The Other Chile: Following Victor Jara’s Songs

While the country enters a media-hyped electoral campaign, some communities continue their struggle to create a new world based upon much solidarity and active participation of those at the lowest social levels. A reality very like the one Victor Jara used to sing about.1

Boca Sur: an area imprisoned between the Bio Bio delta and the Pacific Ocean.

The wide Bio Bio River is still an imposing and impressive feature of the Chilean landscape due to the quantity of water that flows through it despite the construction of several dams that have diminished it. Southern Chile is being punished by "development," perhaps because the abundance of water acts as a call to businesses that consume vast quantities of this vital resource.

Crossing the river via a modern bridge that is several kilometers long, we leave behind the rising metropolis of Concepción, the second largest city in Chile, as we enter the low floodplains beyond. Along the highway one can make out numerous factories, products of the "Chilean miracle," behind which is hidden the municipality of San Pedro de La Paz with a population of some 80,000.

Beyond this is an imprisoned territory located between the mouth of the Bio Bio and the Pacific Ocean, thousands of identical little houses that appear to struggle to avoid being devoured by the waters that make up the Boca Sur Barrio. The place itself is almost a punishment. The humidity, icy, heavy, and dense, clings to the body, increasing an already present sense of cold and discomfort. The houses are not unlike small prisoner cells: dwellings that measure approximately 118 feet square and are composed of just one floor for families that average eight individuals, walls made of volcanita (a mixture of paper and chalk), a single bathroom, and a small backyard is all that the 20,000 inhabitants of Boca Sur are afforded.

They are formally free, however, these people are condemned to live in the worst conditions imaginable: located more than an hour from Concepción, in a humid desert where there is nothing, not even work, which has raised the unemployment rate to more than 50%. "Our neighborhood was not built by a community, it was built in order to enclose the poverty and exclude it from the city," states Richard Yañez from the Victor Jara Free School.2

Pinochet’s Social Cleansing

These people did not come here by choice. They were transferred here by force between 1983 and 1985, when the entire country was hit with the protests of the poor against the dictatorship. "Boca Sur," according to a book produced by the artist’s workshops of the Victor Jara Cultural Center, "was founded in May of 1983 with the arrival of the first expelled people."3 They were the inhabitants of the poor neighborhoods of Concepción that were expelled by the dictatorship to remote areas where they would be invisible and their protests would be isolated and repressed without marring the order and development of the city.

The Pinochet regime carried out in Concepción the same effort that was taking place in other cities across the country: they eliminated the camps (communities on land taken by landless groups) and expelled the poor from formal neighborhoods near the city center. This project had two objectives: the promotion of land speculation and the separation of the rich from the poor, pushing the so-called "marginalized sectors" further outside of the city.

Just as severe as the expulsion itself was the area that the poor were transferred to: the other side of the river, far from the centers of power and jobs. Boca Sur was a rural zone up until 1983 where very few inhabitants "dedicated themselves to subsistence living including, fishing, hunting, animal husbandry, and agriculture."4 When the poor of Concepción arrived, there was nothing, just the small cell-like houses. Everything was set up to discourage sociability and create total dependence. In addition, the houses were built almost on top of one another, making familial intimacy nearly impossible and generating tension between neighbors.

"They came around with a poll to fill out in order to find out how many families we were and within a week after the poll we had to evacuate," relates Libertad, a resident of the Gabriel Mistral de Concepción neighborhood that was forcefully transferred on May 10, 1983. She, along with the other residents, was transferred in military vehicles with the few household items she could carry.5 "When we arrived here there was nothing, no businesses, no lights, not even pavement or telephones. It was more than an hour-long trip from Concepción." She had to get up two hours early to get to school on time and there was no point in washing clothes because the dust would make everything gray anyway.

The residents of Agüita de la Perdiz, a neighborhood on a beautiful hillside near the University of Concepción and a center for civil dissidence since the 70s, were expelled on Oct. 4, 1983. "They took us in military and municipal vehicles, creating a long caravan of pioneers: children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly," remembers Dina Mora. "It was incredibly dusty and really windy and the sun was huge and scorching. We couldn’t see anything, and our eyes hurt. We arrived at our destination, some 200 houses, all the same color, yellow and brown, white doors, surrounded by a wire fence. There were no flowers, just sand. They were tiny houses that looked like matchboxes in the desert."6

There were many fights among the neighbors because nobody knew each other, they came from different neighborhoods. "Many of the elderly couldn’t adapt to the place and they began to get sick and die," says Dina. In their old neighborhoods they had animals and fruit trees, small orchards, tight knit communities that afforded mutual support, and diverse forms of survival that allowed them to live dignified, autonomous lives. The change they underwent was a carefully calculated social disaster.

