From the Fringes of Empire: U.S. Third World Feminists in Solidarity With Chile

October 2, 2013


In your country how / do you say copper / for my country?

– June Jordan


In her 1981 poem “Problems of Translation: Problems of Language,” African American feminist poet June Jordan sought to develop a language through which to understand her relation to Chile. Above, she probingly asks what the equivalent of copper—a central resource symbolizing the competing economic paradigms for which social struggle was waged in Chile—might possibly be in the United States. Published in her highly internationalist anthology Living Room, and dedicated to her Chilean translator, this poem undertakes the work of teasing out the complex relation between Latin American revolutions and those inhabiting the fringes of U.S. empire—namely U.S. women-of-color feminists.

Writings such as Jordan’s raise historiographical questions regarding the broader archive of global solidarities that animated the Pinochet years, and their inter-articulations with U.S. leftist, feminist, and anti-racist struggles. Indeed, throughout the Popular Unity period (1970-1973) and in the wake of the Pinochet coup, networks of solidarity were formed. Communities across the world drew from a diversity of tactics to express their outrage over the coup and to show support for the people of Chile.

This ranged from the formation of national organizations including NICH (Non Intervention in Chile) and NCCSC (National Coordinating Committee in Solidarity With Chile), to the Weather Underground’s bombing of the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) headquarters in New York City, to the work of Fuente de Información Norteamericana (FIN)—a group of North American journalists that disseminated articles in Chile about radical ethnic power movements, and socialist and feminist struggles in the United States. Indeed, NACLA itself stands as concrete testimony to the solidarity struggles across the world that were compelled to action by the dictatorship, inspiring research and organizing to uncover U.S. complicity and demand accountability for its support of the coup.

However, while much work has been done to chronicle these vital solidarity efforts, less has been written about the central leadership and vision provided by U.S. Third World feminists in the solidarity movement, which historians tend to chronicle as the Nicaraguan Solidarity movement, onward.1 Even less work has been done on the specific role of poetry and the creative arts—forums which, as I will argue, actually provided movements new ways to envision the relationships between struggles across borders and enact creative solidarities. This article examines some of the less documented solidarities that circulated between the Chilean Revolution and U.S. Black and Third World Feminists during the Popular Unity period and early Pinochet years. I structure my analysis around the development of innovative feminist models of internationalist solidarity forged through poetic praxis during the Allende years (1970-1973) and in response to the September 11, 1973 coup. Informed by longstanding feminist theorizations of poetry as a means for tapping into and forging creative modes of struggle, I probe the specific role of poetry for the bridging of local and global struggles, igniting hope in times of despair.

In order to provide a context, it is first important to clarify the internationalist approach that animated U.S. Third World and Black feminisms of the 1960s and 1970s. For, while often sidelined from historical renderings of the U.S. women’s movement, Third World struggles formed the groundwork for the cultivation of an anti-racist feminist consciousness in the United States. “The battle of Chile” served, in particular, as a crucible for an integrated critique of racism, colonization, patriarchy and imperialism. Furthermore, the Chilean Solidarity movement challenged U.S. anti-racist feminists to build new models of solidarity. It offered “a space (for the) development of a model for solidarity later used all over the world,” as Angela Davis noted in her recent reflections on the historical significance of the Chile solidarity movement at Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center.

Emerging from this historical context, Third World and Black feminist movements of the late 1960s and 1970s produced an analysis of justice as indivisible. For example, the Third World Women’s Alliance based both in New York and later the Bay Area was one organization that explicitly linked support of struggles in Vietnam, Chile, and Angola to a critical analysis of race, class, sexuality, and gender in the United States. In their newsletter Triple Jeopardy, they regularly included news about Chile alongside reports on reproductive health in Puerto Rico, Vietnamese women’s collectives, and struggles against police brutality in the United States. With its terminology derived from Francis Beale’s essay of the same title, Triple Jeopardy was dedicated to analyzing and combating the three-pronged vectors of “racism, imperialism and sexism.” In March–April 1974, Triple Jeopardy ran a story entitled “U.N. Unmasks Chilean Fascism,” alongside headlines for articles entitled “Omani Women Fight Colonialism,” “Feminine Stink Mystique,” and “Scientific Racism.” The TWWA promoted an analysis of justice in multiplicity, wherein the fight against colonialism in the Arab world, anti-imperialist revolution in Chile, a critique of white bourgeois feminism, and a challenge to scientific racism were part and parcel of one another.

Notably, this issue of Triple Jeopardy also included a letter written by Salvador Allende’s daughter, Beatriz, calling upon the “solidarity of the workers, the national minorities, students, professionals, and other popular groupings which condemn the imperialist policy of the U.S. government.” Issued from Cuba, where she had taken exile, Beatriz’s statement echoes with the courage of U.S. anti-racist feminists who did not hold back in their holistic critique of the brutal consequences of imperialism’s hierarchies of life and death for the majority of the world’s population. Chillingly, her bold words contrast with the terrible fate we know she met when she committed suicide in Cuba in 1977. Hedging against the tragic collective history we know was to follow, archives such as Triple Jeopardy take us back to a different historical moment, powerfully reminding us of the capacious visions of justice and freedom alive during the era.

