The Chileans in Cuba

Irina Echarry
Irina Echarry

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.

5 thoughts on “<em>The Chileans in Cuba</em>

  • At least, after twenty years, the Chileans got to go home. Pity the poor Palestinians, who have now spent three–maybe four– generations wandering their bitter Sinai of exile! (or imprisoned in the untenable “Bantustands” of the West Bank and Gaza). Unlike the first wave of Cubans of the early 1960’s, or later waves who went North for economic reasons, the Palestinians had no choice. They fled for their lives. In The WIZARD of OZ Dorothy says: “There’s no place like home!” For the Palestinians, however, YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN! On the other hand, what makes Cuban culture so dynamic are all the waves of immigrees: Phoenecians, Carthaginians, Romans and all subsequent tribes who came into Iberia, the Arabs from North Afirca, and then the Afro-Cubans, who trace their ancestry from West Africa, the Congo, and elsewhere, who make up what and who is Cuba. Some, like the Africans, drank the bitter wine of forced exile–but are now are as much Cuban as African. They truly can’t go home again, because the home their ancestors once knew has changed, their native religions now in decline, being replaced either by Islam and Christianity, while, ironically, these religions are stronger in Cuba. Likewise, the Cubans who left in the 1960’s, and even the later Marielitos, can’t go home again, for Cuba (as well as themselves) has changed and has gone on without them. “You never put your foot into the same river.”

  • Wow Irina, it looks like looks like you press some people’s buttons. jeje

    I’d guess for many of the Chileans, who were essentially forced to flee Pinochet’s repression, home was something taken from them. Their love for Chile and their desire to return likely never died, and I have no doubt it was something inculcated in the children. I suspect that desire, far more than the economic hardship of Cuba’s Special Period, or any lack of love for Cuba and her people, lay at the heart of why many returned to Chile.

    I also guess it is hard not to attach what may be emotional conditions to the help you give others; like a need for shared sacrifice? That sense of abandonment you seem to feel… what about joy for a people who are finally able to return home?

    That little devil, sitting on your shoulder, whispering sweet poison in your ear by mixing cherished memory with what may be unrealized expectation, is certainly a sneaky imp.

    At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge those negative feelings without blame for either yourself or your friends. And yes I realize that is much easier said than done.

  • Estory de acuerdo de Helen. !Siga su corazon, su intuicion, su subconciente! (pero tambien, perdone los debelidades y faltas humanos).

  • he leído algunos diarios de Irina, me gusta mucho su estilo y espero poder seguir conociendo sobre sus memorias y experiencias actuales. Me gustan las personas sinceras, llenas de imaginación y detesto a los demagogos que persisten en que todos piensen como ellos.

  • This is quite a commentary to be published on the eve of the Chilean president´s visit to Cuba. The author tells readers about the brutal repressions which took place in Chile which she heard about from Chilean exiles during her youth, but doesn´t bother to mention that such things don´t happen here in Cuba.

    When she talks about those who left Cuba back in the 1990s, at the bottom of the Special Period, she omits to mention that the Pinochet dictatorship had come to an end by then and so exiles who had needed a safe place to escape Chilean repression could then return to their homeland, as Michelle Bachelet did. Now Michelle Bachelet is the President of Chile. Granma had a nice note about President Bachelet today which can be read here

    All of that cultural silliness about long hair in the sixties is long gone now in the 21st Century, a fact with anyone familiar with Cuba as it actually is today knows perfectly well. I´ve no idea why Irina Echarry presents an image of Cuban history – especially some events which took place before she was even born, to readers who are largely unfamiliar with the reality of life in this country today?

    Walter Lippmann
    Havana, Cuba

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