I suppose I must preface this letter by saying it will be my last. As much a gesture as it is for you, it is more so, I believe, one for me. Just yesterday I, once again, found the stack of letters I wrote to you over these many years. Letters written. Letters never sent. I desparately wish that you could have read them. If only to realize that your son wants to know you, he wants you to know him, all the while also wanting to forget you. I think that’s why I wrote quite infrequently. It’s striking to me that I often turned to you, or rather my configured memory of you, at the times when I most struggled internally. You passed some of your identity onto me when I was born and I think that’s what I was trying to find. Answers in the form of the person you were that was, and still is, part of me. You were my formless, faceless memory that I could hold on tightly to when I so badly needed someone who would only listen.
Rereading the self that I was ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago is odd. It’s like gazing into water that’s just been displaced by a pebble—a recognizable face stares back at you, but it’s muddled. Eyes become ripples extending over the surface, merging into one another in refracting greens and blues. Ears pick up on water’s furrows speaking voices of the past. My complexion becomes soft, as it was on the verge of adulthood; liquid lines distinct from the sharp contours that age has worn into my face.
The first letter that I ever wrote to you, when I was eighteen, struck me particularly hard. I was flung back to a place where Simon’s mutilated body was not yet part of my memory, where the grief over Mama’s death had not yet permeated all of my thoughts, where I had dreams and the firm belief that I was to attend Universidad in the near future. While maybe I have not become the historian young Joaquin envisioned, I became something truer to myself. Maria’s gave me something I never knew I would, or could, find— strength in community, kindness and forgiveness, perseverance in the face of repression, and, most importantly, the gift of compassion. I have become a historian in my own right; having finally completed my personal history. It has taken on greater forms than I ever could have imagined: as a finished piece it is a written history that has just been published. A history that tells not only my story, but Clara’s, Sofia’s, José and Oliver’s, and all of the countless others that have become part of my family through the weekly meetings that began some 20 years ago. I have titled it Me and Papa: Reclamation of Memory after the Pinochet Regime.
The surprising part of the project came about when I reached the section of the book on collective memory. This was by far the most difficult section for me write, I struggled for over a year, always going back to reread, rewrite, and retell when the words just couldn’t put themselves together to create the meaning they needed to, or maybe that I needed them to. Anyway, when I first mentioned to Clara that I wanted to start collecting these memories by interviewing people she mentioned that, maybe, that wasn’t the best way to go about this project. That maybe, or very probably, people couldn’t always talk about memory the way I did; they way they do about the present, especially when many of these memories I was collecting were painful and traumatic. She suggested that I simply leave a small book out at our weekly meetings, framing it as a means of dealing with memory as a collective body. To create a collective memory in support of one another, in recognition of all that we had gone through. Simply put, a memory book, she said. I have to admit I was struck by the idea. I didn’t know how people would respond. However, slightly hesitantly, I crafted a book with some (well, a lot…) of help from Clara and set it on a table a few months later during one of our meetings (this must have been a few years ago now, I’ve lost track). The response amazed me, father. It took the neighborhood awhile to become comfortable with the idea, but as the first few stepped forward to fill in the blank pages, the memories began to flood in, until pretty soon the book was full. I wrote a short piece at the beginning detailing the project and, Papa, I have to tell you it took me a very long time to realize what piece of memory I wanted to contribute to this book. And then it hit me when I stumbled upon these correspondences— I would include the first letter I ever wrote to you. A memory of my past self that will forever persist to remain a part of my present. And an ode to you, Papa, for unknowingly encouraging the creation of this work.
I cannot end this letter without giving you a snippet of the personal narrative, as I promised over a decade ago. It seems natural to give you the opening, for reasons which you will come to understand in a moment:
For my Papa
I have never met him, my father, but you could say I know him like a close friend. He left my mother and I immediately after I was born, so I could only tell you things about him that I know from her and, I assure you, that is very little. I began writing letters to my father in 1968, I believe, as a means of finding part of myself. I was eighteen at the time; such a turbulent age filled with big dreams. While the man I am today has not become the dreams of my eighteen year old self, I stand here now as witness to the ways in which a past constantly conflated with a present and future shape our personal histories, guide ourselves through time in rather unexpected ways, and, ultimately, forge a self that is, in many ways, bigger than our younger selves could ever have imagined.
This book, then, stands as a personal narrative through which my search to find my father and myself becomes remarkably intertwined with the years of the Pinochet regime. As an effort to explore this dark period of Chilean history, I use, at times, my most intimate stories to frame a world that I never thought would come to be such an integral part of who I am. I wish that you read these pages with care and attention, taking time to tread lightly and slowly when memories become ever too present. I hope that these stories will allow you to find your past selves in your own memory and, thus, not only come to better understand the self you identify with in the present moment, but also contribute to the collective body of memory that I firmly believe must be gathered for us, as the Chilean nation, to come to terms with its hurtful past. By allowing ourselves to be washed in these remembrances and consistently permeated by our recollections, we will be better able to come to terms with the past and accept it into the fabric of our beings. I know this is not simple, but difficult things never are.
There is strength in unity. And there is strength in memory. I wish you all the best as you begin the search through your own personal histories and I hope, with all my heart, that you find something you didn’t know you were looking for.
That’s it, Papa. The introduction. I finish this letter with an introduction—odd isn’t it? While I have not found all of your self that is in me, I know it will be a lifetime search. And from this moment forward, I think I finally have the strength to do it on my own. I love you very much, Papa and I thank you.
Joaquin Oliveras Vidal