It was the year 1973.
My grandfather – Miguel, second of the name – was an electrical engineer, gradute from the University of Concepción. He was also a Marxist-Leninist. A heady, brilliant young man who'd risen from poverty to middle-class, he'd finally established a little family with his wife Gladys, who taught disabled students; they had a young son and she was pregnant with twins.
It was a contentious time in Chilean politic; the president, Salvador Allende, had a weak plurality bolstered by a coalition, the economy precarious, but there was a sense of optimism. Allende was optimistic and ambitious, with dreams of Chilean economic independence: his government had instituted a free milk for kids at school program and was in the process of nationalizing copper mining and banking.
(The free milk program was inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher who spent five years of exile in Chile, working with the CDARM and UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It was in Chile that Freire's Pedagogy of The Oppressed was penned.)
But in opposition to Allende's social democracy ran a sinister undercurrent; trucker strikes, bombings of infrastructure, and supply irregularities roiled the country. Young leftists and centrists exchanged blows, and occasionally, gunfire; nearly every month was marked with deaths. In Uruguay, President Bordaberry and the generals overthrew Uruguay's civilian parliament with military support, brutally crushing trade unions and opposition.
In June, fascist and military colonel Roberto Souper attemped a coup with a putsch by Souper's tank regiment. General Prats – leader of the Caribeneros, a branch of the military who also happened to be the Chilean police force – resigned in shame after shooting a civilian's car in a road rage incident. Three years earlier CIA-backed Chilean military forces murdered Prats's mentor, General René Schneider for expressing opposition to a military coup targeting the then-new president Salvador Allende.
Chaos crescendoed September 11th, 1973: the Chilean military declared a surprise coup and attacked the presidential residence, La Moneda, with rolling airstrikes and a full mechanized military occupation. Shells and gunfire rocked the capital. Under attack, and racked with sadness, Salvador Allende took the radio waves for a final address, declaring: "[...] They have the strength, they may overcome us, but social progress cannot be stopped neither by crime or by force. History is ours, and it's made by the people. [...]" Minutes later, Allende was dead, and so too was the Chilean dream of democracy.
With target lists supplied by the CIA, military forces rounded up thousands in the weeks that followed, including celebrated poet, Victor Jara, who the military brutally tortured and murdered. My grandfather and family narrowly avoided detainment for 'questioning' after being tipped off by a relative in the military, moving to a different city and hiding with friends. Curfew imposed, enforced with nightly searches and raids, the military enforced a new, brutal order.
It was in this oppressive environment that my aunts were born: my grandmother literally slipping out of the hospital with the twin baby girls in arms, uncertain and afraid: a few of my grandfather's friends had been disappeared – probably murdered in one of the military's infamous 'helicopter tours'. The number of detained reached 250,000, the number of disappeared unknown. (Dictators rarely bother to document all of their murders.)
Word of the junta's crimes had spread among the international community; a few countries – Sweden and Canada in particular – maintained diplomatic ties with the junta but secretly worked to smuggle dissidents and refugees out from under the regime's nose using diplomatic means and covert means. Bruce Hackett, a former CBC video technician and later, a personal friend of my grandfather, remembered disguising one refugee as part of the crew.
My mother was born in Antofagasta, where my grandfather worked in a mine, as the dragnet tightened. But it was in Santiago where they received their ticket to freedom: at the embassy in Santiago, they found help.
My grandfather waited in the waiting room of the Canadian embassy, surrounded by other leftists, some of whom had spent time in camps – and some of whom would later die in one of Pinochet's camps or torture facilities like the infamous Colonia Dignidad. (Before Colonia Dignidad was a torture facility, it was a religious, isolated commune of followers of William Branham.) It was a grim scene: gaunt, haunted faces, each man desperate to escape the persecution inflicted by fascism. Many had young families.
These days, Marc Dolgin, David Adam, (and Ottawa-based whistleblower Bob Thomson, who leaked Ambassador Ross's dismissive cables and sparked widespread support for Chilean refugees) are hailed by survivors as heroes, but in 1973, Dolgin and Adam found themselves having to choose which men and which families to save. For every one they managed to extract during Operation Special Movement Chile, many others had to be left behind. For Adam and Dolgin – two young, adventurous neophyte embassy staffers, the mission started the night of the coup, and by November they housed 200 refugees in their tiny embassy office.
In mid 1975, the embassy handled fifty refugee interviews per day – the final decisions handled by the junta-aligned Ambassador, Andrew Ross. In Spanish, at the end of a brief interview, Ambassador Ross told my grandfather that "Mr Rocha, I am very sorry. I cannot help you."
But as my grandfather stood up and prepared to leave, the Ambassador told him to wait. Quietly, the ambassador slipped my grandfather a piece of paper and an envelope – a passport to freedom.
“You’d have a 45-minute conversation with someone who would tell you all the reasons why they’re going to be tortured or assassinated, and you’d have to say, ‘Thank you very much for sharing the litany of evils that is about to befall you, but the answer is no. We’re going to send you into the maelstrom, and you and your wife and children may be dead before you reach the corner.’ So, we said, no to Ottawa. Enough is enough.”
Some 250,000 unlucky souls were 'detained' by the military junta, some 40,000 or more executed, another 1200 estimated to be 'disappeared'.
