The office has been loud all week. All anyone can talk about is Pinochet’s return.
Yes, office! It’s been so long since I wrote, but this time it’s because I’ve been busy, not because I’ve had nothing to say. Once I decided that I wanted to stop being a bystander in my country, I got a job. Raúl didn’t like it much – he wants me home, where I won’t do anything loud. Our house is so quiet, though, that I have to get my loud out somehow. I am fond of him, my husband, but some days I see him more as a fence than a man. Love for him is a setting of boundaries, is always trying to keep me safe. When I was young, safe was all I wanted. Now, I need more.
At first, it was small: just working as a secretary in a legal office not far away from La Moneda. The partners of the firm had gotten in a huge fight right before the interview, and I think they hired me because I seemed calming. I didn’t care much about the law before then, they had just been hiring and I was good enough at typing from helping Papá with his manuscripts. Once I had the job, though, I started to look with fascination at the way the law functions around Chile’s history. What I said so long ago, about being “half-free”, is still true. With all these judges in love with the dictatorship, who play golf with asesinos on the weekends, it’s so hard to get anything done. The law firm I worked with mostly handled petty criminal cases, but we shared a floor with a group of human rights lawyers. I started heading over there during my lunch breaks, at first just to listen, but gradually I became comfortable sharing my opinion – especially after Pinochet was arrested in London and it seemed like he might see trial. One day, after we’d been arguing about the Spanish court for nearly half an hour, Mónica looked at me and said, “Clara, what are you doing here? You should be in law school.” I had been in the middle of disagreeing with her, and my instinct was to say no to that too, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made.
So I went to law school at la Universidad de Chile. Those were long years, surrounded by students who looked sideways at me whenever they talked about the failures of the older generation. It amazed me how many of them were completely disinterested in looking at Chile’s history from a legal standpoint. Either they knew almost nothing about the regime that ruled their childhoods, or they knew vague sketches their parents made for them that they had no interest in learning more about. The exceptions to this, mostly, were those with holes in their family trees, children or nieces and nephews of the disappeared. They sometimes would look at me whenever someone managed to pull the conversation towards talking about the dictatorship. Oftentimes those were the only moments I raised my hand. I tried to explain what it was like, how afraid we were. Many students rolled their eyes; some of my professors would even try and change the subject. By the time I graduated, I had been in a few shouting matches with people in both occupations. I see the law, at least in the way that I want to practice it, as a way to make people hear voices they may not want to. Once I gained enough confidence in what I knew and believed, I was done being quiet.
I started working as a legal aid right around the time people started submitting lawsuits against Pinochet. My job mostly consisted of organizing the office at first, but I didn’t mind. I was so happy to be surrounded by conversations about how to heal Chile’s wounds, happier still when I had something to say and it was heard. Not everyone wanted to listen, especially at first – I was new to the office, and a woman besides – but I won their respect eventually. Honestly, the skills I picked up working as a secretary were sometimes more useful than what I learned in law school: I listened to and remembered everything, and I used it.
By the time the Law Lords had started looking at Pinochet’s case, I was a fully-fledged human rights lawyer. Ana likes to joke that I’m taking care of Chile’s past, she’s looking after Chile’s future, and between the two of our jobs we cover the present. She’s working for the Socialist Party, and to hear her tell it getting in almost as many fights as I did in law school. We’re both busy now, but we make sure to have dinner together at least once a week. She still isn’t married; she says she’s never met a man who wouldn’t try to hold her down. I can’t help but think of Raúl whenever she says that.
Beyond the pleasure of her company, it’s been so nice to be able to have ideas of my own to share at those dinners. She likes to complain about how limited the judiciary’s ability to prosecute the military is, but I’ve come to see it a different way.
“You can complain about the limitations forever, but what’s working these days is creative solutions,” I told her last week. “You have to learn how to do good in spite of the rules, not because of them. You can call them colonial hypocrites, but that’s what they’re trying to do in Spain.”
She smiled at that. “I can see why you like the law, at least,” she said.
What a time to be working! Frustrating, yes, and slow-moving, but there’s always new truths to find. Ana’s more of a cynic: she put all her hopes into the Rettig comission, and when not much came of it she decided to move her focus away from the dictatorship. I understand why. Testifying about Marcela was heartbreaking for her; reliving that tragedy in front of a panel of lawyers in suits and gaining almost nothing from it made it hard for her to go back to that place. I’m more willing to go there because of how removed I was from these events when they were happening, because of that distance and the guilt that comes from it. I think it’s the same with Guzmán; rumor has it that he didn’t even know why Pinochet was being indicted when the first charge hit his desk.
Which brings me back to the present day. When I watched Pinochet get up from his wheelchair and walk through the crowd, I had to leave the room. Part of me was furious – they painted him as this feeble old man, and here he is acting like a General again! But once the anger passed, and the disgust I always feel when his face is on the news, I started to wonder. If he’s fit to stand trial, as it looks like he is, will it happen? He has so many layers of immunity, but there’s precedent now. International eyes are on us. Something is going to happen. And I get to do more than watch.