In Memoriam: Pedro Lemebel’s Chronicles of the Pinochet Dictatorship

By the time of his death on January 23, 2015, Chilean writer, performance artist, radio personality and activist Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015) had become an icon of  Chilean counter-culture. His art chronicled the history of the city of Santiago as experienced by members of the Chilean Left during the dictatorship and afterward, poor city residents, gay men, HIV positive people, and transvestites, among others. In 2013, he was awarded the José Donoso Ibero-american Literature Prize. These “urban neo-chronicles” about the human costs of the Pinochet Dictatorship are from his 1998 collection, Of Pearls and Scars [De perlas y cicatrices].

By the time of his death on January 23, 2015, Chilean writer, performance artist, radio personality and activist Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015) had become an icon of the Chilean counter-culture. His art chronicled the history of the city of Santiago as experienced by members of the Chilean Left during the dictatorship and afterward, urban poor city residents, gay men, HIV positive people, and transvestites among others. In 2013, he was awarded the José Donoso Ibero-american Literature Prize.

These “urban neo-chronicles” are from his 1998 collection, Of Pearls and Scars [De perlas y cicatrices]. Translator, April Howard, teaches Latin American history and Spanish, and is a member of the Upside Down World editorial collective.


“Those five minutes make you bloom”

Translator’s Note: This title is a lyric from the song “”I remember you Amanda” [Te Recuerdo Amanda”], by Victor Jara, a troubadour of the Chilean Left, who was assassinated in the National Stadium by the Military in the first week of the Pinochet Dictatorship.

The morning of September twelfth dawned beheadedly overcast, in this Santiago waking from a bad dream, a nightmare sleepwalking through the barking of the previous night’s gunfire.   The armored trucks passed along the Panamerican highway on their way downtown, shooting, dissolving the groups of neighbors who stood on the corners discussing the novelty of the coup.  The springish air thickened in clots of zinc over the roofs of the projects, over the children playing bandits, shooting with their little hands at the helicopters that rocked the sky aflutter with pigeons.  In the stairs and hallways, the flurry of the old women, who at that time weren’t so old, young women, actually, middle aged, spreading out clothing on the railings, still fresh in the flowered chintz of their crisp skirts.   Pobladora women, housewives who still didn’t understand exactly what was happening, but their gossipy gestures looked tense, pursing their lips, eyes fastened on the crowd of neighbors seen in the distance, who weren’t so distant, hardly half a block of población bordering the wasteland where the South Panamerican Highway crossed the Departmental district.  There, on the exact spot where today a gas station and a new development for public employees have sprung up, back then the morning reeked of rotting dog in the garbage dump called The Hole, a deep pit where they excavated gravel and sand, the trash pile where the municipal trucks dumped out the rot of the city. In this little mountain range of grime, the children of the tenements skied in the hills of trash; we sledded a washbasin down the dangerous slopes of steaming scrap metal.   There in the cliffs of urban slag, we searched for small treasures, toothless emerald combs, golden Ambrosoli candy wrappers, the section of “Rhythm” magazine underneath the backbone of a mutt, a bottle of blue magnesium caked with live shit, a piece of a 45, half-buried, mirroring the mute music of the dump, boiling with flies, maggots and rats on that September morning in 1973.

From the third floor of the tenements, you could see the three cadavers in the stubble of refuse, still twisted by their last death rattle, still tepid in their bluish flesh, pearled by the drizzle of dawn’s humid blanket.  I saw five men spattered with iodine, that morning from my childhood, glimpsed through the legs of the people, my neighbors commenting that maybe they were delinquents brought to justice by the State of Siege, like the TV said.  They said this, pointing to one of the men who was a little older and used a toupee.  It had fallen off in the hammering of the gunfire, and his open cranium showed, like a handful of rubies clotted by the sun.

For me, something about this suspicion didn’t make sense, the adjective delinquent didn’t fit those 45 or 60 year old bodies, simple men in their sad clothes violated by the bayonets.  Maybe they were grandfathers, uncles, fathers, mechanics, electricians, bakers, gardeners, union workers, detained in the factory, and finished off here in the dump in front of my house, far away from their families, who waited all through this eternal night with prayers in their mouths, in a vigil of centuries, to never see them again.

