Mountains, lakes, troubled politics and deep mine shafts were my long-distance impressions of Chile. I now have another – Sylvia Velasquez – a Latin-American life force.
I first met Sylvia Velasquez in 2012 when she worked as an Empowerment Worker on the Engaging Communities Projects at the Migrants Resource Centre (MRC) in London. She seemed to know everyone and be everywhere. In early March she squeezed some time for an interview.
We meet in a small room, angled beneath the stairs in the MRC. The room has one tiny table and two chairs. It is not fancy – neither is Sylvia.
We shut ourselves in and travel back forty years to Chile, to 1973 and the American-backed coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power and resulted in the immediate death of President Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically-elected Marxist head of state.
Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973 – 1990) was brutal. Various reports, summarised into a rough guide by The Daily Telegraph, suggest that the regime killed between 1,200 and 3,200 Chileans. It interned up to 80,000, tortured about 30,000 including women and children, and at least 200,000 were forced into exile.
At the time of the coup Sylvia had been teaching at the University of Chile-Talca. She and her husband had also been involved with the unions and other social and political groups. This was the work that attracted scrutiny and resulted in nine months imprisonment for her husband.
Eventually, in 1977 they decided Sylvia should take up an offer of help from a UK-based organisation, World University Services (WUS). WUS had first contacted them in 1976 and offered Sylvia a postgraduate course at the University of Hull.
Alan Angell, from St Antony’s College Oxford, was one of the original members of Academics for Chile a small group that had been founded to help the Chilean university communities threatened by the new regime. This group had later joined with WUS to help organise and fund university placements in the UK for students in danger in Chile.
Mr Angell explained to me the extent of support extended by the public.
“The Chilean coup caused an absolutely enormous wave of sympathy throughout the world. It really was quite remarkable. In some ways it was the first televised coup … It aroused huge international support for the opposition.”
“… It was an absolutely extraordinary period and probably was in some way the most generously funded refugee campaign for academics at any time.”
In October 1977, while her husband remained in Chile, Sylvia flew, heavily pregnant and with four lively children, to London via Brazil. She laughs. She can laugh now at the thought of them squashed into a hotel oceans away from home and absolutely penniless.
London did not work out. The family, which now included a new baby and Sylvia’s husband fresh from Chile, moved north to Dundee.
“I fell in love with Scotland. There was a wonderful lady at Dundee university on the human rights committee who helped us.” Sylvia smiles as she remembers. In Dundee she found friends, took a diploma in special education and performed as part of a Chilean folk group.
The move was not always easy for her children. She remembers coming down from the flat to find her son pinned to the ground while two lads rode their bikes over him. “I was just involved in what I was doing and had thought these kind of things were down to children being naughty. I realise now they were rascist attacks.”
Two years in Scotland was enough. Sylvia, now separated from her husband, moved with the children back to London and set about helping her own people.
“I had worked for under-privileged people back in Chile so I thought I should work for them here. I wanted to work with the Latin American community. The reason was that the Latin American community was exploited by employers. Most of them at that time were illegal or over-stayers who worked long hours, earned less than the minimum wage, and did not get sick leave or paid holidays.”
Sylvia looks at me intently. “Chileans were different from some of the other ethnic minority communities,” she says. She pauses then tries to explain. “The Chileans always fought for the right to go back.”
Two important organisations were established to support the Chilean community in London and Sylvia was at the heart of them both. One was the Latin American Community Group and the other was the Latin American Children Project for children and young people – a youth club which started small and then grew bigger.
“We put our own money into setting up something for the children first to give them a sense of community and belonging. When they were there they were happy because they had a nice cosy environment.”
Sylvia went on to work in health advocacy where she met many from the Portuguese community who could not speak English. That prompted her into becoming a multi-lingual advice worker.
In 1998 the protests about Pinochet’s regime grew louder triggered in part by the medical treatment the aging, retired dictator had received in London. Sylvia marched into action, giving three years of her life to the campaigns and protest rallies in London. They demanded Pinochet be tried for human rights abuses. Their ad hoc group ‘Pickete de Londres’ went on to become the Human Rights International Project
Pinochet died in December 2006. He still had about 300 criminal charges pending against him in Chile as well as corruption charges over the sum of approximately £17m he had managed to bank outside the country.
As Pinochet was dying Sylvia began her work at the MRC threading skills down into the migrant communities. “My role is to encourage migrants to speak out and to work with the host community.”
The difficulties faced by migrants and the need for empowerment are known to Sylvia – they are part of her.
She still volunteers and works for London’s new communities but she is forlorn about the funding cuts and the future of the MRC. “We will never be able to operate at the level we are operating now. It is getting harder and harder.”
Squashed into the “interview suite” I feel her point but I also have the feeling that Sylvia Velasquez, who has fought so hard for so many so far from home, will not be done quite yet.