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La Victoria, Chile: Half a Century Building Another World

La Victoria settlement in Santiago, Chile, recently observed its 50 th anniversary. It was one of the first organized occupations of urban land on the continent and in a half century built an alternative city, defied the dictatorship, and continues to find ways to break out of the neoliberal model.

Avenue 30 de Octubre proudly sports dozens of murals painted by the settlement’s brigades of muralists. To the visitor, they mark the arrival at a different neighborhood, distinguished by a population that made, and keeps on making, history.

Do you see that window where the candle is?” Macarena points toward a miniscule opening at the top of a modest home that is almost identical to the other self-built houses in the settlement. “That’s where Father André Jarlan died. A bullet killed him while he was reading the Bible, the very passage that says, ’Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” [1]

Other testimonies say the priest was reading the De Profundis psalm [Psalm 130: “Out of the Depths”] and even state the precise passage he was reading when he was killed by a bullet fired by the national police, or “pacos” as they are called in Chile. In any event, Father André Jarlan is part of the abundant mythology that surrounds La Victoria. His death occurred on Sept. 4, 1984, within the framework of a national protest against the Augusto Pinochet regime. That day police entered the settlement shooting into the air, as they did each and every time they entered the neighborhood after the Sept. 11, 1973, coup d’état. Upon learning of the priest’s death, thousands of people lit candles and marched to his home.

Thirty-three years after the coup, on Dec. 10, 2006, upon learning of Pinochet’s death, La Victoria was one big celebration. “Neighbors came out of their houses, embraced each other, and cried. They opened water faucets and doused themselves like in Carnival, shared wine, and danced,” recalls Macarena. In this battle-hardened neighborhood, few are the families without a relative killed, imprisoned, or disappeared by the military dictatorship.

A Turn in History

The night of Oct. 29, 1957, a group from Zanjón de la Aguada, a five-kilometer by 100-meter belt of poverty in the center of Santiago with a population of 35,000, prepared to carry out the first organized, massive seizure of urban land. At 8 p.m., they began to dismantle their shacks, tied strips of cloth over their horses’ hooves to prevent making noise, and gathered “the three sticks and flag” with which to create the new settlement. Around 2:30 a.m., they arrived at the chosen site: a state-owned property in the southern part of the city. [2]The darkness made us advance step by step. With the first light of dawn, everyone began to clear his piece of brush, build a hut, and raise the flag,” recalls one of the participants. [3]

The “encampment” withstood police eviction actions, and families began to build the settlement. From the first moment, they themselves defined the criteria they would follow. The construction of the settlement, which they called “La Victoria” [victory], was “an enormous exercise in self-organization by the settlers,” who had to “join forces and invent resources, putting into play every bit of knowledge and all their skills.” The government did not throw them out, but neither did it assist in the construction of the new settlement. [4]

The first aspect that distinguishes this action from previous struggles was its self-organization. The first night there was a large assembly that decided to create committees for neighborhood watch, sustenance, and health, among others. From then on, all important decisions were screened via collective debate. The second distinguishing aspect was its self-construction. The first public buildings, constructed by the settlers themselves, were the school and the health clinic, which reflected the inhabitants’ priorities.

For the school, each settler had to contribute fifteen adobe bricks; women brought the straw, young people made the bricks, and teachers stacked them one on top of another. The school began to function within a few months of the camp’s establishment, although the teachers were not paid. The clinic began attending to residents under a tent until the building was erected, in the same way the school had been. Two years after the seizure, La Victoria had 18,000 inhabitants and more than 3,000 dwellings. As Mario Garcés remembers, it was a city built and governed by the poorest, based on a rich and extensive community network.

The “seizure” of La Victoria shaped a pattern of social action that was repeated with small variations during the following decades, and even up to today, not only in Chile, but throughout the rest of Latin America. The pattern consists of collective organization prior to the seizure, careful selection of a suitable space, and sudden action, preferably at night, along with the search for a legal umbrella of relations with churches or political parties, and the elaboration of a legitimizing discourse for an illegal action. If the seizure withstands initial eviction efforts by public forces, it is very likely the occupants will be able to remain. This pattern for social action put down its first steps in Santiago and Lima in the 1950s and was practiced in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the most “European” cities due to their homogeneity, only in the 1980s. This pattern is very different from individual families joining shantytowns known as “favelas,” “callampas,” and “villas miseria. [5]

A New City

Land seizure “entails a radical break with institutional logic and with the fundamental principle of liberal democracies: property. [6] Legitimacy takes the place of legality, and the land’s use value prevails over its exchange value. With a seizure, an invisible group becomes a socio-political subject. In La Victoria, something more happens: the construction of homes and the neighborhood by the residents themselves means the appropriation of a space by its residents that subsequently is inhabited by a “we” who become the area’s self-government.

