Gabriel San Roman's Blog

How the New Chilean Song Movement Remembered the Iquique Miners Massacre

By Gabriel San Roman

The wanton violence of the Chilean State draws its historical roots well beyond the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. One tragic example is the Santa Maria de Iquique massacre on December 21, 1907. Following a visit to the northern Chilean city, Noam Chomsky described it in an interview as “the worst massacre in labor history.”

Colonel Roberto Silva-Renard, one of the villians, followed orders in carrying out the carnage. Antonio Ramón Ramón, a Spanish anarchist, attempted to avenge a loved one lost years after, but the Colonel survived the knife attack. Decades later, Quilapayun called Chileans to remember the massacre in a tremendous musical piece in the lead up to the election of Salvador Allende as president.

Upon the 100th anniversary, I penned a piece in remembrance of the historical tragedy and how La Nueva Cancion Chilena engaged with it.

Here is a re-posting of the article that first appeared in Znet.

Originally published December 20, 2007:

On December 21st, Chileans will commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Santa Maria de Iquique massacre. The tragic episode is perhaps one of the most important and defining moments in Chile’s history of labor activism. In early December of 1907, nitrate miners on strike descended on the northern port city of Iquique to demand better working conditions and higher salaries. At the turn of the twentieth century nitrate was the most lucrative of all of Chile’s exports. The robust industry was paralyzed as thousands of workers from the nitrate mines of the Atacama desert region sojourned to the city in solidarity over the course of the strike. Local authorities had placed the visitors at Iquique’s Santa Maria school. An estimated 5,000 workers occupied the facility while the government of then President Pedro Montt initially attempted to facilitate talks between workers and the owners of the nitrate mines. The owners insisted that the miners must return to work before any negotiations could proceed. Workers refused and remained at the school.

Reversing policy, President Montt and Interior Minister Rafael Sotomayo, who had strong business connections to the nitrate company owners, ordered General Roberto Silva-Renard to disperse the striking workers from the city of Iquique by any means necessary. On December 21st, defiant nitrate workers and their families continued to refuse to leave the school grounds of Santa Maria. In the early afternoon of that fateful day, General Silva-Renard gave orders to four hundred soldiers to fire indiscriminately on the people occupying the Santa Maria de Iquique school whose work in the mines, in a sad irony, extracted sodium nitrate used to make gunpowder. Silva-Renard, known to many as the butcherer of Iquique, never faced justice for the wanton killings he ordered and escaped an assassination attempt on his life by an anarchist seeking retribution.

Historians continue to dispute the exact number of killed in the massacre. In August, a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists exhumed nearly 2,500 bodies in a mass grave thought to be the anonymous burial site of the victims. At the current time, no conclusive figure exists for the death toll from their forensic investigations. However, archaeologists have been able to denote a disproportionate number of women and children among the dead. A popular Chilean folk song about the Santa Maria de Iquique massacre places the number of murdered at 3,600 while low end estimates place it in the hundreds. Whatever the exact number of workers killed by the gunfire, the event remains as one of Chile’s bloodiest labor disputes. As a result, a mausoleum, whose construction was financed by the current government of Michelle Bachelet, will open on the one-hundredth anniversary of the massacre. The tomb will serve as a memorial site and as a symbolic resting place for all those killed by the crime until identifiable victims can be finally placed inside the mausoleum.

Prelude to a Massacre

The mineral riches of the Atacama desert region of northern Chile made possible for the early capitalist industrialization of Iquique in the onset of the twentieth century. Nitrate mines owned by Chilean and predominately British capitalists foresaw an incredible increase in the size of the labor force. This economic transformation was met by an increasingly organized workers movement in the form of mutualist societies, anarchist groups and labor unions. The state and mine owners responded to a number of workers’ strikes in the city with repressive uses of force between 1890 and 1907. The culmination of the brutal dynamic, of course, was the Santa Maria massacre which had been the bloodiest repression of workers by far at the time. It has been said by some that the brutality of 1907 marked a turning point in the statecraft of the ruling classes in terms of improving labor relations. However, with a revitalizing labor movement in the post-war depression era of the 1920′s, nitrate miners were again murdered by the hundreds in 1921 in what is known in Chilean history as the San Gregorio massacre.

