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Undocumented Rumours and Disappearing Acts from Chile

María Berríos analyses the effects of dissident acts in Chile in the 1970s, testing how their largely undocumented character differentiates them from historically certified actions.

The list could read: 1) a Batman comic strip made into a political melodrama; 2) a lastminute materialisation of monumental socialist utopian modernism; 3) a dinner party in the countryside honouring the Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmüller; 4) an experimental documentary turned into a Western; and, last but not least, 5) a piglet strolling in the city centre, dressed in military attire. I admit the connections may seem vague, but somehow these erratic, apparently harmless and mostly forgotten actions that took place in Chile in the 1970s and 80s compose a discontinuous lineage of corrosively ironic engagement with political aesthetics. This slightly bizarre collection of ‘provisional failures’ constitutes a showcase of Chile’s peculiar history of fragmented art tales, full of neo-Dadaist humour and unorthodox leftist critique. 01

The Pop We Almost Left Behind

In 1973, a few months before Pinochet’s military coup, Enrique Lihn’s Batman en Chile was published in Buenos Aires.02 The book, a comic strip in the form of a novel, tells of the superhero’s attempt to work on a top-secret assignment in Salvador Allende’s Chile. The mission, devised by the CIA and the local right-wing elite, aimed to stop the advance of the ‘red army’ in South America, by using Batman as a key weapon. The novel opens with the superhero’s arrival in Pudahuel airport and his immediate transport, in a private helicopter, to an exclusive welcome party in a Batcave-like mansion in the heart of the Andes. All the local guests, big and small, greet their hero dressed in unflattering Batmen outfits for security reasons. The look-alike crowd is a disturbing scene for the genuine Batman, who politely tries to hide his discomfort. But the hero’s uneasiness only increases throughout his adventure, as things become more and more confusing for the son of Gotham City, bewildered by the local ‘reds’ and the way they stray from his familiar Cold War references. He never fully understands whom the police and the military work for, and although the communists are supposed to be in power, they strangely don’t attempt to control the press. It is impossible for him to tell apart right- from left-wing media, and both pro- and anti-US paparazzi follow Bruno Díaz’s every move.03 Baffled by the ‘constitutional communists’ and the growing hoards of Batmen-journalists – who have infiltrated the entire country in their superhero garb – he does not know how to react when one nonchalantly approaches him and whispers into his ear ‘Batman, go home!’, in an almost friendly manner.

Batman’s perplexity turns into outright depression when the local carabineros arrest him for disturbing the peace with his carnival-like costume. After finding traces of cocaine in his bat-cuffs and antigravity compartment of his utility belt, the police confiscate his suit and accessories for further analysis. Stripped of his bat identity and increasingly homesick, he is overcome by the feeling of having arrived at the worst possible moment in a hellish, underdeveloped society, where the true defenders of Law and Order are impossible to identify. The superhero’s state is only worsened by haunting dreams of Robin playing a Chopin polonaise on a grand piano back in the Batcave in Gotham. But after the dream, Bruno wakes up to the awful feeling that his young companion may be forever lost in Vietnam. From that moment on, it is downfall for the American idol.

