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Story Publication logo December 8, 2013

Documenting Chile's Recovery: Hernan Gutierrez's Memory and Imagination

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Four decades after the military overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government, the past...

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As a 13-year-old boy, Hernan Gutierrez witnessed murdered bodies floating down the Mapocho River in Santiago, Chile. Image by Jon Lowenstein/NOOR/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Chile, 2013.

Imagine that you're in Santiago, Chile, in 1973.

Imagine that you're 13 years old and walking to school with your father.

Imagine that there's been a coup in your country that deposed the president and left him dead.

Imagine that your school was closed for about a week. When you returned, many, if not most, of the teachers you worked with and learned from and loved are gone.

This included Julia Del Rosario Retamales Sepulveda.

A 55-year-old Communist, she was for you the sweetest, kindest, most nurturing teacher there was.

Imagine that you learn later that she was detained at Villa Grimaldi, the largest and most notorious detention center in the network of such facilities established by the DINA, Pinochet's secret police.

You never saw her again.

Imagine that you're walking along the Rio Mapocho with your father on the way to school.

You see something floating downstream.

You realize that what you are seeing are dead bodies.

Your father tries to protect you and stops you from moving closer.

You can't see everything, you see enough to realize that some of the bodies have been shot.

Others have no heads.

Imagine that you walk along the river the next day.

You see more bodies.

The day after that.

Even more.

Hernan Gutierrez does not have to imagine.

Because this happened to him in the fall of 1973.

"It was horrible," he said, shuddering as he described the terror inflicted on the people during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Forty years later, the memories are still with him.

The trauma of what he saw has not stopped Gutierrez from marrying and raising a family or from moving forward with business endeavors.

His wife had a similar experience after the coup, so they each understand what the other experienced.

In the early 80s, the couple moved to Germany for eight years because they did not want to raise their two boys in a society that instilled such fear in its citizens.

They returned in the early 1990s, moving from Santiago's bustle to the quiet seaside town Algarrobo, where they've set up a life together.

They own a chocolate shop on the main street of Carlo Alessandri.

Two doors down, she runs a clothing store.

Their sons have grown and become men. One is an artist whose work adorns the wall of the clothing store. A daughter-in-law works in the chocolate store.

Life is quiet and peaceful.

But the memories still sit uneasily beneath the surface.

When he thinks about them, they remind Hernan not only of that darker, earlier time.

They make him question those who were older and say they did not know.

If I could know this at 13, he asked, how could they not know what was happening?

After we visited Hernan, we drove to Villa Grimaldi, the former restaurant that became a detention center during the Pinochet era, a place of unspeakable evil where people were tortured and the torturers' children played in a nearby pool.

We walked to the part of the park that honors women who were detained and disappeared there.

Each woman has a plaque that looks like a multicolored tile lollipop planted in the ground near a rose.

The flowers are arranged in a series of circles.

In one of the circles, there is a tile and flower for Julia Del Rosario Retamales Sepulveda.

Just as Hernan remembered.

He does not have to imagine.

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