UT professor talks about her experiences during Chile’s dictatorship

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Paloma Diaz, Latin American Studies programs director, recalls her life as a member of the resistance movement in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Photo Credit: Briana Vargas | Daily Texan Staff

Frozen in fear and unable to get away, Paloma Diaz was arrested and put in a van with a couple of friends. Knowing they were headed to jail, possibly to be tortured, they quickly and fearfully threw the propaganda pamphlets they had in their backpacks out the car window before the police saw them. 

In September of 1970, Salvador Allende was elected as Chile’s first socialist president. By September 1973, the military had overthrown Allende’s government after a coup d’etat. This September, Diaz, Latin American Studies programs director, remembers her time as a member of the resistance movement against the dictatorship that took over Chile.

“My first memories were [of my mom] taking me to the streets to celebrate Salvador Allende, and then the coup happened when I was 9 years old on September 11, 1973,” Diaz said.

But the peaceful memories didn’t last long. She said the military violently overtook the nation and created a “junta,” which included the heads of military, aviation and police departments that oversaw the government. Allende died during the coup, leaving the junta to appoint General Augusto Pinochet as the new leader of Chile. That’s when the dictatorship began.

“[In] the environment where I grew up, people were not allowed to say the word ‘politics,’” Diaz said. “The word ‘politics’ had this label of being dirty and dangerous. Many people were too afraid to get involved.”

After Pinochet rose to power, the Chile Diaz had known disappeared. A curfew was enforced, dress codes were put in place for youth and books were banned.

In college, many careers that involved the study of social sciences such as political science or anthropology were closed after being deemed too controversial.

“I wanted to study journalism in my city but the universities around me didn’t offer it,” Diaz said. “The conversations switched and people were very afraid to speak up because you could be arrested, you could be exiled, you could be tortured.” 

The oppressive political atmosphere disconnected Chile from the rest of the world. Diaz said the worst part was the feeling that she didn’t have control over her life.

“All media was controlled by the dictatorship so whatever [they] told you through the media was the only source of information you would have,” Diaz said. 

Throughout college, Diaz became a political activist and fought for democracy and the right to vote through protests and political awareness events in Chile. Diaz was even arrested in front of a Pablo Neruda mural while protesting the dictatorship. On a separate occasion, she narrowly escaped police during a protest by pretending to be a child’s mother at a nearby school in order to go undetected.

One of the most powerful stances she took against the dictatorship was during her college valedictorian speech. Diaz said she took advantage of the opportunity to criticize the Catholic school’s staff for keeping silent while student protesters had been tortured.

“I gave my speech in my own terms and it was a very controversial speech. Fifty percent of the room walked out because many of these families were military families and supporters of Pinochet,” Diaz said. 

Growing up, Diaz said she feared for her life, but also feared having a criminal record. But compared to her friends and other protesters, Diaz said she got off easy.  

Diaz said after moving to the U.S., she witnessed young citizens take democracy for granted. Although she admits it is not a universal solution, she hopes people will take the democratic process of voting in the election seriously. 

“The vote is not to make your dreams come true, it is to prevent your worst nightmare,” Diaz said.