Monday, August 10, 2009

Be careful what places you revisit; sometimes it’s best to keep the memories intact.

I’ve been making up my list of must reads and weighing the merits of rereading old favorites vs. reading new books. In a similar vein, my husband and I have been making lists of places we want to revisit and places we have never been to. When you’re in your 60’s, there are no longer limitless expanses of time; choices have to be made. Will some of the old favorite vacation spots disappoint just as some of those once beloved books fell short?

I can’t imagine ever saying to myself, “I don’t know what I ever saw in Paris or Rome, or Provence or Tuscany. There are places I’ve got to go back to and am sure won’t disappoint. (Affording them is another matter.)

I have had a travel experience similar to my disappointment with books I fell in love with when young. Several years ago, my husband and I went to Argentina and Santiago de Chile. I fell in love with Chile (or rather with the sense of social possibility I found there) when I spent about 5 weeks there in 1972. I spent a lot of time with young activists who supported the Allende government. We spent our evenings going to coffee houses to hear La Cancion Nueva—a hauntingly beautiful hybrid of Spanish and Andean folk music.

When the Allende government was overturned in a brutal coup on September 11, 1973, I was stunned. Everyone I met was pro-Allende. How could this have happened? Some of the idealistic young people I met probably wound up tortured and killed by Pinochet.

Off and on over the years, I listened to the music (the Parra family, Victor Jara, Inti-Illimani) and was thrilled when Michelle Bachelet (who was one of Pinochet’s victims) was elected president.

I went back in search of the remnants of that culture. The coffee houses were gone (and despite the election of Michelle Bachelet) there seemed to be no trace of the once vibrant Chilean left. I thought I must be looking in all the wrong places, but a sociology professor I met in Buenos Aires confirmed that that there was in fact not much left. “The repression was total,” as he put it.

One of my guide books mentioned “a human rights legacy tour.” It was a very expensive tour and I thought it might be too left wing for my husband, but he was willing, so we signed up despite the steep price.

We were the only people on the tour and when the guide,a woman in her late 20’s picked us up, she apologized profusely that the Pinochet Center was not open that day. I was confused—the Pinochet Center??? But this is a human rights tour! Her reply: “We want to make sure this is a balanced tour and we present both sides.”

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the tour turned out to be worth it because of the driver. He was obviously a well-educated man who spoke several languages and knew a great deal about history and the arts. We guessed that he had probably been an academic—-a man of the left who lost his job in the aftermath of the coup. Those Allende supporters lucky enough to escape with their lives usually lost their jobs.

Part of the tour involved a trip to the cemetery to see Allende’s huge, impressive tomb. I asked our driver about Violeta Parra whose music had so much influence on La Cancion Nueva. To my amazement, he said, “She was a friend of mine and I can take you to her grave." The cemetery was enormous and finding an individual tomb was quite a feat. It was a relatively modest tomb and there were some flowers indicating that she was remembered.

He told us the tragic story of her death. Violeta fell in love with a much younger man who left her for a younger woman. She committed suicide. I was familiar with her story but did not know what happened to the man who abandoned her. According to our driver, he married the young woman and they had several children, a very happy marriage, and both were still alive and well. That was not exactly what I wanted to hear.

I asked our driver if folksinger Victor Jara, who had been brutally murdered by the Pinochet government, was buried in the cemetery. He said I can take you to his grave. We went to a much poorer part of the cemetery and there was just a little box with Victor Jara’s ashes and no sign that he was remembered. (I later learned that at least the justice system remembered him; one of the men involved in his murder was recently captured.)

Now what were the chances of our signing sign up for tour with a driver who could take us to Violeta Parra’s and Victor Jara’s grave sites???

One more amazing coincidence occurred. We signed up for an overpriced wine tour. A meal at a tourist trap restaurant was included in the price. As we settled down to a not very good meal, a man in his mid to late 60’s walked in with his guitar. He had a long gray ponytail, shabby clothes and looked like a down on his luck 60’s hippie.

But then he started to sing “Rin del Angelito ” one of Violeta Parra’s most famous songs. His voice was powerful, expressive—probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard. (Hear Violetta sing it at

After all my failed searches for remnants of the Chilean left, I finally stumbled on it in this unlikely venue. I wanted to ask him to sing more Violeta Parra songs, but decided against it. It was clear he was there to earn spare change from tourists and singing more of Violeta’s mournful songs would probably not help him. (One of her most famous songs “Gracias a la Vida, popularized by Joan Baez can be heard at

Despite the election of Michelle Bachelet, the Chile I remembered was dead. Santiago was filled with ugly high rise apartment buildings, but the ring of shanty towns surrounding the city was still there--although the poverty did not seem quite as horrendous as I remembered it. There probably has been some trickle down.

Anyway, the trip to Santiago was much more of a disappointment than my rereads of Russian classics. The moral (if any): of the story: Be careful what places you revisit; sometimes it’s best to keep the memories intact.


  1. Karen, what a fascinating account! I think this may be your best blog entry yet. ¡Muchas gracias!

  2. I love your account of your 1972 trip, it was very informative and as your sister I learned a little more about you. I agree it was a great blog entry.

  3. I fell in love with nueva canción when I was 20. I slept to it. Unfortunately it only produces a blank stare when people ask "what kinda music do you like?"

  4. Thanks Juanita, Betsy, and Joel for your comments.

    Joel is right. Very few people know about La Cancion Nueva. Somebody should make a film about La Cancion Nueva and the role it played in Chile in 60’s and 70’s. Violeta, her children Angel and Isabel, and Victor Jara have compelling personal stories which could be woven into a really powerful film.

  5. Karen,
    I loved your description of 1972 Chile, and it brings back many memories for me. . .Though I have never been to Chile, the September 11, 1973 coup was in a sense the beginning of my political awakening. I was in 11th grade in a small, rural PA town at the time & really was not aware of the coup until entering the University of Pennsylvania the following year. I was an engineering major & had to take 5 math/science course & 1 elective. I chose "Revolution & Democracy in Chile: the Rise & Fall of Allende" - not because I knew anything about Chile or Allende, but because I supported democracy & saw my country as "democratic". Anymajor problems, I thought, were because people were not educated enough. Well, were my eyes opened! The course was taught by a CHilean refugee & gave all the details of the CIA & corporate involvement in funding & orchestrating the opposition to Allende up through the coup and mass torturing in soccer stadiums. (I still think about this anytime I see a stadium.) At first I did not want to believe my country would be involved in such a thing. . .But, the more I read, the more I saw it was true. That is what led me to switch to major in history -- to try to find out WHY? & WHEN? & how to stop such abuses of power in the future in order to really promote democracy.
    Thank-you, Karen!

  6. From Beth lewis

    "your post inspired me to listen to an old Inti-Illimani album and especially to listen to this song;"

  7. link should be: