Bougainvillea and bitter memories: Villa Grimaldi Park for Peace

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birch trees in grid pattern

Birch Courtyard, Villa Grimaldi

Horns honk, people push, patience is short; Santiago is teeming with activity, a modern metropolis in the throes of summer heat.  But 45 minutes from the city’s center sits a quiet place of rest, respite, and reflection, filled with the pleasant sounds of birds in birch trees and the smell of roses and bougainvillea.  Not only is this small oasis at the foot of the Andes a peaceful park but it is also a Site of Conscience.  In fact, in the form of Villa Grimaldi Park for Peace, a grassroots initiative born in the mid-90s to recover the site and re-tell the stories of a one-time clandestine concentration camp, community activists and human rights actors have succeeded in creating a unique environment to engage a complicated past.

model of Villa Grimaldi property

A model recreates Villa Grimaldi as it was from 1974-78

Since Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990 until the present day, many members of civil society have been trying to piece together a horrific history while others have pushed against these efforts.  Such was the case when immediately after the dictatorship plans were discovered to erect condominiums at the site once known as “Cuartel Terranova” by a construction company with family ties to a Pinochet henchman.  But alert neighbors and activists allied with timid yet committed politicians attempted to reverse the effort to erase the remnants of a camp that, between 1974 and 1978, housed 4,500 prisoners, 232 of whom were disappeared or executed.  And they succeeded.  But after the property was officially transferred to newly established neighborhood organizations, it was also discovered that many of Villa’s original structures had already been razed.  Gone was the principal Villa.  Gone was the infamous Tower.  Gone were the hellish cells that housed the humans who had participated in the democratic revolution of Salvador Allende between 1970 and 1973.

But what confronted the protagonists was not only a mostly barren piece of land.  They also faced the challenges of undertaking the very first attempt in Chile’s transition to recover a physical site connected to human rights violations, to say nothing of the fact that very little was known about Cuartel Terranova.  What was apparent, though, was that former prisoners of the camp were essential to the enterprise–that it was their perspective and  intimate knowledge of the place that would help shape the historical narrative and thematic nature of Villa Grimaldi Park for Peace.  According to Villa’s website, in 1994 “it was decided to construct a park that would serve as a place of remembrance, reflection, and the promotion of Human Rights, emphasizing life and peace where there was once death and suffering.”  Since then, though, Villa has flourished beyond this initial mission, reaching wider national and international audiences through a network of professional work and development.  This work and development runs the gamut between performance and theatre on the park’s grounds to academic seminars and publications pointed at collective memory and citizenship development.

wooden tower

Re-creation of the infamous water tower, used for cells

Evidence of this development is also clear in Villa’s new initiative to create a museum of memory under the leadership of Carolina Aguilera to complement an existing human rights education program and bilingual park tours.  Aguilera wrote that one of the reasons for the initiative is the “need to investigate what happened at the site in the context of the State terrorism brought about by the military dictatorship” (“Hacia una perspectiva de Educación en Derechos Humans a partir de la experiencia de Villa Grimaldi,” published in Ciudadanía y memorias: Desarrollo de sitios de conciencia para el aprendizaje en derechos humanos, 2011).  But Aguilera also conveyed to me in a recent conversation the sensitivity required to retain the Peace Park’s original message of reparation and reflection for victims.  In fact, the symbolic and practical question of Pinochet’s victims of “Dónde Están?” or “Where are they?” is the departure point of historical inquiry at Villa despite, or because of, the responsibility to move beyond a narrative of “victimization.” So as much as the park grounds elicit reflection and reparation for victims, so too do they produce a conscious decision to conduct more rigorous historical work.

In a special way, though, much of this work is dependent on the collaboration of camp survivors and their (hi)stories.  Villa’s Oral History Archive is one place where such work takes place.  This project utilizes testimonies and insights to help piece together the concentration camp’s history and build a public archive that is accessible to students, interested citizens, and scholars, alike.  This testimony is the primary source for what we know about Villa today, since no state evidence or acknowledgement attesting to the site’s history has been discovered, while material remains remain marginal at best.  Thus, these firsthand accounts fuel the historic site’s fire and create the narrative and interpretive arc across the park.  Aguilera hopes that the autobiographical interviews will also “contextualize the personal experience” of the one-time prisoners.

"mir" sign in garden

In the gardens of Villa Grimaldi

For me, my personal experience at Villa was contextualized by an environment that mixed historical knowledge and the park’s aesthetics.  The bougainvillea next to the original and ominous black, metal-gate (where a Traverso bici can be spotted) was for some the first contact with the camp, which was also known as The House of the Bougainvillea.  The Rose Garden, kept intact by security agents for its sensory values, too, was symbolic in survivors’ testimonies and now stands in the same place to honor the disappeared and executed women.  The Birch Courtyard is set in a grid pattern to dramatize prisoners’ one-time cells, with a single birch inset in each square to represent the solitary experience of imprisonment.  The Ombu Tree is one of the few vestiges that escaped the razing.  From its branches prisoners were hanged.  Today it is imbued with its original Argentine meaning: The Tree of Hope.

These mediations and the use of history at Villa help get at a common question that many of us memory folk confront: how to mark or memorialize sites connected to violence and terror.  The utilization of a former concentration camp as a park for peace based on survivors’ testimonies and participation, then, helped me put into sharper—or perhaps reflexive—perspective the historical question of “Dónde Están?”  Because as much as we are seeking physical proof and other evidence of human rights violations to establish truth and justice, so too do we need to create spiritual spaces to articulate our present feelings and the memories that they invoke.  In the words quoted by Macarena Gómez Barrais (Where Memory Dwells, 2009) from a mother of a detained-disappeared person, “My son likes it here.  It’s a calm place where his spirit can rest in peace.”

~ Zachary McKiernan

This is Part 2 of the “Letters from Chile” series.  Also see the Introduction and Part 1.

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