Twenty five years have passed since that morning, and the same shiver still shakes the memory of those twisted mouths, filled with flies, those shoeless feet with their mended socks, ripped where their cold toes stuck through, swollen, stiff.  The image returns again and again, has stayed with me since that time, like “the dog that won’t go away or shut up.”  In the long run, I’ve gotten used to remembering the visual touch of the cold carpet of their garbage shroud.  I could almost say that their curled hands salute me from that fetid wasteland of my childhood, fists raised underneath the black pearl moon where their bitter flowering stubbornly blooms.


Carmen Gloria Quintana

(or “A Burned page in the Book Market”)

Translator’s Note: On the 2nd of July, 1986, Carmen Gloria (age 18) and American citizen Rodrigo Rojas Denegri (age 19) were beaten and set on fire by the military during a protest.  They were later found abandoned outside the city.  Rodrigo died the sixth of July and Carmen Gloria survived with burns on 65% of her body. Though the issue was taken to court, it was not until October of 2000 that Quintana received a settlement from the government.

Like anyone spending the afternoon at the Book Market, I find her leafing through poetry and looking at titles, confronting her fire-tattooed face with the “little caramel mouths and silken complexions” of the stylish babes who sparkle on the covers of the best sellers and magazines.  Carmen Gloria Quintana, the flaming face of the dictatorship, seems like a maimed magnolia in the eyes of those who recognize her today under the map of grafts. The impertinent eyes that turn to watch her young mother’s figure as she leads her child through the people.

But there are very few who remember her face printed in the photographs in the papers.  You could count on one hand the people who discover her face, like finding a scorched petal between the pages of a book.  There are very few who can read a page of the novel of Chile in that assaulted face.  Because the story of Carmen Gloria Quintana has nothing to do with the lite literature that fills the display cases.  And if someone were to write her story, it would be difficult to escape the sentimental testimony that traces her features in the incinerated outline of the writing.  It could be that just saying something about her passes inevitably through her story, which might be similar to that of many young women who lived through the dense smoke of the protests in the poblaciones, back then in the eighties.    If it hadn’t been for that night, when all of Chile was an echo of shouting and clanging pots and pans.  And that street had to be cut off with a barricade.  And she and Rodrigo Rojas de Negri were there with the jug of gasoline, on that street corner of terror when the patrol arrived.  When they threw them violently to the ground, laughing, drenching them with the gas, threatening to set them on fire.  And even as they were being splattered they didn’t believe it.  And when the match was lit, they still doubted that the fascist cruelty would change them into burning wicks of light, on fire as a lesson to the opposition.  And then the spark.  And in that instant their clothes blazing, skin blazing, peeling like coal.   All the horror of the world crackling in their young bodies, in their beautiful carbonized bodies, illuminated like torches in the blackout of the night of protest. Their bodies, marionettes in flames, leaping in time to the howls of laughter.  Their glowing red bodies, metaphorized to the limit like stars of a flagrant left.  And beyond the pain, beyond the hell, unconsciousness.  Beyond this macabre dance, the void of the tomb, a ditch where they were abandoned, believed to be dead.  Because only if they were dead could it be argued that it was an accident, a mistaken slosh of gas that lit up their clothes.  And dawn came, only for Carmen Gloria, because Rodrigo, the handsome Rodrigo, maybe weaker, perhaps more childlike, couldn’t escape the blaze and continued burning deeper within the earth.

The funerals came later, surrounded by the cardinal shroud of the flags, and later on the trials and the guilty.  But sooner came the judicial pardon and the forgetting that left the pyromaniacal laughter go free, maybe mingling today with the bustle of the Book Market.  So, Carmen Gloria walks between the people without allowing herself the pity of feeling them watch her.  Something within her lets her keep her head held high, raised, as if she were a slap in the face of the present.  The same way, face to face with John Paul II, she maintained the same expression, telling the pope the soldiers did this to me.  But the pontific played gringo and passed by the Chilean spics in his long robe, throwing fistfuls of blessings to all sides.

