Dismantlings and Exile

14 September, 2020

Flower Warriors, Francisco Letelier

Junipero statue removed

On the day of my vis­it, San Luis Obis­po set a new heat record at its Cal Poly sta­tion of 120 degrees, but despite sear­ing tem­per­a­tures, the for­est fires rag­ing only miles away and the COVID pan­dem­ic, I need­ed to break my routines.

At home I had fin­ished my man­u­script trans­la­tion of 20 Love and Erot­ic Poems and an Ooh Baby Moan by Nation­al Book Award win­ner Peter Har­ris.  Pay­ing homage to Chilean Poet Pablo Neru­da’s Twen­ty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Har­ris’s work is both more per­son­al and erot­ic, cross­ing lines of his­to­ry and African-Amer­i­can idioms with unapolo­getic and rev­e­la­to­ry can­dor. Trans­lat­ing the expres­sions of my col­league into Span­ish and wrestling with moments of using Chilean or more wide­ly under­stood Span­ish terms, while remem­ber­ing Neru­da, feels like a cul­tur­al mark­er for a life spent in exile. How many years does it take to trans­late hid­den or con­cealed cul­ture, how does one con­vey the mean­ing of a cross­roads, the Chitlin cir­cuit or sim­ply an ‘Ooh baby moan’ in Spanish?

Orlando Letelier with Pablo Neruda

Before the bru­tal mil­i­tary coup that end­ed the Sal­vador Allende gov­ern­ment and ush­ered in the 17 year long dic­ta­tor­ship of Augus­to Pinochet that sent near­ly a mil­lion of us into the world, Chilean cul­ture was not as flex­i­ble, expe­ri­enced and nuanced con­cern­ing exile as it is today. 

Chilean-Pales­tin­ian, Mah­fud Mas­sis, (1916–1990) one of our most notable poets, was already liv­ing a life informed by exile in Chile, and was forced to cre­ate anoth­er home and exile in Venezuela when Pinochet rose to power.

Sing then, my soul
while your wound­ed majesty ascends,
jus­ti­fy your eter­ni­ty,
my soli­tude of man aban­doned amongst
the mul­ti­tude.

Mah­fud Mas­sis Poem 20 from Ele­gy Beneath the Earth 1955

Mas­sis, a son of Pales­tin­ian and Lebanese par­ents born in the north­ern desert city of Iquique, Chile, had much to teach us about exile and time. His ear­ly writ­ings indi­cate a nos­tal­gia and sense of loss for the lan­guage and nations of his par­ents. Chang­ing his name from Anto­nia Macias to the Ara­bic ver­sion, he iden­ti­fied not only as a Mah­jar poet but also as a ‘Black poet’. Poe­sia Negra in Latin Amer­i­ca refers to streams of poet­ry that refer to the expe­ri­ences of peo­ple of African ori­gin with their own per­spec­tive and authen­tic voice. 

His work is often described as a lit­er­ary intifada.

Chilean-Palestinian poet Mahfud Massis (right) with Orlando Letelier

Peo­ple are often sur­prised to learn that Chile has the largest dias­po­ra pop­u­la­tion of Pales­tini­ans, in the Arab world, although it is much old­er than the Nak­ba (Pales­tini­ans began arriv­ing in the 1870s—Ed.). We are only just begin­ning to incor­po­rate this his­to­ry and impact on the iden­ti­ty that Chileans forge for them­selves with­in and with­out nation­al bound­aries. If as a nation we had paid more atten­tion to the mar­gin­al­ized and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties that sur­round­ed us, we might have been bet­ter pre­pared for what our futures in exile would bring. No mat­ter how many gen­er­a­tions, what expe­ri­ences and how much nation build­ing we engage in, there will always be those who claim we are from some­where else, those who base iden­ti­ty sole­ly on lan­guage or race and find it hard to under­stand that exiles and immi­grants will always con­front nativist iden­ti­ties with caution.

It is iron­ic that the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine by Israel has so much in com­mon with the west­ward expan­sion of the Unit­ed States and the dis­place­ment and geno­cide of native populations.

