“Everywhere, begin the remembering.”
(from a mural by Francisco Letelier, Venice, California)
At a backyard party in the counterculture community of Venice, California, a few years ago I met a young artist named Francisco Letelier. He had the long black hair of a warrior or musician, a classic Roman face and the muscular physique of a bodybuilder. His name, however, is what inevitably defines him, and what drew me to the event. Francisco–whose friends called him Pancho–is the son of Orlando Letelier, the Chilean diplomat murdered along with his colleague, Ronni Karpen, in Washington, DC, in 1976 by agents of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The lives of then-11-year-old Francisco, his mother Isabel and his three teenage brothers were ruptured permanently when anti-Castro Cubans, dispatched by the Chilean secret police, detonated a bomb attached to Letelier’s family car.
Though at the time I was immersed in California politics, the bombing jolted me viscerally, as it did thousands of opponents of Pinochet worldwide. The killings had taken place on Embassy Row, not a faraway Third World capital. Letelier, his colleague, and her husband, Michael Moffitt, who alone survived the blast, worked at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies, a respected center that served thousands of civil rights and peace activists. The terrorist killings by agents of DINA (the Chilean directorate of national intelligence) sent the message that no one in progressive movements was safe.
Now, years later, in Francisco’s backyard, I wondered how he had coped. For any teenager, the father is God. When that God dies at the hands of sinister powers, how does one build an identity faithful to that fallen God yet also grow to independence on one’s own terms?
In this country, the parallels are with the children of the assassinated Kennedy brothers and the descendants of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The transition is turbulent, never ending. Orlando Letelier himself was a complex person, a man called to politics whose soul was that of a poet and musician. Francisco Letelier, while called to politics by his father’s death, has his father’s cultural sensibility, choosing art and poetry to process the tragedy, from political murals to poetic works that universalize suffering, beauty and indigenous cultures. At the same time, he represents his father’s name at rallies, in persuasive op-ed articles for the Los Angeles Times, by yearly vigils at the site of his father’s murder and by human rights solidarity work. The nature of Francisco’s art and politics arises from the exile condition as well as from what it means to be his father’s son.
Like many multicultural Americans, Francisco’s exile status is personally present on a daily basis while invisible to the mainstream Americans around him. He must learn to live in a country whose political culture forgets and forgives the crimes of a US-backed dictatorship that killed his father. As one of some 1 million Chileans who left their country during the Pinochet regime (one-tenth of the population at the time) he is a member of what some call “the harvest of empire” or “the fruits of war,” an immigrant populace that is changing the complexion and future of America. It is a question whether such exiles–trapped between memory and amnesia, between psychic integration and a splitting of the self–will be assimilated into the superpower ethos that distances so many Americans from the world or whether they will become a binational force of conscience and human rights.