24 September 2012

Septiembre Once

Last September 11, I witnessed a terrible fire break out at Mall del Centro in Santiago. It started late in the evening, around ten or eleven, when I was with a couple of friends in their apartment, enjoying a good old bottle of Malbec from Mendoza. As soon as we heard the sound of sirens, we put our glasses down and looked out the window and saw, with our view from Diagonal Cervantes near Plaza de Armas, a steady plume of black smoke above Iglesia de Santo Domingo, rising into the night.

Soon more trucks came. Yellow tape was rolled out. News vans appeared and reporters and cameramen spilled out onto the street. Smartphones and cameras sprouted one by one from the windows of surrounding apartments. The Carabineros arrived. It was a fitting scene that drew to a close what to me—a clueless, silly foreigner come ten thousand miles from Southeast Asia—had been a profoundly strange day; a day of general disorder and disorientation. Half-faltering under the smoke and haze of wine and fire and cold and dark, I walked back to my building in Barrio Bellavista just before midnight, no less ignorant of what was going on around me than if I had simply stayed at home, read the news, and watched television.

Actually, we had been asked to stay at home. This was earlier in the day. “For your safety,” said the kind staff of Urban Station at Centro Movistar Innova, who each had walked from table to table to tell us, in slightly apologetic whispers, that the office would have to close before six. Certainly for good reason: on the outskirts of Santiago, public buses were being set on fire, hooded protesters were throwing metal chains onto power lines, Molotov cocktails were being hurled at police officers, supermarkets were being looted. Here's what I was not actually told: if, on September 11, Chile seemed farther from New York than it actually was—and if the distance to my home in the Philippines seemed somehow shorter than the entire stretch of the Pacific—it was because the day here meant something completely different. It had nothing to do with World Trade Center.

Before leaving the office, I read a Philippine Daily Inquirer piece by Benjamin Pimentel, a San Francisco-based journalist who wrote an open letter to “young Filipinos who never knew martial law and dictatorship”; it was thus a letter to me. “One thing you need to remember,” he wrote, “and perhaps we need to remind ourselves about this, too, (is that) those of us who joined the uprising to get rid of Marcos...didn't face riot police and the security forces thinking that the country's problems would suddenly disappear. We joined the fight to get rid of a tyrant. And guess what—we won. And you won.” If today, in the face of the annoying inefficiencies of the state, a number of young Filipinos were wont to dismiss the effects and rewards of having won yesterday—if one should go on to believe that Marcos wasn't, after all, so bad—Mr. Pimentel simply offered, “Trust me. It was much, much worse back then.”

Curiously, the Inquirer chose to run the piece not on September 21—the date martial law was declared in the Philippines—but on September 11—Marcos' birthdate and, here in Chile, the anniversary of the day Augusto Pinochet advanced upon La Moneda Palace and staged a coup against Salvador Allende. The coincidence, if it can be called that, was not lost on me, and made it impossible to resist drawing similarities between the periods of dictatorship in the Philippines and in Chile.

Indeed, there is something worthier of note than the amusing (and amused) reactions of Chileans upon hearing that my name is Juan Miguel, born and raised in a predominantly Catholic country, that I frequent CafĂ© Adriatico in Manila for their fabulous pollo a la pobre and divine estofado (downed with local cerveza negra), and that my childhood summers consisted of taking siestas and eating empanadas for merienda. The grander discoveries, at least for me, take place much later, as we go deeper in conversation, when the cumulative effects of Escudo and Crystal and Pisco Sour and Terremotos in the bloodstream finally bear upon the Chilean consciousness, when like a diary unbound one begins to recount the Pinochet days, starting from September 11, while in the background the guitarra fades out and the night eclipses the red, white, and blue of the bandera, and it becomes apparent that the women and men of Chile bear not just similar names but also similar scars, and carry equally heavy grudges, and remember still those times of inhumanity and unfreedom by beating their breasts and vowing, never again

(“But we don't like talking about politics in Chile,” said my friend S before downing a tall glass of Absolut orange. “For me it's just not fun.” A Filipino may as well have said that, and naturally S and I soon began to talk about politics.)

If both Marcos and Pinochet had won supporters over for their roles in developing economic policies that made the Philippines and Chile (to varying degrees) flourish, a question remains: but to what price? It's a question that I believe Filipinos like me—too naive, too young to understand, too far removed from the clutches of a dictator—should continue to ask and wonder about today. Arriving at answers may be beside the point; but perhaps we ought to allow ourselves to love and guard our freedom—however small and minor—a little more ferociously, a little more passionately, a little more honestly.

Before September 11 came to an end, I looked out again, this time from my bedroom window, and searched the cityscape for Mall del Centro—a piece of Santiago ablaze. I found out the next day that the fire had nothing to do with the protests; it was caused rather by faulty wiring.