Memory’s Manifestations: Salvador Allende in La Pincoya

October 2, 2013


Since the democratic transition beginning in 1990, “popular sector demobilization” and the decline of organized social movements among the urban poor have largely become the taken-for-granted reality in social and political analyses.1 Today, the student movement has inspired renewed attention to youth as political actors. In contrast, in current social analysis, the urban poor tend to be taken up as victims of neoliberal reforms and repositories of memories of past political struggles. Yet, we might ask how such characterizations rely on and sustain a notion of a homogeneous urban poor. With such a notion, it may be difficult to appreciate the finer, smaller struggles that go on every day and that are often below the threshold of perception. Do such small struggles have a place in politics? In this essay, I attend to one event, the naming of a local primary care center in the working-class community—población—La Pincoya. I consider how memories of Allende emerge through this event and how such memories themselves manifest the diversity of commitments and aspirations in the población. How might this scene of diversity and heterogeneity widen our perceptive range to politics as embedded within everyday life?

1999 Still-frame from the video made by Leonardo-Gonzalez Cortes

We are sitting on the living room sofa watching video clips on Leo’s laptop. Leo and I are discussing the video that he is preparing as a companion to this essay. He is showing me clips that he may potentially include in the video. The footage is from a documentary that delineates the U.S. involvement in Chile that eventually led to the golpe. Interspersed with this footage is an excerpt of Allende’s 1972 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he links the recovery of Chile’s dignity with the recuperation of its economic sovereignty from foreign economic powers. Leo wants to show how this history provides the groundwork for what, he remarks is the way that “Chilean society has evolved [into something] that is at the total service of the development of business interests,” and how the structural reforms advanced during the Pinochet dictatorship have not only made it difficult to sustain economic livelihoods but have also changed the very worldview of the young.

In recent years, Leo has played a leading role in neighborhood organizations, as has his wife Paty who was the president of the Junta de Vecinos of the Población Última Hora for several years. Última Hora is one of the poblaciones in the low-income neighborhood of greater La Pincoya and was formed through tomas (illegal land seizures) in the late 1960s. While families participating in tomas were assigned housing sites under the government’s “Operación Sitio” policy (1966-1970), in 1971, the Unidad Popular government began installing sewage and water systems while also transforming the self-construction of houses into a source of local employment. This government-funded development abruptly stopped in 1973. Through the Pinochet regime’s “municipalization” of the city, municipalities became responsible for financing local development, particularly in the areas of primary health care, education, and housing. At the same time, local demands and social organizing were directed towards the municipality as the site of governance rather than central government institutions. In short, municipalities were required to implement policies designed by the central government but provide their own local financing.

La Pincoya resides within the municipality of Huechuraba on the northern periphery of Santiago. Created through a municipal rezoning project advanced by the Pinochet regime that sought to segregate the rich and the poor, the municipality of Huecharaba has experienced an influx of upper-middle class sectors on its eastern and western borders since the 1990s. At the same time, families, many of whom I have come to know over 14 years in La Pincoya, struggle with household debt and irregular wages. Precariousness is institutionally generated and mediated. Policymakers preoccupy themselves with defining eligibility requirements for poverty programs, but such preoccupations displace critical considerations of how irregular and low-paying work, institutional forms of credit, and the expansion of markets for medical care and education configure life conditions for low-income neighborhoods.

Through its administration of social programs and clientelistic practices, the municipality is a terrain where feelings of rancor and acidic gossip between and within different social organizations and political parties play out and are intensified. Between 2001 and 2012, Huechuraba consistently elected right-wing mayors. Yet, it was during this time—and in the midst of the acrimony—that a new primary care center in La Pincoya, financed entirely by the municipality, was named in honor of Salvador Allende, his name chosen through a popular vote.

How did this vote and the subsequent name selection come about? In July 2013, I visited Paty and Leo to interview them about these events. Their differences in emphasis and points of shared concern express the diversity of visions and practices of politics simultaneously present in the población and respond to and, at times, attempt to go beyond, municipal politics as usual. They also manifest the multiple memories of the Popular Unity and Allende in particular: from the lived memories of tomas, the Unidad Popular’s housing policy that materially enabled home construction, and Allende’s own visits to the población; to the physician whose commitment to an empirical knowledge of actually existing conditions and current activities established ways to conceptualize and intervene in the impacts of social inequalities on health; to the politician who sought a Popular Unity of the left and forged a democratic path to socialism in the face of U.S. political-economic interventions.

In La Pincoya, there is no single figure of Allende and no single memory. Allende manifests not in terms of a “nostalgia” for an ossified past, but rather as that very range of ethical, political, and epistemological commitments that he embodied and strove for in his life. The fact that memories of Allende are multiple within the población and even within households, highlights not only Allende’s own range of commitments but also the heterogeneity within the población itself. Thus, attending to memories of Allende in La Pincoya also implicates attending to the diversity of attachments, aspirations, and histories within the población. It is in appreciating the multiplicity of Allende as well as the población that we widen our own perceptive range of what was involved in the small struggle to name the primary care center, and perhaps also of what is involved in politics.

