Election Section

Reflections on the Making of La Peña By FERNANDO A. TORRESSpecial to the Planet

Tuesday June 07, 2005

Two years after La Peña was founded in the same place where it is today in South Berkeley, I arrived to the East Coast as an exile. Not escaping but expelled from Pinochet’s Chile, one of the bloodiest military dictatorship in the continent. I was a youn g rebel, a bit of poet and musician who loved the political process that in 1970 opened minds giving us a deep sense of latinoamericanismo.  

At that time, a number of kids, like me, were looking at the world through different prisms. The revolution of th e flowers, the peace movement, the dusty bearded ones who changed history with Cuba, the beat poets in San Francisco, the tupamaros in Uruguay, the Black Panthers in Oakland and Che Guevara in … everywhere, were like a ripped fruit ready to be eaten.  

In Chile, we had our own revolution, a revolution that took us from the street corner, from the neighborhood gangs, to the meetings, the books, the martial arts, and the political work. Salvador Allende brought with him not only his “Chilean Way to Socialism” program but also a wave of new things, new music, new films, new books, great coffee, and new hopes for a better and more just society.  

I met him once. The sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean when several hundred of people gathered in the central plaza to see and hear Allende and his friend Pablo Neruda. I was there. The year was probably 1969, and the city was Antofagasta, a city in the northern desert of the Chilean coast. At the end of the rally Allende walked toward the group of youngsters I w as with, he briefly look at me and touched my shoulder while saying something like “I which I could stay longer but I’m a bit tired, compañerito!” and he disappeared into the crowd. I remember his black thick eyeglasses, his candid smile, his brown poncho but I also remember that little tickle in my stomach, that jolt one gets when experience something really out of the ordinary. 

His revolution lasted for one thousand days. Everything came to an end in 1973 when Pinochet and his military junta, heavily e ncouraged by the lethal duo Nixon/Kissinger, took over the country, closed the judiciary branches and the legislatives houses, prohibited the unions, killed and incarcerated thousand of people among them students workers, teachers, artists—Victor Jara was one of them. Rather than giving Pinochet the pleasure of killing him, Allende, in one of the most heroic epics of the last century, took his own life. 

The Prussian Chilean army turned against its own people and a dark cover, like a thick wool Andean poncho, covered Chile as Hell came down along with the planes bombing the government palace of La Moneda. All at the expense of the oblivious U.S. tax payers. 

In 1976 I was captured by Pinochet’s secret police and sent to jail for about a year. I was lucky. I only spent one week disappeared. One year later I was expelled out of the country and arrived in Boston—a mea culpa, or Carter’s Human Rights policies or international pressure, or something, made the U.S. government hand over 400 visas for Chilean pol itical prisoners. “Solo para salir del pais,” my passport read (“only good to exit the country.”) 

Juan Diaz was a Chilean exile who was living in Berkeley and doing volunteer work at La Peña at that time. Somehow he knew—the Chilean exile diaspora was still small and news ran fast—I was a musician, a panpipes and charango player, that little 10-string instrument—very popular these days at Fisherman’s Wharf and pretty much associated, like many other traditional instruments, with the Allende revolution.  

Once Juan, the cultural activist, called me to New York, where I was living, and invited me to come to La Peña. “Hay mucho trabajo cultural en solidaridad con Chile aqui,” he told me among other enticing things. In fact one aspect of La Peña’s cultural a nd solidarity work was to create a Latin American music ensemble. I was lucky again; a charango player was very much needed. 

Going to California and returning to the Pacific Ocean of my youth was a very persuasive idea. However, what got me drunk was the idea of finally knowing La Peña. This welcoming place run by angry-gringos in a crazy city called Berkeley. 

I took my worn-out charango, a plane and arrived in Oakland in 1979. One year later Juan, the fighter, went back to Chile “illegally” to join the resistance movement and was gunned down by Pinochet Gestapo forces. I felt that same jolt in my stomach of 13 years ago, only this time it was a mix of rage and grief. 

The music, the colorful mural, the paintings, the poetry, the politics, and the wine (not Chilean wine because we had the—Nothing for/Nothing from Pinochet—boycott those years). I felt at home immediately at La Peña. There, I worked as a volunteer in the restaurant, organized different events, taught music, and sung in the chorus, but my most important position was as a member of Grupo Raiz, a sextet of Latin American music.  

For the next five years we devoted the group and our songs to the plight of the Chilean people, denounced the atrocities of the dictatorship, and help several human rights NGOs inside Chile. With the support of La Peña we toured nationally and abroad. We become part of an international cultural exchange and participated in Nueva Cancion, new song, round tables and festivals. We had the chance to met great musicians, songwriters, and weighty creative minds. 

La Peña was not only supporting all these work but also was a place where many of us in the area got together to meet people of many other cultures, to talk about political issues, to fall in love, and to eat sup erb food. During the eighties and because of the many wars down south, we also had the chance to meet, welcome, and help many exiles and refugees from Central America. 

Today La Peña is still carring on these same ideals, the same aroma of solidarity, edu cation, justice, art, and culture, and of course, good food. The Nexgen, the Hecho en Califas festival and conference, the Mujeres and Cuentos series and many other art and cultural initiatives are endeavors to continue with the just ideas and commitments of this group of students and young activists who started all 30 years ago. Hail to them! 


Fernando A. Torres, a musician and poet, is publicity coordinator for La Peña.›r