El Cementerio General in Chile: A Tour of Historical Figures

El Cementerio General in Santiago is one of my favorite places. I’ve been on at least four tours with  my students and have learned a lot about certain important figures in Chilean history, so I thought I’d share my knowledge with you. We always start the tour from the entrance at the end of Avenida La Paz, which is not the entrance near Metro Cementerios. But, you can get off the metro at Cerro Blanco (one stop before Cementerios) and walk three blocks to the west on Santos Dumont and then two blocks north on Avenida La Paz, which ends at the cemetary.

The grave reads “He loved God and his country”

Upon entering the cemetary, if you walk straight passed the chapel you will come to the grave of Jaime Guzmán Errazuríz. He was “the brain” behind Pinochet’s political reforms and one of the authors of the 1980 Constitution. After he participated in drafting the Constitution, he distanced himself from Pinochet and founded the UDI party, which became an official party after the transition to democracy in 1990. He was a lawyer, and a professor at the Universidad Católica. He was elected senator after the transition. He was assassinated by members of the FPMR (Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodriguez, a terrorist group formed to fight the dictatorship)  in 1991 right outside the Campus Oriente of the Universidad Católica.

The grave of Eduardo Frei Montalva

Eduardo Frei Montalva, from the Christian Democratic Party, was president of Chile for the six years right before Salvador Allende, from 1964-1970. He was a very popular president and carried out a lot of projects to modernize Chile and improve its infrastructure. He was an opponent to the military dictatorship, but never went into hiding. The dictatorship didn’t dare assassinate him outright because he was a very beloved public figure, and would thus turn him into a martyr. However, after a routine surgery at the Clinica Santa María in 1982, from one day to the next he died of a generalized blood infection. It was recently proven that the DINA, the secret police during the dictatorship, killed him by injecting him with a bacteria. His house is now a museum, and it’s really interesting. His son, Eudardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, was president of Chile from 1994-2000, and was a candidate in the last election as well.

“I was born Chilean, I am Chilean, and I will die Chilean”

Continuing along the main “avenue” of the cemetary, right before this circular plaza with lots of “nichos” (what I like to call apartment-style graves), on the right hand side you will find the grave of Orlando Letelier. Maybe it’s because I was a Latin American Studies major, but Orlando Letelier was one of the few Chileans I’d ever heard of before coming to Chile (the others were: Salvador Allende, Gabriela Mistral and Pinochet…no, I’d never heard of Pablo Neruda before coming here!) But anyway, back to Letelier. He was a socialist politician and during Allende’s presidency he was ambassador to the United States. After the coup d’état, he was arrested and sent to various concentration camps for about a year, including Isla Dawson in the south of Chile. He was finally released on the condition that he immediately leave Chile. He first went to Venezuela and then settled in Washington DC, where he worked for various academic institutions. He denounced the Chilean dictatorship, and as a punishment the military government took away his Chilean citizenship. But he apparently told his wife, “I was born Chilean, I am Chilean, and I will die Chilean,” which is the inscription on his tomb.  Soon after losing his citizenship, in September 1976, he and his assistant Ronni Moffit were assassinated with a car bomb in Washington D.C. in an operation organized by the DINA, the Chilean secret police.

President Salvador Allende’s tomb

Continuing along the main avenue (O’Higgins) you will eventually reach Salvador Allende’s grave. Look at it from far away and you will notice that the cut out in his grave allows you to see a statue of Christ on the cross perfectly outlined. Allende was agnostic, and no one really knows if this was an accident or if the designer of the gravestone did this on purpose. Allende, as most of you know, was President of Chile from 1970 to 1973. He was a socialist, and died in the Moneda presidential palace during the coup d’état. His body was recently exhumed and it was proven that he committed suicide prior to the military entering the building. His body was buried in a secret grave during the dictatorship, then in 1990 moved to the Cementerio General.

Gladys Marín’s grave with the symbol of the dove for peace, the star for Chile and the hammer and sickle for communism.

I can’t remember the exact location of Gladys Marín’s grave in the cemetery, but I’m pretty sure it’s after Allende’s grave on the right hand side, it might be on one of the side streets. But Gladys Marín was a very interesting woman so I had to include her. She was a leader in the communist party, and went into exile soon after the coup. Her partner, Jorge Muñoz, was disappeared in 1976. She returned clandestinely in 1978 and fought against the dictatorship. She couldn’t be with her children for safety reasons, and left them in the care of other party members. It’s said that their caretakers would bring them to a park and she would watch them play from behind a tree or bush. In the 1980s she often lead the huge protests against Pinochet. After the return to democracy, she became the Secretary General of the Communist Party, she ran for senate and also for president. She was the first person to sue Pinochet personally for the disappearance of her partner. She died in 2005 of brain cancer.

Tumba de Violeta Parra

Via ClaudioG on flickr

To get to Violeta Parra’s grave, you continue down O’Higgins, then take a right at Bernales. Walk down until you see the building where the bathrooms are. Take a left, then take your next right and Violeta’s grave will be on the right, almost at the other entrance to the cemetery (the one closest to the metro). Violeta Parra was a folk singer, composer and visual artist who started the movement “La Nueva Canción Chilena” which reinvented and revitalized Chilean folk music, and had influences all throughout the world. She committed suicide in 1967. Her most famous song, Gracias a la Vida, was sung by Mercedes Sosa and Joan Baez.

Memorial detenidos desaparecidos

Memorial to the disappeared and political prisoners via williamstapiaj on flickr

Right before the exit on the left hand side is a Memorial to the victims of the military dictatorship. On the left hand side are the names of the people who were arrested and then disappeared (detenidos desaparecidos)  and on the right hand side are those who were tried by the military government and then executed (ejectudaos políticos). On the road in front of the memorial are four statues of the heads of an old man, an old woman, a girl child and a boy child. These statues are supposed to represent the Chilean society. Their eyes are closed, and the symbolism is that the result of the dictatorship, has made Chilean society to be “asleep,” and it needs to wake up. I’m not sure if I understand or necessarily agree with that analysis, I guess I need to think about it a little more.

And that concludes our virtual tour of the Chilean Cementerio General. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and at the very least learned something you didn’t know about Chilean history. Have you ever been to any cool cemeteries while traveling? I’m looking forward to visiting Recoleta cemetery when I go to Buenos Aires at the end of the month.