This feature applies to all aspects of daily life. Not only did the inhabitants of La Victoria build their houses, streets, and water system, and install electricity, they also erected a health clinic and a school, the latter according to their own criteria, in that it is a circular building. They governed their lives and the whole area, establishing forms of popular power, or counterpowers.

Women played a prominent role, to the extent that many affirm that they left their husbands to go on the land seizure, or did not inform them of the crucial step they were about to take in their lives. “I went alone with my seven-month-old daughter, since my husband didn’t go with me,” recounts Luisa, who was eighteen at the time of the seizure. [7] Zulema, age 42, remembers: “Several women secretly came with their children, hiding from their husbands, like I did. [8] Even in the mid-1950s, popular sector women—strictly speaking, we would have to say mothers, the women and their children—had a surprising level of autonomy. Not only did they take the lead during the occupation, but also when it came to resisting eviction and facing the police with their children.

Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar states that prior to 1950, popular sector women had learned to organize tenement house assemblies, tenant strikes, land seizures, health groups, resistance to police evictions, and other forms of resistance. In order to become “home owners,” they had to become activists and promote land seizures. This way, women settlers began to develop “a certain type of popular, local power,” that amounted to the ability to create free territories in which they practiced a “direct exercise in sovereignty” in truly autonomous communes. [9]

La Victoria was built as a community of sentiments and feelings, where identity is not anchored in the physical place, but in affections and shared life experiences. As the testimonies affirm, in the early days everyone called each other “compañero,” partly because everything was done by all of them. However, it was not an ideological comradeship but something more sobering: the November rains caused the deaths of 21 nursing infants. The death of a child is something special. In Brazil, when the landless occupy a property, they raise a large wooden cross. Each time a child from the camp dies, they drape a piece of white cloth on the cross and leave it there: it is something sacred. In La Victoria, when a child died, and sometimes an adult, a long caravan walked through the streets of the neighborhood before heading to the cemetery.

Prior to the 1973 coup d’état, the popular sectors were the main creators of urban space. In September 1970, the capital was in full transformation due to the encampments, which were “the most influential social force in the urban community of greater Santiago. [10] Pinochet’s coup sought to reverse the almost hegemonic position attained by the popular sectors. That third of the capital’s population—those who had built their own neighborhoods, houses, schools, health clinics, and pushed for basic services—was a threat to elite authority. The military regime attempted to reverse the situation by displacing the entire population to places built by the state or the market.

Between 1980 and 2000, 202,000 “social housing units” were constructed in Santiago, in order to move a million people, one-fifth of the capital’s population, from self-built areas, to segregated housing complexes removed from the town center. An enormous mass of low quality housing was built for the poor all over the country. The regime first proceeded to “clean up” the rich neighborhoods, with a twofold objective: eliminate distorted property values created by settlements in the central sectors, and consolidate spatial segregation of the social classes as a security measure.

Urban specialists in Chile think that the dictatorship’s eradication of the poor from the consolidated city was a radical measure, singular on the continent. It would seem that the wave of mobilizations in those neighborhoods in 1983—after 10 years of fierce repression and social restructuring—convinced the elites that they should proceed with urgency, since the settlers were the protagonists of the massive national protests that put the dictatorship on the defensive. In 1980 there were new seizures that threatened to spread.

Women Against Pinochet

Since 1983, settlements created by popular sectors after the seizure of La Victoria played a decisive role in resisting the dictatorship. The self-built, self-governed neighborhoods replaced factories as the epicenter of popular action. After 10 years of dictatorship, popular sectors defied the regimen in the streets by staging 11 “national protests” between May 11, 1983, and Oct. 30, 1984, led by young people who used barricades and bonfires to demarcate their territory.

