Amidst poetry, pain, memories, magic and rage - A re-encounter with the Villa Grimaldi


Roberta Bacic

The Villa Grimaldi, now a park for Peace, was the CNI's (secret police) torture centre in Chile. I will share with you what I felt during my first visit to the Villa Grimaldi since it was handed over to civil society.

Much or nothing could be said. The issue does not allow neutrality or impartiality. Finding a way of approaching it that will allow us to enter - even superficially - the paradoxes, the emotions, and the rationality provoked by this human manifestation is, nevertheless, painful, hard and even tortuous.

On Sunday 25 March 2001, after having re-encountered aspects of my personal, social and political history related to tortured human beings, I decided to visit the Villa Grimaldi Peace Park/Torture Centre. It was through persistence and friendship that I managed to carry out the visit before returning to London where I have lived since 1998.

My Irish partner and I boarded a bus from the centre of Santiago to Peñalolén. The route went past the church of San Francisco, where a homage to Monsignor Oscar Romero (1) had taken place the day before. As the bus drove on, carrying only a few passengers, occasionally a travelling seller would get on offering ice cream. I was looking out of the window at the houses, streets, gardens, people on the move, when the melody of the song by Pablo Milanés (2) came to my mind, volveré a pisar las calles nuevamente de lo que fue Santiago ensangrentada (I will walk again on the streets of the once bloodstained Santiago).

I was ready to experience and face what my comrades had done to conquer that unique space in South America. The faces of the people that appeared before my eyes became the faces of friends, comrades, colleagues and relatives of those who had been detained, disappeared and executed, who have lived or tasted torture. I cannot recall bodies, only faces and more faces appearing before me with their looks, smiles and gestures. So much life within the retina - memories that belong to the present and need to belong to the future.

The park was not open to the public due to lack of staff, but as I said earlier obstinacy and friendship got us in touch with the person who had brought this project to reality, and who held the keys to the park. Our friend was waiting for us, and as soon as he opened the grid, my senses were invaded by a feeling of peace, green dotted with colours, big leafy trees and warm sunbeams.

We walked slowly, listening to the comments of our friend Luis sometimes motivated by the places we passed, sometimes by the urge to avoid silence, and sometimes by my timid questions. Suddenly I pictured the Park Güell in Barcelona designed by the famous architect Gaudí. Why? Probably because in each memorial of a place - for example, the 'women's cell' - the floor is partially covered with bits of tiles, bricks and stones that - through shapes and colours - symbolically connect us to the experiences of those who once were there. The memory of what took place is alive, real, tangible, and as Luis commented, 'not macabre'.

We were told that the idea of using bits of tiles came from the fact that the ones who walked through these places wore blindfolds and, therefore, all they could see was the floor. The trees have survived the burns they suffered before the closure of the torture centre and have now sprung new leafy branches that grow freely, but will forever bear the scars of wounds.

We walked on and we reached the muro de los nombres (wall of names). On it were all the names of those who died or disappeared. None had escaped torture. An intimate, soft silence surrounded us. From the depths of my memory, known stories emerged, and when I asked something about Bautista van Schouwen (3), a shiver ran through my body. I felt my hair bristle and my muscles cramp, and ever since, the story of the circumstances of his arrival, stay, suffering and end, have stayed with me at all times. Something I learned from human rights after all these years is that we never get used to injustice and horror. There is an inner volcano always ready to erupt against it.

You might ask yourselves why I mention poetry in the headline. It is because during that same week, poets from all over the world met in Chile to commemorate the fact that, 30 years ago, Pablo Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. People as well-known as Ernesto Cardenal, Gonzalo Rojas, Juan Gelman, Adrienne Rich, Amanda Berenguer, and many more were at the Villa Grimaldi on Wednesday 21 March 2001. Ximena Villanueva wrote in the Metropolitano on the 22nd that, it was thrilling to listen to Juan Gelman, the father and the father-in-law of a detained couple that disappeared in Argentina, and grandfather of a child born in captivity. Moreover, Alberto Blanco said, there is a tremendous need to exorcise demons here, and a timid hope that poetry might aid. And it does.

On the night of 23 March, about 50,000 people gathered to hear a poetry reading by the same authors, mentioned above, at the Plaza de la Constitución. After having lived away from my country for three years I felt it was important to see us together under a starry summer night, listening carefully to the poets reading their poetry from the offices of the Government and the Presidency, and to watch the statue of Allende, standing with its back to the Ministry of Justice.

Gonzalo Rojas transformed torture into a social issue while reading his poem on Sebastián Acevedo. Openly, he expressed his thoughts on torture through telling the story in which Sebastián poured petrol on himself and set it alight in his despair at finding that his sons had been detained by the secret police. With the beauty of his words he penetrated deeply the pain we could share. At this point, I evoked the memory of Father José Aldunate (4) - as I would at the Villa Grimaldi - who had founded the Sebastián Acevedo Movement Against Torture, to whom Rojas also paid homage indirectly through his poem.

I felt in my blood and flesh the memory of the days we took action with all our will and solidarity, and from which we often came out wounded by the repressive actions of the carabineros. That starry summer night the carabineros were in charge of looking after public order in the Plaza de la Constitución, but nothing could spare them from hearing the poems that expressed rejection to the manifestations of dictatorship.

I will end with a paragraph by Pablo Neruda from Alturas de Macchu Picchu,

…yo vengo a hablar por vuestra boca muerta
a través de la tierra juntad todos
los silenciosos labios derramados
y desde fondo habladme toda esta larga noche como si yo estuviera con vosotros anclado…

The Heights of Macchu Picchu

I come to speak for your dead mouths.
Throughout the earth
let dead lips congregate,
out of the depths spin this long night to me as if I rode at anchor here with you


  1. Oscar Romero was archbishop of San Salvador and was assassinated for his commitment to human rights. In many countries, during March, memorials are held for him.
  2. Pablo Milanés is a Cuban singer who composed this song as a memorial to Miguel Enriquez, a young revolutionary who was assassinated by the dictatorship.
  3. Bautista van Schouwen was in close collaboration with President Salvador Allende. Whilst trying to leave the country he was detained and brought to Villa Grimaldi where he was severely tortured and 'disappeared'.
  4. Father Jose Aldunate is a Jesuit priest who founded the movement against torture and has been a very important figure within the human rights movement.

This article has been translated from the original which appeared in Solidaridad, Berichte und Analysen aus Chile, Nr. 213, März-April 2001. It is also available in the German section of this website.
English translation first published in Strange Ways (

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