The Chilean Constitutional Referendum and Ana Gonzalez’s Unslaked Thirst For Freedom

A sturdy woman with long, lush red nails, and a warm, open face, she sat in a folding chair.

(Ana:photo credit by Jon Lowenstein/NOOR)

Life freedom lovers the world over, I was deeply moved by the scenes of ecstatic Chileans celebrating the overwhelming vote to replace the country’s constitution that had been installed in 1980 during the depths of the Pinochet dictatorship.

So, too, did the stories of people like Luís Cifuentes, a 73-year-old university professor who returned to the same National Stadium where he had been tortured a half century earlier to vote and thereby help his country write a new chapter in its history.

Many paid rightful tribute to the youth who had started last year’s protests. Originally centered on a fare hike on the Santiago metro, the uprising later saw more than 1 million people go to the streets in the nation’s capital to decry the nation’s entrenched inequality and demand meaningful change.

But when I read about the planet’s first promise of gender parity among the 155 people who will be chosen next April to shape the new constitution, my thoughts turned to the late Ana Gonzalez.

I met the legendary human rights defender outside the Museum of Human Rights and Memory on September 11, 2013. My wife and I were spending a semester in Santiago, where I taught for a semester as a Fulbright Scholar at the University Diego Portales.

I attended a commemorative event to mark the fortieth anniversary of the coup that saw Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his allies topple Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected government. Pinochet’s golpe plunged the country into a 17-year dictatorship that inflicted wounds from which the nation and its people are still healing.

Allende’s giant shattered half spectacle greeted me as I walked down the smooth surface toward an open amphitheater. An actor dressed as Allende, his beard and three-piece suit coated in places with dust, walked stiffly to the middle of a circle traced by roses and ashes that had been placed on the ground. He started to read the president’s final address to the nation on the people’s radio station in a calm, yet emotion-filled voice.

I will not resign, he said before thanking all the groups of people who had put their trust in him as a servant of the constitution.

I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life, he said.

“Viva Chile!” He declared at the end of his speech.

“Viva Chile!” answered a group of actors standing outside the circle, holding white handkerchiefs aloft in the air. One of them had been tortured during the dictatorship.

“Viva Chile!” Responded the people at the event, including Ana.

Although I did not know who she was, I found myself drawn to her like a magnet. A sturdy woman with long, lush red nails, and a warm, open face, she sat in a folding chair. Ana held a cane in her left hand and wore a thick red beaded necklace around her neck. A young woman stood behind her and combed her long, silver hair. A stream of people came up to greet and hug her.

I introduced myself and we started talking. She answered my questions patiently for a while before gesturing that I should stop speaking because she wanted to listen to the people who were talking.

She gave me her number and said that I should call her to visit. After we met, I found out who she was and learned about her history.

How her husband, two sons, and pregnant daughter-in-law had all been disappeared by the Pinochet regime in 1976.

How she had waged an unceasing and dangerous struggle for truth and justice.

How, like so many other Chileans, she still did not know what had happened to them four decades later.

I called Señora Ana later and went to her home with my brother. She ushered us past posters of Pablo Neruda and Allende and Che Guevara and into her kitchen. We sat at the table surrounded by the pans she had used to cook for her family.

Jon and I listened as she talked for hours. Like Neruda reading his poetry, Ana spoke in slow rhythmic tones in a calm, even voice. Sometimes I mistook her pauses to mean that she had finished what she planned to say and would ask her another question. She would continue with her thought, describing at one point her decades-long commitment to preserving and honoring her loved ones’ memory:

When you take this path of liberation… you know you can die at any moment. But those of us who remain are not going to let that happen because forgetting is death. Because of that, memory is essential.”

Ana took out the single remaining photograph of her and her husband with their six children. She placed her weathered index finger atop the slightly worn, black and white image of her husband, Manuel Recabarren. Manuel went out to look for their children and daughter-in-law the day after their capture before himself being arrested and disappeared. Yet even as she was describing her unimaginable pain, Ana’s face was suffused with the light that animated her unslaked thirst for justice.

After returning to the United States I published a book of my writing about our time in Chile. My brother’s picture of Ana looking upward, her unvanquished face bathed in joy, graced the cover. Her words about memory and life were the epigraph.

Señora Ana died in 2018, 93 years old, just two years shy of the recent constitutional vote sparked such glorious celebration. COAS Chile painted a mural of her against a blue background on the side of a building in Barrio Yungay, near where we first met at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Her face is more mournful than I remember, but the long wintry hair and red painted fingernails are unmistakably hers. A bird in flight is next to her. Underneath one of its outstretched wings sits a quote of hers in white cursive letters that begins with the words “I toast the beautiful life.”

Somehow, amidst the explosion of joy throughout Santiago and the country she had labored so hard to make just, I felt that Ana knew about the vote her country had taken. And that she was joining in the celebration, a wide smile stretching across her beautiful, lined and character-filled face.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor or Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University.