Chile, 1970/71

In 1970, I was offered a job teaching in an Anaconda copper mine in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. I jumped at it. I sold my poor little Karmen Ghia, that had survived an accident in Mexico, and eagerly hopped on a plane to Santiago. The mine however was located in the driest nonpolar desert in the world, a long way from the sophisticated capital city.

Almost immediately, plans of teaching only the junior high students had to be reevaluated. All of the other teachers had departed, because of rumors that the U.S.-owned mine would be nationalized if the Socialist candidate for president, Salvador Allende, was elected in early September. I had to teach all of the grades, from kindergarten through junior high. I divided the school into morning and afternoon sessions and engaged enthusiastic parent volunteers to help me during each session.

On a national level, after a very complicated three-way vote in which no candidate received a majority, Allende, with approximately 36.6% of the vote, had his victory confirmed by a Congressional vote. The mine was in turmoil, with the expat employees concerned that their jobs would end. Many Chileans were even more fearful of the new government and began researching how they could flee the country over the Andes Mountains.

By chance I had been in Santiago to see Allende appear on the balcony of La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, on the day of his inauguration where some of the country’s leading musicians, including the Parra family, had performed, and a large crowd of his supporters cheered him wildly.

I managed to maintain my jerry-rigged school schedule until Christmas vacation when I flew to Brazil to visit family friends. When I returned in January the school was in fact nationalized. My job no longer existed, and I was given an airline ticket home. I transferred the first-class ticket to economy class and arranged stops in almost every country between Chile and the US.

The trip, like prior trips to Europe in 1966 and Mexico in 1968 was transformational. While riding a bus on windy mountain roads in Bolivia, my indigenous fellow passengers covered me with a smoky blanket. As we disembarked into the dark cold night for refreshments at a little bar-restaurant, the owner told me that less than four years earlier Che Guevara had been murdered nearby. Visiting museums and archaeological sites in Peru peaked my lifelong interest in the cultures that existed before the arrival of the Spanish. Roaming freely around Machu Picchu at dawn, possible then, is something I will never forget.

A little more than two years after my arrival home, I read that a CIA-backed coup d’etat had ousted the government of Salvador Allende who committed suicide during the turmoil. That precipitated a reign of terror in which it has been estimated that over 3,000 civilians were disappeared or killed.

Thinking back to that moment I witnessed Allende’s public appearance on his inauguration day , I felt great sadness that less than three years after that the hopes of so many people had been dashed, and one of the world’s great democracies had been silenced until 1990.  

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