Santiago's La Victoria is a community, a history, a fight, an ideal, a tough barrio and a place where neighbors sing out greetings as they pass open doors. The tight rows of calico houses shine with an array of colors and materials, a testament to a building process in which roofs, gates and new rooms were built when times were good, and deteriorated when times were not.
It is not listed in Lonely Planet, nor should it be. There are certainly no hostels, and the nightlife consists of friends sharing liters of cerveza on front stoops or families pouring from bottles of homemade membrillano (a refreshing aguardiente fruit drink). La Victoria is Santiago's most famous--or perhaps infamous, to those who remember the Pinochet years fondly--población with a history and ideology essential to understanding Chile.
Photo by Matt Dillinger
Población neighborhoods rose up in Santiago throughout the 20th century as groups of citizens, struggling to survive, banded together to take over undeveloped government land in areas closer to jobs or farther from landlords. Despite facing police oppression and legal hurdles, some of them have managed to survive through organization, determination and support from various entities like the Catholic church.
La Victoria was born under such harsh conditions in 1957. Using nighttime as cover, families sneaked into government-owned land, then staked a claim when morning arrived to begin work on a hut.
The neighborhood celebrated its 50th anniversary on October 30, 2007.
In recent times, the neighborhood has fortified its reputation as dangerous as the government declared it an area of "critical delinquency" in 2002 due to concerns over drug trafficking. To the outsider, the poblacion leaves a dual impression--one a celebrated haven of the people, the other a degenerate crime zone.
When I went to visit La Victoria, I did not know what to expect. I exited the southern Santiago El Llano station on my way to the "dangerous" población, far from the museums and high-rise buildings of downtown, and wandered over to the collective taxi lot. When I told the driver where I was going, he quickly looked me over, noted my blue eyes and "blond" (brown, anywhere else) hair, and said, "Youngster, be careful over there."
The ride from El Llano to the entrance of La Victoria takes under 10 minutes and passes along a highway before weaving along back streets, dotted here and there with liquor stores and dusty flower stands. I asked the driver to let me out at 30 de Octubre and La Feria, at the border of the población.
I ambled down a side-street, taking in my surroundings. Unlike other small neighborhoods, La Victoria bursts with color and variety. The walls of most buildings are covered in graffiti, but not of the typical uninspired tags and curses. Colorful and artistic murals adorn the streets, along with scrawled messages actually praising political figures or ideals. Amidst the poverty and crime exists a veritable art gallery.
I continued down 30 de Octubre, with mural after mural distracting me enough that I almost walked directly into a telephone pole. Eventually I reached the little street where I was to meet my guide.
Photo by Matt Dillinger
Jennifer, an American who lives in La Victoria while working on her doctorate, spends some of her time at the La Victoria community television station Canal 3 and generously volunteered to give me a tour there.
The station operates out of a house which could well be mistaken for just another residence, if it wasn't for the large Canal 3 flag draped over the front of the building. The living room had been converted into a studio and the bedrooms hosted tables crammed with equipment. The walls, plastered with posters and news clippings, prompted me to jokingly ask if they were in a contest to see how many photos of Che Guevara could fit in one building.
Canal 3 embodies those ideals that have been part of the community since its inception. Providing local news and information to the residents, the station encourages unity among the community in its 9 km signal radius. They are just one such organization; community radio stations, centers and political groups within La Victoria build the same sense of community that likely helped the población effectively resist government oppression.
La Victoria is the type of place where, without a knowledgeable guide, it would be nearly impossible to know what has happened there, as no plaques, statues or fountains are inscribed with historic events. Luckily, I had such a guide. Jennifer introduced me to a woman named Katia and her five daughters, all of whom had spent their entire lives in the población.
Katia, who'd offered Jennifer a bed when she first arrived, was implacably cheerful, open and strong.
With squinted yet sparkling eyes, she exudes a sense of motherliness that she may have possessed for most of her life.
When I paused at a curb to wait for a car to pass, she declared, "We are victorianas--the streets are ours." With that, she walked straight across with her daughters in tow while the driver in the car waited patiently.
As we walked through the neighborhood she pointed out the different murals, explaining each. "This was drawn by [such and such group], these portraits are of the three young men who were killed by Pinochet's police, and this one, with the helicopter, depicts the escape of these activists from prison," she would say. "And this one is dedicated to Father Jarlan." I would learn more about Father Jarlan shortly.
We came upon a small chapel, whose only sign of its religious nature are the murals on the building's facade. Jesus is depicted with a dove above his head and a group of worshipers below; rainbow colors emanate from a large cross, lightly imprinted with images of a face.
