TACOMA, Washington — Francisco Letelier’s father, Orlando Letelier, was a Chilean economist and ambassador to the U.S. under the Salvador Allende administration. Augusto Pinochet and his men assassinated Allende and took over the Chilean government on September 11, 1973, and soon after Orlando Letelier was exiled to the U.S. While a refugee in Washington D.C., Letelier worked to inform the public of the human rights violations happening under the Pinochet regime until he was assassinated by the Chilean secret police in D.C. in 1976.
After the death of his father, Francisco Letelier honored him by starting the Orlando Letelier Brigade, a traveling team of young artists engaging with communities through the creation of murals. During the time of Pinochet, murals and colorful protest signs, the banging of pots and pans and the creation of “arpilleras” (a type of tapestry) were used by Chileans as vessels to voice their grievances. Since he started the Orlando Letelier Brigade, Francisco has sought to use the mural creation process to bridge cultures and help communities develop their cultural and historical awareness of themselves and others. He also recognizes the close connection between art and civic engagement as art allows for individuals to reach across social barriers to unify and create opportunities for enlightenment and restoration.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Francisco Letelier discussed the influence art can have on communities, the recent issues Chile has been facing and how these issues have led to a resurgence of similar forms of art and protest as was seen under the Pinochet regime roughly 40 years ago.
The Importance of Collaborative Art Projects
When asked about the connections between art and civic engagement and what role art has in breaking down social barriers, Francisco Letelier described art-making as a raw process “where we are allowed to be brilliant and our most human.” The creative process allows individuals to express their most basic and truest selves, helping to form social bonds in ways that can reach across social barriers. Part of this creative process includes the “uncertainty” as groups of artists and non-artists alike collaborate to discover their form of artistic expression. As part of this uncertainty, art allows people “to get frustrated and make mistakes. Art-making is always a series of mistakes that are being corrected. There isn’t a straight line to it,” Letelier stated.
He likens murals to a “vessel” through which people are able to change themselves and their physical environment. The mural itself may be seen as symbolic, but it is the process of creating the mural that the general public is not always privy to where greater meaning can exist. He relates a collaborative art project to a “big social curriculum” that works across disciplines. Outside of the visible artwork that goes into the project, there is often historical research that informs the piece and the inclusion of current events as well as calls of action that remains across time and (geographic) space. For instance, Letelier’s Bridging Cultures mural includes themes of Indigenous, women’s and environmental issues felt across the Americas over the past few hundred years.
In this sense, muralists can take on the role of historians looking to reveal historical inaccuracies and “question the dominant mythos about a place.” This is a particularly relevant issue with Chileans and their experience from the Pinochet dictatorship. The so-called “memory struggles” are detailed in Steven J. Stern’s book Battling for Hearts and Minds. Stern recounts the competing perspectives held in the 1970s during the time of Pinochet’s reign and the fight that took place throughout the ‘80s—and ultimately continues to this day—to not let people dismiss or forget the atrocities. When talking about the role of art and memory, Letelier stated, “Art comes back to things in the past and in other disciplines. It is very hard and it becomes very complicated. Art gives you a license to state obvious things but then to tackle these things in a rigorous and academic way.” Additionally, art provides healing and resolution for many. Letelier explains how art allows communities to “create opportunities for restoration. Opportunities where people can have the direct experience where they see ‘oh, it doesn’t have to be like this.’”
The Current State of Chile: Protests, Economic Inequality and Violence
Although Letelier has spent much of his life living in California, he maintains close connections with Chile and stays informed of their domestic politics. The Borgen Project asked for Letelier’s take on the protests in Chile which started in October 2019 after a rise in metro fares, continued into March 2020 and reoccurred again on the anniversary of the original October 2019 protests.
In response, Letelier brought up concerns of inequality and division along ethnic lines, arguing that wealthier Chileans tend to be of lighter skin while poorer Chileans tend to be of darker skin, or “mestizos,” meaning mixed. A 2008 study did report that Indigenous peoples’ share in poverty “is three times their representation in the population” and that on average Indigenous Chileans are poorer than their fellow non-indigenous citizens.
Letelier concedes that the overall quality of life in Chile has been trending upward since the dictatorship. In Chile, the gross domestic product has increased exponentially from $30 billion in 1990 to $282 billion in 2019 and the Gini coefficient has declined from 57.2 in 1990 to 44.4 in 2017, denoting a more economically equal society.
However, Chile has the third-highest Gini coefficient in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), has one of the highest wage inequalities in OECD and has limited social mobility.
Letelier also expressed environmental concerns with carbon dioxide emissions rising in the country from 2.51 metric tons in 1990 to 4.71 in 2016, and has led to being noted as “one of the most air polluted countries in the world.” Additionally, despite being now 30 years done with the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean people still face violent clashes with its government, downplaying the severity of its extreme use of force in a more recently popular fashion of shooting out the eyes of protesters with rubber bullets.
The Resurgence of Public Art in Chile
During the interview, Letelier explained how these protests have led to the revival of the artistic forms of protest seen 40 years ago under the Pinochet dictatorship, engaging art with civic engagement. “We already had a very big resurgence of murals and street arts of all kinds [due to the recent protests]. We have collective murals. We have young artists that are graffiti artists with a lot of social messages in their work,” Letelier stated. “With the beginning of the demonstrations in October , the streets have been full of clever and beautiful and never before seen moments of street art.”
When looking at reports of the International Women’s Day march held in Chile in March of 2020, the use of paint, instruments, song, chant, dance, flags, banners and other works of textiles can be seen in their demonstrations as more than one million Chilean women took to the streets. Many of these women have not stopped demonstrating since Pinochet was in control, signaling the lack of progress in the eyes of the Chilean citizens. The women’s protest ended with the Carabineros police special forces, the infamous police force used by Pinochet to carry out his human rights violations, shooting tear gas into the crowd.
Altogether, with protests breaking out in October of 2019 and the spread of the COVID-19 virus at the beginning of 2020, Chile is facing uncertain times. However, Chileans have already made it through the disappearances and injustices under Pinochet with the help of their art and civic engagement and there is already a resurgence of this in the country giving hope that they will make it through troubling times once again.