From the early 1980s, women and young people began to rise in leadership through their pro-survival and socio-cultural organizations, and they reacted to the dictatorship’s attempts to dismantle the popular world. The appropriation of territories during protests, where barricades impose limits to state presence, has been the means to reject external authority within the self-controlled spaces. Heard often behind the barricades, referring to the national police, was: “They’re not passing here.” This effectively “closed off the population” and represented the “affirmation of the popular community as an alternative to state authority and rejection of the proposed totality of the dictatorship. [11]

The state response was brutal. Slightly over a year later there were at least 75 dead, more than 1,000 wounded, and 6,000 arrested. In a single protest on Aug. 11-12, 1983, 1,000 were arrested and 29 killed; 18,000 soldiers participated in the repression, in addition to civilians and national police. This underscores the intensity of the protests, which could have occurred only after a resounding community decision. Despite the repression, there was no defeat. Community identity was restored, and success was embodied in the very existence of the protests and in the ability to launch repeated and sustained challenges to the system for a year and a half following a decade of repression, torture, and disappearances.

Among the new actors, basically women and young settlers, some differences should be examined. The popular sectors, and in a very singular way, lower-class women, developed new abilities, the principal one being the capacity to produce and re-produce their lives without relying on the market, in other words, without following patterns. Gabriel Salazar states that, “If women’s experience in the 60s had been profound, that of the 80s and 90s was deeper still, causing an even more vigorous and integral social response.

In the 80s, settlers did not organize just to take over a site and raise an encampment while awaiting state decree. “They organized among themselves (and with other settlers) to produce (forming bread-making collectives, laundries, weaving centers, etc.), to subsist (community kettles, family gardens, joint purchases), to educate themselves (women’s collectives, cultural groups), and also to resist (militancy, health groups). All this was carried out not only without the state, but also against the state. [12]

Women’s strength, and this is characteristic of current movements across the continent, is based on something as simple as coming together, supporting each other, and resolving problems “their” way, using the infallible logic of doing things as they do at home, thereby transferring to collective space the same style as in private space, plus the spontaneous community attitude seen in movements such as Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina.

These women have modified our understanding of the term social movement. They did not create bureaucratic structures or ceremonies with the usual pomp and circumstance inherent in those institutions that are necessarily separated from their base. But they acted, and did they ever! Under the dictatorship, Chilean women settlers became little ants that crisscrossed between and among area houses, meeting and chatting with all the neighbors. Their mobility allowed them to weave “neighborhood nets” and even community networks that made formal neighborhood board meetings unnecessary. [13]

The image of these poor women acting within their neighborhoods, moving around weaving territorial nets that are, as Salazar points out, “community cells,” is the best image of a non-institutionalized movement and of the creation of non-state power—in other words, neither hierarchical nor separated from the whole. With this also, a new way of making politics is born by the hand of new subjects who are not registered or included in state, political, or social institutions.

For these women the transition to democracy was a disaster. After 1990, with the return of the electoral process, they suffered a defeat they never had imagined. In other words: “The settler movement was not vanquished by the dictatorship on the battlefield the settlers chose, but on the field of compromise chosen by their supposed allies: middle class professionals and left-center politicians.” [14]

La Victoria Today

At the Pedro Mariqueo Cultural Center in La Victoria, during preparations for the 12th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Primero de Mayo Radio station, I was able to personally confirm the level of autonomy of new residential organizations. One statement impressed me more than any other: “Our problem began with the [return to] democracy. [15] This did not seem to be an affirmation of an ideological nature, just common sense that was shared, but not overly emphasized, by the approximately 30 people present.

The panorama presented by those at the meeting was worthy of analysis. The majority were young people, though some were older, and most were women. Each person was responsible for one radio program, and there was everything from hip hop to transvestites to laborers, Christians, socialists, punks, and people who did not define themselves. The diversity was enormous, almost as great as that in the population. In some ways, we could say that all those people are experiencing, on a small scale, harmony in diversity, social action in diversity, and resistance in diversity.

Upon leaving the Pedro Mariqueo Center, where the radio and library are located, I felt that the underdogs were preparing something big—they practice how the new world will be. The community television station, Channel 3, is nearby and is run by Cristian Valdivia, a painter, carpenter, and computer repairman—occupations that allow him to survive and dedicate time to his passion, community TV. Channel 3 has a range of nine kilometers and broadcasts from 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Sunday. Twenty-four people maintain the “educational, informational, and recreational” station where neighborhood cultural and social centers have their own programming.