To the surprise of many, as democracy took hold in the country, the expulsion of the poor from urban centers continued. In 2000 the camp community of Villa Nápoli, which had been founded in the late 1970s, was evicted and its 114 families were transferred to Boca Sur where they now reside in what is known as Villa Venus.

Unemployed, Women, and Youth

Among the major difficulties confronted by the expelled is the lack of funds for transportation, the difficulty in enrolling children for school (resulting in many children missing a whole year of classes), the lack of health centers, issues with basic living conditions, and a lack of minimal services such as bus stops and a public water supply.

Rosa Silva, a historic leader of Boca Sur, tells the story of the miracle of establishing a life in the desert: "There was a lot of mistrust, but little by little a period of community organization began. That is how the health volunteer groups were born. They were created as a solution to the lack of consultation centers and helped in emergency first aid cases."7 Even the Neighborhood Councils were appointed by the dictatorship.

One of the first steps was to create a health center, a primary concern for any poor family. In the years following 1988, dozens of community members trained as health volunteers (in reality, women volunteers) and began to attend to the community starting in 1990 in a space allocated by the firefighters. "We worked in the treatment of diseases like tuberculosis, which was a major concern in Boca Sur due to poverty and malnutrition," says Ida Castillo, ex-member of the Neighborhood Council.8

Eventually, the whole community united in the acquisition of a consultation center as the lack of ambulances, as Ida recounts, meant that the sick were dying due to a lack of medical attention, and women were giving birth on the streets.9 Almost all of the people who helped to organize the community were, and are, women. In the 90s they created a Workshop Coordination where many of the leaders were instructed. At the end of the decade, the first Neighborhood Council, made up solely of women, was instated. The Council played a major role in the democratization of the organization.

The Coordination was made up of a dozen workshops—including organic gardening, hair styling, and handicrafts—that were attended by 150 women. In addition to the work related to earning a living, they also fought for paved roads, plazas, parks, and traffic lights. They also engaged in workshops on violence, women’s rights, and personal development, creating a balance between the communal and personal in the courses taught.

Around 1999, a year of great change in Boca Sur, the unemployed began organizing the Newenche Union of Temporary Workers. It was during this period that the government of Eduardo Frei decided to close the mining operations in the city of Lota, located to the south of Concepción, increasing unemployment in the entire region. The ample experience of the miners’ union greatly supported the organization of the unemployed, a rather uncommon phenomenon, but not unlike the experience of the piqueteros in Argentina.

According to Pepe Burgos, producer of the documentary film El silencio de la cuenca del carbón (The Silence of the Coalfields), it was during this period that "the experience of unemployed union members spread like wildfire," resulting in the creation of some 30 unions with an average of 400 to 600 members, in total, 20,000 families of which 80% were women.10

In Boca Sur, the local offices of the Newenche Union were built by the community itself, as was the case with the majority of the neighborhood infrastructure. They undertook numerous mobilizations publicly denouncing their situation: they blocked roads and bridges, they took over the municipal seat and local ministry of interior, and as a result were able to obtain more than 100 state subsidies and 1,100 food baskets for the most urgent cases.

Orlando Vera, the union president, relates one of the biggest territorial struggles in 2005: "It was a community struggle and included thousands of community members through the bringing together of diverse social organizations. We stopped another abuse by the authorities that tried to impose a sewer system that opened on to the beach just two blocks from the community, spewing a horrible smell that contaminated the air over Boca Sur."11

Hundreds of community members took possession of the work sites and several thousand marched to Concepción, forcing the government of Ricardo Lagos to design a different project that had less of an environmental impact, a sewage treatment plant and a pipeline that discharges nearly 4,000 feet into the ocean. It wasn’t easy: Orlando is the union leader with the greatest number of arrests (52) since the restoration of democracy in Chile in addition to two military tribunal proceedings.

The Victor Jara School

As the years have passed, the number of organizations created by the community is impressive, especially when the initial hardships are taken into account. In 1991, amidst a climate of democratic euphoria (Pinochet left the government in 1990) the Rigoberta Mechu Cultural Group (Grupo Cultural Rigoberta Menchu) as well as youth- and church-based groups were formed around the issue of drug abuse. In addition to the Women’s Coordination, several artistic, cultural, and disabled persons groups were created.

In 1997 the first community radio station and, soon after, the Newenche Union were born, and in the new century the Victor Jara Cultural Center which sets up children’s workshops to organize murgas (bands of street musicians), mural painting, and festivals, opened a new space within the community. It was in this space that the Cultural Center, along with the Neighborhood Council 8-R, created the Victor Jara Free School of Education and Popular Culture in late 2007. The school plays an important role in the education of neighborhood activists.

