Sacrifice, dialogue and intergenerational understanding (Rachel Swanson’s project in Chile)

Three weeks ago, our adventures were just beginning. My collaborators and friends and I were brimming with anticipationIMG_1597 and excitement to see each other and to get started on a project that we believed in. Today, I’m writing this final blog post from the Santiago airport, proud to say that we finished an extremely successful and important project. Let me tell you a little bit about what we did, what we learned, and what we believe our impact to be.

Every day we conducted an oral history session, with a grandchild and their grandparent(s). We were graciously invited into the grandparents’ homes, we spent hours getting to know the family, meeting and/or catching up with the grandchild, and building rapport. Although each of the conversations developed differently, we always spoke with the student first about the project, our goals, and what they were interested in learning. Only one set of grandparents declined to talk about the dictatorship (the grandchild was apologetic)—this unwillingness to talk about this painful period of history is very understandable, and we still were able to conduct an enriching session where we learned about the period leading up to the dictatorship and the transition after the 18 years of a military government.

We dialogued with families with a wide diversity of political views; although most of the grandparents opposed the violence and censorship, most also acknowledged the military government’s successfulness in implementing order. Since 1988 (the end of Pinochet’s “presidency”), delinquency and drug use have been on the rise, according to the grandparents. One of IMG_1514my favorite questions we asked the grandparents is if it is important to talk about this period of history. Not surprisingly, most of them acknowledged that, while it is important for the younger generation to know what happened during this time, it is painful to relive that era—most of the grandparents wanted their grandchildren to know what happened, but they didn’t necessarily want to have the responsibility of telling the younger generation.

Some of our days were really hard: we met an aunt whose brother had been “disappeared” by the Chilean military forces, never to be found or heard from again. I asked a grandmother about her childhood, and she began to cry, explaining that she was grateful that her grandchildren were growing up in a “different world.” Some days we sat at tables for five, six, seven hours on end—talking with aunts and uncles and grandparents and neighbors. We drank maté (an Argentinian tea that I brought as a gift), we talked about family and—at every single home—we laughed, we hugged and smiled. The three weeks were exhausting and intense but extremely fulfilling for everyone involved.

So, what did we accomplish? We recorded fifteen videos of grandchildren talking about the process—videos that will soon   be edited, uploaded to YouTube, and spread throughout Southern Chile. We created more openness within families which, IMG_1614 (1)admittedly, is difficult to measure, but as the videos reveal, both the grandparents and the grandchildren learned from each other. Personally, I feel incredible fortunate to have been invited into so many homes, and to have learned profound lessons not only about the Chilean dictatorship, but also about family, sacrifice, dialogue, history, and values. I’m thankful for the meals that were prepared for us, the many gifts we received, and the invitations to return.

A huge thank you to my Chilean collaborators (Carlos, Jairo, Roberto, Constanza, Sebastian, Diego, Catalina, Andrea, Ron, Miriam, Nicolás, Javier, Ricardo, Cristián, Robert, José, and Mauricio) and their families. I am sincerely grateful to the Macalester IGC Student Council and the Live It! fund for providing funding and advising, Anthropology professor Olga Gonzalez and her fall Politics of Truth and Memory course for consulting and improving this project, and my Chilean host family for graciously welcoming me once again into their home.

Abuelos y nietos (Rachel Swanson’s project in Chile)

Hello from Southern Chile!

We are well into the project now- interviewing pairs of grandparents and grandchildren every day. The interviews have taken us into very rural areas, to villages, and to Temuco- a regional capital. Each oral history is different; sometimes, the interviews are short and concise, and other times, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters stop by to listen and learn. To me, those have been the most rewarding—when people other than those directly involved in the project sit down and ask their grandparents questions. Today we will facilitate oral history #7, in a suburb of Temuco called Padre las Casas. Saturday, we will also be in Temuco, but Sunday and next week we will be traveling: to Victoria (by train!), to Mulchen (a small, rural village), and to Currarehue (a village in the Andes mountains), among others.

The project is moving quickly and almost flawlessly. I say almost because we have encountered a glitch- which is purely technological. During the first interview, I found out that my camera battery has stopped working (I know those are not technical terms, but basically it does not keep a charge). Consequently, I started using my phone to record the interviews. It is not the ideal situation, but because Temuco is not a large city, there is no place that sells the kind of battery I need. I could have gone to Santiago to get it (10-12 hours away), but the phone has been working just fine. It is a minor setback, but it didn’t cost us any time or affect our interviews.

Here are some of the most interesting lessons we’ve learned so far:

  • During the Chilean dictatorship, many parents did not talk about what was happening because their Children were attending school. They didn’t want their children to repeat what they heard in school at home.
  • The period before the dictatorship was extremely challenging: Chileans had to form long colas (or lines) to obtain sugar, oil, flour- the basics. Many of the families had to wake up at four in the morning and walk into town to get into these lines. Therefore, many people- regardless of their political inclinations- were excited for the coup d’état because it represented an end to an extremely difficult period.
  • All of the grandchildren we have interviewed have spoken at length about how special their relationship with their grandparents are. It is really impressive how excited grandchildren and grandparents alike are to have these conversations.

Thanks for reading!! Below are some snapshots from the videos we have recorded so far.


andrea diego jairo

Diálogos Intergeneracionales en Chile (Rachel Swanson’s project in Chile)

In a few hours, I am going back. For someone who enthusiastically loves community work, this phrase is a dream; leaving communities that you feel a part of, with no promise of coming back, is excruciating. In a few hours, I will be journeying back to Temuco, Chile. I studied abroad in Temuco in the spring of 2014, direct enrolling in Universidad de la Frontera, living with an incredible host family, volunteering at an elementary and high school, and making life-long friendships.

I will be returning to Temuco and Southern Chile to collaborate with some of these friends in order to facilitate intergenerational dialogues. Here’s a very abbreviated history lesson: From 1973-1990, Chile had a military government (most would say dictatorship) that brought both effective neoliberal economic reforms and atrocious human rights violations. A 1988 referendum ended Agosto Pinochet’s presidency (55.9% of Chileans voted against renewing his term and 44% voted to renew his term). Throughout and after the dictatorship/military government, the Chilean people remained divided on if economic progress must have a human cost (40,018 victims of repression, including Chileans disappeared and killed) or if censorship and repression was unacceptable, even in the face of economic progress.

Because of these continued divisions and the immunity from prosecution that Pinochet and many of his military officials gained due to laws that they changed while they were in office, this period in Chilean history remains tense and divided. And I observed this when I lived in Chile: people don’t talk about the coup d’état, the fifteen years of Pinochet’s power, or the transition to democracy. Children do not know what happened, history books do not approach the subject (I know this because I studied history at my university), and parents and grandparents do not discuss this important historical period in their families.

Our project, Intergenerational dialogues in post-dictatorship Chile, will attempt to close these gaps. We are facilitating conversations between grandparents and their grandchildren about how Chile has changed in the past forty years. Our team will work with the grandchildren (college and high school-aged students) to develop questions that they will ask their grandparents in an oral history. After the oral history, our team will then record an interview with the student, asking them about the process, what they learned, and how they plan on sustaining dialogue.

I plan on spending new year with my Chilean friends and family and then jumping right in to the work, with five interviews scheduled and confirmed for our first week of the project. I’m posting this blog post ahead of time because it is sure to be a very busy few weeks, with some of the most incredible people in the world.