The channel does not receive external funding, only the support of members, groups that have programs, and some neighborhood shopkeepers. “We don’t ask the municipal government for anything,” says Valdivia. “We do what we can by using people themselves: that is, more than economic resources, we deal with human resources. [16] Even children have their own program. The group wants to contribute to the creation of a network of community television channels throughout Chile, and they already loan their equipment to other areas.

After 50 years, it seems evident that in La Victoria, as in so many places in Latin America, social change is basically cultural change. For neoliberal governments, even those headed by progressive forces, autonomy and cultural difference are dangerous. In fact, La Victoria is an area where the state intervenes by dispatching the national police to keep residents under surveillance. Using crime and drugs as an excuse, the Safe Neighborhoods Program was enacted in 2001 under the Ministry of the Interior. The program uses funds from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and calls for police and social intervention in the “marginal” or “conflicted” neighborhoods. Nine areas have been affected, the first being La Legua, and the second, La Victoria.

The objectives of the plan are obvious when the authorities themselves admit that it aims to “combat crime and street peddling in downtown Santiago. [17] In each area they seek to involve social organizations, particularly the neighborhood boards, and this results in a division between the people and the organizational centers. “We are watched by the police 24 hours a day. Any activity that occurs is supposed to be reported to the police,” says Valdivia.

Walking through La Victoria toward the home of the Little Sisters of Jesus, who worked with Father André Jarlan, we see truckloads of rifle-armed police on the corners. María Inés has us enter a small, modest, yet dignified house that is very similar to nearby houses, where the four nuns live. She serves us coffee and slowly describes her experiences in the south with the Mapuche communities. She speaks softly, often pausing, perhaps because she is well over 70 years old. When we ask her about La Victoria today, she lowers her gaze and makes a gesture that is somewhere between weariness and annoyance: “The cops must leave here.” And she ends by staring off into space or, perhaps, at the image of Jesus hanging next to that of Father André.

Works Cited

— Fiamma, Paula. “Haciendo televisión participativa”, entrevista a Cristian Valdivia [Making Participatory Television, Interview with Cristian Valdivia]. Nov. 2006. www.nuestro.cl/notas/rescate/cristi....

— Garcés, Mario. Tomando su sitio: El movimiento de pobladores de Santiago, 1957-1970 [Taking Their Place/Seizing Their Site: The Settler Movement in Santiago, 1957-1970]. Santiago: LOM, 2002.

— Garcés, Mario, et al. El mundo de las poblaciones [The World of the Settlements]. Santiago: LOM, 2004.

— Grupo Identidad de Memoria Popular. Memorias de La Victoria [Memories of La Victoria]. Santiago: Quimantú, 2007.

— Revilla, Marisa. “Chile: actores populares en la protesta nacional, 1983-1984” [Chile: Popular Actors in the National Protest, 1983-1984]. América Latina Hoy (Salamanca), vol. 1 (1991).

— Salazar, Gabriel y Julio Pinto. Historia contemporánea de Chile IV: Hombría y feminidad [Contemporary History of Chile IV: Masculinity and Femininity]. Santiago: LOM, 2002.


[1Personal interview, April 2007.

[2The first land occupation in Chile is documented in books by Mario Garcés and the work by the Grupo Identidad de Memoria Popular cited in the list of references.

[3Mario Garcés, et al., El mundo de las poblaciones, p. 130.

[4Mario Garcés, Tomando su sitio, p. 138.

[5“Callampas,” as shantytowns are called in Chile, get their name from a mushroom that appears overnight, as they do.

[6Grupo Identidad, p. 14.

[7Grupo Identidad, p. 58.

[8Grupo Identidad, p. 25.

[9Gabriel Salazar and Julio Pinto, Historia contemporánea de Chile IV, p. 251.

[10Garcés, Tomando su sitio, p. 416.

[11Marisa Revilla, “Chile: actores populares en la protesta nacional, 1983-1984,” p. 63.

[12Salazar and Pinto, p. 261. Bold emphasis in the original.

[13Salazar and Pinto, p. 267.

[14Salazar and Pinto, p. 263. Bold emphasis in the original.

[15Personal interview, April 2007.

[16Paula Fiamma, “Haciendo televisión participativa.”

The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.