Now Carmen Gloria studies psychology, is married and has a son.  It would seem that her life has followed a similar path to that of many young people of the time.  If it were not for the perpetual makeup which she wears with a certain pride.  As though anyone who showed a face like hers were a living receipt of the price paid for the democracy.  And this page of history doesn’t have a price in the literary market, which sells only a porcelain face, without past, for the neo-liberal consumption.

So, long after Carmen Gloria has been swallowed by the multitude, I continue seeing her face, like someone watching an extinguished star, and just the memory makes her titillate in my homosexual heart, escaping from my chest.  And I let it go, like an enamored firefly, following the glow of her footsteps.


Karin Eitel

(or “The cosmetics of torture, by Channel 7 and intended for all audiences”)

Sometimes a photograph of a woman’s face has a vaporous atmosphere that poeticizes the discovery of her presence, captured and immobile in the paper.  On the other hand, the face of a woman filmed on television assumes a neurotic movement, a tremulous image disturbed by the epileptic blinking that continually touches up the cosmetics of her appearance on the screen.  And maybe this sensation of watching an electrified face might be an argument for remembering Karin Eitel, for watching her face again, and with the same chill, shivering on the screen of Channel 7, on the family news show for all audiences.   Her young face, bristling in the shining glass.  Her face, chosen as a warning, absolutely doped up by the drugs that the C.N.I injected into her so that she would read her letter of repentance for the public.  A deceptive document, which they wrote themselves, in which Karin vigorously disowned her past in the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front.  Confusedly drunk on barbituates, she denied the beatings and outrages committed in the secret jails of the dictatorship.  In those cells of horror on Londres St. or Borgoño.  These high-roofed houses where the echoed screaming replaced her sight, blocked by the blindfold.  Old houses in traditional barrios, scattered throughout a Santiago disturbed by the metallic barking of the nightfear, the nightpunch, the nightcrime, the metallic night plowing fear into the thorned streets of the eighties.

Karin’s appearance on the National Channel that evening was intended to counteract the denunciation of violations of human rights in dictatorial Chile, and that’s why they assembled the pathetic scene of her televised confession.  That’s why Karin was reciting, in her narcotized voice, giving a false line that the whole country had memorized.  In her calm tone, imposed by the killers behind the cameras, her beating showed through, the blind fist, the punch in the groin, the fall and the scrapes on her face covered by Angel Face powder.  In her voice, so alien to her televised personality, rose up a chorus of Nevers and Not Evers shocked by the needles of the current, the electric sting twitching her eyes, leaving them as open as a rigid doll sewed up with syringes.  Like a doll without a will of her own, forced to keep her eyes fixed in front of her, made up like a slut’s.  (Like the rage that had marked her eyelids black and blue).  Her eyes, so recently open to the outside, after so many days as a prisoner in the shadows, after that long night, eyes broken open, waiting to predict the next unexpected blow.  Her eyes wild behind that nothingness, that flannel, that scrap of a bandage like a heavy curtain of mourning, also open to the black jungle of abuse.  And after so much darkness and searching and accusation, Karin’s expressionless eyes, wide open for Chilean television, for the Chilean family drinking their tea during the evening news.

Maybe there are only a few people who have saved this image of high-rating cruelty in their memory of the recent past.  There are only a few of us who learned to watch Chilean television with our eyes closed from that day on, as if we were listening tirelessly to Karin’s declaration under their whiplashes as she repented her red militancy, her maimed chileflower of militancy, trembling clottedly in the lipstick they put on her mouth, in the clownish scrawl they gave her for a mouth, in the scab of a heart drawn on her lips with the makeup of fear.  Her mouth twisted by that Never, but that Never, anesthetized, exhausted by the times she had to practice it before filming.  That Never forced by the recoil under her sleeve, out of view of the camera, that Never faded by the bottomless dizziness of the volts.  That Never held up by the glass of water they gave her so that she could stay on her feet, that Never bitten down to the salt of the tongue with the opaque pleasure of blood.  That Never spread across the country in the composed image, smeared with rouge and dressed up like a good girl in order to deny her rage, to cosmetically falsify the violetish circles under her eyes and the bruises earned in the dark alleyway of the unforgettable C.N.I.

