“This was where the women were held”. We were in Santiago’s National Stadium standing in a dim, concrete block lined with cubicles. On the walls were old black and white photographs, chilling, showing women in a line being herded, hands behind their heads, by soldiers with machine guns; others showed people standing desolately behind fences, under guard. It was November 2016 and we were visiting some of the many detention centres in Santiago, Chile where thousands of people were held following the military coup on 11 September 1973.
The young man taking us around this sight of remembrance (Sitio de la Memoria) spoke passionately about the ordeal faced by so many, years before he was even born. Hanging from the walls were banners with poetry and quotations. Coming to the end of one, I saw it was written by Maria Eugenia Bravo. “I know her” I told our guide. His eyes lit up, “I love her poetry, does she live in London? Tell her I am a big fan of hers”. When I returned to the UK I contacted Maria Eugenia to pass on his message. She did not know that her poetry was displayed in the place where she had been detained all those years ago, and was moved to hear that her words had resonance in a younger generation of Chileans.
I left you Chile
I left you Chile
battered in fading spring
whose blossoms bled away.
I left you cowering
under a feeble sun
occluded by sick clouds.
I left you with your heart discarded
like a used handkerchief
crumpled at the bottom of a bag
I left you,
I turned my back on youMaría Eugenia Bravo Calderara
with an unspeakable lump in my throat,
my footsteps leaden with defeat.
in Prayer in the National St, KATABASIS, London 1992. Translated by Dinah Livingstone
Sharing Memories– (Marilyn Thomson)
I was in Chile to participate in a special event commemorating the WUS (UK) scholarship programme where I had worked in the 1970’s. The programme supported Chilean academics and students whose human rights had been violated and studies interrupted following the military coup in 1973. For many Chileans, the offer of a scholarship to study in the UK had been a passport to get out of detention and escape from torture, and many lives had been saved with this offer coming from abroad. Maria Eugenia Bravo was one of those scholars.
At the commemorative event in Santiago former staff from the UK and Chile (myself, Alan Phillips, Pauline Martin-Alvarez, Susy Carstairs and Alice Ribiero to Menezes) met together with WUS award holders, after so many years, to share their memories of the programme and their lives in exile following the coup and on return to Chile. I was moved by the words of the keynote speaker, Ricardo Lagos, who was the chair of the awards committee for a time and was elected President of Chile many years later. He stressed the importance of the WUS programme, not just as a humanitarian effort and a show of solidarity, but also for the future development of the country once democracy had returned. Many refugees brought back new knowledge and skills to the country and obtained jobs at the universities, in government departments and in community enterprise projects.
The event was held in the Museo de la Memorias y Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago and the following day we visited this impressive building and collection of memories from the coup and its impact on Chile and its people, as well as paying homage to the international solidarity that was received and appreciated by the people. We also went to visit some of the torture centres where many were detained some who were released to go into exile and many others who disappeared.
A story of exile and poetry
I first met Maria Eugenia in September 1975, after she had arrived in London fleeing the repression following the coup in Chile. She had worked at the university in Chile and, like many other students and academics, had been detained in the National Stadium and later in prison. Whilst under detention she wrote poetry as a record of all she was experiencing and witnessing. She tells how writing was an act of subversion and an assertion of her right to freedom and she was fearful that if the military guards found her poems there could be serious repercussions, so she wrote them in tiny handwriting on cigarette papers and smuggled them out to her mother who hid them until Maria Eugenia was safely out of the country.
Maria Eugenia was eventually offered a scholarship from WUS (UK) for postgraduate studies in the UK and fled the country with her young daughter. She completed a doctorate on Pablo Neruda’s work on identity and aesthetics, but not without many hurdles along the way integrating into a new country and culture, having to make many adjustments to the life of an exile. Following her studies, she worked for over twenty years with the British Refugee Council, all the while continuing to write. Her first book of poetry Prayer in the National Stadium, published in 1991, received a prize from the Greater London Council and her short stories and poetry have been included in various collections and anthologies over the years. More recently she coordinated a narrative workshop of Chilean women living in England and, together with six other women who initially met together to share their memories and support each other, wrote a book of memories called Far from Home (Lejos de Casa) that was published in Chile in 2008. Since 2012, Maria Eugenia has been a part of a literary workshop of Hispanic American women living in the UK who give creative writing sessions, readings and performances around the country, sharing their work with a wide audience and reaching out to women from different communities. They have published two anthologies, one of poetry called Wonder Makers. Navigators of Thames: Poetry and a book of short stories: Navigators of Thames: Stories and other narratives, (Maravilladoras. Navegantes del Támesis) both were published in Chile by editorial Escaparate. Although she had wanted to return to Chile, and has been back to visit, it was difficult for her daughter who had grown up in the UK and whose identity was formed here to adjust. So, she decided to remain in the UK. She reflected on what the WUS scholarship had meant to her and other women:
“In the beginning it was difficult being a student because of the conditions from which I had come but having a scholarship gave me tranquillity, a breathing space amidst all the insecurity, and it helped me to integrate into this new world. Even though being a postgraduate student was a huge effort it was also a gift, and the experience made me grow up, it was a chance to re-programme my life, and things have gone well for me here. Many Chilean women found a new role and status, and greater equality. Having a scholarship, and other support, such as child benefits, helped women immensely to re-evaluate our lives and find ourselves.”
Maria Eugenia is currently putting the finishing touches to her Memoirs which she has called The Red Roof House which she hopes to send to a literary contest in Chile later this year.