‘It is hurtful for us to talk about it but we need to. We can’t allow it to happen again’

Exhibition at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery marking the Chilean Coup of 1973. Bernabe Alvarez who arrived in February 1975 in Sheffield.

An exhibition celebrating the 45th anniversary of the arrival of Chilean exiles in Sheffield has shown the community’s moving story and continuing struggle.

In the 1970s and 1980’s, around 300 people from the South American country came to the Steel City, fleeing the cruel and murderous regime of General Pinochet.

The opening of Allende Way in Darnall. Christian and Catalina Miranda when they were kids.

Some have since returned to their homeland, but many settled and had children, leading to a second, and now third, generation of Chileans in the city.

A committee they set up 10 years after they arrived in South Yorkshire is still going strong, and last week held an exhibition of history, art and music in the city’s Millenium Gallery.

Committee chair, Pedro Fuentes, aged 73, said the community felt compelled to carry on sharing their stories, so the tragedy of Chile was not forgotten.

He said: “We still haven’t had proper justice for what happened.

Exhibition at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery marking the Chilean Coup of 1973.

“It is hurtful for us to talk about it but we need to. We can’t allow it to happen again.”

During 1973’s military coup, Pedro was grabbed from his bed and taken to the northern city of Arica, where a former school had been converted into a concentration camp.

Tens of thousands were arrested during this period, many of whom were tortured.

Around 3,300 of these were killed or became the so-called ‘disappeared’, whose remains relatives still search for today.

Exhibition at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery marking the Chilean Coup of 1973. Pedro Fuentes who is part of the Chilean community in Sheffield.

Pedro, who now lives in Heeley, said: “Friends of ours were killed but we were lucky. It was all about who was detaining you and where you were taken.”

“No one suspected the horror that came with the coup. It was state terror.”

After getting out of jail, Pedro was fortunate enough to be granted a visa to the UK, and arrived in Sheffield in 1975 at the age of 30.

He said: “I had a background in engineering so I knew about Sheffield steel and my mother had cutlery which was made here.

Exhibition at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery marking the Chilean Coup of 1973.

“Later there was also a Chile solidarity committee here which included people like Helen Jackson and Richard Caborn.”

“I was studying English but I couldn’t cope with the grammar so I thought the best thing to do would be to get a job.”

He found work initially as a ‘slinger’ at Firth Brown steels but later found his way into education and ended his career as a lecturer at the University of Sheffield.

Last week’s exhibition featured photographs, beautiful Chilean patchworks called arpilleras, banners, paintings, music and film.

Many works of art were produced by those in captivity or living under military rule, with dissidents expressing themselves in words, art and song.

Others works of art on show had been produced by Chilean exiles while in the UK and give a moving account the community’s feelings of oppression and displacement.

Exhibition at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery marking the Chilean Coup of 1973. Bernabe Alvarez who arrived in February 1975 in Sheffield.

“These arpilleras came from workshops where people were encouraged to express what they went through in terms of torture and exile,” said Pedro.

“Many of us still have issues from the past which we have passed then on without us knowing to our children.”

The exhibition ends on Tuesday, the 48th anniversary of the military coup, when they will hold a vigil outside the Town Hall to mark the day many Chileans call ‘the other September 11’.

Throughout the week of the exhibition, Pedro was joined by other Chileans from all over the country to share stories and reaffirm their commitment to remembrance.

Bernabe Alvarez, aged 68, from Darnall, arrived in Sheffield on February 15, 1975, speaking no English, with a two-year-old son and a pregnant wife.

They lived with Sheffield MP Helen Jackson for three months before finding a place of their own, and Bernabe has since worked in a food canning factory, the steelworks, in catering and for the Royal Mail.

He now has children and grandchildren who all consider themselves Sheffielders and said he would carry on remembering what happened in Chile ‘until the day he dies’.

Idulia Silva, aged 80, has lived in Colchester for the last 42 years and is part of one of only two Chilean families left in the Essex town.

She said that after the coup she and her husband were kept in prison - away from their three daughters - by Pinochet’s government.

She said it was the need to remember this cruelty that spurred her to make the five hour train journey to Sheffield to see the exhibition.

And Lucila Vasquez, aged 73, of Shirecliffe Road, said that when they arrived in the city, the exiles felt an ‘immense solidarity’ from the people of Sheffield.

“They were so welcoming and friendly,” she said.

Asked why the Chilean community in Sheffield continue to mark the anniversary of the coup by hosting these exhibitions, she said it was because it keeps them ‘together, like a family’.

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