Friday, 20 September 2013

Independence, 11 September, Santiago: A Walk through History

To walk or to read? A caminar.

The National Library of Chile’s recent publication La Memoria que nos une (The Memory That Unites Us, 2013) shows clearly how Chile’s buildings, books, roads and institutions have been intimately linked to and shaped by the country’s domestic history and international relations. So has it has been for 200 years, and so it continues to be today.

After an intense week of conferences, meetings and archival research in Santiago, we established that the history of Chile in the 1820s was not nation-centric, but closely connected to events and people elsewhere in the world. Hopefully the publications that come out of our meetings will demonstrate this. My colleagues from the Chilean 1820s project – Joanna Crow, Andrés Baeza, Juan Luis Ossa, Daniel Gutierrez Ardila, Graciela Iglesias Rogers, Manuel Llorca-Jaña, Susana Gazmuri – have returned to their homes. I had a day to spare (14 September 2013) before travelling on to Lima, so put my Independence Walk plan into action.

En los pasos de la independencia

My route, in the end, was quite simple. From República metro station I ascended to the statue of Simón Bolívar, then went south down Avenida José Miguel Carrera, through the Parque O’Higgins, along Blanco Encalada, up Calle Lord Cochrane continuing onto Amunátegui and back down Calle San Martín to the statue of San Martín on the Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins. I walked more or less due south, east a bit, due north, west a bit, due south. On the map the route is like a long rectangle.

What did I hope to achieve on this walk? (see previous post). I wanted to see if limiting my walk to streets marked by the history of Independence would give me any insight into the history of Chile, two hundred years ago and today. Choosing such a route took me to areas of the city I didn’t know. It allowed to stretch my legs after a week cooped up in libraries and lecture theatres.

The statue of Bolivar is a pretty standard affair, and given that he never came to Chile, seemed a good place from which to depart on this walk into the reaches of Chilean history. Avenida José Miguel Carrera, named after one of the heroes of early Chilean history, expunged from political life by his rival Bernardo O’Higgins and thus a patriotic martyr to the stunted dreams of free, prosperous national life, begins as an immediately dark channel away from the vibrant centre, overlooked by the immense Colegio de los Sagrados Corazones. Two-story houses with faded glamour begin to crumble, with many padlocked. 

Further down, the signs of early gentrification begin with street art and a cafe or two. At the end of Carrera I moved on to Blanco Encalada, Chile’s first naval hero who was moved aside upon the arrival of Lord Cochrane in 1818, when the Scotsman became the first head of the Chilean navy despite Blanco Encalada’s previous experience and national origins. B.E.’s road is a wide boulevard with racing traffic lined by the sturdy buildings of the Universidad de Chile. From here I entered the Parque O’Higgins.

During the c.19 this was the Parque Cousiño, and it was here that Santiago’s first games of football were played, next to the racecourses of the Club Hipico. On this Saturday afternoon families relaxed after lunch, teenagers gaggled and couples embraced. There was little football being played, so I walked through the park, and turned back on myself up Avenida Manuel Rodriguez. M.R. was an ally of the Carrera brothers, another whose heroics in the early stage of independence were recalled by later radicals who wanted to achieve real freedom a century after independence. M.R’s road is a massive dirty racetrack sliced through by the new metro line that stops nearby at the Parque O’Higgins stop. I trekked northwards and quickly came across, tucked into the corner of the Parque O’Higgins, the Santiago Lawn Tennis Club, founded 4 November 1904. Inside, I asked permission to take a photo, and was referred by the car park attendant to the grounds attendant to, finally, the administrator, Hector Garrido. Hector kindly showed me round the 12 clay courts and the mock-Tudor-English-chalet-style clubhouse, purpose built in 1910 for the club, whose first director was Sir Gerald Lowther. After an agreeable chat about the history of tennis in Chile and its present decline (as we spoke Chile were being dumped out of the Davis Cup World Group I by the Dominican Republic, though there was a football match on the clubhouse’s tv) I headed back onto the trail of the history of independence. I wanted to reach the Scottish hero of independence: Lord Cochrane.

First I had to walk along Avenida Ejército Libertador, the road of the Liberating Army, which took me around the Parque Militar. Outside, I asked two apparently obsequious cadets if I could take a photo. ‘La cosa está muy complicada’, said Fierro, gesturing towards the CCTV cameras that overlooked us with a glance that implied that resistance was, and always would be, futile. Eventually I was consented to take a picture of the building as long as I was 50m away.