Cantata Santa Maria de Iquique

Establishment history in Chile attempted to bury the memory of the Santa Maria de Iquique schoolhouse massacre. The shameful chapter of repressive state violence against striking miners was exhumed, however, by an innovative and elaborate performance piece composed in 1969 by the late Chilean icon Luis Advis. The “Cantata Santa Maria de Iquique,” told the history of the strike and the ensuing massacre through the voices of Nueva Cancion group Quilapayun, classical musicians, and an actor providing narration. The cantata’s prelude states plainly its intentions as it reads, “Ladies and gentlemen/ we’ve come here to tell/ that which history/ doesn’t wish to record.” The following chorus continues to expand as Quilapayun sings the lines, “We will be the speakers/ we will tell the truth/ truth that is the bitter death/ of the workers of the Salar/ that you may remember our history/ of grief without respite/ even though the time passes/ one must never forget/ and now we ask you/ to pay attention.”

Audiences, in both Chile and abroad, heeded Luis Advis and Quilapayun’s request as the cantata struck a resonate chord. The creative collaboration was first publicly performed at the Second Festival of the New Chilean Song just one month prior to a historic presidential election that would see Salvador Allende, a self-proclaimed Marxist, attain the presidency in 1970. The political function of the “people’s cantata,” at the time of its debut was to educate audiences about the forgotten history of the Santa Maria de Iquique massacre while simultaneously creating a sense of historical continuity and struggle. Senator Salvador Allende campaigned with a critical mass calling for the nationalization of the U.S. owned copper companies. The cantata’s message of defiant miners striking against largely British owned nitrate mines hoped to commune with the political and nationalistic currents of the Chilean left at the time of Allende’s successful presidential campaign. Luis Advis’ prolific performance piece resurrected the memory of the massacre’s victims in a musical legacy prevailing to this present day. Quilapayun, exiled during the U.S. backed coup of Allende’s government in 1973, continues on and will be present in Iquique on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Santa Maria massacre to perform the cantata at the inauguration of the mausoleum constructed in the memory of the slain.

A Week of Remembrance in Chile and Beyond

Though the massacre of Santa Maria de Iquique took place territorially in Chile, the nitrate mines were populated by workers from neighboring Latin American countries in addition to Chileans. Among the murdered were many Peruvian, Bolivian, and Argentinean miners. The massive strike had fostered a sense of solidarity between the South American workers where a war had been waged by their respective ruling classes just decades prior. The late nineteenth century saw the War of the Pacific which pitted Chile against Peru and Bolivia in elitist competition for the rich resources, very much including sodium nitrate, of the Atacama desert regions. The port city of Iquique originally was Peruvian territory prior to the military triumph of the Chileans in the conflict. For the multinational miners to come together for a common cause in this historical backdrop is remarkable and quite antithetical to the resource obsessed driven War of the Pacific.

In the spirit of the strike of multinational miners in Iquique one-hundred years ago, the Summit for Friendship and Integration of the Latin American Peoples convened last month in Santiago de Chile. The anniversary of the massacre was invoked as an issued declaration from the summit proposed essential premises from which to achieve integration including the recovery of mining resources for the people. Friendship and integration surrounding the history of the massacre extends beyond Latin America’s frontiers as countries such as Greece, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan will hold memorial ceremonies.

The invocation of the tragic episode in history is being summoned by a slate of various events marking an official commemorative week in Chile. Beginning on International Human Rights Day, the historic folk group Inti-Illimani played a free concert in Santiago as a caravan of National Labor Confederation (or CUT as it’s known by it Spanish acronym) members departed for Iquique. Panel discussions, concerts, marches, film screenings and a host of other cultural events have been slated for the week of December 14th through the official anniversary on December 21st. Many Chilean workers participating in the week’s events do not view the anniversary as simply an opportunity to gaze at the past. They feel that many of the issues surrounding the Santa Maria de Iquique massacre, such as organizing for better pay and work conditions, are still relevant one-hundred years later. As the final song of the Cantata Santa Maria de Iquique reminds us, “It isn’t enough to remember/ it isn’t enough to sing/ it isn’t enough to mourn/ we must face reality/ we are united as comrades/ no one can defeat us/ they will never enslave us/ no matter how hard they try.”

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