We didn’t come to stay

by Carmen Aguirre

The better America (Issue IV/2020)


On September 11, 1973, Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected socialist president of Chile, was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet in a U.S.-backed military coup. Three months later, my family went into exile, ending up in Vancouver, Canada. Within three weeks, Pierre Trudeau’s government expressed diplomatic support for Pinochet. There were big interests at play: Allende had, among other things, completed the nationalisation of copper, one of Chile’s major natural resources, and home to the biggest copper mine in the world. Prior to nationalisation, much of Chile’s copper had been in foreign hands, including Canadian mining company Noranda.

Shortly after Allende was elected, Canada withdrew its banks from Chile, suspended bilateral assistance. Within a month of Pinochet’s coup, carried out to install a neoliberal economic model, Canada voted for Inter American Development Bank loans to Chile, and now endorsed International Monetary Fund loans. By 1978, Canadian banks had given twenty loans to Chile and direct investments by Canadian companies was at almost one billion dollars. Although Pinochet kept Chile’s three largest copper mines in state hands, Noranda reclaimed its 49 percent share in its subsidiary Chile Canadian Mines.

Given all of this, why did Canada give asylum to seven thousand refugees fleeing Pinochet’s dictatorship? Leftists across Canada were appalled by their government’s response to the ultra-right-wing fascist coup, demanding that doors be opened to Chilean refugees. They rallied, occupied government offices, and wrote letters until, in 1974, Canada agreed to offer asylum to Chileans. My family, made up of myself at the age of six, my five-year-old sister, my mother in her mid-twenties, and my father in his early thirties, were amongst the first to arrive.

For the first time in its history, Canada accepted leftist refugees fleeing a so-called Third World country. They were flown to Canada, often to a city they had not chosen, and put up in a hotel until housing was found. The money spent on your flights, hotel, and other expenses, was paid back to the government in full once you got work. Jobs were plentiful in 1970s Canada, much of it gruelling work that many Canadians didn’t want to do. In order to be accepted as a Chilean asylum seeker, you agreed to renounce your leftist political activity in Canada. Almost no one followed that directive.

Being raised in a state of exile means that you don’t engage in the immigrant goal of laying down roots

My parents came from lower middle-class families. Thanks to Chile’s excellent public education system they both managed to get university degrees. My father was the head of the Physics department and my mother was the head of the English department at Valdivia’s Austral University when the coup happened. Fired for being active supporters of the Allende government, they went into hiding.

The exiles I grew up with were union leaders, student leaders and leftist activists. Made up of people of every social class, the community came from all regions of Chile. Being raised in a state of exile means that you don’t engage in the immigrant goal of laying down roots and reinventing yourself in a new land, but rather are always prepared for the triumphant return to the homeland. Our suitcases lived at the foot of our beds for ten years. No-one imagined that seventeen years would pass before Pinochet stepped down.

My childhood and youth was steeped in solidarity work with the resistance in Chile, as well as with local and international causes, such as Indigenous activism and the Palestinian struggle through connections to the Palestinian community in Canada. These two groups, as well as draft dodgers from the United States, Canadian union activists and labour leaders, welcomed us, providing much needed support.

I led a double life: Chilean exile in my Chilean community, and totally-integrated-into-the-mainstream Latina girl at school and in the neighbourhood. Expertly navigating two cultures and languages was second nature. My dual lives ran parallel, rarely meeting. Marches, boycott campaigns, cumbia dance parties, singing Victor Jara, Violeta Parra, Quilapayun, and Illapu songs, churning out newsletters that informed on the situation in Chile, founding and working on Vancouver’s first Spanish language news radio program, fundraisers - like baking five hundred empanadas at a time - filled my Chilean exile life. Money was sent to leftist families who had been fired from their jobs and had no income, whose bread winner was in jail, had been murdered, or been disappeared, to underground resistance members who were being hunted and needed to always have bus fare in their pocket when being followed by the secret police. The few dozen Chilean families that peopled my world became my family, immediately earning the title of aunts, uncles, and cousins. The adults suffered from PTSD, yet didn’t know how or where to turn for professional help.

My parents cleaned for ten years while they revalidated their degrees at the University of British Columbia

My parents, aunts, and uncles were janitors. Those who weren’t janitors gardened, washed cars, ran paper routes, worked the night shift at fish factories and steel and lumber mills. After school and on weekends, us kids would join our parents in their janitor jobs, helping to clean office buildings, schools, day cares, and hair salons. Sometimes, an aunt or an uncle would weep while vacuuming an office hallway. My mother explained that The Great Sadness can overtake you sometimes, and when it does, it must come out. My parents cleaned for ten years while they revalidated their degrees at the University of British Columbia. For many of the other adults who had been engineers, teachers, doctors, and accountants, the odds were insurmountable, and they did janitor work for the rest of their working lives.

My parents remained on a Chilean blacklist until 1987, when Pope John Paul II visited Chile on the condition that Pinochet do away with it. As soon as it was eliminated, they went back, though not to stay. How do you return when your children have built a life in Canada? How do you return when fifteen years have passed and your former life in Chile is nowhere to be found?

When Canada received Chilean refugees, the government probably hoped for social climbing model-minority immigrants here to stay, integrate, and become “Canadians”, not a community who refused to leave its leftist politics at the door and lived and breathed for solidarity work and the return. About half did return and never came back. For much of the other half, they still live with their roots in the air, all mashed up, unable to set them anywhere but the land that always beckons, the land they were forced to flee.

A few years ago, several Chilean families raised money to sponsor a large Syrian refugee family. We brought them here and found them a home. When my father and uncle went to visit them and made a list of furniture and appliances that were still needed, the Syrian family jumped in: “Oh, please don’t get us any of those things. We’re not here to stay. We will return to Syria as soon as the war is over.” My father and uncle recognised those words, identified with the sentiment.



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