The cultural center in Santiago, Chile is the type of place one dreams of having nearby: a government-funded center where kids learn to dance, juggle, play the cello, just because they want to. If they walk in, they get to learn something.
When we visited, I couldn’t stop taking photos as the Tours4Tips guides talked us through the various forms of dance and street art we were seeing. Finally I understood how all those stop-light entertainers acquired their skills. (When cars wait at a red light, kids don’t rush out offering to clean your windscreen; they pedal out on unicycles, carry devil sticks, do yo-yo tricks. It’s fun to drive in Chile.)
But then our guides Carrie and Flores led us down to the main auditorium. The building was in active use when Pinochet’s coup descended and things in Chile changed rapidly–including the ability to express oneself. When it first opened, the bronze door handles on the Cultural Center displayed fists pumping toward the sky, an artistic expression of victory. Pinochet had them flipped over, so that they looked like the fists of someone being handcuffed.
Artists joined the poor students and labor workers vanishing; perhaps the most famous was the songwriting guitarist Victor Jara (in Argentina); the police broke his fingers before they shot him.
“These handles were a hint,” Carrie said, tracing an upward fist with one finger. Her body blocked the other handle. “Don’t forget what can happen if you sing too loudly.”
When Pinochet was voted out peacefully in the late ‘80s, many things were quickly set to rights in Chile, but in one of those “healing is in the details” moments, debate over the center’s door handles raged. Should they be turned back up; left down as a reminder that artists sometimes paid in blood; one up, one down, remembering the past while looking to the future?
“Whadya think they did?” Carrie smiled at her group of Scots, Australians, and Germans, plus me and one other American. Then she stepped aside so we could see both handles; two fists reached for the sky.
A soft murmur rose from the group, but the other American locked eyes with me and I saw we were thinking about the same thing: police handcuffs, don’t shoot, equal justice for all … maybe someday America would be two fists up in victory again?
God bless the families suffering loss in this ongoing violence, and grant us strength to create peace born of justice. We have better music in us than this.