About the Chilean American Poet and human rights defender, Marjorie Agosin

November 9, 2020

Jackie Abramian, contributor of ForbesWomen of 5 November 2020, gives a voice to Chilean-American poet, novelist, and human rights activist Marjorie Agosin. The piece is too rich to summarize, so here it is in full:

Chilean American Poet, Marjorie Agosin
Chilean American Poet, Marjorie Agosin. John Wiggins

Like a beam of light piercing through the darkest tunnels of human destitute, Chilean-American poet, novelist, and human rights activist, Marjorie Agosin unveils the misery of the marginalized, weaving Latin America’s brutal history with her own Jewish traditions of survival and endurance. Memory and remembrance surface and resurface as a constant in Agosin’s writing. She ­flirts with her ancestral ghosts to unveil universal pain, desperation of loss and exile, and a yearning to belong.

Braided Memories - Marjorie agosin
In Braided Memories (Solis Press, 2020), Marjorie Agosin awakens her great-grandmother, Helena … [+] Marjorie Agosin

Her most recent poetry collection, Braided Memories (Solis Press, 2020), with photographer Samuel Shats, awakens her great-grandmother, Helena Broder’s memory, and escape from Vienna for Chile after the 1938 “Night of Broken Glass.” Agosin journeys to Prague and Vienna to shed light on her ancestors–finding their Stolperstein–stumbling stones of brass plate inscriptions of Holocaust victims’ name and life dates, set before their homes. Her great grand cousins’ spirits fly over Vienna “like a Chagall dream.” In Helena’s imprisoned “silent gaze” she imagines her train ride from Vienna with strangers “familiar in the knowledge of certain escape.” We learn how Helena taught Agosin to “leave glasses of wine before the vacant places” of the dead, how she “acquired the blessing of forgetfulness” and left to “roam on the other side of imaginary spaces.” Agosin, grateful for the remembering gift, becomes Helena’s “tranquil memory.

“The hand that writes knows before the actual writing foreshadows. I hear a voice, a spirit that comes to me—call it intuition or God. You either suppress it or follow it for the magic of discovery,” speaking in her gentle Chilean accent, Agosin is alone with her creative thoughts in spaces that make poetry happen. “Poetry is the soul of life, the language of sentiments. Poetry is not in a hurry—the world is in a hurry and that’s why we fail to see the most important problems of our civilization.”

As a human rights activist, Agosin’s 84 works of poetry, fiction, and literary criticisms have earned her the Pura Belpré Award, Letras de Oro Prize, Latino Literature Prize, Jeannette Rankin Award in Human Rights, U.N. Leadership Award for Human Rights, the Gabriela Mistral Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Chilean government, and the Fritz Redlich Human Rights Award by the Harvard Program on Refuge and Trauma. She holds a BA from the University of Georgia, an MA and a Ph.D. from Indiana University–and has been a Professor in Latin American studies and Spanish at Wellesley College for over 30 years.

Born in the U.S., Agosin spent her childhood in Chile before the rumbles of a U.S.-backed coup sent her family fleeing the país de poetas (land of poets) to settle in the U.S. The coup overthrew the democratically elected socialist leader, Salvador Allende and on September 11, 1973 brought Augusto Pinochet to power. During the 17-year rule, Pinochet imprisoned, tortured and killed some 130,000 Chileans–and thousands “disappeared.”

Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love - Marjorie Agosin
Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love (U. of New Mexico Press, 1996) is Agosin’s landmark work with a … [+] Marjorie Agosin

Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love (U. of New Mexico Press, 1996) is Agosin’s landmark work with a foreword by Isabel Allende. It spans 30-years of interviews with members of Latin America’s most influential women’s resistance the Arpilleras (burlapin Spanish) movement. The tapestries of embroidered cloth scraps made by impoverished women memorialize the “disappeared” loved ones under Pinochet’s rule. Agosin worked with the initial group of 12 women and brought their stories to the world. They were part of the anti-Pinochet art workshops, funded by Vicarâia de Solidaridad human rights organization of the Chilean Catholic Church. The embroideries, smuggled and sold abroad, provided income for the destitute women. {see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/22/arpilleras-making-a-come-back-as-blankets-that-protect/]

“As a woman and a mother, this is the most important work I’ve done–it changed my life,” Agosin was 24 when she first saw an Arpillera shown by the Chilean National Literature Prize-winning writer, Antonio Skármeta–whose book Ardiente paciencia inspired Academy Award-winning movie on Neruda, “IL Postino”.

