This Means So Much: Chile's Copa America win goes beyond sport
I am not Chilean, and I don't pretend to be. But that doesn't mean I can't hold allegiance to Chile. I spent six months there last year - a long time in the life of a 21-year-old - and, thanks to the people that I met, developed a legitimate sense of belonging in Santiago.
I lived with Chileans. I went to school with Chileans. I went drinking, and hiking, and rock climbing, and bike riding, and shopping with Chileans. I am not Chilean, but, for those six months, that was easy to forget.
When you send - no, throw - yourself into a foreign place for an extended period of time and provide yourself with essentially no outlet to the life that you've known for twenty years, you learn things. When your daily interactions are with people who have experiences and histories so dramatically different than your own, you learn about these experiences and histories, and you begin to feel, in small ways, that they belong to you, too. When you watch the national soccer team fall to big-bad Brazil, twice hitting the post in uniquely Chilean, heartbreaking fashion, you come to realize that the sort of national bad luck that Chileans refer to may hold some tragic water, and you come to realize how much this sport means to people. When you cover your nose and mouth from the July smog, when you grow frustrated with bureaucratic inconsistencies, when you unsuspectingly ride your bike through the Molotov-cocktail-stained black streets of a protest and get nailed with tear gas, you begin to understand what it means to be a Santiaguino. When you remember all this and look out your window in the morning and gasp at the breathtaking Andes looming, you know. At that point, it doesn't matter if you've lived there for six months or six lifetimes. When you have one the most honest conversations of your life with the woman who did more for you in your six months than you can attempt to relate in words or images - not to mention giving you a bed, food, and invaluable access and welcoming into a family - you listen to it in a way you didn't know you were capable; you listen, and you remember.
When Ximena tells you why she will never return to the Estadio Nacional, the sports complex in the middle of Santiago that contains the soccer pitch where Chile beat Argentina on penalties this weekend to win Copa América - Chile's first ever major international championship - you remember it. And you share the pain and sorrow, as well as you can manage.
Ximena will never return to Estadio Nacional because she was there, once, in 1973. She was fortunate to be on the outside, perilously looking in; had she been on the other side of its doors, she may not have reemerged.
On September 4, 1970, socialist candidate Salvador Allende was democratically elected as president of Chile.
On September 11, 1973, Allende died under mysterious circumstances after delivering his very last speech, in the face of a brutal coup d'etat by General Augusto Pinochet and a junta of right-wing economists and military leaders. Pinochet would hold the position of dictator until 1990. In those seventeen years, an estimated 3,000 Chileans were executed or declared 'disappeared', and another 200,000 were exiled. Those tortured, humiliated and murdered were everything from left-wing politicians to artists to intellectuals to musicians to young students. These izquierdistas were captured from their families, often without notice and brought to detention centers all along the long, thin coastal nation. Some of these centers still stand today, including the harrowing Villa Grimaldi (pictured above), which lies in the outskirts of a wealthy neighborhood of Santiago. It's a museum, now, and a visit leaves a lump in your throat twice the size of an apple. The lump stays with you well after you exit its gate, occupying a place in your heart that will never be overtaken. The thick, original padlock from its days as a torture center still remains on the door, symbolically locked shut forever.
A visit to the national cemetery, also in Santiago, has a similarly chilling effect. Allende's tombstone and the plaque that sits next to it, chronicling part of his final speech, stand out, but not more so than the thousands of graves that do not exist, and never will. These desaparecidos are commemorated on a much-too-large wall at the cemetery's exit. The wall, too, leaves a lump inside you.
Some words from Allende's final speech:
"Trabajadores de mi Patria, tengo fe en Chile y su destino. Superarán otros hombres de este momento gris y amargo en el que la traición pretende imponerse. Sigan ustedes sabiendo que, mucho más temprano que tarde, de nuevo se abrirán las grandes alamedas por donde pase el hombre libre, para construir una sociedad mejor. ¡Viva Chile! ¡Viva el pueblo! ¡Vivan los trabajadores!"
"Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!" Estadio Nacional was, unthinkably, used by Pinochet and the persecutors of the dictatorship's terror as a detention center. A prison. A torture den.
And on Saturday, the Chilean national team won a match there that comes as close as anything ever has at appeasing the tragedies of the 1970s.
Any Chilean you speak to who was alive in the '70s will have a story of their experience. Many were exiled, and later returned. Many went far, far away, and will never come back. Some have relatives that were abducted. Others no longer speak to their families - differences in opinion regarding the coup are too extreme to be ameliorated, even forty years later. Some, like Ximena, ran away from home as a teenager in '73, appalled at her mother's support for Pinochet's coup and madly in love with a man with similar troubles. While some are capable of forgiveness - Ximena and her mother see one another often, now - others cannot fathom the meaning of the word. The stains are too deep, for many. Estadio Nacional stands today as it did when Pinochet exploited it as a symbol of his power. Off the side of a busy avenue, the unknown behind its walls and fences struck unspeakable fear into Chileans, desperate to know what had come of their disappeared loved ones. It was as visible as anything, yet there are very few accounts explaining what actually went on, or who was taken, or whether or not they ever left. There are few records; there is extraordinary memory.
Each time the stadium packs full, a small section is left empty. "Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro," a sign reads. "A people without memory is a people without future." But there's no concern here that Chileans will forget. Remembering is part -- the part, perhaps -- of the Chilean experience. And this focus on memory is part of what made the victory in the Copa América so special. Chileans remember the match against Brazil last June. They remember that this group of Chilean players is labeled the "Golden Generation" - it's the best team they've ever had, and it represents the best chance they've ever had at winning a major title. They remember that the tournament is being played at home in Chile. They remember what went on in the arena that was to host the final. But the cynicism that is so natural to most Chileans would have told them that something would've gone wrong in the tournament.
It seemed it might when start Arturo Vidal was involved in a drunk driving accident in the group stages, but the team rallied behind his continued presence in the team. Chances seemed slim throughout a brutal, physical affair with Uruguay in the quarterfinals, a match that was marred with controversy, but Chile fought harder and earned their win. When spirited Peru, playing down a man, equalized in the second half, there were fears that it would all come crashing down at the hands of their biggest rival, but Edu Vargas responded with a goal for the ages. When Argentina clobbered Paraguay to set up a match with Chile in the final, victory seemed improbable. Up and down the team sheets, Argentina are better than Chile. When they battled for 120 minutes and readied themselves for penalties, the cynicism perked up again, and the nation remembered the penalty shootout that crushed their dreams against Brazil in the World Cup.
The win means so much to a nation plagued by bad luck - in the forms ranging from Pinochet's rule (though luck does no justice for what occurred), to missed penalty kicks, to crippling, unpredictable earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and, perhaps most famously, the entrapment of 33 miners for more than two months. The win goes beyond the score, the way the game was played, and the sport as a whole. This is a unifying event for Chileans all around the world - including those who will never return following their exile, and those of us who borrowed the nation, its culture and its amazing people for only a short time. I maintain my U.S. passport; that won't change. I may speak Spanish with a surprising Chilean accent, but that does not make me Chilean. I may have memories like the ones I've written about above, but those don't serve to change my nationality, either. I may have shared the agonizing defeat to Brazil in 2014, but that does not mean I share the memory of two decades of unjust political and social oppression. I do not have memories of that.
But I do have understanding; I do have empathy; I do relate; I do recognize; I do smile; I do remember. I do reach out to Chilean friends and near-family, and they do appreciate it, because they know, better than I do, what it means. And when it means that much, maybe knowing that there's a kid sitting in New York thinking of them helps it mean even just a drop more.