Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to help out my colleagues in the CIEE office and participate in different group activities. Most recently, I was able to accompany a group of students from the University of Texas – Austin on their hunt for truth regarding the history of Chile. This group of students was part of a Faculty-led program, coordinated fabulously by Natalia Castro and led by Professor Stephanie Holmsten of the International Relations & Global Students Department of Government at UTA. These students came to Chile to learn about history, politics, and human rights. I was fortunate to accompany them on an incredibly humbling and eye-opening visit that related history and politics, but also shed light on the truth regarding human rights in this country.
Our visit was to Villa Grimaldi. Villa Grimaldi has a long history as an important location of development in the neighborhood of Peñalolén. It was original a ranch that was later under the ownership of Juan Egaña, a very important Chilean humanitarian lawyer during the 1800’s, who turned the ranch into a cultural center where artists, politicians, musicians, and writers could meet and have a place to work together. During the 20th century, Villa Grimaldi became an important left wing political hot spot, especially for the political party “Popular Unity”, the party of President Salvador Allende. After the coup d’état, the Pinochet regime forced the owner of Villa Grimaldi to sell the land to the government or face deadly consequences. The government, in an effort to send a message to the leftist politicians, by using a famous left-wing cultural center, allowed DINA (Pinochet’s secret police) to take over Villa Grimaldi and transform it into a torture and interrogation center.
During our visit to Villa Grimaldi, we learned at more than 4,500 people were detained and approximately 220 people were disappeared. We were able to walk through Villa Grimaldi and see where prisoners were held, tortured, most commonly by electric shock, and interrogated. We learned about the different political movements of Santiago, from the Communist party, to guerilla groups, as well as armed revolutionaries. Our visit was led by a local professor who was generous enough to tell us about his family’s involvement in the fight against the dictatorship as part of the MIR group (Revolutionary Left Movement) and the unfortunate result of their efforts; exile to Mexico. We learned that so much of this information about political prisoners and activists was largely unknown and is still denied by much of the country’s right-wing advocates. But, what was most shocking to me was that many of those who were detained at Villa Grimaldi were young artists, intellectuals, educators, and free thinkers, not that much unlike myself and the students I was accompanying.
I have been living in Chile for about 5 years now and this was my first visit to Villa Grimaldi. The experience was both humbling and educational. I feel very fortunate that I was able to share this experience with the students from UTA, who asked amazing questions and demonstrated a desire to understand and learn from this experience. Villa Grimaldi is not a typical visit that tourists make on a visit to the Chilean capital, but given its important history as part of Chilean politics, culture, and human rights, I hope to return to learn more and I also hope more students choose to use Villa Grimaldi as a learning experience about how we can make the world a better place.