Remaining in the Zona Militar, I rounded the building, a huge, early c.20 monolith, to find the entrance, where entrance is not allowed. Instead I was barked at by a dog, and I took a photo of a 1896 German cannon which was aimed, threateningly, at the centre of the city. I took my leave of the guard dogs, and headed up Ejército Libertador again. 
My weak attempt at visual art: a view of the Santiago property bubble and construction boom seen through and over a nineteenth-century German canon

As I headed towards Cochrane I had to make my first and only leave of Independence. Walking along Claudio Gay, named after the French mid.c19 traveller whose engraved books are a treasure trove of tropes of European visions of South America, I reached the corner with Manuel Rodriguez, and I was back on independent-ground. Above a bakery was an old commercial sign for a previous owner 'Importadora y Exportadora de Alimientos: Walden y Lambreaux Ltda'. The man stood lolling beneath the sign said that as far as he was concerned I could take a picture, as business was not his field.

Guillermo – who had returned to Chile from exile in Brazil a decade ago and spoke Spanish with a Brazilian accent and English showing the signs of the cassettes that had taught him - and I spent half an hour under the sign, discussing conspiracy theories about Chilean politics, and the history of Chilean Independence. The split between Carrera and O’Higgins of two centuries ago, Guillermo contends, is the same chasm that still separates left and right, impulse and order, passion and force, in the twenty-first century. He is neither Carrerista nor O’Higginista. We separated the best of friends.

I bought a Golpe chocolate bar to keep my energy up, realising for the fisrt time that one of Chile’s best-selling chocolate bars, that I bought and ate all the time was a teacher here, is called Golpe: Coup. A chocolate bar called Coup! Surely if Marathon could be changed to Snickers it might be possible, in the name of memory and reconciliation, to change Golpe to something else. Like Perdón, for example. Or perhaps keeping the word in the public domain through chocolate has actually been an extraordinarily successful p.r. campaign. Munching on my coup, I crossed Manuel Rodriguez and made for Lord Cochrane.
Near to Cochrane is a square dedicated to Las Heras, another Independence-era figure. Like many it has been defaced with anarchist graffit
Cochrane is a down-at-heel kind of road at its southern end, distinguished mainly by the car lot owned by Miguel Angel Helo, who a plaque told me is the Consul of South Korea in Chile. I’m not sure if this end of Cochrane has ever seen better days, perhaps reflecting the lowly status of foreign admirals here in inland Santiago. A derelict lot was taken over by a graffiti collective. This made me feel like I was back at home in Easton.

Further up Cochrane's road I came across an excellent art intervention, pictured below which has replaced Cochrane's name on a street sign with the names of two young Chilean protesters, Rodrigo Cisternas and Johnny Carriqueo, killed according to El Ciudadano by the Chilean state during protests in the last decade. These images say as much as I had hoped to find during my walk.


I passed through a park featuring two impromptu mixed-sex volleyball games. At the northern end of Cochrane an electricity substation and some major new developments fought for space with old, dark, crumbling houses. When I entered the light of the Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins I reflected on Cochrane’s minor place in the urban iconography of Santiago – not even a statue. 

Continuing in the same direction carried me on Amunátegui, named after one of the major c.19 historians of independence. A former business district, the highlight here was the corner building, formerly the hq of Braden Copper Co, even more previously the residence of the Argentinian Legation in Chile, where in 1891 President Balmaceda – cited by many as the inspiration for President Allende’s decision to allow himself to be martyred on 11 September 1973 - blew his brains out after defeat in the civil war.

By now my legs were tired. I took a short-cut through Huerfanos, literally Orphans street, which after 3 blocks took me to San Martín street, and a turn south towards the end of my walk. Here, most obviously of anywhere I had been in Santiago, were the signs of the protests, marches and skirmishes of 11 September 2013. I reproduce here some of the photos I took of the bill posters slapped on the walls, half-heartedly ripped down in the subsequent days. 

"The Struggle Against Power is the Struggle of Remembering Against Forgetting"

San Martín street was by far the most politicised of the roads I walked down: San Martín himself, who was dedicated to overcoming factionalism, would no doubt have been appalled. Their theme was clear: the progress which has been made in terms of historical memory and recognition of past crimes, has not been matched by social or economic change, and impunity has not been overcome. Remembering is not enough.

At the end of San Martin I reached the Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, and looked out for his statue. As I came towards him, along the central reservation of this six lane highway, I met General Ramon Freire, another hero of independence, president and supreme anti-Bolivarian. His proud statue looks south; behind him slept a homeless indigente, an easy symbol for the way that the dreams of equality and prosperity that accompanied independence have yet to be fully realised.
Ramon Freire and friend

With that, casting a glance at the 20m high photo of Salvador Allende that overlooks the statue, at last I reached don José. His equestrian figure is mounted so high that it is barely possible to photograph it. San Martín and his steed, in conventional, epic pose, are looking over the city and towards the Andes. He is racing from Bolívar’s statue, where I started my walk, just a few blocks further west. The Liberator is reaching for the sky, flying from the streets of Santiago, leaving Chile to its own heroes, conflicts, politics and memories. The streets retain that history much better than any statue.


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