Renee Zale: The role of memory for Chilean exiles

Thousands of people went into exile when Augusto Pinochet established a military dictatorship in Chile in 1973. During her junior and senior years at Elon, Renee Zale studied how the exiles’ return home was influenced by their memories of the South American nation before Pinochet’s regime.

A political science and international studies double major, Zale developed an interest in Chilean history during high school after reading novels by Isabel Allende. Allende’s descriptions of the human rights abuses under Pinochet struck a chord with her and steered her toward her current work.

“The Pinochet regime had a really strong hold on the media and the information that was released from the country, and I wanted to look at the way the exiled population influenced global memory,” Zale said. “When I arrived in Chile and started speaking with exiles, I realized the returned population faced extreme struggles in their day-to-day life. I became more interested in the way memory influences their lives as opposed to the way their lives influence memory.”

The native of Hopkinton, Mass., spent a year in Chile thanks to the Lumen Prize, which annually provides up to 15 rising juniors a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Under the guidance of assistant professor Michael Matthews, Zale found exiles buried memories of home while away, but upon their return, they discovered a different society from what they remembered. Zale calls this a “second exile” because modern-day Chile feels as foreign as the country where they sought refuge.

“I think many of them expected the experience of returning to be the end of their exile experience, and what they came into was a completely new exile experience and a completely new process of readapting,” she said.

That “second exile” has far-reaching effects not only on the individuals who left Chile, but also their families, which in many instances were torn apart. While some Chilean exiles remained in Latin America, many left for Europe or the United States. For these people came a process of intense cultural readaptation. Many had to learn new languages and struggle with new cultures that were very different form their own.

“In several cases, people’s marriages came to an end during their time in exile because of the stress of the experience,” Zale explained. “Because the dictatorship lasted for almost 17 years, you have people who took their young children abroad, and you have cases of a second generation of exiles.”

Zale said her goal is to raise awareness about the struggles the returned exile population faces and to look at the way their lives are shaped by memory. In the future, she also hopes to look at the way this affects other groups exiled from other countries.

“There have been exiles all around the world since the advent of the nation-state. I think it is a human rights issue that is really overlooked, especially in Chile,” she said. “Looking at the way memory and the way the regime portrayed the exiled population during the dictatorship can help us gain an understanding of the issues that exiles are facing today when they return.”