‘A dangerous place’
One of the defining experiences of Maria Rodriguez’s life was standing in front of her students and receiving a 20 minute standing ovation.
The Chilean high school French teacher had recently been released from one of military dictator Augusto Pinochet’s prisons. She was locked up for simply supporting his rival Salvador Allende, South America’s first ever popularly elected socialist president.
Unlike thousands of others, she survived the experience and managed to escape her troubled homeland and build a new life for her family in Australia.
“It was a moment I will never forget. It was at the end of the year in which I had been jailed and the school where I taught was having a farewell ceremony,” Maria said.
“I was presenting diplomas to a group of students I taught all through high school to Year 12.
“As it came to my turn to hand out the diplomas, everyone stood and applauded. They all knew what had happened to me and they clapped and went on clapping. It was amazing and after everything I had been through, I felt people understood I had done nothing wrong,” she said.
Maria says she and her husband were unlikely political activists.
“My husband and I were supporters of Salvador Allende. He was the first socialist president of Chile elected by a popular vote,” she said.
“We volunteered to work for his campaign and we were happy when he won.
“My family was not politically active but Allende had promised to make a new Chile – to nationalise the wealth of the country especially the copper industry and the banks which were dominated by the US – and we thought it was fantastic, we supported him,” Maria said.
“But the US and the extreme right in Chile were not happy and they plotted to get rid of him and to stop the nationalisation.
“We thought this would be a phase and that in time things would be OK.
“And usually after a few months a president’s popularity declines but it was the opposite with Allende. Even with all the difficulties at the time, the left was doing well electorally,” she said.
Maria said that with the help of the Nixon administration in the US, right wing groups in Chile plotted to destabilise the Allende regime. She says they created shortages of food and other necessities and orchestrated strikes.
“They hoped people wouldn’t know who was behind this and they would blame the government,” she said.
In 1973, three years after Allende’s election, a political and constitutional crisis emerged with the Supreme Court and opposition politicians opposing Allende’s nationalisation agenda.
In June an army tank unit surrounded the presidential palace but failed to depose the government.
Maria says the failed coup d’etat – which became known as the Tanquetazo or ‘tank putsch’ – was a rehearsal to test popular opposition to the military taking control.
In September, Allende was planning to resolve the crisis with a referendum on his plans. He was due to speak publicly about this but he was not able to because the Chilean military, backed by the US, staged a coup in which Allende was killed.
Coup leader General Agusto Pinochet became Chile’s new president.
In the aftermath of the coup, known supporters of Allende were rounded up and almost two-and-a-half thousand simply disappeared.
It was a time of fear for many Chileans, including for Maria and her husband Sergio.
“After the coup, people who were supporters of Allende became targets,” Maria said.
“My husband was an electrical engineer working for a sugar refinery and he had been active in the trade unions. He was removed from his managerial position,” she said.
Maria said that after a time things seemed to return to normal. Sergio had been demoted but he still had a job. She continued to work as a high school French language teacher.
“But we were worried about what might happen in terms of our two daughters and what would become of them in the future,” Maria said.
With this in mind they made enquiries with the Australian embassy in Chile about immigrating to Australia.
At the time the Whitlam government was accepting people who had fallen foul of the Pinochet regime.
“We were told that because we were still working and not in prison we were not eligible and that the Australian government was trying to help people who were in danger,” Maria said.
Maria had always held fears for Sergio because of his trade unions links, but in October 1974 it was she that was arrested and jailed.
“The military had a list of people who had supported the previous government and one day they came to my school and arrested four men and myself,” she said.
“We were taken away and our families were not notified. It seemed we had just disappeared.”
Sergio desperately tried to find out where Maria had been taken and eventually discovered through family friends who had contacts in the government that she was being held by the navy in a fort in Valparaiso – the port city where they lived.
Maria told of being interrogated by naval officers.
“They asked if I had weapons and who else was in the group supporting Allende. I was there for five days and during that time I saw no one – no family, no lawyers,” she said.
At one point Maria was blindfolded and told to sign a statement.
“When I read it I told them ‘I didn’t say any of this’ but I had to sign it,” she said. “Then one day they came to me and said ‘get your things, you are leaving’.
“They took me to a women’s prison which was full of drug traffickers – it was a very dangerous place.
“Thank God they had a separate section for political prisoners because I’m sure many of us would not have survived in there,” she said.
“At that time I felt lucky to still be alive because a lot of people disappeared. Politicians, artists disappeared and a lot of people were tortured,” Maria said.
Maria’s daughter Pamela says that while her mother was in prison, her father reassured her and her sister Andrea that their mother had been posted to boarding school out of town and that she would come home eventually.
“From dad’s perspective, his wife went to work one day and didn’t come home. But he made up this story about where she was to calm us. It is interesting to see some of the things people will do to protect children,” Pamela said.
“Once when we visited mum at the prison, she had convinced some of the other younger women who were locked up with her to pretend that they were her students,” she said.
After a month in prison, Maria was released.
“I went back to work and continued to get my salary but I had to report to the navy headquarters once a week. It was a very bad time for all of us,” she said.
Having been a political prisoner, Maria and Sergio made a fresh application with the Australian embassy in Santiago and this time they were accepted. In March 1976, the Rodriguez family arrived in Australia.
“It was a very good feeling. We were not scared anymore and the girls were at school and we could see they could have bright futures here,” Maria said.
The family lived with friends for a month before moving into a flat in Balaclava. They arrived on a Saturday and the following Monday Sergio was working at the Ford factory in Broadmeadows.
He worked in a series of factory jobs before finally landing a role commensurate with his experience at the State Electricity Commission. Sergio died in 2007.
Maria worked the afternoon shift at Westpac in the city for 15 years doing data processing.
“Mum would start work at 1pm and come home at nine so we didn’t see much of her during the week. She would pre-cook a meal and we would come home and have dinner with dad,” Pamela said.
Both daughters went to university and built successful lives for themselves; Pamela studied social work and Andrea teaching.
“Coming here was good for our kids and for us. Ordinary people were very friendly and helpful.
“We found peace and tranquility and here there was no persecution,” Maria said.