—In 1973, when a coup d’etat overthrew the Allende government, many Chileans were forced to scatter throughout the world in search of a peaceful place to live. Our country opened its doors, and thousands of them arrived.
Mostly children came to the Alamar suburb where I live in East Havana. A family group might be composed of two adults and five or six children who were not necessarily siblings. The majority were orphans or children of prisoners or refugees in other places.
It made a big impression on us, meeting children with so much history behind them. They invaded our classrooms, our playgrounds, music, fashions.
We weren’t used to seeing men with long hair. In fact, at the beginning of the Revolution this had been frowned upon, and later the custom of short hair remained. Therefore, it was very strange to watch them playing soccer with their long hair loose. Women and men both showed off their black, straight and long hair.
They also brought us some little black bugs that make your scalp itch: lice. I remember watching the adults clean the little ones’ heads on the balcony, wrapping them afterwards in a piece of white cloth with no sense of shame.
It was amusing to hear the comments of Cubans who pride themselves on being very clean. It’s not that we were free of such bugs here, only that when someone has them, the fact would be enveloped in secrecy so that no one could find out. (Even today it’s the same.)
In school it was rumored that they never bathed, but later we confirmed that this wasn’t true. When we entered their houses, we breathed a different atmosphere: there were books on the floor in Mara’s house; a ton of plants that hung down like the Babylonian Gardens in Leticia’s; in the apartment where Tony and his brothers and sisters lived, there wasn’t any furniture, and you had to sit on some grey cushions on the floor.
Camila’s parties are still remembered on the block, although many years have passed since her departure. They always finished on the roof of the building. According to what some men say, she was a little crazy, and sometimes took off the scant clothing that she was wearing.
My family quickly made friends with some of the Chileans of Alamar: Camilo, Mario, Gabriela, Macarena, Tauro, Francisca, Lucrecia…
Names that evoked sad stories – Machiavellian tales of persecution, torture, deaths, disappearances or children raped by their stepparents, stories that a little girl like me couldn’t wrap her mind around.
They would speak of all these things during the meetings that they held, while I would barely understand a word. They were mostly nostalgic for home, although they also left us with joyful songs, traditional dances, native drinks like the “monkey’s tail”, made from evaporated milk, coffee, cinnamon, vanilla and some rum, that they prepared for New Year’s Eve.
I went to school with Alvaro, visited his house and I loved his family a lot. With them I learned to drink chilled instant coffee cold, like a cold drink. His mother, Graciela, served an exquisite tea, and one of his brothers wanted to marry me.
With them, I was able to confirm that Chileans are a very passionate people. Sadly, at the beginning of the Special Period [economic crisis that began in the early 1990s] these people who had been received with open arms left us. Almost all of them preferred to travel to other places, leaving behind the misery that was coming to envelop the Cubans.
Those of us who had played and learned together had to separate. I never understood why they left in that moment. Very few had left before then; the great majority waited for the crisis and then abandoned us to our fate.
I’ve heard from a few of them. A little while ago, a young woman who had lived in front of my building came to film a documentary about “the Chileans of Cuba.” She says that in Chile they get together to talk about the childhood that they spent here, of how happy they were.