Perhaps, remembering Karin in the televised calendar of the eighties allows us to visualize her present life, scratched by these events, to know that she was the only student at the Catholic University who was not allowed to reenter her major in translation.  As if the punishment would repeat itself eternally for the victims of the patriotic jeer in an endless movie.  It’s possible that the few facts that I have about Karin, plus the video by Lotty Rosenfeld, the only artist to take up the case in order to denounce it in her work, don’t permit me the serene objectivity needed to narrate this event.  What’s more, the persistent drowsiness of these days alters my pen in such a way that I keep seeing her, trembling in the water of the screen, submerged deeper and deeper underneath history, ever more clouded in oblivion, moving her mouth slowly in the never repented cross of her guerilla flower.


Corpus Christi

(or “The night of the scorpions”)

Of all the news spectacles in the past dictatorship, perhaps the event of Corpus Christi, also called the ‘Operation Albania’ by the dictatorship’s secret police, was one of the most abhorrent actions ever to rock the country with its two-faced media portrayal.  On one hand there was the complicit journalism of The Mercury newspaper and Channel Thirteen: the star reporter appeared next to the still tepid corpses, explaining that this was the price to pay for conflicts between the armed subversion and the security apparatus protecting the country from extremists.  On the other hand, the clandestine report: the chocolaty gush of the massacre, the paraplegic contortion of the twelve bodies, surprised by the ambush, seared unexpectedly by the crackling burst of bullets blazing their skin, captured by the assault of the battalion that came into the houses like a lightning bolt knocking down the door, shattering the windows, in a mad rush of rabid dogs, a pack of salivating hyenas, a horde of coyotes, blinded by the order to kill, to carve up every shadow with bullets, every shape of a man, child or injured woman, groping towards the back door.  There, blinded by the prick of gunpowder on her forehead, the girl learning guerilla warfare seemed to dance, nailed again and again by the crackling heat of the machine gun.  Farther back, the young idealist didn’t have time to drink from the cup in his hand, and fell over the table hemorrhaged with blood and coffee that starched his white shirt.  Even paler than the garland of broken chrysanthemums sprouting from his chest.

Bile and blood seasoned the bitter stew of that night.  The thick pleasure of horror vinegared the supper in the houses of the riddled twelve.  The schoolgirl’s weeping mother didn’t believe what had happened, the guy from the slum said that his brother had gone out early without a word, the college student’s father didn’t want to make any statements, and the neighbors discussed the horrible calamity in low voices.  And as for all of those who swam counter-current in the fight back then, we felt the rage again, and then a stab of fear, a bottomless fear, a guttural fear at the premonition of the shadow of boots under the door.  That they could be capable of such a thing.  If they had planned that night of wolves and knives so coolly.  If they had crept up to the houses, warning the neighbors not to come out.  If they had abducted some of them beforehand, unveiling them only after, cold and misshapen.  And they lingered excitedly behind the streetlamps, waiting for the others.  Maybe they divvied up the victims as they arrived and, at the order to attack, didn’t hesitate to bathe themselves mercilessly in the lurid binge.

And later, after finishing off the survivors with a final shot, they relaxed in the blanketed silence of corpses, breaking into laughter, patting each other on the back, mutually congratulating each other for the operation’s success.

Perhaps, after that, the hundred Chilean men, members of the armed forces and the secret police returned to their houses a little wearily, greeted their wives and kissed their children, and sat themselves down to eat dinner while watching the news.  If they could eat calmly, could burp while watching the line of twisted lumps paraded across the screen.  If they slept deeply that night, and without the help of pills, or even fornicated with their wives and, in the moment of cumming, returned to kill, ejaculating frozenly over the rigid bodies. If, on that night of scorpions, one of them conceived a son who is now about eleven years old.  If the boy is taken by the hand of this ex-secret service agent, near those streets, Pedro Donoso, Varas Mena or Villa Frei, and doesn’t understand why his father avoids passing by these corners.  If today, in the newly opened case of the Operation Albania, one of them is called to testify, and before leaving feels afraid to meet the deer-like eyes of this inquiring child.  If he is afraid, if he finally feels fear.  Let this be the beginning of his judgment in that interrogating innocence as interminable punishment.

