camp’s establishment, although the teachers were not paid. The clinic began
attending to residents under a tent until the building was erected, in the same way the school had
been. Two years after the seizure, La Victoria had 18,000 inhabitants and more than 3,000 dwellings.
As Mario Garcés remembers, it was a city built and governed by the poorest, based on a rich
and extensive community network.

The “seizure” of La Victoria shaped a pattern of social action that was repeated with small
variations during the following decades, and even up to today, not only in Chile, but throughout the
rest of Latin America. The pattern consists of collective organization prior to the seizure, careful
selection of a suitable space, and sudden action, preferably at night, along with the search for a
legal umbrella of relations with churches or political parties, and the elaboration of a legitimizing
discourse for an illegal action. If the seizure withstands initial eviction efforts by public forces,
it is very likely the occupants will be able to remain. This pattern for social action put down its
first steps in Santiago and Lima in the 1950s and was practiced in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the
most “European” cities due to their homogeneity, only in the 1980s. This pattern is very
different from individual families joining shantytowns known as “favelas,” “callampas,” and “villas

A New City

Land seizure “entails a radical break with institutional logic and with the fundamental principle
of liberal democracies: property.”6 Legitimacy takes the
place of legality, and the land’s use value prevails over its exchange value. With a seizure, an invisible
group becomes a socio-political subject. In La Victoria, something more happens: the construction
of homes and the neighborhood by the residents themselves means the appropriation of a space by its
residents that subsequently is inhabited by a “we” who become the area’s self-government.

This feature applies to all aspects of daily life. Not only did the inhabitants of La Victoria build
their houses, streets, and water system, and install electricity, they also erected a health clinic
and a school, the latter according to their own criteria, in that it is a circular building. They governed
their lives and the whole area, establishing forms of popular power, or counterpowers.

Women played a prominent role, to the extent that many affirm that they left their husbands to go
on the land seizure, or did not inform them of the crucial step they were about to take in their lives. “I
went alone with my seven-month-old daughter, since my husband didn’t go with me,” recounts Luisa,
who was eighteen at the time of the seizure.7 Zulema, age 42,
remembers: “Several women secretly came with their children, hiding from their husbands, like
I did.”8 Even in the mid-1950s, popular sector women—strictly
speaking, we would have to say mothers, the women and their children—had a surprising level
of autonomy. Not only did they take the lead during the occupation, but also when it came to resisting
eviction and facing the police with their children.

Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar states that prior to 1950, popular sector women had learned to organize
tenement house assemblies, tenant strikes, land seizures, health groups, resistance to police evictions,
and other forms of resistance. In order to become “home owners,” they had to become activists
and promote land seizures. This way, women settlers began to develop “a certain type of popular,
local power,” that amounted to the ability to create free territories in which they practiced
a “direct exercise in sovereignty” in truly autonomous communes.9

La Victoria was built as a community of sentiments and feelings, where identity is not anchored
in the physical place, but in affections and shared life experiences. As the testimonies affirm, in
the early days everyone called each other “compañero,” partly because everything was
done by all of them. However, it was not an ideological comradeship but something more sobering: the
November rains caused the deaths of 21 nursing infants. The death of a child is something special.
In Brazil, when the landless occupy a property, they raise a large wooden cross. Each time a child
from the camp dies, they drape a piece of white cloth on the cross and leave it there: it is something
sacred. In La Victoria, when a child died, and sometimes an adult, a long caravan walked through the
streets of the neighborhood before heading to the cemetery.

Prior to the 1973 coup d’état, the popular sectors were the main creators of urban
space. In September 1970, the capital was in full transformation due to the encampments, which
were “the most influential social force in the urban community of greater Santiago.”10 Pinochet’s coup sought
to reverse the almost hegemonic position attained by the popular sectors. That third of the capital’s
population—those who had built their own neighborhoods, houses, schools, health clinics, and pushed
for basic services—was a threat to elite authority. The military regime attempted to reverse the situation
by displacing the entire population to places built by the state or the market.

Between 1980 and 2000, 202,000 “social housing units” were constructed in Santiago, in order
to move a million people, one-fifth of the capital’s population, from self-built areas, to segregated
housing complexes removed from the town center. An enormous mass of low quality housing was built for
the poor all over the country. The regime first proceeded to “clean up” the rich neighborhoods,
with a twofold objective: eliminate distorted property values created by settlements in the central
sectors, and consolidate spatial segregation of the social classes as a security measure.

