(Note: This is an updated version of the review, which corrects the location of the swimming pool depicted on the cover of Gringolandia.)
Curbstone Press, 2009
Chilean, Chilean American
During the years of the US-installed and –supported Chilean military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean secret police (DINA) operated clandestine prisons in which they tortured or executed thousands of people. Villa Grimaldi—which the torturers referred to as “el Palacio de la Risa” (the “Palace of Laughter”)—was one of four of these torture centers on the outskirts of Santiago. From mid-1974 to mid-1978, the DINA killed or disappeared 236 of the 4,500 prisoners held there.
Sometime towards the end of the Pinochet regime, the torture centers were all but razed, probably as an attempt to erase from public consciousness what happened there. In 1978, Villa Grimaldi was sold to a developer and, after a public campaign was launched in the name of human rights and historical memory, the infamous torture center was transformed into the Villa Grimaldi Corporación Parque por la Paz, a memorial of the lives taken there.
Part of what is left of “El Palacio de la Risa” is a nondescript swimming pool that had been used in the tortures. Now, with discolored green tiles covering the bottom, it is fenced off for both citizens and tourists to view. A photograph of this swimming pool—with a dove flying out of it—is the cover of Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s amazing young adult novel, Gringolandia.
Having Chilean friends who were tortured in those years—as do I—Lyn told me that she started working on Gringolandia in 2004, after the revelations of the tortures committed by military police personnel of the US Army and other US agencies conducted at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Then, she said, as during the Pinochet dictatorship, people were generally shrugging off torture as an aberration or justifying it as a way of obtaining information. Meanwhile, FOX media, in its award-winning drama series “24,” helped create the kind of division and suspicion to convince people to “follow the leader” rather than protest.
Meanwhile, the stories of the Chilean people—victims, survivors, and disappeared—were not being told and, given the responsibility of our government for installing and supporting the dictatorship that tortured, murdered or disappeared some 35,000 people, Lyn told me, she set out to create a young adult novel that “was real, honest and truthful” to tell those stories.
Much of Gringolandia is narrated by Daniel Aguilar, an immigrant teenager living with his mother and younger sister in Madison, Wisconsin. Part One, entitled “Then,” is told in third person; detailing Daniel’s beating and the horrific arrest and torture of his father, Marcelo, an underground journalist and revolutionary, by the Chilean secret police.
Someone grabbed Daniel by the hair and jerked his head back. He looked up into the covered face of the tall one. The boss. The man’s eyes were black and terrifying in the shadow, and his mouth, a little round hole cut out of the mask, moved like the mouth of a robot.
“Boy, you watch this,” he snarled. “This is what happens to communists.”
The helmeted soldiers left. The tall man crouched and ground his knee into Daniel’s shoulder blades. Rough hands in his hair twisted his head back. The other three masked men pounced on Daniel’s father, aiming blows at his head and body. His glasses flew off and were crushed beneath a black boot. He fell to his knees. Blood ran down his face into his beard.
Daniel closed his eyes and tried to shut out the sound of his father coughing and choking, horrible gasps. They’re beating the life out of Papá. Someone…make them stop. When Daniel opened his eyes again, his father was on hands and knees. A soldier’s boot struck the side of his head. He flopped onto his back and lay motionless.
“Let’s get him out of here.”
Part Two, “Now,” begins almost six years later. While Papá remains imprisoned in Chile, Daniel, his mother and younger sister have fled to Madison, Wisconsin. Mamá works with the Latin America Solidarity Committee, and Daniel, now 17, has carved out his own niche: a junior in high school, he plays lead guitar in a rock band and is dating a minister’s daughter. But Daniel is also traumatized and silenced; he keeps his head low and doesn’t call attention to himself. “Here, nobody talks about it,” he says, “at least not outside social studies class. And when they do it in class, I make my mind go somewhere else.”
When he drives to the airport to pick up his newly-released father, Daniel finds Papá damaged in body and spirit: partially paralyzed, Marcelo is a self-destructive alcoholic who has nightmares, lashes out at his family and can’t stand to be touched—and is bitter at having been exiled to the place he calls “Gringolandia.” It would appear that the dictatorship has succeeded in silencing both Daniel and Marcelo.
In Parts Three and Four, we meet Daniel’s girlfriend, Courtney—“La Gringa”—a well meaning but naïve, self-centered young woman who passionately wants to be part of something she doesn’t understand—and unwittingly comes close to sabotaging the survival of both the family here and the underground movement in Chile.
Although the dictatorship succeeds in breaking up Daniel’s parents’ marriage, it doesn’t succeed in silencing Marcelo—and it leaves Daniel with an important decision to make: Should he remain in the relative safety of family and friends in Madison, or risk torture and death by joining his father in combating a brutal dictatorship in Chile? What Daniel decides will have teen readers thinking deeply and making connections between the microcosm of their own families and the macrocosm of the world outside.
In Part Five, “A Bird Named Pablo: A Metaphor,” the dictatorship has been defeated by, of all things, a plebiscite, and Marcelo, back in Chile, is healing from his wounds—physically and spiritually. Here, he has written an incomparably beautiful story about a conure (a protected species in Chile)—tortured by a torturer—whom Marcelo has rescued and rehabilitated—and who builds a family of his own. A metaphor that’s too close to home to be a metaphor.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s book is complex and multilayered and beautifully written. It takes twists and turns and shifting perspectives, but the overarching theme is Daniel’s struggle with guilt over his father’s arrest, and his struggle to reconnect with a person who is substantially different than the father he knew and loved. “Papa’s words race through my mind,” he says.
I want to think of him as a hero and me as the son of someone who did great things. Like investigating secret prisons and bearing witness to what went on there. But there’s a huge empty space in my chest when I think of all the time we missed together. Five years, three months, and sixteen days, to be exact. And when I walk out of the studio, my fists are again clenched, and my neck and shoulder ache, as I think of how he put us in danger, ordered us out of the country—and still wants to go back there.
The story of how one small family survives a cruel and sadistic regime is a gift to all of the survivors of dictatorships, those who have become permanent residents of the US and those who have repatriated. Without polemic, without didacticism, Lyn Miller-Lachmann has created a disturbing, thought provoking novel that succeeds in being “real, honest and truthful.” Gringolandia is highly recommended.
Note: A number of excellent videos exist about Salvador Allende, the 1973 coup, the Pinochet dictatorship, and the quest for justice. They include: the three-part The Battle of Chile, directed by Patricio Guzmán (1975, 1977, 1979); Chile: Obstinate Memory, directed by Patricio Guzmán (1997); The Pinochet Case, directed by Patricio Guzmán (2001); A Promise to the Dead, directed by Peter Raymont (2007); The Judge and the General, directed by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco (2008); Archeology of Memory: Villa Grimaldi, directed by Quique Cruz and Marilyn Mulford (2009); Salvador Allende, directed by Patricio Guzmán (2011); and No!, directed by Pablo Larraín (2013). —BHS