In addition to crossing the borders of geography, U.S. Third World feminists utilized poetry—crossing the border of art and politics—in their efforts to build broad-based solidarities. Contemplating the role of poetry in the revolutionary process in Cuba and Nicaragua, Margaret Randall recently reflected that “poetry rallied people, moved them (and) empowered them to become active—in all our solidarity movements.” This was particularly the case in Chile, the land of Pablo Neruda, Víctor Jara, and Violeta Parra. It therefore should come as little surprise that one of the first organized solidarity actions in the United States after the golpe was a poetry reading staged at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, California on October 4, 1973.

Commemorating the deaths of both Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda, the public reading “announced the arrival of the solidarity movement to the Bay Area,” Nina Serrano, the filmmaker poet extraordinaire, who served as a central organizer and MC for the event recently told me. Orchestrated primarily by the Third World Communications Collective (TWC), the event featured the Nicaraguan poet Roberto Vargas, Chicano poets Alejandro Murguía and Luís García, as well as Fernando Alegría, who had served as Allende’s cultural attaché to the United States. A diverse cohort of writers—including Ishmael Reed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jean Franco, and Greek poets Dinos Siortis and Nanaos Valaortis—offered moving contributions to this collective cry of grief and rallying call to action.

What made the Glide Memorial poetry reading such a success, though, was the central leadership of a group of women poets who had recently convened to produce the historic Third World Woman’s Book (1972). Among these authors were now well-known writers Nina Serrano, Janice Mirikitani, and Jessica Hagedorn, as well as the exceptionally talented but little-known Pamela Donnegan, an African American poet who has not published since the mid-1970s. Produced ten years prior to historic U.S. feminist-of-color publications such as This Bridge Called My Back (1981) and five years before the African American feminist “Combahee River Collective Statement” (1977), The Third World Women’s Book, which is virtually forgotten today, combined poetry, visual art, narrative essays, and playwriting to begin voicing a shared analysis of the conditions of Third World women around the world. It brilliantly opened up an interlocking analysis of the crosscurrents of different oppressions on an international scale combined with a militant 1960s and early 1970s radicalism that vowed to “take what is rightfully ours by any means necessary,” as its authors stated in their collective introduction.2

The critical multi-pronged internationalist consciousness voiced in The Third World Women’s Book informed the contributions of these women to the Glide Memorial poetry reading, and the women poets stole the show. Their moving words interwove a critique of imperialist war in Vietnam, domestic violence, and the internment of Japanese Americans. They raised issues of police brutality in San Francisco and slavery’s legacies—all of which were integrated with a sharp critique of the devastation unfolding in Chile. Putting into practice the feminist principle that “the personal is political,” moreover, they showed the intimate contours of both imperialism and the loving creativity of nascent internationalist solidarities.

For example, Janice Mirikitani read two poems in succession: “Bomb the Water” and “Canto a Neruda,” both of which were later published in her collection Awake in the Water (1978). “Bomb the Water” was about the 1972 U.S. bombing of waterways in Vietnam, but built from images of Mirikitani’s grandmother during the 1945 nuclear attack in Japan. Referencing her personal experiences with internment, this poem wove together different moments of violence through the visceral experience of hunger. With “Canto a Neruda,” Mirikitani added one more layer to this historical continuity of imperialist violence. “Mountains are crying in shame,” she began. “Rivers are outraged / cities crumble from the people’s pain,” her voice soared. “Blood… floods the streets …(and)… crosses oceans.” Here, multiple bodies—mountains and rivers—became feeling entities, connected by a common artery of blood coursing through a unified struggle: “This is Vietnam / Chile’s anguish / Mindanao,” she continued, her voice lingering and growing louder.3

Central to the internationalism forged through this poem (and the poetry reading more broadly) was the way in which Mirikitani and her compañeras did not allow the violence to remain distant. Instead, they showed imperialism’s most intimate expressions, rendering passivity nearly impossible. In a particularly moving part of “Canto a Neruda,” her voice rose and trembled:


            With so many friends already dead

            and others who will die

            ripped by war

            will they tell us

            how ravenous the worms

            crawling beneath our living skin?

            Will we listen?


With the effective metaphor of the worms of imperialism crawling beneath one’s very skin, Mirikitani made visceral the fact that no one was immune from the effects of U.S. propagated violence. Those residing in the United States could not shirk their own complicity. While certainly asymmetrically doled out according to a global racial hierarchy of power and wealth, everyone’s fate was intertwined. “The struggle goes on here too,” stated Nina Serrano. “There is suffering, struggle, oppression and a fight right here... Right here in this neighborhood ... people (are) being busted, for blocks around.” Supporting the people of Chile would therefore not be optional for one’s own political and spiritual survival; it would be imperative.

