Why we need to remember how Cambridge came to the aid of Pinochet's victims

Posted in Blog

I was eight months old when Chile’s military forces ousted Allende’s government, exchanging democracy for terror, murder and torture.

Children were killed and dead and battered bodies thrown on the street should anyone doubt the intent of the regime. Thousands went into concentration camps, others were vanished while a propaganda war ensured the country would be split in two, pitting Chilean against Chilean, a wound whose scar to this day pulses red and raw.

It was against this backdrop that hundreds of thousands of Chileans fled the country, some escaping the military forces, others exiled, separated from their families without knowing when they might return.

My parents escaped to Argentina, though their luck ran out as the military took over that country too. Eventually they released my father and we made it to the UK, not a drop of English between him and his four and two year old sons. But it turned out we weren’t alone. An old Chilean friend was in Cambridge, freshly arrived himself with his wife and two daughters (one of which is the brains behind this film, Camila). There was also a band of British volunteers who had taken it upon themselves to do what they could to help the exiled families settle, to find homes and jobs and schools, to teach them English and to campaign for an end to Chile’s military dictatorship.

The time and effort put in by these volunteers went well beyond any call of duty, eating into their home life as well as work.

But the Chileans felt welcomed and safe. They managed to quickly organise themselves as they sought to rebuild their lives. A political campaign group was set up, but it was the cultural rebuilding that stood out, the folk dance group, Chilean stalls selling emapanadas at the market and Strawberry Fair and the new year parties running deep into the night, the best night of the year. It was a close knit community and despite what was happening back home, a happy one.

Things have moved on since then, some people have returned to Chile, our parents have mostly retired and us second generationers have our own families and children now. But as I turn 40, so does the coup and I realise I do not want to forget, the country is yet to be healed.

Part of that is honouring the efforts made on our behalf all those years ago. There are studies on exile and its effects, but there are not many personal stories documented and that’s what this project, this film, is about. What is it that drove the British here in Cambridge to help these unknown foreigners, where did this mass of humanity come from and does it still exist here today?

There are important memories and histories from a unique time in Cambridge’s past to be told and if we don’t capture them now we may not get another chance, we’re duty bound.


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