In memory of Ignacio Valenzuela P., Patricio Acosta C., Julio Guerra O.,

Iván Henríquez G., Patricia Quiroz N., José Valenzuela L., Ricardo Rivera

S., Elizabeth Escobar M., Manuel Valencia C.,

Ester Cabrera H., Ricardo Silva S., Wilson Henríquez G.,

Santiago, 15-16 of June 1987


The Rettig Report

(or “Love note to memory’s incorruptible ear”)

Translator’s Note: The Rettig Report was assembled by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the Pinochet Dictatorship in April of 1990.  Their nine month mandate was to document the most serious human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.  The three volume, 2,000-page report was presented on March 5, 1991 and stated that at least 2,025 persons were killed or “disappeared” during the period of military rule.

And there were so many beatings, so much love broken open by the violence of the searches.  They asked us about them so many times, again and again, like they were giving us back our own question, like they were playing innocent, like a joke, as if they didn’t know the exact place where they had disappeared them.  Where they had condemned them, according to the dirty laws of the fatherland, which would never give away the secret.  They would never say where in the plains, in what fold of the hills, in which green swell they had deceived their pale bones.

And so, after a time, after so much mucking through the mess of the military tribunals, ministries of justice, offices and the little courthouses windows, where they told us: these old women again, with their story about the detained-disappeared, where they made us wait hours processing the same request, the same: Ma’am, forget it, Ma’am, give up, there’s nothing new.  They must be out of the country, must have run away with some other terrorists.  Ask over there in investigations, in consultations, in the embassies, because it’s useless to ask here.


And, so that the turbid wave of depression wouldn’t make us into deserters, we had to learn to survive by taking our Juanes, Marías, Alecs, Carols, Leos and Raquels by the hand.  We had to catch them by their curled hands and put up with their fragile burden, walking through bitter salt fields of the present search.  We couldn’t leave them barefoot, with this cold, in all kinds of weather, shivering under the rain.  We couldn’t leave them alone, so dead within that earth of nobody, in that rocky wasteland, destroyed under the dirt of nowhere.  We couldn’t leave them detained, moored, under the iron of that metallic sky.  In that silence, in that hour, in that infinite minute with the smoldering bullets.  With their beautiful mouths open in a deaf question, in a question fixed on the aiming executioner. We couldn’t leave those beloved eyes so orphaned.  Terrified, maybe under the darkness of a blindfold.  Trembling, perhaps like dazzled children at the movies for the first time, and they stumble in the darkness, reaching into the void for a hand to grab hold of at the last minute.  We couldn’t have left them there so dead, so erased, as burned as a photograph evaporating in the sun, a portrait made eternal, washed by the rain of their farewell.

Night after night, we had to recreate their faces, their jokes, their gestures, their nervous tics, their tantrums, their smiles.  We stubbornly forced ourselves to dream them, to remember again and again their way of walking, their special way of knocking on the door or sitting down wearily when they came in from the street, from work, from the university or the high school.  We forced ourselves to dream them, like someone drawing a loved face in the breeze of an invisible landscape.  Like someone returning to childhood, who tries again to solve a riddle, a facial puzzle, the last piece ruined by the hammering of the bullets.

And even then, despite the cold air that enters through the open door, we like to fall asleep cradled by the velvet warmth of their memory.   We like to know that every night we will exhume them from this swamp without direction, or number, or south, or name.  It couldn’t be any other way; we couldn’t live without touching the icy silk of their eyelashes in every dream.  We could never face anything again if we let the bloody perfume of their breath evaporate.

So we learned to survive by dancing the sad polka of Chile with our dead.  We take them everywhere, like a hot sun of shadow in our hearts.  They live and travel with us, silvering the blemishes of our rebellious grey hairs.  They are guests of honor at our table, and they laugh with us and sing with us and dance and eat and watch TV.  And they, too, point at the guilty when they appear on the screen talking about amnesty and reconciliation.

Every day our dead are more alive, every day they are younger, every day they are fresher, as if they would always be revived in a subterranean echo that sings them, birthing them again in a love song, in a tremble of embraces and a sweat of hands, where the stubborn moisture of their memory will never dry.

Translator Bio: April Howard teaches Latin American History at SUNY Plattsburgh and is a member of the editorial collective at Upside Down World. You can contact her at april.m.howard(at)