The True Celebration of Día del Joven Combatiente

Burning vehicles. Bleeding bystanders. Barricaded streets filled with glass and tear gas. Hooded and masked figures launching rocks and Molotov cocktails. Carabineros in tanks and body armor. These are the images most commonly associated with Chile’s Día del Joven Combatiente.

Photo by Beth Costigan
Photo by Beth Costigan

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The much anticipated, warned-against and dreaded date that commemorates the deaths of Eduardo and Rafael Vergara Toledo – two brothers who were killed in the Villa Francia barrio of Santiago on March 29, 1985 – has developed into an outlet of aggression and demonstration for everyone fighting (in one way or another) against the establishment, the rich and the powerful.

Photo by Beth Costigan
Photo by Beth Costigan
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While the chaos and destruction takes place in various cities throughout the country at night, the daytime festivities held in Villa Francia to pay homage to the surviving friends and families is another rarely told story.

Instead of sirens, stray bullets and flaming trash cans, Villa Francia’s streets are filled with music, costumes, families and friends marching, dancing and singing in honor of their fallen comrades.

This year the procession began at 11a.m. at the intersection of 5 de abril and Las Rejas, the site of the brothers’ deaths. The sun beat down as people gathered around the flower and candle-filled memorial that lay on a cracked sidewalk surrounded by down-trodden buildings and unkempt vegetation. The Vergara brothers’ activist parents Luisa Toledo and Manuel Vergara, along with other parents who have suffered similar tragedies, addressed and motivated the crowd, drawing cheers, tears and chants from the 200 or so in attendance.

Photo by Beth Costigan
Photo by Beth Costigan
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Soon after, the parade got moving. Lead by a prop coffin decorated with photos of the Vergara brothers and other youths killed in similar settings and carried by costumed, skeletal pall bearers, the march featured Andean Tinku dancing, the carnival group Chinchintirapie, live music and vibrant costumes.

A palpable combative energy laced the celebration’s beauty with flammable shouts and chants, banners touting inciting phrases like “Ningun Agresion Sin Respuesta!” (No Aggression Without a Response) and “crowd control” composed of shirtless men wielding bamboo sticks and lining the parade’s perimeter. It had an edge, like a festive hill of fire ants, waiting for the ground to be pounded on.

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Fortunately, this energy was harnessed and focused less on destruction and more on promoting the far left political sectors, defending the rights of the poor, fighting for the pueblo and honoring the surviving families.

After winding through the streets of Villa Francia, the procession culminated in the El Faro plaza where a stage was set, food was served, banners were strewn, music was played and inspirational speeches by the artists, organizers and families were given.

Photo by Beth Costigan
Photo by Beth Costigan
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In a statement distributed by “Pueblo Pobre Organizado,” the organizers of the event denounced the police violence against their poblaciónes (small neighborhoods) and demonstrations, and looked to “continue fighting in conjunction with the pueblo for popular rights, lost values of solidarity and respect and freedom with social justice.”

Surprisingly, the organizers prohibited photographs to be taken of the incredible celebration by anyone (except for two Villa Francia media photographers) and denied all requests for interviews due to the biased coverage the event received in the past.

Though this restrictive policy may have image enhancing intentions, the effect is sadly the opposite: the other side of the coin is rarely shown and the violence of the night overshadows the vivid, poignant colors of the day.

As big a ball-and-chain as the nocturnal destruction is to the significance, meaning and movement that lie at the spirit of the Día del Joven Combatiente, the silver lining was eminent at this day-time celebration. The people have not forgotten the tragic deaths of the Vergara brothers. And no matter what country you’re from, class you’re in or side of the political aisle you fall on, the banding together of a community in support of its neighbors is a beautiful thing and a side of the story that needs to be told more often.

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