In the late 1960s and early 70s in Latin America, the debate on how art and culture could be of service to the socialist revolution was intense, and the issue of cultural dependency (mainly from the US) was a crucial point of public discussion – to the extent that outraged denunciations of pop culture and its alienating power were almost part of the mainstream discourse at the time. The specific articulation of culture and politics in this context is not as clear as canonical Latin American art history wants us to believe. Although most left-wing intellectuals seemed to agree that culture in general was ‘good for society’, they all had different ideas of what a revolutionary culture really was, resulting in complex equations of how highbrow, popular and mass culture should be conceived and how they related to each other. In Chile, the Right defended pop culture with ferocity, which made it easier for the Left to be especially harsh and dogmatic regarding foreign, especially US, popular references. The most obvious example is Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s essay Para leer al Pato Donald (How to Read Donald Duck), first published in 1971, and often quoted in contemporary postcolonial theory as one of the first systematic case studies of cultural colonialism. The essay is a Marxist analysis of neo-colonial domination exerted through Disney comics – a crusade denouncing the ‘superstructural myths sustaining the interests of the metropolis’: ‘The Disney Cosmos is not the refuge of occasional entertainment, but the form of domination and social submission of daily life (…) While his smiling face innocently roams the streets of our country, while Donald is in power and represents us all, imperialism and the bourgeoisie may sleep at ease’. 04 Although when read today this ‘manual for decolonisation’, as its authors called it, seems naïve, slightly paranoid and even melodramatic, at the time it was taken very seriously. A few months after the 1973 military coup, it is rumoured that a whole print-run of Para leer was dumped into the Pacific by the Junta censors. This was part of a national crusade in which all books suspected of Marxist inclinations were destroyed, including completely unrelated material with unfortunate names, titles or even colour shades (the censorship criteria for book-burning was basically the on-the-spot judgement of the soldier on duty). Lihn’s novel was not part of these improvised blacklists. Published two years after it was written, it arrived in the country late and out of place, in what the author himself considered an unfortunate coincidence of bad taste. 05

Even so, Lihn’s book has remained a sarcastic gesture that fulfils Dorfman and Mattellart’s wildest dreams of US ideology controlling innocent, underdeveloped minds. Batman en Chileparodies the alarmist and paternalistic positions of certain left-wing intellectuals who adopted a messianic attitude in their persecution of imperialistic infiltration, and pokes fun at the way these intellectuals, however well-intentioned they might be, underestimate the inventive potential of imitation. While Dorfman and Mattelart present themselves as undisputed experts on Disney, Lihn, a poet, exposes himself as a second-rate comic aficionado who demotes the ‘dark knight’ to the main character in a sappy novella – one written as if it were a real comic, with opening lines such as ‘Meanwhile, in the private chambers of secret agent Wilma’. Even the choice of Batman as the paradigm of the all-American hero is inconsistent, as Batman is a vigilante and not technically a superhero (he lacks any real superpowers), and he is also the darkest of the major US comic-book stars. A more appropriate choice would have been Superman or, even better, Captain America. If this weren’t enough, Lihn adopts the 1960s camp television version of Batman instead of the pulp, mysterious avenger roots of the original versions of the character. The novel can be considered the comic reverse of the well-known Padilla Affair, as when Lihn wrote Batman en Chile he was openly speaking out against the Cuban cultural policy of intellectual persecution and defending the critical role of the artist. 06 Lihn was among those who defied the conventional image of Latin American political art as a mixture of folklore, primitivism and social realism.

During the time of Allende’s Unidad Popular government, active from 1971 to 1973, there was no consensus on how to achieve the revolutionary culture demanded by its political agenda, as the views and practices within the Left coalition were heterogeneous and sometimes even contradictory. The architectural complex built between 1971 and 1972 for the third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD III) is a good example of this chaotic coexistence, with completely different perspectives pulled together by a utopian drive and a belief in the value of collective efforts. When asked to host the conference, to be held in April 1972, Chile was faced with the problem that no existing building was fit for the conference needs. So when the government accepted the invitation, a planning, design and construction project that would normally take three years had to be completed in a record time of eleven months. This required the recruitment of a number of prestigious architects from different firms who had to dedicate themselves exclusively to finishing the complex on time. They worked in three shifts, seven days a week, and Allende reportedly visited the site almost daily to encourage the 3,000 workers and volunteers.

