1971 Washington DC
I am in the Mercedes sitting in the backseat, a khaki backpack, my father brought me from Algeria is on my lap along with a sweater knitted from natural wool by my grandmother in Chile. My fathers driver, Luis Sepulveda is at the wheel. Luis keeps the car clean and polished.
Luis is from the Chilean Army, a bodyguard appointed to keep my father and family safe. On some afternoons when he is not driving my parents, he picks us up after school in the new Mercedes, its always impeccably shiny
Luis appears to be clumsy or slow, but he has a gun under his jacket in a well worn leather holster. We find him servile in his ass kissing of “Don Orlando,” my father, but he’s gotten to be a familiar part of our lives, and he’s a good driver.
Traffic stops, and I hear shouting in the street. Our driver comes out of a slouch and turns down the radio. A bearded guy with long hair is picking up a metal trashcan and throwing it into the street. Luis watches him, one hand on the wheel, the other reaching reassuringly into his holster as he smoothly turns into our driveway.
Luis ushers us inside through the side door, I change and go out the front a short while later. I walk past fine buildings and residences, many have watchful guards standing outside. I arrive at my favorite record store and instead of the usual crowd, it's peculiarly empty. I look down the street towards the Plaza, and it seems jammed with people. I hear music and think there must be a concert. I walk quickly, I know the streets and businesses along the way. I am kind of jogging now, excited to see what is going on. I think I smell incense.
My eyes and throat are irritated, there is something in the air. I hear someone talking over a loudspeaker and criss cross streets so I can walk up to the circle from the North. There are no cars on the street as I turn into the last block.
The fountain is covered by a pink curtain of fog that turns grey and brown at its edges. Soldiers are standing around the perimeter of the circle, wearing gas masks and cradling M-16s . I am astonished, not afraid, as I watch a parachutist come down on the lawn as a fog of gas engulfs me. I feel like my nose is bleeding and I run in the other direction, along the Massachusets Avenue sidewalk, eyes watering. I wipe my face on my sleeve, the mansions on the street are closed up now, I hear sirens.
I remember how Sister Mansueta makes us pray for the healing of the injured when sirens sound along the River Road Highway near the school I attend. I think of saying a prayer for myself, my head hurts and I feel disoriented and lost. The boulevard bends before it comes to the rotunda, the dirty fog is carried towards the river and I can breathe again. Just three blocks away from Dupont Circle, cars appear, early rush hour traffic. I make it up to Sheridan Circle stumble in along the service entrance to the Chilean Embassy and climb stairs to the third floor. When I get to the bathroom I throw up.
Curled up in a ball on my bed, I watch a huge black and white TV, but there is nothing on the news. From the window perched above the street I hear police sirens, helicopters and explosions.
Muffled, as if thunder were brewing in the distance, distinctly, I hear a crowd chanting but the sound is lost in the darkening humid afternoon. I wander down the hall, listening, straining to know more, smelling the air, mild currents of nausea riding through me. My brother Juan Pablo is at his window looking towards the street.
“Lean back in man, they might shoot you.” I stage whisper towards him.
He smiles and brushes the hair out of his eyes, and calls me over,
“Dude! Take a look at this!”
From the window we watch 150 riot-equipped police blocking the street in a three-deep line.
Later, I learn that 30,000 protesters are camping near the Potomac river, gathered for May Day. They think they can stop the military, but they have awoken a dragon Every traffic circle, park and monument of the city is surrounded by troops, brought in from outlying bases. In the stadium where my father takes us to watch my second favorite soccer team, the Washington Whips ( the Chilean team Colo-Colo is my favorite) and where I saw Pele play for the first time, they erect a chain link fence.
A famous Parachute Infantry Regiment has been deployed by helicopter throughout the city. By evening the forces of order arrest over 7,000. By the end of the May Day weekend the number doubles to almost 14,000. The city is occupied.
When we returned to Washington DC people often asked me what it was like to have witnessed the coup in Chile. It was as if those scenes of violence, political confrontation and imprisonment were not woven into the the heart of the United States as well, a country in the grip of the Cold War, post Vietnam. The land of political exile is sometimes a known one. My exile only continued when I came home, to America.
The largest mass arrest in U.S. history occurred during the
1971 May Day demonstrations against the Vietnam War