In 2009, then mayor Carolina Plaza announced that the selection of the primary care center would be open to a consulta popular. The municipal document distributed to the neighborhood councils (Junta de Vecinos) introduced the process in this way: “The Municipality, through its mayor, Sra. Maria Carolina Plaza Guzmán, consistent with its participatory and democratic character, calls for a Popular Consultation for the selection of the name of the new primary care center of the Comuna de Huechuraba.” The objectives are expressed in this manner: “Selection of a name for the new primary care center [will take place] through a consulta ciudadana (citizen consultation) with the participation of all the legally constituted organizations of neighborhood units 4, 5, 6, and 7, and the four names preselected [by this process] will be put to a vote where the neighbors, through a ‘house-to-house’ [survey] will vote on the name they most identify with. This will contribute to citizen participation with the objective [being] that the name bring together the sentiments of the community that is involved [with the primary care center].”

But, this supposed demonstration of the “democratic character” of the process was itself limited by the municipality’s pre-existing conditions for the selection of a name. Each neighborhood unit [unidad vecinal] served by the primary care center could propose a name by means of a local vote, and this would become part of the list of names that made up the final vote. Yet, a “general requirement” of the selection was (as awkwardly stated in the original) that: “The name chosen by the neighborhood unit should contain a cultural concept or historical representation and that is not framed within a philosophical context with a religious and/or political character that does not represent a unitary framework.” In other words, according to the municipality, only those names that could find wide acceptance in historical or cultural terms would be allowed. But, we might notice the deeper point here. Conceptually, unity and consensus completely displace pluralism and dissent. History and culture are severed from or connected to philosophy, politics, and religiosity, depending on who defines the criteria for consensus and unity.

Representatives of La Pincoya’s poblaciones and municipal functionaries convened to create the list of names that would be put to a vote. When Leo, as representative of the población of Última Hora, advanced the name of Allende, the municipal functionaries initially refused the suggestion, citing the previously mentioned policy. As Leo recounted:

“But, I told them that I was not in agreement with that clause because what was said in the beginning [of the document] was more important: that it would be a totally democratic election [una elección totalmente democrática]. So, I drew on that for support, and just to be not so so negative, I also acknowledged the clause; that is, I [said] I did not want to call the primary care center President Salvador Allende, for that would have political significance. Instead, I was asking that it be called Doctor Salvador Allende. Thus, they had no argument, although they tried to change my mind [dar vuelta]... we are talking about more than an hour, arguing with me this way and that way... The Director of Health says to me, “Shucks, you know, I have traveled across much of the country. I visit many poblaciones and cities and this name [Allende] comes up a lot. Don’t you think it would be better to choose something different [such as] Valle Hermoso [one of the other proposed names], because jeez, this valley is beautiful.’ And I told him, ‘The point is that there may be many names that are repeated. What matters is the sense of the profundity of the name and not whether or not it is repeated. For example, there are many people who give their daughters the name “Maria,” but this is not to say that one can devalue the name “Maria” because for many this name carries a very important sensibility.’

I want to pause and note two aspects of Leo’s recounting. First, while the municipality’s document employs expressions such as “consulta popular”, “democratic character”, and “selection of the name,” Leo subtly shifts the realm of expression to “elección totalmente democrática.” Further on in our conversation, both Leo and Paty reiterate that Allende’s name was (to use their phrases), “elegido democráticamente”(democratically chosen) through an “elección” (election). Here, we might appreciate how memories of Allende are woven into and evoke a realm of expression, and how notions of “participation” and “citizenship” themselves take shape within this realm.

For the municipality, “participation” is configured through a notion of a “popular consultation” in which the available options are defined by the municipality’s preferences itself. Within this framework, “citizen participation” is figured as the act of voting circumscribed within pre-defined categories that are themselves not the subject of debate: i.e., a “selection.” Thus, neighbors are “consulted” to ask if they “identify” with any one of the given options. On the other hand, a “totally democratic election” involves everyone’s chance to be heard and taken into account. In this realm of expression, quick sentimental appeal is displaced by a deeper stitching together of the name with a life lived. Here, we might understand Leo’s expression, “the profundity of the name,” as a whole range of affects implicated in that life.

Second, we might note how Allende’s own formative breadth, stretching from physician to politician, confounded the municipal functionaries who work with compartmentalized categories of what counts as “politics.” Allende’s sustained attention as a physician to the symptoms and signs of existing life conditions crucially informed his political vision of the responsibility of the state towards its populace and the necessity of wealth redistribution for a more just society. Leo plays upon the municipality’s view of professions that are mutually exclusive (physician versus politician), while knowing full well that Allende’s own epistemological formation as physician was inseparable from the ethics and politics he advanced.