Although the building was conceived within a rational modernist discourse, the urgency of the situation made any coherent planning impossible to follow. The UNCTAD III project was reinvented and reformulated constantly by those involved, and their diversity of approaches and backgrounds made any dogmatism impossible. Artists and artisans were invited to contribute and intervene in the design of the furniture, lamps and other interior and exterior details. The result was an eclectic and monumental building, where constructivist sculptures and futuristic interiors inspired by cybernetics coexisted with stained-glass ceilings, graphic wall motifs, semi-figurative murals made of Plexiglas in Pop colours, classic leftist iconography and large-scale craft constructions. Once the conference was over, the cafeteria – located in the building’s transparent street-level gallery – was turned into a self-service restaurant for the working class, serving 1,500 affordable meals per day. Ironically, after the 1973 coup and because the government building – the Palacio de la Moneda – had been bombed to ruins, the military Junta took over the building as their official premises. The same inventive unpredictable censorship logic used for book banning was used to eliminate any ‘leftist’ traces. Many artworks were removed and lost forever – although a small portion reappeared decades later in industrial metal dumpsters, flea markets and private homes – and others were modified: for example, the door handles of the main conference area, resembling the classic leftist symbol of a raised fist, were turned upside down to represent the Junta’s repressive policies.

We Bronson, You Tarzan

(Or the Other Way Around)

The cultural policy of the military Junta in the first half of the 1970s consisted exclusively of straightforward repression of all dissidence and anything loosely identified as left wing. This resulted in the military intervention of public universities, including the shutting down of certain programmes, plus the exile or ‘disappearance’ of an important group of intellectuals and artists. During the economic boom in the late 1970s, the celebration of mass culture became the official cultural policy of the dictatorship. One of the most successful examples of the type of culture supported was a television game show called Sábado Gigante (which could be translated as Big Fat Saturday), in reference to Don Francisco, the overweight entertainer who hosted it.07One of the most popular segments of this show was a yearly lookalike contest, of which the 1975 winner was Fenelón Guajardo, whose uncanny resemblance to the actor Charles Bronson won him the heart of the Chilean public.

Carlos Flores, a local film-maker working in advertising at the time, decided to make a documentary about Guajardo. The general lack of funding and resources made Flores’s enterprise a weekend-only, epic ordeal. The filming schedule had to adapt to the availability of loaned cameras, film and friends, who would give up their Saturdays for camera, sound or editing work. The Chilean Charles Bronson became the protagonist of years of weekend shooting, and simultaneously the guinea pig of a behaviourist experiment on subjectivity, identity loss and discontinuity. In the film, titled Identicamente Igual (Identically the Same), we see Guajardo – who refers to himself as Fernando because of his deep dislike for his birth name – giving innumerable versions of his past history and present activities, including messy accounts of implausible street and bar fights, running train persecutions, brothel brawls (one of which is re-enacted as part of the documentary), and a failed boxing career in a remote city in the south of Chile. Guajardo mysteriously acquires an Argentinean accent on several occasions, most memorably during the climax of the especially audacious stories. At some point, a local ‘manager’ of small size and nervous attitude appears with ambitious plans to promote the Chilean Bronson’s career internationally, but quickly disappears. Flores’s modest film crew follow Guajardo on Sunday strolls around the city, where he is surrounded by fans who shyly request autographs and kisses on camera. In one scene Guajardo’s family is interviewed, their shy and slightly sad mood contrasting with his proud excitement as they give brief accounts of how their personal lives have become increasingly complicated by their husband and father’s sudden fame.