Urban specialists in Chile think that the dictatorship’s eradication of the poor from the consolidated
city was a radical measure, singular on the continent. It would seem that the wave of mobilizations
in those neighborhoods in 1983—after 10 years of fierce repression and social restructuring—convinced
the elites that they should proceed with urgency, since the settlers were the protagonists of the massive
national protests that put the dictatorship on the defensive. In 1980 there were new seizures that
threatened to spread.

Women Against Pinochet

Since 1983, settlements created by popular sectors after the seizure of La Victoria played a decisive
role in resisting the dictatorship. The self-built, self-governed neighborhoods replaced factories
as the epicenter of popular action. After 10 years of dictatorship, popular sectors defied the regimen
in the streets by staging 11 “national protests” between May 11, 1983, and Oct. 30, 1984,
led by young people who used barricades and bonfires to demarcate their territory.

From the early 1980s, women and young people began to rise in leadership through their pro-survival
and socio-cultural organizations, and they reacted to the dictatorship’s attempts to dismantle the
popular world. The appropriation of territories during protests, where barricades impose limits to
state presence, has been the means to reject external authority within the self-controlled spaces.
Heard often behind the barricades, referring to the national police, was: “They’re not passing
here.” This effectively “closed off the population” and represented the “affirmation
of the popular community as an alternative to state authority and rejection of the proposed totality
of the dictatorship.”11

The state response was brutal. Slightly over a year later there were at least 75 dead, more than 1,000
wounded, and 6,000 arrested. In a single protest on Aug. 11-12, 1983, 1,000 were arrested and 29 killed;
18,000 soldiers participated in the repression, in addition to civilians and national police. This
underscores the intensity of the protests, which could have occurred only after a resounding community
decision. Despite the repression, there was no defeat. Community identity was restored, and success
was embodied in the very existence of the protests and in the ability to launch repeated and sustained
challenges to the system for a year and a half following a decade of repression, torture, and disappearances.

Among the new actors, basically women and young settlers, some differences should be examined. The
popular sectors, and in a very singular way, lower-class women, developed new abilities, the principal
one being the capacity to produce and re-produce their lives without relying on the market, in other
words, without following patterns. Gabriel Salazar states that, “If women’s experience in the
60s had been profound, that of the 80s and 90s was deeper still, causing an even more vigorous and
integral social response.”

In the 80s, settlers did not organize just to take over a site and raise an encampment while awaiting
state decree. “They organized among themselves (and with other settlers) to produce (forming bread-making
collectives, laundries, weaving centers, etc.), to subsist (community kettles, family gardens, joint
purchases), to educate themselves (women’s collectives, cultural groups), and also to resist (militancy,
health groups). All this was carried out not only without the state, but also against the state.”12

Women’s strength, and this is characteristic of current movements across the continent, is based on
something as simple as coming together, supporting each other, and resolving problems “their” way,
using the infallible logic of doing things as they do at home, thereby transferring to collective space
the same style as in private space, plus the spontaneous community attitude seen in movements such
as Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina.

These women have modified our understanding of the term social movement. They did not create bureaucratic
structures or ceremonies with the usual pomp and circumstance inherent in those institutions that are
necessarily separated from their base. But they acted, and did they ever! Under the dictatorship, Chilean
women settlers became little ants that crisscrossed between and among area houses, meeting and chatting
with all the neighbors. Their mobility allowed them to weave “neighborhood nets” and even
community networks that made formal neighborhood board meetings unnecessary.13

The image of these poor women acting within their neighborhoods, moving around weaving territorial
nets that are, as Salazar points out, “community cells,” is the best image of a non-institutionalized
movement and of the creation of non-state power—in other words, neither hierarchical nor separated
from the whole. With this also, a new way of making politics is born by the hand of new subjects who
are not registered or included in state, political, or social institutions.

For these women the transition to democracy was a disaster. After 1990, with the return of the electoral
process, they suffered a defeat they never had imagined. In other words: “The settler movement
was not vanquished by the dictatorship on the battlefield the settlers chose, but on the field of compromise
chosen by their supposed allies: middle class professionals and left-center politicians.”14

La Victoria Today

At the Pedro Mariqueo Cultural Center in La Victoria, during preparations for the 12th anniversary
celebration of the founding of the Primero de Mayo Radio station, I was able to personally confirm
the level of autonomy of new residential organizations. One statement impressed me more than any other: “Our
problem began with the [return to] democracy.”15 This did
not seem to be an affirmation of an ideological nature, just common sense that was shared, but not
overly emphasized, by the approximately 30 people present.

