Journeys come in many guises. There are journeys of exile and return; of imperial ambitions and missionary zeal; of forced displacements and migrant longings; of new beginnings and forgotten pasts; of grief and healing. Whether involuntary or chosen, journeys are about travelling from one place to another with a purpose in mind. There are journeys that resonate with a search for meaning, for spiritual revelation, whether to hell and back in Dante’s Inferno or pilgrim’s tales on the way to Canterbury, on the hajj route to Mecca or on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Then there are journeys that challenge a belief in god and humanity: the Middle Passage of enslaved Africans; the expulsion of the Armenians to Deir ez-Zor in the Syrian desert; cargo trains filled with people hurtling towards the killing machines of Nazi concentration camps in war-time Europe. In the 1660s, the Quilmes Indigenous people were forcibly marched from Tucumán in northern Argentina to Buenos Aires; hundreds died. Two hundred years later, the Cherokee were forcibly relocated from east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma, a Trail of Tears that claimed thousands of lives. The prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland endured the agony of a winter journey by foot towards Germany at the war’s end, perishing from hunger and cold and summary executions. Just over a decade later, Palestinians expelled from Lydda made the journey by foot through the desert towards Biafra, perishing of thirst and heat and exhaustion. As I write these words, journeys of desperation and hope end with migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea or dying abandoned in the barren borderlands of the Sonoran Desert.
There are so many journeys to be remembered; so many traumas to bear witness to; so many bodies to be mourned that have come to rest in watery depths or unmarked graves, bones gnawed on by fish and flesh turned to earth. Could it be that ghosts from these journeys were hovering close as I traveled in Chile with a group of artists and writers––mostly Canadian––from Santiago to Calama in July 2016, the purpose of our journey being to deliver ceramic bones made by Monica Martínez in Winnipeg to the wind-swept sands of the Atacama Desert? [tome_reference id=”1941″ biblio-id=”1939″][/tome_reference] Could it be that these ghosts are still hovering close, just out of reach of the words I am in search of to record the memories of our journey to Atacama? Or are these ghosts the ghosts of history, always present, and the ghosts I sensed on the journey to the Atacama Desert were other: phantasms conjured by performative actions and ceramic bones being laid to rest; spirits of the disappeared anchored to the sea and land; the long shadows cast by Pinochet’s reign of state terror; the residue of repression and denials, fear, and silences.
The Caravan of Death
Our journey begins in an airport hotel on the outskirts of Santiago de Chile and ends in a miner’s hotel in Calama in the north of the country. There are thirteen of us traveling together in a van: the five members of the CONSTELACIONES collective who will perform in the desert on the outskirts of Calama (Monica Martínez, Roewan Crowe, Doris Difarnecio, Christina Hajjar, and Helene Vosters); the witnesses to the journey and the performance (Jarvis Brownlie, Cassie Scott, Shannon Bell, Kimberley Wilde, Smaro Kambourelli, and myself); the cinematographer, Lex Taylor, who will document the performance; and the driver, Marcelo Valdez Perez. A cargo trailer hitched to the back of the van carries the ceramic bones. Some 300 in total, the bones are at the heart of the ritual of return, sculpted by Monica in memory of her mother’s journey of exile, which began in 1974 when she fled Chile’s military dictatorship by walking over the mountains to Argentina with a six-month-old Monica, and in homage to the women of Calama, who have spent decades searching for the traces of their disappeared relatives in the sands of the Atacama Desert.
The first evening we make a stop in La Serena, a summer resort town, which in the cold, windy, winter days of July is desolate and emptied of people. We walk the beach at dusk, and then return again the next morning in order for the CONSTELACIONES collective to plant one of Monica’s ceramic bones, which is shaped like a cross, at the edge of the ocean in the sand. It is the first I have seen of the bones. Using them to mark our presence in La Serena seems all wrong: a conjuring of tortured and murdered bodies washing ashore in the 1970s and 1980s during the Pinochet regime, which has no intimate connection to our group traveling northward to the Atacama Desert. Our journey’s route, though, does have historical resonance, conceived by CONSTELACIONES as a retracing of the Caravan of Death, a death squad dispatched by the Chilean military in the wake of the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet as head of state. From late September to October, the death squad flew by helicopter north from Santiago, stopping in coastal towns, including La Serena, and then in the mining union strongholds of Antofagasta and Calama. According to witness accounts, the Puma helicopters descended from the sky like avenging gods to enact a terrifying revenge on Allende supporters who were being held in regional jails and military cuartels. General Joaquin Lagos Osorio recounted how during the extrajudicial executions, soldiers “cut eyes out with daggers. They broke their jaws and legs. They shot them to pieces, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart, all with machine guns.”[tome_reference id=”1946″ biblio-id=”1944″][/tome_reference] The victims’ torn bodies were buried in unmarked graves, or thrown down abandoned mine shafts, or abandoned in the desert. Perhaps, then, CONSTELACIONES does not intend the cross to serve as marker of bodies and ghosts, but rather as a gesture towards a history of state terror.