Taken collectively, the women at the Glide Memorial poetry reading thus stressed issues of interconnection and accountability, underscoring ultimately the inter-dependency of struggles across borders. The fight against Pinochet and the new world order he ushered in would be a struggle of both intimate and global proportions. It is precisely these themes that rang just one day after the coup when Angela Davis was quoted on NBC charging American companies such as Anaconda Copper and ITT, along with the CIA, with “supporting the fascist coup” and citing the recent Non-Aligned Nations conference in Algeria as a space to develop coordinated responses to colonization and imperialism. Herself no stranger to the life-saving capacities of solidarity, Davis had visited Chile in September 1972 on a coordinated tour to thank the peoples of many nations for supporting her throughout her trial; she did not skip a beat before strongly aligning herself with the people of Chile after the coup.

Such themes of interdependence and creative solidarity also ring strongly in the work of the Black feminist and brilliant essayist, architect, poet and journalist, June Jordan—a visionary whose life served as a testimony to these principles. With her own roots in the Black Arts Movement, Jordan’s internationalism was already quite developed by the 1970s and early 1980s. With a long history of leadership in U.S. anti-racist struggles, Jordan’s involvement included, among other things, organizing support around the Attica rebellion and critiquing U.S. imperialist violence in Chile, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Lebanon.

Of her work on Latin America, Jordan is most known for her support of the Sandinista struggle, including her poems on Nicaragua in a 1985 collection Living Room, as well as lesser-known works, such as a series of unpublished interviews with young Sandinistas and a 1983 essay, “On Black Power in Nicaragua,” published both in Ebony and by CISPES (Community in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). However, nearly ten years prior to immersing herself in the Sandinista struggle, Jordan was asking difficult questions about what U.S. complicity with the imperialist Pinochet coup augured for radical struggles in the United States.

She continued this conversation in her 1975 essay, “Chile: a New Imperative,” published in the American Poetry Review, where Jordan argued that the Pinochet coup raised new ethical questions for U.S. anti-racist feminist communities. She began with a probing series of rhetorical questions:

What does life and death mean to us in America? Are we capable of grief, or something like atonement? Or are we limited to a boundless capacity for backslapping the winner-types? Can we undertake a moral response to death, to the losers of life and destiny: Can we atone for the lives we take away, the destinies we shunt into extinction?

Here, Jordan exposed the intense moral compromises being made in the voracious rise of the United States as an imperial superpower. She laid bare the celebration of death in the pursuit of power and wealth in the hands of a few that was becoming re-consolidated at the time—and which has only continued to grow exponentially. With her own personal history in the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles, Jordan was deeply familiar with the extent to which the U.S. state would go to maintain white supremacy. However, in “Chile: a New Imperative,” she took on a contemplative tone asking probing questions to a leftist audience who could no longer consider themselves exempt from a mad shuffle to re-consolidate U.S. power.

Such questions remain appropriate for renewed consideration on the fortieth anniversary of the golpe. At a time when debates abound over what exactly constitutes the left, the “dictatorship of the market” runs rampant. While a select few protagonists from anti-imperialist struggles of the 60s and 70s now occupy unprecedented positions of political power, the sense of political fragmentation runs deep. Meanwhile, the masses continue to live beneath subsistence means, buckling under the weight of debt and the unbridled voracity of global capitalism’s brutalities. Moreover, the very ideologies of free-market capitalism unleashed by the Chilean coup maintain their orthodoxy. Indeed, these very ideologies seem to unite the Obama administration with that of Sebastián Piñera, the billionaire and neoliberal economist who has since 2010 been the president of Chile.

Simultaneously, we are witnessing a re-kindling of grassroots struggles, as global communities challenge a global capitalism that is driving us to the brink of economic and ecological catastrophe. By providing this analysis, I hope to open a space for us to collectively re-read the creative forms of solidarity that have yet to be fully accounted for, and to spark current radical imaginations in a time when the crises of our times demand creative and poetic coalitions to re-ignite el sueño, enabling us to dream anew.



1. Please see, for example, Emily Hobson, “‘Si Nicaragua Venció’: Gay and Lesbian Solidarity with the Revolution” Journal of Transnational American Studies 4.2 (2012): 1-26. See also, Tamara Lea Spira “Intimate Internationalisms: U.S. Third World and Queer Feminist Solidarity with Chile and Nicaragua” Special Issue on “Experience, Echo, Event: Theorizing Feminist Histories” in Feminist Theory. Eds. Lisa Diedrich and Victoria Hesford. (forthcoming).

2. Nina Serrano et al., Third World Woman, (San Francisco: Third World Communications, 1972), 3.

3. A recording of this reading is housed at the Freedom Archives in San Francisco, California. I thank Claude Marks for kindly granting me access, and for our conversations on the topic.



Tamara Lea Spira is a social justice activist and scholar of Latin American and Critical Race Feminist Studies who has held faculty positions at the University of Oregon and UC Santa Cruz, and fellowships including the UC Presidents Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Beatrice Bain Residency at UC Berkeley. She extends her thanks to Nina Serrano, Claude Marks, Margaret Randall, Angela Davis, Guillermo Delgado, and Steve Volk for sharing their memories of the Chilean revolution, the dictatorship and the solidarity movement.



Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2013 issue: "Chile 40 Years Later: The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics"



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