Mas­sis, a con­tem­po­rary of Pablo Neru­da, may have been sur­prised to learn that dark chap­ters of Neru­da’s life would come under scruti­ny as Chileans attempt to dis­man­tle some of the mon­u­ments left behind by the Pinochet regime. When it was sug­gest­ed that the our nation­al air­port change its name from Aerop­uer­to Inter­na­cional Arturo Meri­no Ben­itez ( Meri­no was the head of the Navy and one of the four mem­bers of the mil­i­tary jun­ta) to that of Pablo Neru­da, fem­i­nists and oth­ers arose against the motion. Neru­da him­self had penned the reason.

In his 20 Love poems and Song of Despair, poem 15 starts with: “Me gus­tas cuan­do callas… I like it when you are silent because it is like you are absent.”

It feels like Neru­da is refer­ring to an inci­dent he wrote about. It hap­pened when he was a 25 year-old ambas­sador to Cey­lon in 1929 and describes what can only be con­strued as the rape of a young Tamil girl. The inci­dent has nev­er been the sub­ject of pub­lic debate. To some it seems unlike­ly that his rep­u­ta­tion and image would suf­fer from some­thing that hap­pened so long ago. His actions in life might have pre­vent­ed the inci­dent from draw­ing atten­tion, for he was a spokesper­son for the poor, for native pop­u­la­tions and the envi­ron­ment, for social equal­i­ties. It will not be eas­i­ly for­got­ten that anti-colo­nial­ist Neru­da may have been poi­soned by agents of Pinochet or that his time­ly efforts in 1939 brought thou­sands of Span­ish refugees from the col­lapsed repub­lic to Chile aboard the SS Win­nipeg, sav­ing them from death and con­cen­tra­tion camps.

It is some­times eas­i­er to hold on to the past than to live in the present. Dri­ving through the over­pop­u­lat­ed State of Cal­i­for­nia, places that were once iso­lat­ed and tran­quil, blaze with flames, crowds, and unmasked vis­i­tors. Few know that Cal­i­for­nia has the largest num­ber of Arab American/ Mid­dle Eastern/ SWANA peo­ple in the Unit­ed States or that often the route of Syr­i­an, Lebanese and Pales­tini­ans to the Unit­ed States has been through Latin Amer­i­ca or Mexico.

It is not easy to dis­man­tle his­to­ry or to counter ideas that keep some as out­siders and keep oth­ers on pedestals. State­less and dis­pos­sessed per­sons in the world today amount to a stag­ger­ing 65 mil­lion, but some folks are just going to have to move over.


Chilean Amer­i­can artist Fran­cis­co Lete­lier is a TMR con­tribut­ing edi­tor. He cre­ates art that explores cul­tur­al mem­o­ry and iden­ti­ty which offers oppor­tu­ni­ties for exchange and edu­ca­tion. Known for both his words and images, he has man­aged projects through­out the Amer­i­c­as, Europe, India and the West Bank of Pales­tine. Lete­lier has received the LA Art­core award for con­tri­bu­tions to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia cul­ture and the SPARC (Social and Pub­lic Art Resource Cen­ter) Siquieros Mural­ist Award. His mur­al instal­la­tion, “Todas las Manos,” cre­at­ed at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Wash­ing­ton D.C. in 2016, was ded­i­cat­ed by Chilean Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet. The artist received a Gram­my nom­i­na­tion for his work on musi­cian Jack­son Browne’s World in Motion release.

 Lete­lier’s essays have been pub­lished in the Wash­ing­ton Post, the LA Times and oth­er inter­na­tion­al pub­li­ca­tions and he has lec­tured wide­ly, includ­ing UCLA, USC, Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty, Vas­sar and the The Sal­vador Allende Sol­i­dar­i­ty Muse­um in San­ti­a­go, Chile.  Lete­lier is an asso­ciate fel­low of the Wash­ing­ton D.C.-based Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies, and a Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion fel­low of the San­ta Fe Art Insti­tute, New Mex­i­co. Based in Venice and Joshua Tree, Cal­i­for­nia, the artist’s Los Ange­les murals include the soar­ing mon­u­men­tal ceram­ic tile murals, El Sol and La Luna that adorn the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro Sta­tion in Los Ange­les. The works car­ry on the lega­cy of the Chilean mur­al tra­di­tion and serve as a sym­bol for the diver­si­ty of Los Angeles.



Chilean American artist Francisco Letelier creates art that crosses disciplines and cultures. Integrating narratives that explore cultural memory and identity, his projects offer opportunities for cultural exchange and education. He has worked on projects throughout the Americas, Europe, India and the West Bank of Palestine. Follow him on Twitter @franlete.


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