Katia's family led me upstairs, telling Father Andre Jarlan's story on the way. A French priest who came to La Victoria in 1983, Jarlan worked in the small chapel and lived in a cramped space with a bed and desk on the second floor of the same building. As protests and demonstrations against the Pinochet dictatorship raged in La Victoria in the 1970s and '80s, the chapel became a makeshift hospital for those injured in the resistance. Had they gone to a public hospital, they would have been reported.
Katia worked as a nurse at the chapel's hospital, now a room with a small, unassuming altar. "We didn't have professional medical equipment, but we all tried to help," she said.
On September 4, 1984, Katia explained, a protest passed in front of the chapel and police tried to suppress it. Father Jarlan had gone to his room to pray--he couldn't participate in the protests because, as a French citizen, he would be deported if caught--and was sitting at his desk reading the Bible when a bullet from a policeman's gun tore a hole through the thin wooden walls of his room.
The bullet tore another small hole through Father Jarlan's neck before passing out the other side of the building. Jarlan fell forward, his head landing next to the open Bible, and quietly bled to death while the protest continued outside. No one was ever tried for Jarlan's death.
We stood in Father Jarlan's room as each person contributed a piece to his story. The room was left as it had been that day: Jarlan's blood darkened his desk, the Bible lay open, and the holes left by the bullet marred the wood-paneled walls. In the room, there was a feeling of encapsulated sadness that seemed to have been preserved, isolated from all the hope and progress that his death has inspired in the rest of the community.
The women left quickly and I lingered a moment, thinking of the unusual camaraderie between parties leftist parties and the Catholic church in Chile. In many other countries, leftist groups had alienated the church--in Mexico, priests were even hunted down like dogs--yet in Chile, one of the martyrs of the anti-Pinochet movement was a humble Catholic priest.
The walk back to Katia's home was punctuated with introductions. Countless smiling Victorianos, all of whom seemed to be friends of the family and all very pleased to meet me, were happy to talk about the weather, the United States, or just about anything.
Katia laughed heartily when I told her I knew only one of my neighbors. "We know everyone," she said, adding that if she needed anything--sugar, eggs, tools--she'd just ask the nearest neighbor.
Back home, Katia and her brood set about making lunch, as each found a way to bring her task to the table so she could join the conversation. Before I knew it, I found myself invited to a handful of events, including dance lessons, a welcome-home party for a friend, a concert by Cuban group Orishas, and a family trip to the south.
Among the invitations were scattered histories and facts about La Victoria. The first public buildings erected were the school and the clinic, and each settler had to contribute bricks to the projects.
When Pinochet died, the people poured out of their houses and celebrated in the street. The land takeover is reenacted by residents with pride and attention to detail at the October 30 anniversary festival each year. And, in what must be a hilariously charming sight, elementary school kids do a play based on that night--instead of, say, a Thanksgiving or nativity play--complete with home-made cardboard police vans, revolutionaries and building supplies.
After a lunch, Katia and her youngest daughter took me to Father Andre Jarlan Park, just past a fenced-off field of rubble where residents would dump their garbage in the past. "It was hard to get the park built," Katia said, "because they thought it would be dangerous, and that the people here would not take care of it. But look how nice it is--it's perfect."
And perfect it was, indeed. Swings and children's toys tastefully adorned corners of the park. Wooden lattices laced with bright flowers stood just beyond the entrance. Kids played soccer, and couples held hands as they walked.
Katia and I ambled along the perimeter of the park as her daughter played on the swings. On one edge stood a large unused field -perhaps not so dissimilar from what La Victoria looked like 52 years ago- on the other side was a prison. We leaned against the fence, looking out towards the prison, and I felt sure Katia knew someone there. Just when my thoughts (and, it seemed, Katia's as well) began to ponder the proximity of the prison, her daughter ran up. They walked a few yards away and collapsed happily on a bench. A young girl they knew came by and talked about the upcoming weekend's plans before she skipped off.
I left Katia and her family at the corner by their house, promising to return for a small party they were throwing later. I climbed into another collective taxi and waved as I passed the family.
It was 7 pm and the sun was still strong. I rolled down the window and hung my arm out as we passed the muraled walls.
Looking around, I tried to imagine the other, darker side of La Victoria--the post-sundown, vampiric side, where drug deals and violence mar the unity of the neighborhood. Where smiling neighbors eager to give directions and talk about their mothers are replaced by scowling gangsters. Where everpresent police conduct raids on houses just like Katia's.
While these things undoubtedly do happen, I tried to imagine that side but I could not. The La Victoria I saw still prevails, and the ideas and principles that fueled that night of inception in 1957 are still strong in the people, the traditions, and the streets.