Near the end of the film, a very serious Guajardo explains to the camera in a firm and didactic tone that to make the ‘positive cinema of international quality’ that contemporary Chile needs, what they should be making – evidently – is a Western directed by and starring himself. The result of Guajardo’s personal insurrection against the documentary format is the film’s last scene, where Flores puts his team, some actor friends, a transvestite singer and a film location at the disposition of Guajardo. The documentary ends with a deranged four-minute Western flick that shows the Chilean Bronson finishing off a bar full of petty criminals with just one punch, demonstrating Guajardo’s directorial talent through a short making-of scene. 08 The film was premiered in November 1984 in a Santiago de Chile cinema; the only known review praises its ‘indisputable quality’, although it also points out that ‘we can only lament that an effort of such category only made it to video, and cannot be a real movie in its formal sense’.09 This was because Flores, after many frustrated attempts to finance the editing of the original black-and-white 16mm film, decided to transfer all the material to video in order to finally close the editing process. The ‘not really a film’ documentary on the bizarre experiences of Guajardo – the nearly-but-not-quite Charles Bronson – resembles a certain state of lethargy and confusion that reigned in Chile in the 1980s. Despite the fact that the economic crisis that had followed the late-1970s Chicago Boys bonanza had become the setting for widespread social mobilisation, any initial hopes that the uprisings would evolve into radical change slowly faded out: there was no clear horizon for the end of the dictatorship. A few months before Flores’s documentary premiered, he had been busy filming another of Enrique Lihn’s ‘anti-artistic’ projects, this time a ‘dinner party/popularpicnic’ as a tribute to Tarzan. Motivated by the death in Acapulco in January 1984 of the most emblematic Tarzan of all – the actor and Olympic-gold swimmer Johnny Weissmüller – guests were invited by Lihn to attend the ‘festive burial of the myth incarnated by Weissmüller’ as an opportunity for ‘all Chileans to come together’. 10 Lihn managed to recruit a heterogeneous quorum of left-wing intellectuals, actors, politicians, writers, artists and socialites for the happening-homage-burial of Tarzan’s ‘abstract remains’. The guests were instructed to attend dressed as a character from one of the eighteen Weismüller Tarzan films, and during the orgiastic feast each guest was asked to make a statement about how Weismüller had influenced his or her life. In the lost original footage a small group debates whilst standing around Tarzan’s coffin, drunkenly munching on bananas, grapes and pieces of meat while the rest chase each other around the pool or collaborate in the painting of a mural-sized banner hanging from the surrounding trees. Once in a while, someone does the famous Weismüller Tarzan yell. A Communist Party spokesman, lying on a lawn chair and occasionally peering through miniature binoculars, makes a long speech about how admirable Tarzan had been in keeping the gorillas inside the jungle, stopping them from running loose and governing people. Many witnesses recall an unidentified blond woman climbing a tree and never coming back down. There was also an on-the-spot demonstration in which all participants (sometimes whole families) waved placards that said ‘À la recherche du Tarzán perdu!’, ‘Tarzán los valientes te seguimos’ (‘Tarzan, we the brave ones follow you’) and ‘Avanzar sin Tarzán’ (‘Advance without Tarzan’). 11 The event included a procession with Tarzan’s coffin that, after being refused entry into the local chapel, ended up being ceremoniously thrown into the Mapocho river.

Proclaiming Disappearance:

Operación Chancho

This collection of awkward forms of heroic activity persists in collective memory in the form of rumours, which are sometimes, but not always, accompanied by some sort of documentation. As such, they function simultaneously as fiction and history. By creating a constellation where the fantastic and the historical coexist, these stories shake any attempt to fix them by means of traditional forms of political representation. Though the lack of visibility they share is mostly accidental, a more or less deliberate practice of anonymity as critically productive is present in each of them. An ironic dimension is also put into play, whether in the form of a bastardisation of imitation – by insisting that the only authenticity possible is that of experience – or by exploiting friends, family and general human good will for the benefit of collective action. In many cases we see humour as a serious and efficient means of critique, capable of pointing out the violent absurdity of historical and political circumstances. The belief in collective action not only involves the disappearance of any notion of authorship, but more importantly takes on the risk involved in accepting clumsiness as a constitutive part of collective action. Never-theless, a strong sense of self- assuredness can be perceived in these rumours, a confidence in the fact that in the far south even the most probed formula can be inventive (or actually anywhere, but special recognition needs to be given to the Chilean obsession with its own remoteness). Still, when strong will and effort are invested in merely copying an idolised reference, or even when the desire of being someone or somewhere else is the object of imitation, all mimetic intentions are overridden by the certainty that the result will be an unpredictable ‘something else’ (not a comic book but a novel; not a documentary but a Western; not Bronson but Guajardo…). The rumours collected here all succeed in embracing the impossibility of controlling the outcome, and are open to the embarrassment of just doing things.