The Canadian embassy, wrestling against opposition from Ottawa and antipathy from both Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government and the Progressive Conservative party, saved 7,000 lives.
My grandparents and their young family of four landed, in Vancouver, BC, where they became dishwashers at a hotel during the day, attending ESL classes at night.
Divine intervention or not, the churches of Canada had been instrumental in haranguing Ottawa, in planning to take in refugees, in shaping public opinion, and in providing support for refugees. It was in a pentecostal church that my grandparents found solace and community, in a place so far from home, in a language alien.
My grandfather and his family relocated to Fort St James, a small logging town in northern BC. My grandfather joined a lumber mill, where he worked for nearly two decades. It was a union shop, one with a (comparatively) generous program; in the hard, cold winter and in the brutal heat of summer, he was one of dozens working to fill their daily production quota. It wasn't an easy life, but compared to Chile, it was safe. A decade into being a Canadian permanent resident, my grandparents had another child.
In 1990, Pinochet finally transfered power to an elected civilian government. He would never be held accountable for his crimes; only late in his life would a Spanish court try him, but he faked a debilitating illness as cover to escape to England, whereupon the deadly dictator experienced a 'miraculous' instantaneous recovery.
After the restoration of a semblance of democracy happened in Chile, graduation of the eldest child happened in Canada. The eldest - a talented, self-taught mechanic - used savings from a summer job to visit the homeland, and liked it so much that the eldest remained there.
The twins moved out, enamored with paramours older than themselves, with little life experience. They would soon announce pregnancies; Miguel became a grandfather before 35.
After their remaining young adult graduated and moved, the family moved cities. Miguel became an electrician. When the economy crashed, he filed for bankruptcy. He lost his favorite car, demoted to a series of used cars.
In 2001, the family moved yet again, this time to a city situated some ten hours away, to attend a small church. (In a twist of historical irony, the church followed the teachings of William Branham.)
In 2004, the family hosted a traveling relative of my grandmother's and the relative's vivacious and elegant companion. In 2005, Miguel, his wife, and the youngest child — now an adult — returned to Chile for a long visit.
It is impossible to understate my grandfather's influence on my life; until recent years, I had spent most of my life on short walk away from his home. His political views (Marxist-Leninist), religious views (staunchly Calvinist with a pentecostal twist) and rhetorical stylings were my bedrock and anchor point as a wee lad. His friends were my friends; it was through him I met my lifelong and dearly departed friend and mentor, Bruce. Often, my grandfather would hold court at tea in a friends' home, using the Socratic method to examine current events and the views of others.
My grandfather never quite understood the value of prepositions in English. His questions, to outsiders, often sound like statements. His thick Chilean mineworker accent can be challenging to decode. But he remains sharp and busy, even in his advanced age, often going on adventures with his friend and his friend's son, both who share the same name. In August, they went to Brazil to celebrate his friend's son's wedding.
My grandfather keeps abreast of current events and frequently launches into long speeches excoriating the Chilean president Piñera, an actual billionaire whose corrupt administration has been as devastating to Chilean democracy as Harper was to Canada.
When I visited Chile in 2015, I was able to locate just one of his friends from before times — a friend who happened to live in a literal cliffside town where a music festival was being held during my stay. The friend had become an academic; their conversations moved so fast that I could not follow with my semi-broken Spanish.
Miguel's career as an electrician was somewhat lucrative, but he lived modestly in a trailer, which he renovated. He cultivated a broad and particularly refined set of renovation skills, which came in handy when he and other congregants built a church during the coldest and snowiest winter of the 22nd century.
He had a injury that robbed him of his beautiful game, futbòl; one neighborhood game, he went for a clearing pass, and as his foot connected with the ball, his heel met ground and his Achilles tendon snapped like a guitar string.
He retired in 2010, the last of a generation to actually have a pension plan.
The years passed quickly until everything came to a halt when his wife - my grandmother - was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite surgery and concerted efforts, the cancer metastasized and claimed her life in mid 2014.
After the devastating loss, he spent a year in Chile, where I joined him. He returned to Canada and spent a while haunting my brother and annoying the dog (the latest edition in a line of poodles stretching back to their move in 2001).
As an old man, he seems keenly and painfully aware of how short life is; each year brings more deaths of friends, new injuries and ailments, new enemies (the rise of fascism in the US and Brazil has him is a frequent topic we discuss), and the only constant is change.
There are things I hate about my grandfather: his atrocious dishwashers hygiene, for example. For years, homophobia had been one of his favorite things. But time has worn away to worst; these days my grandfather is surprisingly chill with gay folks and has even expressed support for trans liberation.
(He strongly admires modern leftists movements, many of which feature LGBTQ folks on the front lines and as spokesfolks.)
In many ways, grandchildren are the remixed version of their grandparents; consider that a fascist Mussolini is currently seated in Italian parliament. I, too, am a remix of my grandfather. The greatest legacy one can leave is not deed, but people.
My grandfather, the marxist, is one of those who made me the person I am today. I admire his strength and wisdom. His dreams have been realized - not in Chile (not yet) - but in Uruguay where a socialist was voted to the presidency, where the sword has been reforged into plow. There is hope that we'll see the Chilean road to socialism walked once more in his lifetime, this time without fascists bearing guns to stop us.