After consulting and fretting amongst themselves, the municipal functionaries agreed to allow Allende’s name onto the ballot. But, why was it so important to have Allende’s name on the primary care center? What relationships, organizations, and memories were involved in the name and the election? Leo recounts: “For us, it was important that the primary care center be called Dr. Salvador Allende because as I have said before, memory is super fragile. Things get left behind.” He pulls up a text on his laptop that he had found on the Internet and quotes from it, “The past is inevitably part of the present and also our future as a society...” Remembering Allende and the Unidad Popular are crucial for a critical vision of the present, “that we again remember everything that happened, because in the end we forget many things, and we end up living such a flat life [a life without variation] that keeps us controlled.” He continues:

“And, if we were able to put [Allende’s] name on the primary care center, it was because a small group had the intention of putting it there. It was not something that the people massively asked for. The name of Salvador Allende was not put on the primary care center because it was in the memory of all of the people who inhabit the población. No. Rather, we awoke this uneasiness [inquietud], we awoke this memory, and we awoke this memory in the people by asking them to remember that these houses, for example, were constructed and obtained [through the support of] the Popular Unity government; we tried a little to sensitize the people so that we would arrive at the name... Thus, it was born from the “gente organizada” of the sector, the political parties, organizations that were linked to social movements, the neighborhood council here with Paty was fundamental; the force of Luzmenia [the head of the local Communist Party] and Don Jorge [the president of the neighborhood council in the población Pablo Neruda, which had jointly advanced the name with Última Hora].”

At this point, however, Paty interrupts him:

“More than the political parties in themselves have been the changes achieved by the social organizations, the common people. When the proposal of the name Salvador Allende arose, we, parallel to the Communist Party and the people who had a “lobby” [English in original] with the name Salvador Allende, we had a different vision because we wanted to commit a community to the name.”

Paty uses the word “lobby” to mark out and differentiate explicit institutional politics—such as affiliation to a political party—from the kinds of micro-politics that she is invested in. She is taking the word “lobby”—a word that circulates in the media and expresses the somewhat cynical promotion of political interests—to create a distinction between the work of political parties and the work of, and with, the community. She continues:

“We did not have to have a political party come here and direct us—not at all. Here, what was born was really beautiful because the población participated in what it meant for them to put the name of Salvador Allende [on the primary care center]. But each person who was involved in this vote had their own history of why they voted for [the name of] Salvador Allende. We are not talking about people involved in politics, [rather] people, who lived, who knew Salvador Allende. People who said, ‘Look, he shook my hand and said to me This will be your house, your land.’ And, other people who had more knowledge of Salvador Allende also knew of the fact that he was someone who defended the issue of health in Latin America. The fact of having the people participate was like reconstructing the history of themselves. So it was not an issue of ‘Hey, vote for the prettiest one!’ No! It was because they had a historical consciousness and that is what we wanted them to value in that moment in the day of the vote.”

Between Leo and Paty’s responses, we can appreciate different emphases that draw from the different ways in which Allende resonates with one’s life. In his recounting, Leo emphasizes the actions of political parties, specifically the Communist Party, and local organizations that have wider connections to social movements. A figure of the militant—the subject of action—in relation to the mass emerges: “The organized people” of political parties and social movements “awaken” memory and disquiet within the populace.

I might suggest here that Leo draws on one region of memory of Allende: the political figure who emerges through both institutional politics and organized social movements. Paty, on the other hand, draws on a different region of memory of Allende that is interwoven with the actual material conditions of life and of having lived: housing, land, a handshake. Thus, rather than a figure of Allende as politician or physician, we have a memory of Allende emerging from the ground of everyday life.

Leading up to the vote, Paty, Leo and their children went to work. They distributed pamphlets detailing a short history of Allende which ended with this terse summary: “Allende was a Physician, Senator, Minister of Health, President of Chile and he was always concerned with the public health of his pueblo. Because of these motives, we think that the new primary care center of our población should have the name.” With home-made glue, they pasted the pamphlets on street light poles in the población. The delegates of the neighborhood council, many of who participated in the tomas that created La Pincoya, visited their neighbors from house to house. Through leg work, cups of tea, photocopying and informal conversations, Allende’s name was elected in a landslide, a feat achieved despite the rancor existing between political parties and social organizations that the municipality itself inspires. And, the municipality had no choice but to accept the name, committed as they were to projecting a public image of “democratic character.”

One might argue that what I have briefly sketched here is only a demonstration of how right-wing mayors create a sense of participation without the “real” political change that Allende aspired to advance. In such a picture of politics, pobladores—as a homogeneous category—are seen as either protagonists of mass politics or victims of neoliberal reforms. Instead, I have attempted to trace the heterogeneity of commitments, perspectives, and aspirations involved in a single event, a small struggle. And, by taking a cue from Allende’s own acute attention to “actuality,” I hope to expand our range of perception in order to appreciate those small shifts in expressions and those labors of awakening and remembering: the critical and passionate thinking that are the grounds of politics itself.



Clara Han is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile (University of California Press, 2012).  



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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