Among the main objectives of the school is the "leveling of basic education among community members." This goal changed the space into a "tool for social transformation;" "a means for strengthening neighbors’ relations and networks," and strengthening local solidarity, unity, self-sufficiency, and power to solve common problems. In sum, the school is a political project.

A poll taken in the community revealed that 45% of the neighbors had not completed primary school and 55% had not completed mid-level education. As a result the school has three cycles. The First Cycle spans from first to fourth grade, utilizing so-called "generating" words inspired by Paulo Freire’s methodology to know and explore one’s reality. The Second Cycle covers fifth to eighth grade and includes subjects like Language, Mathematics, Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences. The students that choose to may take official exams to obtain validation of the course by the State.

The Third Cycle is dedicated to vocational training in food production, textiles, recycling, bakery, chocolate making, and gardening. The objective of this cycle is to enhance the productive capacity of the community members (in large part women), as a form of autonomous growth that is both personal and collective, political and tangible. According to Richard, the 23-year-old who helped to create the project, many women in the community already bake bread that feeds the whole neighborhood. In addition, there are family and communal orchards that provide fruit for the community.

"The school is financed through fundraising activities," reads the Political-Pedagogical Project (Proyecto Político-Pedagógico), such as a biannual festival to raise money. They also periodically hold carnivals where the organizations and families sell and barter their products. In this way the community members are able to establish their own economy, tangential to the formal market, seated in mutual support, solidarity, and fraternity.

The type of popular education that is practiced in the school is not institutional but a style that "enriches through Latin American experiences such as the education [systems practiced] in the Zapatista communities of Mexico, the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, literacy in Nicaragua, and the Popular High Schools of Argentina."12 The group of voluntary educators at the school are aware of many of these experiences, in particular the worker-occupied Zanón Factory (Argentina), and the high schools in Buenos Aires with which they maintain a fluid relationship.

But the school also proposes the "building of local power." Toward this end they perform something like a rehearsal in the school. "We hold a monthly assembly with 35 permanent students and 15 educators, and we elect a team of six people to direct the school for a month. The direction is composed of one educator and one student for each cycle with the idea that everyone will at some point participate, because the direction of the school is also part of their education, especially when we have to make connections with other organizations," says Richard. There are now two other neighborhoods within Boca Sur that are starting similar projects.

Every year they organize the Victor Jara Festival. The festival this year will be the ninth and for the past two years the event has included a "Popular Gathering of Autonomous Organizations," in which collectives from Santiago and a few cities in Argentina have participated. According to the pamphlet for the event the gathering is "a space to socialize and share experiences in each of the struggles of our autonomous organizations and social movements that are independent of [governmental] institutions," such as the Mafalda Feminist Lesbian Collective, one of the most active groups within the community.

In effect, the women are key to this communal-territorial fabric. Richard does a quick calculation and affirms that in the Newenche Union, made up of 180 members, there are only four or five men. In the school there are only two men, while the entire workforce in the community projects such as the bakeries and gardens is female. "It is the women that stand up to the police while the men are depressed and drink too much because they have lost their roles as providers after having lost their jobs."

The experience in Boca Sur is one of the most important to be found in Chilean grass roots movements. In many ways it is not isolated but a response to a model of spatial and social exclusion. "The government thought it was necessary to intervene in the lives of the popular classes to maintain order and the control of the dictatorial regime," says Dina Mora, reflecting on her expulsion from Agüita de la Perdiz in the 80s. The regime put into effect a monstrous policy to forcefully transfer the poor to something not unlike open "concentration camps," that continue to exist in a full democracy.

Yes, camps. Following the philosophy of the Italian Giorgio Agamben, concentration camps are spaces where a "State of Exception" is permanently enforced. Their inhabitants/prisoners tolerate a nuda vida (naked life), a life without rights, subject to power and violence. It is no coincidence that all of the peripheral neighborhoods of this type, not just in Chile, are doubly placed under control by the application of social policies and militarization imposed with the excuse of drug trafficking (or any other).

What is truly outstanding is that in these segregation camps, always placed on the urban periphery, another world is being born in the spaces defined by Mike Davis as "the new, decisive geopolitical scene."

End Notes

  1. Chilean singer-songwriter who was tortured and murdered under the dictatorship in the Chile Stadium (now renamed "Victor Jara Stadium") on September 16, 1973.
  2. Personal interview with Richard Yañez.
  3. "Construyendo población" (Building population), op. cit., p. 15.
  4. Idem.
  5. Idem p. 26.
  6. Idem p. 29.
  7. Idem p. 71.
  8. "Construyendo población," p. 60.
  9. Idem p. 59.
  10. Pepe Burgos, ob cit.
  11. Idem.
  12. "Proyecto Político-Pedagógico," Escuela Libre y Popular Victor Jara.