Londres 38, a former torture centre, is in walking distance from my friend’s place, so we stroll through the neighborhood to get there. Before the official visit starts, we’re invited to explore the house on our own. It’s a beautiful building with light-flodded rooms with wodden floors and big windows, a dream for anyone with a taste for period property. But I have to imagine living there on my own, because the rooms are empty and don’t offer any anchors for the imagination. Or that’s what I think then, because when the visit starts, I will be told about the meanings of the holes in the plastering. The visit is conceptualized as a dialogic encounter, inviting the visitors to engage with the place in their own terms, rather than explaining and lecturing about historical events. This is why we are not considered visitors, but rather, participants in the construction of memory. I am not entirely sure that’s what we did there, because as a non-Chilean I am not too confident about my ability to help in this construction. But I do my best trying to relate what the guide tells us about the place with what I have heard and known about other episodes from the German past. Among these thoughts is the questions of what the neighbors knew, since the house is in the middle of a busy quarter, and the adjacent houses a stone’s throw away. It’s impossible to imagine that they haven’t heard or seen any of the extralegal proceedings. Then again, they wouldn’t be the first to ignore these kinds of activities, be it out of fear, ot because they believed that surely, the people abducted there must have done something to deserve this kind of treatment. Which is what brought me to wonder about what I would have done. Sure, I like to imagine myself as the kind of person who courageously intervenes, accuses and resists. But I have never been in a situation like that. How would I know?
If you liked this post, here is another one about my visit to Villa Grimaldi.
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).