Today I am sharing a poem by Emmanuel Ortiz. It was written back in 2002. I remember receiving it in my email so long ago. But it speaks to the importance of this date, September 11th, for millions of Americans–no, not from the United States, but from Chile. Like millions of people, the word “American” for me is not confined to the stars and stripes. As long as we take Amerigo Vespucci’s name for these vast continents, we need to remember that they include all who live in their lands. September 11th has been a day of mourning and reaffirming commitment to a better way of living since 1973. A day that puts people at the centre of human society, that rejects colonial conceptions of human worth as being linked solely to productivity and profit; that celebrates the voices of the silenced.
The September 11th U.S backed coup in Chile is memorable, because it turned Chileans into refugees and exiles. Its repercussions are being felt today throughout South America’s neo-liberal economies and the widening gap between rich and poor, white and non-white. I share below, along with Ortiz’s poem, a song of Victor Jara, mutilated and murdered for the power of his song and commitment, by the forces of General Pinochet. This song, referencing the Viet Nam War, shows us how the world is a vast cobweb of interconnections.
Chilean copper and other goods had been a part of imperial trade since the British informal empire in the 19th century. By the post-World War II period, Chile was increasingly under the sights of the United States. Although turning to import substitution had helped the Chilean economy expand a national elite, its benefits did not trickle down to the vast majority of country’s people. This led to support for Salvador Allende and his project of social services, public infrastructure and bread with dignity for the poorest of compatriots. Awareness of anti-empire struggles like the Viet Nam war, inspired and motivated Chileans to fight the loss of their country’s sovereignty.
Intolerable to the 1 percenters of the time, the U.S. backed General Augusto Pinochet to assassinate Allende, and impose Martial law on the country, a situation that lasted until the election of Patricio Aylwin. During the years of dictatorship, countless people were “disappeared”, children were kidnapped, and people were tortured for believing another world is possible.
Chileans have a vociferous and active struggle for human rights and social development, indigenous survival and anti-poverty movements. The feminist and LGBT movements are also more vocal in the twenty-first century. I have included the beautiful “Gracias a la Vida” by Chile’s Violeta Parra, arguably the most famous song of Chile. Although her sudden death before Allende’s election may lead us to believe that she was not a political artist, Parra’s work testifies to her many social and musicological concerns that were rooted in hope for a better life for her country’s people.
For many in solidarity with Chile’s vision for justice, September 11th has shown, in the words of Peter Gabriel, that “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire”. I end with the words of Salvador Allende, himself; comrade, leader and fighter. It’s a good time to remember that elected officials and their supporters with progressive views have been in danger from fanatical right wing elements in other places and other times in history. We would do well to take a moment to think about where we go from here!
A Moment of Silence by Emmanuel Ortiz
A moment of silence before I start this poem
Before I start this poem, I’d like to ask you to join me
In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes,
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.
And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the
hands of U.S.-backed Israeli
forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S.
embargo against the country.
Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam – a people,
not a war – for those who
know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their
relatives’ bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of
a secret war … ssssshhhhh….
Say nothing … we don’t want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented, have
piled up and slipped off our tongues.
Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found
their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of
sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west…
100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples from this half
of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand
Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the
refrigerator of our consciousness …
So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.
Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be. Not like it always has
Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.
This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa,
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and
This is a poem for interrupting this program.
And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.
If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.
If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window
of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.
If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered.
You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
But take it all…Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime. But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing…For our dead.
EMMANUEL ORTIZ, 11 Sep 2002.
A great resource to understand Chile’s struggle in context, is Uruguyan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s classic text, The Open Veins of Latin America.