It is a warm summer day in February, shortly before noon, when I arrive at the gates of Villa Grimaldi with a friend. The place is quiet, no-one to be seen walking the beautiful gardens. We enter the site and get two audio guides to do the tour. The sun is burning, so we rush from shadow to shadow to listen to the explanations of the guide. I don’t really connect to the place until we’re halfway through, instead being fascinated by the incredibly noisy birds populating the scrawny araucaria trees. The place was a restaurant before it was appropriated by the secret police (DINA) shortly after the 1973 coup. It was then used as a secret detention center, where people were tortured and disappeared. While the original main building and detention cells have been destroyed, the trees bear witness to the history of the place. It comes to no surprise, then, that many of them have specific meanings in the context of constructing memory.
Apart from the araucarias, another tree that captures the attention is a bushy bougainvillea right next to the closed former entrance door. Its bright pink flowers remind of the lush garden surrounding the former restaurant. The door, however, has been closed forever, expressing the desire that no political prisoner will ever have to enter through that door again. In general, the plates and sign-boards have been attached close to the ground, to resemble the view blindfolded prisoners had of the place – never actually being able to see the beautiful trees and green spaces, but only the floor through the tiny holes the fabric left.
As we continue walking, we enter a kind of field, about nine squares separated by tiny cobblestones, each with a birch at its center. As the audio guide explains, they symbolize the former prison cells, the birches being the isolated prisoners. Next to them, there’s a giant evergreen ombú, a species native to southern Patagonia. As we learn from the audio, the majestic tree has been used to create examples for the prisoners: some of them were hung there for everyone to see.
Next to the ombú, there is a circular bed of roses, interspersed with orange-red signs. Some of them have names of former female prisoners on them, some of them are left blank to remember those who passed through Villa Grimaldi unaccounted. At the center of the bed, there is a small fountain with a quote of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral at the bottom: “We all would have been queens”.
After around two hours, we have explored almost every corner of the park. During that time, we were the only visitors, and only one or two employees crossed our path. The atmosphere was peaceful, the airy spaces and the plants make this a solemn experience, that allows one to connect to the history of the place, but not in a ravagingly emotional way, but much more quietly, with the option of just taking in the contradictions of the place. As we take the bus back to Santiago’s city center, we pass by a restaurant with the telling name: El Trauma. 80’s.
More information on Villa Grimaldi can be found on the webpage of the Villa Grimaldi – Corporación Parque por la Paz (spanish only).