The panorama presented by those at the meeting was worthy of analysis. The majority were young people,
though some were older, and most were women. Each person was responsible for one radio program, and
there was everything from hip hop to transvestites to laborers, Christians, socialists, punks, and
people who did not define themselves. The diversity was enormous, almost as great as that in the population.
In some ways, we could say that all those people are experiencing, on a small scale, harmony in diversity,
social action in diversity, and resistance in diversity.

Upon leaving the Pedro Mariqueo Center, where the radio and library are located, I felt that the underdogs
were preparing something big—they practice how the new world will be. The community television station,
Channel 3, is nearby and is run by Cristian Valdivia, a painter, carpenter, and computer repairman—occupations
that allow him to survive and dedicate time to his passion, community TV. Channel 3 has a range of
nine kilometers and broadcasts from 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Sunday. Twenty-four people
maintain the “educational, informational, and recreational” station where neighborhood cultural
and social centers have their own programming.

The channel does not receive external funding, only the support of members, groups that have programs,
and some neighborhood shopkeepers. “We don’t ask the municipal government for anything,” says
Valdivia. “We do what we can by using people themselves: that is, more than economic resources,
we deal with human resources.”16 Even children have their
own program. The group wants to contribute to the creation of a network of community television channels
throughout Chile, and they already loan their equipment to other areas.

After 50 years, it seems evident that in La Victoria, as in so many places in Latin America, social
change is basically cultural change. For neoliberal governments, even those headed by progressive forces,
autonomy and cultural difference are dangerous. In fact, La Victoria is an area where the state intervenes
by dispatching the national police to keep residents under surveillance. Using crime and drugs as an
excuse, the Safe Neighborhoods Program was enacted in 2001 under the Ministry of the Interior. The
program uses funds from the IDB and calls for police and social intervention in the “marginal” or “conflicted” neighborhoods.
Nine areas have been affected, the first being La Legua, and the second, La Victoria.

The objectives of the plan are obvious when the authorities themselves admit that it aims to “combat
crime and street peddling in downtown Santiago.”17 In each
area they seek to involve social organizations, particularly the neighborhood boards, and this results
in a division between the people and the organizational centers. “We are watched by the police
24 hours a day. Any activity that occurs is supposed to be reported to the police,” says Valdivia.

Walking through La Victoria toward the home of the Little Sisters of Jesus, who worked with Father
André Jarlan, we see truckloads of rifle-armed police on the corners. María Inés
has us enter a small, modest, yet dignified house that is very similar to nearby houses, where the
four nuns live. She serves us coffee and slowly describes her experiences in the south with the Mapuche
communities. She speaks softly, often pausing, perhaps because she is well over 70 years old. When
we ask her about La Victoria today, she lowers her gaze and makes a gesture that is somewhere between
weariness and annoyance: “The cops must leave here.” And she ends by staring off into space
or, perhaps, at the image of Jesus hanging next to that of Father André.


End Notes

  1. Personal interview, April 2007.
  2. The first land occupation in Chile is documented in books by
    Mario Garcés and the work by the Grupo Identidad de Memoria Popular cited in the list of references.
  3. Mario Garcés, et al., El mundo de las poblaciones,
    p. 130.
  4. Mario Garcés, Tomando su sitio, p. 138.
  5. “Callampas,” as shantytowns are called in Chile, get
    their name from a mushroom that appears overnight, as they do.
  6. Grupo Identidad, p. 14.
  7. Grupo Identidad, p. 58.
  8. Grupo Identidad, p. 25.
  9. Gabriel Salazar and Julio Pinto, Historia contemporánea
    de Chile
    IV, p. 251.
  10. Garcés, Tomando su sitio, p. 416.
  11. Marisa Revilla, “Chile: actores populares en la protesta
    nacional, 1983-1984,” p. 63.
  12. Salazar and Pinto, p. 261. Bold emphasis in the original.
  13. Salazar and Pinto, p. 267.
  14. Salazar and Pinto, p. 263. Bold emphasis in the original.
  15. Personal interview, April 2007.
  16. Paula Fiamma, “Haciendo televisión participativa.”



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