Between Batman and Bronson, during the official campaign for the 1980 plebiscite to approve a new constitution that would ‘legalise’ the dictatorship and proclaim Pinochet president, perhaps the most dramatic act of dissidence took place. In the middle of one of the opposition’s demonstrations against the constitutional change, a piglet dressed up as Pinochet in full military attire and bearing a little sign that said ‘Vota por mi’ (‘Vote for me’) was let loose in the corner of Paseo Ahumada, a busy pedestrian street in central Santiago. The suicidal mission, including a slapstick persecution by the carabineros, ended up with the capture of the candid pig. Though some insist the animal became the main dish of a feast held shortly after in the local police station, others claim to have seen a very similar pig involved in similar activities during the spring of 1984. Operación Chancho (Operation Pig) was the most dangerous of all these actions, recognised by authorities as deserving immediate repression and maybe the only ‘provisional failure’ that created an instant collective reaction of perplexed joy and indignation. Despite the fact that news of the brave little pig made it all the way to Radio Moscú (the programme Escucha Chile [Listen Chile] was broadcast worldwide from Moscow) no one knows for sure what became of the piglet in Pinochet disguise. Through a courageous disappearing act that hints at the dislocation of politics, the innocent farm animal vanished, never to be heard of again. Almost.

– María Berríos


  • Enrique Lihn described his Tarzan happening, discussed later in this essay, as a ‘provisional failure’ in ‘Adiós a Tarzán’, Cauce, no.7, 1984, p.32. Recently republished in Enrique Lihn, Textos sobre arte, Santiago: Ediciones Diego Portales, 2008, pp.387-90.
  • Enrique Lihn, Batman en Chile, o El ocaso de un héroe, o Sólo contra el desierto rojo, Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1973. Recently republished, with the same title, by Ediciones Bordura, Santiago,2008.
  • Bruno Díaz is the official Spanish translation for Bruce Wayne, Batman’s secret identity.
  • Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, Para leer al Pato Donald, Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso, 1973 (first edition 1971), p.159. Translation the author’s.
  • According to Lihn, the novel ‘appeared two years after being written, like a literally failed act. At that point not even I was amused with its arrival.’ Quoted in Edgar Ohara ‘La palabra es el espectáculo’, in Enrique Lihn, Derechos de autor, Santiago: Yo Editores/Arte Plano, 1981, n.p.
  • The Cuban poet Herberto Padilla was imprisoned on the island in 1971, accused of anti-revolutionary activity. In his public criticism of Cuban cultural policy, Lihn was first a solitary voice, although he was soon joined by other leftist Latin American writers and intellectuals, among them Julio Cortázar.
  • In 1986 the show was purchased by Univision, the largest Spanish-speaking television network in the US. The Miami-based version of the programme changed its name to Sábados Gigantes, and is still hosted by Don Francisco.
  • Guajardo went on to become a painter, and now lives with his family in Viña del Mar. A few years ago rumours spread of offers to act as the body-double of the real Charles Bronson, but these are slightly suspicious, as at that point the almost forgotten Chilean star was already in his mid-seventies.
  • Italo Passalacqua, ‘El Charles Bronson Chileno es una película para admirar’, La Segunda, 30 November 1984. Emphasis the author’s.
  • E. Lihn, Derechos de autor, op. cit., 1984.
  • This last motto mimicked the opposition slogan ‘ sin transar‘ (‘Advance without transition’) meaning the intention of overthrowing the dictatorship. The slogan was originally used in public demonstrations during the Unidad Popular, expressing the people’s resistance to right-wing pressure and a call to boycott the government.