From La Serena, we travel northward along the coast to reach the second stop on our journey, the small town of Chañaral, by late afternoon. A hilltop lighthouse presides over a forsaken vista: the town is half in ruins from flooding and mountain slide a year ago, and the ocean waters contaminated by the dumping of copper mine tailings decades before. There is a shadowy, dark feeling to the streets; an aura of repression permeates the landscape. We go as a group to the beach, a long strip of curving sand and rock outcrops against which crashes the white foam of the Pacific surf. As the sun sinks low in the horizon and the tide comes in, CONSTELACIONES ask those of us who are individual witnesses on the journey to collaborate in a performative action that builds on the gesture of placing the cross on the beach in La Serena. Each one of us is to make a sign of “return,” in reference to the performance that will be take place several days later to deliver Monica’s bones to the desert.
At first, I am an unwilling participant, hesitant to engage with a history of repression and terror that is not mine. Standing on the deserted beach, I feel like an interloper; a trauma tourist; a memory hawker. Then I see some feathers. I decide to use them together with sea-shells to spell the word “RETURN” at the ocean’s edge. As I gather shells along the beach, I find a blue glove half-buried in the sand, and think of Victor Jara, the Chilean folksinger who was brutally tortured and murdered by the military in the days following the coup, his hands smashed by machine gun butts and his body pulverized by blows. I pick up the glove and walk to the water’s edge to make my sign. Placing the feathers at the beginning and end of the word, I spell the letters with the shells, but when I get to the “N” at the end of “RETURN,” I am unable to remember how to write the letter correctly, reversing it instead. I puzzle over the inverted “И” until one of our group comes by and I ask how to fix the letter. The word completed, I kneel down to place the blue glove in front of “RETURN” in commemoration of Victor Jara. When I stand up, a powerful physical sensation overtakes me, a strange disjuncture of self and place, as if someone or something had momentarily possessed my body. The sensation passes as I watch the incoming tide wash away the sign, leaving behind the blue glove half buried in the sand. I wonder whether if, for a brief second, I had felt the presence of the disappeared, whether I had unknowingly conjured the ghostly traces of state terror.
On the outskirts of Santiago there is a former torture and detention center named Villa Grimaldi, where the material remnants of the state terror that was so prescient in Chañaral are sheltered.[tome_reference id=”2190″ biblio-id=”2186″][/tome_reference] On the grounds of the site––now a memory park––a steel, square-tiled cube structure, half sunk into the ground, contains metal shards that were attached to bodies thrown into the sea by Pinochet’s henchmen to prevent them from floating to the surface and washing ashore. Several weeks after standing on the beach at Chañaral, I am standing inside the cube structure in Villa Grimaldi. The rusting artifacts are encased in shelves that line one wall of the cube; recorded sound of waves lapping against sand filters through the space. As I listen to the faint sounds of the ocean, far from where the bodies washed ashore—gruesome phantoms silently rebuking a regime of silencing and repression despite the metal weighing them down—I wonder what happened to the corpses, to the bones. Were the families able to reclaim them? Or were they hastily buried in unmarked graves? Why are there are no crosses or plaques in La Serena or Chañaral to mark their absent presence? Perhaps, then, the ephemeral gestures of return enacted on the beach in Chañaral are the material traces of passage, giving form and meaning to our journey of retracing the Caravan of Death as a Caravan of Commemoration.
Bones in the Desert
During the night I spend in Chañaral, the questions that come to me so insistently in Villa Grimaldi’s memory park have yet to take shape. In their absence, I experience an invasive sense of unease, of ghosts hovering, of skin brushed by the restlessness of the undead, a haunting that is only banished by the dawning of the harsh desert sun. That morning, we continue our northward journey to Calama, a gritty mining settlement in the heart of the Atacama Desert that is our final destination, and the final stop of the Caravan of Death. It is here that the widows and mothers of the men murdered by the military death squad search for traces of their disappeared husbands and sons, sifting through the sand day after day in a ceaseless effort to uncover shards and fragments of bones and bring a genocidal regime to justice. It is here that Monica’s ceramic bones are to find their final resting place, an offering to the women of Calama, whom she has never met, and in memory of a homeland she has never known.
