This digital essay presents four visits I made to the infamous detention center on the outskirts of Santiago de Chile between 2006 and 2013. My many visits to the site (far more than the three I perform here) perplex even myself. Why? Why go and why go back, again and again? I’m not from Chile. I had nothing to do with Pinochet’s dictatorship. If anything, as a young adult living in Mexico City at the time, I remember the Chileans who came to Mexico as exiles. I, like many others in Mexico, felt very proud of our make-believe democracy. My first visit in 2006, with survivor Pedro Matta, changed all that. Not only was I taken by his performance of trauma but I began to understand the degree to which his performance engaged and implicated me as spectator and as a fellow citizen of the Americas. The second visit I map out in this essay was in 2012, after an audio tour of the site was made available. What, I wondered, would be different about being in place with Matta as opposed to taking an audio tour? Whose memories were being recounted, and for whom? My most recent (though surely not my last) visit was with survivor Teresa Anativia in 2013. She and I had formed a close relationship long before we visited Villa Grimaldi together. In the video testimony she offers here, she recounts the first time that she went back to Villa Grimaldi after activists had claimed it as a memory site. The heavy metal doors through which the military had brought their blindfolded captives were permanently locked at that moment—a symbolic act to guarantee that this kind of political violence would never again happen in Chile. I asked if it disturbed her to return to the site now, so many years later, through the visitor’s entrance. “No,” she said, “this is not the place.”
This essay, then, invites the reader to accompany me on several walks through Villa Grimaldi, and to think through the many issues this site (and others like it) raise in terms of memory, history, place, performance, trauma, and political contestation. Who are these spaces for? What do they ask of us? How can sites, visits, audio tapes, video testimony, and digital essays such as this one transmit a sense of what happened there, to them, and at the same time, engage ‘us’ as co-participants in the drama?
The photograph above, taken by Lorie Novak, shows the metal shards that the military tied to the bodies of their victims before they dumped them in the sea to assure they wouldn’t float. The magnifying glass focuses on a button ripped from the clothing on one of the bodies. I had not noticed it the first time I saw the shards exhibited at Villa Grimaldi. In fact, I didn’t know what I was looking at. The photo, like my many visits, reminds me that I need to shift focus and attention in order to see, understand, and feel the drama of which I, as I gradually became aware, am a part.