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Pinochet’s Past Is Still Present for Professor

For Macarena Gómez-Barris of USC College, an exploration of atrocities in Latin America is more than academic — it’s personal.

By Wayne Lewis
February 1, 2007

Pinochet’s Past Is Still Present for Professor

As a child, Macarena Gómez-Barris fled Chile for Northern California with her family, exiles escaping the brutal rule of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

Now, as a faculty member in USC College, Gómez-Barris is plumbing the dark reaches of Pinochet’s legacy and exploring the Chilean people’s efforts to memorialize the regime’s victims. Along with the survivors and relatives of the dead, she has played a key role in documenting Chile’s ugly history.

Her research proposal “The Place of Villa Grimaldi in Chile’s Democracy: Citizenship, Memory and Public Space” earned her honors from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2006. An assistant professor of both sociology and of American studies and ethnicity, Gómez-Barris received the Junior Scholars in the Study of Democracy award from the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and the Ford Foundation.

“Villa Grimaldi was a concentration camp,” Gómez-Barris said. “From 1974 to 1977, thousands of people were held captive. It was one of the first places where systematic torture became institutionalized in Latin America.”

Pinochet began sending prisoners to the camp shortly after he led a bloody 1973 military coup against Chile’s elected president, socialist Salvador Allende. After the coup, with backing by the U.S. government, Pinochet installed himself as the country’s leader, and many of the dictators’ opponents were imprisoned or disappeared.

In 1989, with the transfer of power to a democratically elected leader imminent, the military regime tried to erase Villa Grimaldi and its gruesome truths from history — destroying both its paper trail and its physical plant.

“They bulldozed the detainment centers to erase the evidence of that collective violence and leave no trace,” Gómez-Barris said. “They burned Villa Grimaldi, but you can see evidence of that fire today. There’s a huge, beautiful tree that’s growing back very green, where they now hold religious ceremonies, but it’s also partly charred.”

Today, Villa Grimaldi is a park featuring a memorial for victims of the Pinochet regime. In the early 1990s, a group of citizens, including torture survivors and relatives of the disappeared, purchased the land where the torture center stood as a step in preserving the record of oppression. The Villa Grimaldi Peace Park was established in 1997.

“This place directly deals with the history,” said Gómez-Barris. “People gather together to have cultural activities and human rights events, and try to bring forth the persistent effects of trauma. They’re using this public space and memory to deepen democracy in the nation and beyond.”

Gómez-Barris’ work is about remembrance, too, and the question of social reconciliation. “I’m writing about the different ways torture survivors in Chile were erased from official history at different points in the transition to democracy. There have been efforts by the state to deal with the legacy of the dictatorship, but those efforts didn’t necessarily say much about the living bodies who are still walking around with scars.”

In research trips to Chile starting in 2002, Gómez-Barris tracked the development of the peace park and scoured archives. With the help of a librarian at Chile’s renowned human rights archives, she discovered government records showing that the Pinochet regime used Villa Grimaldi as a torture site and then tried to whitewash its history. Her find is documentary evidence that supports the testimonies people had been giving for decades.

The Villa Grimaldi paper is part of a larger project by Gómez-Barris, Where Memory Dwells, forthcoming from University of California Press. The book is based on her dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she earned her doctorate in sociology in 2004.

To Gómez-Barris, who joined the College faculty in 2005, this research is intensely personal.

“I grew up hearing stories about the military dictatorship, and my own identity was very much structured by what had happened there,” she said. “Family friends had been victims of Pinochet’s secret police. There were a lot of memories alive in my own household, but for me it was really important to go back further, to go back to Chile and do a very close study of how people that never left the country, or who had returned, dealt with memory.”

Before completing her Ph.D., Gómez-Barris worked promoting community development and social justice. She sees her research as a continuation and expansion of her passion for those causes.

“Being able to research and to articulate the complexities of human experience is such a positive thing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell these stories in a complex way.”