Lumen Scholar examines role of memory for Chilean exiles

Thousands of people went into exile when Augusto Pinochet established a military dictatorship in Chile in 1973. Elon University senior Renee Zale is studying how their return home was influenced by memories of the South American nation before Pinochet, and her work is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011.

The political science and international studies double major 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 Zale, which steered her toward her current work.

The native of Hopkinton, Mass., spent a year in Chile for her Lumen project. Under the guidance of assistant professor Michael Matthews, she found exiles buried memories of home while away, but upon their return, they discover 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.

That “second exile” has far-reaching effects on not just the individuals who left Chile, but also their families, which in many instances were torn apart by circumstances.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The program includes coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Renee recently sat down with the Office of University Relations to share details of her work.

When you first started this project, what were your major goals?

“I was really interested in the distribution of information by the exile population. When I got to Chile, however, I became interested in the struggles the returned exile population faces. My goal became to raise awareness about that and to look at the way their lives are shaped by memory. In the future, I hope to look at the way this affects other exile groups from other countries.”

How has your research changed since you began your project?

“Originally, it started out as looking at the way exiles influence the distribution of information during the dictatorship with respect to the human rights abuses that occurred. The Pinochet regime had a really strong hold on the media and the information that was released from the county. … I wanted to look at the way the exile population influenced global memory, but 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 they influence memory.”

Why do you think this research is important?

“Exile as a human rights issue is really a universal issue. 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. Looking at the way memory and the way the regime portrayed the exile population during the dictatorship can help us gain an understanding of the issues that exiles are facing today when they return.”

Are there similarities between those who are exiled in Chile and those who are exiled in other parts of the world? What is unique about the exiles from Chile?

“Exiles from other parts of the world may be able to move to a neighboring country or stay in the region and continue with the same language. While some (Chilean exiles) remained in Latin America, many had to leave to Europe or the United States, and so for them, it was a process of really intense cultural re-adaption. 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. 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. These children were either born abroad, or they left at such a young age that for them, their host country is like their first home.

“You also have a generational division between parents who spend their entire time trying to return and to continue celebrating their Chilean culture, and then you have children that adapt immediately to learning a new language, learning a new culture, and for them, their host country almost becomes their first home. You begin to see a lot of cases where parents will return back to Chile, but their children will remain in Europe or the United States where they left, and so you have this long distance family division that people really struggle with.”

How did those who remained in Chile during Pinochet’s regime perceive the exiles, and did they believe what the state was telling them about those who were asked to leave?

“I found that they either portrayed exiles as extremists or as terrorists that were fleeing abroad in order to train militarily to come back and start a civil war in Chile. There is still an image of exiles as either people that return from abroad to cause trouble, or people that abandoned their fellow party members that they worked with – people who fled rather than staying to endure the challenges that Chile faced during the dictatorship. I think that after interviewing the returned exiles, I found that this really wasn’t the case. It didn’t matter what party you were from – if you were from any party that was not supporting Pinochet – you could be sent abroad in exile and forced out of Chile. I think the image that the dictatorship promoted still prevails in Chile today.”

How did the Lumen Prize help you with your work, and would what you have done so far been possible without it?

“First of all, it allowed me to stay in Chile for an entire year, which was really essential to me to be able to complete my interviews and the archival research process. It also helped with small things like buying books or being able to go to conferences. … I don’t think that this research would have been possible without the Lumen prize.”

Was it an emotional experience for you, to listen to the exiles’ stories?

“It was a really emotional experience both for them and for me. I found that when I asked them to be interviewed, they absolutely wanted to tell their story, they wanted someone to hear their story and to listen. I was really excited to take part in that. I think it is a very emotional experience, and that a lot of them are still dealing with issues including their families being divided, relatives still living abroad and relatives living in Chile today.

“I think that 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.”

– Interview by Becca Tynes ‘13