We arrive in Calama as dusk settles in, with just enough time for CONSTELACIONES to scout a location for the performance that will deliver Monica’s bones to the desert the following day. The performance takes place about a twenty-minute drive out of town, on the side of the highway leading away from the sea towards the mountains where the only signs of human existence are excavation sites and roadside shrines. When I and the other witnesses arrive at the site in the late morning—joined now by Diana Taylor and Eric Manheimer who have flown in to attend the performance—the CONSTELACIONES collective have already been at work for several hours. I can barely make them out in the distance, five black-clothed figures enveloped in the immensity of the desert, flanked by shipping boxes that contain the bones. Over the course of several hours, they will unpack the boxes and unwrap the protective plastic that envelops the bones, then carry the bones by handfuls towards us and lay them in a pile near the road. Theirs is a deceptively simple act of labor: the unwrapping and carrying of objects, the walking back and forth between the shipping containers for the bones and where they are being placed in a mound. It is not until the very end of the performance that we as spectators are invited to approach the bones, now piled high, and to take one to keep. I reach out to touch the bones, but cannot bear to carry one away as a memento. Through the ritual of return, the bones have become imbued with the spirits of the disappeared; the long shadows cast by state terror; the fear and silences of repression. They belong now to the desert.
While the bones are at the material core of the ritual of return, the distance that CONSTELACIONES enforces between themselves and those of us who are witnessing their actions is the defining element in the relation of object to performer. At a distance in the desert where they are unpacking and unwrapping the bones, the five women appear to be engaged in a communal effort. Yet as they walk towards us, bones in their arms, they are revealed as solitary figures, each one engaged in a private act of labor and mourning. It is only when Monica approaches us, holding a cross made from bones outstretched in front of her, that the other performers within our field of vision form a group, gathering around Monica like protective spirits. At that moment, Monica becomes the conduit between worlds and histories, between ghosts and the living. On our journey from Santiago to Calama, Monica was the most silent of our group. Now, in the vastness of the desert, the bones speak for her. The bones also “speak” to those of us who witness her intermediary role as creator and custodian. They whisper memories; they conjure emotions. Yet like the distance the performers keep from the spectators, each of us holds what we remember and feel at a distance from each other.
When the performance ends, the bones are left behind on the side of the road, a barely discernible mound protruding from the wind-swept desert sand. The bones have become a shrine without a guardian, a memorial without memory that will slowly crumble and disappear. In their journey from Winnipeg to the north of Chile, the bones were the material traces of passage that embody the silence and distance of exile; laid to rest in the Atacama Desert, they are transformed into the residue of the disappeared. I glance back at the mound of bones as the van pulls away from the site of the performance, and mourn their absent presence. They seem so forsaken, so exposed. I wonder whether the ritual of their return has calmed the ghostly traces of state terror or disturbed them, whether it is ever possible to ward off the haunting of the disappeared.
Victor Jara’s Glove
On the outskirts of Calama there is a monumental sculpture of a miner, a stick figure fashioned from scrap metal parts. At least twenty meters tall, it perches on top of a large industrial cog-toothed wheel and towers between two billboards signs welcoming visitors to the city. I see the scrap-metal miner for the first time as I am leaving Calama, on my way to the airport in a taxi to catch a plane back to Santiago. I strike up a conversation with the driver to tell him how much the miner reminds me of a monument in Corrientes, Argentina—also a towering figure fashioned out of scrap metal—made to honor a forgotten Indigenous leader of the Independence Wars of the 1800s, Andresito Guaçurarí. I explain how Andresito, whose Guaraní troops fought valiantly against the shackles of colonial rule, is absent from the official history of the nation, excised from the record for being too radical, too Indigenous, too revolutionary. The driver stares straight ahead and whispers with a quiet vehemence, “history here is also absent; it is full of lies. No one tells the real history of what happened here; no one dares. One cannot even listen to the music of Victor Jara; he is seen as a communist, a subversive, a dangerous agitator.”
His unprompted reference to Victor Jara is a shock, jolting me back to the beach at Chañaral and the RETURN sign and the blue glove I laid on the sand as an offering for Jara’s smashed hands. How strange to have his ghostly presence evoked again at the very end of the journey. At the beginning of the journey, when we met as a group for the first night over dinner at the airport hotel, I told Monica that in a ritual of return, things will take you by surprise. The insistent apparition of Jara is what surprised me the most, and remains with me long after the journey the ended. As I write this text, I listen to his last concert, recorded days before the September 11th coup in 1973. I read his last poem, spoken with defiance in the Chilean stadium, where Allende supporters were taken, tortured, and murdered in the days following the coup, and transcribed one line at a time by fellow prisoners on scraps of paper. [tome_reference id=”2195″ biblio-id=”2193″][/tome_reference] I think back to the beach at Chañaral and wonder what my reversal of the letter N signifies. Is the N for Nostalgia for the Light, a film by Patricio Guzman on the Atacama Desert and the women who comb the sand for bones, which was an inspiration for CONSTELACIONES? Is the N for “Nunca Más” (“Never More”), the clarion call of human rights groups in Latin America in response to the state terror of torturing and disappearing citizens? Or is the reversal of the N a portent of how the disjuncture of self and place that I experienced on the beach embodied the disjuncture between memory and mourning that haunts the ritual of return? A disjuncture that the journey to the Atacama Desert and the laying to rest of the bones revealed for each one of us, in unexpected ways.