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Home/Stories and articles/People
June 2006  

Memories of the youngest of protesters:

Students get into History

By Dario Osses


The students movement was born in Chile as a consequence of a bubonic plague. The same Apocalyptic pandemic which took the third part of the European population during the Medieval times, reached the country’s Northern provinces in 1912. There, it caused chaos which, if not as huge as in the previous centuries, were nevertheless considerable.

One more time, as it had happened which the previous epidemics of cholera, typhus and yellow fever, students from Universidad de Chile’s Medical School went to take care of the ill, in hospitals and quarantine stations, putting their lives at risk. This time there even was a martyr: Marcos Macuada, who was lost to the infection.

A disgraceful homage
When the students came back to thank his self-denial, the government organized a vigil of homage to them in the Municipal Theater. When choosing the seats for authorities, it was diplomats and social personalities the ones to fill the plateau, the boxes and all the best seats. So they forgot those being honored, who were left to the gallery. Obviously, this provoked great upset, and when they began being called from the stage in order to award the diplomas and medals, the kids refused to receive them.

The growth of this rebel gesture made the Chilean Students’ Union, FECH, which would have a key influence in national politics.

The FECH was born with a seal of inconformity about oligarchy and all the vices and rhetoric of the Parliamentarian Republic imposed with the triumph of the Congress faction during the Civil War of 1891. From its first few years, it shows a vocation of rebellion, guided by free-thought, anticlerical and critical to the self-satisfied and too comfortable society of the early 20th century.

Students against the Internuncio
One of the first public appearances of the FECH happened that same year of its foundation, when it was organized a memorable ball to the Internuncio Enrique Sibilia, who returned to Chile from Rome, after a long stay in Europe. A year earlier, Sibilia, as the representative of the Vatican in Chile, had interfered in the debate about Tacna and Arica, which had to be solved by a plebiscite. The parochial of the churches of those two cities were all Peruvian and still depended on the Arequipa Bishop. It seems that Sibilia wanted to promote the refusal of the Peruvian Church to the presence of Chilean priests in their parishes, and believed that Tacna and Arica had to be of Peru.

The students waited for the arrival of Sibilia at the Mapocho train station. When he got in his car, they acted like they were supporters. So Sibilia put down his window and took his traditional priest hat to thank them. But then a student took it and threw it up in the air, while all the rest started whistling and insulting the Internuncio.

A fake war
Even when the FECH did all this scandal in order to support Chile against Peru, eight years later the group was accused of selling out to the “Peruvian gold”.

It happened during the 1920 elections, when the Presidential candidate Arturo Alessandri Palma —"Tarapaca’s lion", as he was called— reached a popular support never before seen. The elections ended in what can now be called a "technical tie". The conservatives considered Alessandri to be a kind of "Chilean Lenin". To distract the public attention and get out of Santiago those militias that seem to support Alessandri, Ladislao Errázuriz, then the Defense Secretary, took advantage of some news he had gotten from the North, and decided to move the Army to the border with Peru and Bolivia.

That was the so called "Ladislao war". Santiago got heated by an enormous patriotic effervescence, with farewells and cheers to every troop going North.

Those who refused to take part on this pre-fabricated patriotic fever were called “antipatriotic”, and something like a witches hunt started against anarchist and supposed Peruvian officers in Chile.

Chile’s students federation refused to obey the military move, arguing that it was just a political maneuver. But they became victims. Their headquarters, in Ahumada street, was barbarically looted by inflamed patriotic crowds. Their magnificent library was thrown to the street, where huge fires took care in burning every book. As a proof of the students’ submission to Peru, the looters exhibited a portrait of that country’s President, Leguía, which they found inside their offices. In their ignorance, they could not see that the portrait was actually of Chilean intellectual Valentín Letelier, the man who had created the famous slogan “To govern is to educate” (which was later used by president Pedro Aguirre Cerda).

Even with  a lot of incarcerated students and the Federation’s director in clandestinity, the preparation of the Spring Party kept on going. The Police suspected that the student’s president, Santiago Labarca, would go to the celebrations; obviously, in disguise, since that was the spirit of the whole party. But they knew that he was lame, and though that that would make him easy to spot. They never imagined that the students would suggest for all of them to get there barely walking. After arresting several fake lames, the police just gave up.

Student and martyr
Anyway, several students leaders were followed and incarcerated. One of the symbols of those victims was poet and Education student José Domingo Gómez Rojas. He was prosecuted by then minister José Astorquiza Líbano, who everybody knew was corrupt.

The interrogatory to Gómez Rojas is an example of the youth ethical purity, even in the hardest of circumstances:

—José Astorquiza: Are you an anarchist?

—Domingo Gómez Rojas: I wish I was, sir, and have the sufficient moral greatness to be one.

—José Astorquiza: You appear to be involved in one of the most serious crime there is against the Republic, which is to put on risk the State’s inner security.

—Domingo Gómez Rojas: Let’s don’t do drama, sir.

Furious, Astorquiza sent Gómez Rojas to prison, where the poet went mad. Months later, he died at the Psychiatrist Hospital, due to the bad treatment. His funerals were multitudinous. Gómez Rojas was the first of a serious of student and juvenile martyrs, paradigms of idealism. Now he is remembered by a monolithic statue that stands in a square with his name, in Santiago’s Pio Nono street, just across Universidad de Chile’s Law School.

Finally, Alessandri got elected as President, and the whole maneuver was gradually dissembled.

The students were first-rate actors during those 1920 protests, signaling an inflection point in Chile’s history: the entering of the middle classes to the political scene. They would reach power in 1938.

From then on, the student’s movement kept on being important for the country’s development. That how, for instance, in the early 30s they played a key role in the bringing down of general Carlos Ibañez’ dictatorship.

The FECH was also a school for the formation of political leaders.

In defense of education
The secondary education was, for a long time, a democratic process, which included the class councils and the voting of the student’s Union president.

So the public education is considered one of the country’s big democratic conquests. For a long time, it has been the most efficient way for social upgrade, and the necessary condition for social ascendance according to one’s own merit. That’s how massive mobilizations to defend public education which is free and of good quality has somehow of a tradition in Chile, and in them several social circles have been involved, specially students and teachers.

I remember the big student journeys of the 60s, when we would take command of Alameda Av., right in front of the Education Minister, dressed in our school uniforms, and shouting:

En la escuela no hay ni tiza
y el Ministro risa y risa.
En la escuela no hay ni banco
y el Ministro tinto y blanco.

(There’s no chalk in schools,
and the Minister doesn’t seem to care
There’s not even chairs in schools,
And the Minister is drinking wine)

Meanwhile, the teachers had their own songs, like these, based on a religious chant:

Qué sera ese ruido que pasa por ahí
de día ni de noche no nos deja dormir.
Serán los profesores que pasan a pedir
un aumento de sueldo para poder vivir.

(What’s that sound passing by?
Night and day, it doesn’t let us sleep.
Maybe it’s the teachers out to ask
A salary raise in order to make a living.

Chile was a pioneer in educational advances in Latin America. The country sent missions to organize and improve education in countries such as Venezuela and Costa Rica, and at Universidad de Chile’s Pedagogic Institute teachers from all over the continent were formed. Education is a national value, which involves, between students, teachers and parents, almost the whole of Chilean society. That’s why its defense always raises wide agreement.

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