It is ironic that September 11, 2001, is exploited in the United States as a reason to “spread democracy” in Iraq. On another September 11-in 1973-democracy was dismantled in Chile with covert U.S. assistance. It is a date seared into the memories of many in Latin America who saw tanks surround Chile’s presidential palace and crush the elected government. Renato Espinoza, who died on May 18 at 64, kept the story of Chile’s democratic promise, repression, and resistance alive in Austin for many years.
Renato came to Texas in 1963 through an exchange program administered by the University of Texas International Office. (Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Dave McNeely, Ricardo Romo, Carol Keeton Rylander, Lowell Lebermann, Dave Oliphant, John Wheat, Sara Speights, and former Observer editor Kaye Northcott were among the Texans who traveled to Chile as part of the program. I was a participant in the last exchange in 1967.)
Funded by the U.S. State Department, the program was buffeted by political change in both Chile and the United States. The Chileans were student leaders in parties of the left and right. They asked Texans questions about Vietnam and civil rights and got answers that weren’t always welcomed by the State Department or UT administrators.
Renato returned to Texas with wife Loreto in 1965 and earned a doctorate in psychology from UT. The Espinozas returned to Chile shortly after President Salvador Allende’s election, eager to be part of the change promised by the Popular Unity government. It was a time of hope for many Chileans, until the military coup. Renato was arrested in northern Chile while working in the administration of a nationalized copper mine. Through good fortune and the persistent efforts of family, he was released. Most of those arrested with him were executed.
With the help of friends in Texas, Renato was offered a job, and the Espinozas and their two young daughters returned to Texas. Renato and Loreto found a supportive community in Austin’s Latin American Policy Alternatives Group. In September 1976, the brutality of the Chilean dictatorship exploded on the streets of Washington, D.C., when Orlando Letelier and his colleague, Ronni Moffit, were assassinated by a car bomb. Letelier was the Chilean ambassador to the United States under Allende and an effective voice against the coup. Working out of the Institute of Policy Studies, Letelier persuaded many governments to curtail investment in Chile. His success made him a target of General Pinochet’s regime.
Shortly after the assassinations, several of us formed the Austin Committee for Human Rights in Chile. Letelier had promoted this committee network on his visit to Austin shortly before he was killed. The Austin committee brought attention to the abuses of the Chilean dictatorship and sponsored educational and cultural events for over a decade. Through this solidarity work, I came to know Renato well.
He was a talented organizer. In this era, organizers use keyboards and listservs, but Renato possessed the old-fashioned skills. He charmed people in English and Spanish, learned what they cared about, and identified the talent they could bring to solidarity efforts. Chilean human rights struck a chord with many as we learned about the U.S. role in overthrowing a democratically elected government and installing a military junta.
Our first major event was a September 1977 showing of a documentary, “The Battle of Chile.” It had been smuggled from the country. We had paid a deposit to the Paramount Theatre, but at $2.50 a ticket we had to pack the place to pay the rest of what we owed. The committee distributed posters, passed out leaflets, sold tickets, issued press releases, wrote guest viewpoints, and filled the Paramount to standing room only. Renato was tireless, an organizer who never shied away from tedious work. We sponsored a number of other successful events-bringing internationally renowned musical groups Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun to Austin venues ranging from Armadillo World Headquarters and Liberty Lunch to Hogg Auditorium, and hosting theatrical presentations and speakers-one of whom, JosÃ© Miguel Insulza, now heads the Organization of American States.
Renato’s organizing efforts changed my life. Renato enlisted an artist, Carlos Lowry, who had grown up in Chile, to design posters and leaflets. Carlos moved from Dallas and became the Chile committee artist. I was a printer at Red River Women’s Press, where the posters were screened and the leaflets printed. Many silk-screened posters later, Carlos and I married. Renato took credit for the match.
If the Espinozas had only been political organizers, their impact on Austin would have been large. But they were so much more. They were gracious hosts to many gatherings at their lovely South Austin home. They reached out to Latin Americans, Brown Berets, feminists, and a diverse progressive community, and regarded solidarity work as a two-way street. Renato also excelled creatively. He was an accomplished musician, performing frequently in Austin with Toqui Amaru and singing backup with Dan del Santo. He carved faces and fists from the seeds of avocados (palta in Chile). He created displays for his collection of shells gathered from Chile’s 3,000-mile coastline and other beaches around the world. He landscaped and gardened.
As a psychologist, his publications at the Southwest Educational Development Lab enriched the lives of children and parents. After he left the lab, he earned a master’s in public health from the UT Health Science Center and became director of the Center for Minority Health Initiatives at the state Department of Health.
After 17 years of dictatorship, democracy returned to Chile. Renato and Loreto had become U.S. citizens with adult daughters here, but they visited Chile frequently. In Austin, they gave time and resources generously, volunteering at Brackenridge Hospital, delivering meals for Meals on Wheels, and recording textbooks in English and Spanish for the Austin School for the Blind. Renato translated legal documents and court transcripts, worked for the Political Asylum Project of Austin, and volunteered at Casa Marianella in Austin.
Chile now has a president, Michelle Bachelet, whose father died at the hands of the military junta. She and her mother were jailed and then lived in exile for many years. Renato Espinoza might have left Chile broken by the coup, afraid to organize. Instead, he kept Chile’s story of resistance alive. Along with many others, he helped turn the tide of international opinion and law against the dictatorship. He taught many of us the thundering chorus of the Popular Unity anthem: “El Pueblo Unido JamÃ¡s SerÃ¡ Vencido”-A People United Will Never Be Defeated.
In Chile, particularly during the dark days of dictatorship, people would remember those who were dead or disappeared, calling out their names and responding: “Present.”
CompaÃ±ero Renato Espinoza?
Alice Embree lives in Austin. A remembrance for Renato Espinoza will be held at 7 p.m., Saturday, June 30, 2007, at Las Manitas CafÃ© in Austin.