Arpillera
Arpillera, means burlap in Spanish, a patchwork picture made by the women, became popular in Chile … [+] Marjorie Agosin

Like poetry, women’s distinct resistance movement reaches the core of what it means to be human, Agosin believes. The tapestries reveal an innate grief, immortalize memory, unfulfilled yearning to reunite with loved ones, and the trauma of lifelong scars.

In her most favorite poem The Most Unbelievable Part, Agosin explores how power corrupts and turns ordinary people into torturers. How in 1973 Pinochet designated La Esmeralda, the 1400 feet-long Chilean navy training vessel, into a detention and torture center for the “disappeared.”..

“Poetry is the intimacy of memory–it transcends history. The poem wrote the story of the tortures on La Esmeralda, not the other way around,” explains Agosin. “Torture is a metaphor for how power works—how a woman of privilege treats her maid.”

Considering Chile her home that gave her “a beautiful language” (she still writes in Spanish), and refuge to her family when they came on ships from war-torn Europe, Agosin’s exilic yearning of the familiar stranger expresses the constant pangs of un-belonging. In her Pura Belpré Award–winning young adult novel, I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Atheneum Books 2014)

Kids Post Summer Book Club Selections
WASHINGTON DC – JUNE 01: I Lived on Butterfly Hill by author Marjorie Agosin is one of the Kids … [+] The Washington Post via Getty Images

and its sequel, The Maps of Memory: Return to Butterfly Hill (Atheneum Books2020), Agosin recreates her happy childhood in Chile through the 11-year-old Celeste Marconi’s life. Her peaceful life, extended family, deep ties with the sea and the pelicans of the hill-town of Valparaiso unravel with the political shift to dictatorship. Celeste goes into exile to Maine and returns years later to find her country scarred by the brutality of dictatorship, and is determined to find her displaced classmates, re-build and heal her town and country. Like Celeste, Agosin is not totally at home in Chile.

“I’m home in books, poems, writings, friendships, history, travels–in places where Jews lived, and among trees and nature–human beings are not exiled from the beauty of the world,” Agosin immerses herself in her seacoast Maine home–which reminds her of Chile– surrounded by her garden dotted with quaint alcoves that invite the visitor to stop, rest, and embrace nature. “I’m at home in sacred places, from mosques to churches to synagogues.”

In A Cross and a Star: Memoirs of a Jewish Girl in Chile (Feminist Press, 1997)and Always from Somewhere Else: A Memoir of My Chilean Jewish Father (Feminist Press, 2000)Agosin meets her parents at history’s crossroads. Her father, as an infant with chickenpox, was hidden, crossed the ocean and was named Moisés. He became a medical doctor in Chile and later emigrated to the U.S., becoming a foreigner once again. Her blond, blue-eyed mother could only attend an impoverished rural school–not a Catholic school because she wasn’t baptized, nor the German school run by the Nazis.

“My mother’s story explains what’s it like to be a minority in south of Chile when the Nazi’s arrived–how Chile denied and marginalized its minorities and its indigenous people,” Agosin wonders why vast majority of Chile’s Jewish community stood in silence against Pinochet’s atrocities as she explores human rights abuses from Latin America to the unfair partition of Israel which offered a refuge for the Jewish people displaced by the Holocaust–and in process displaced the Palestinians. 

“Unfortunately Israel continues to suppress the Palestinian people that deserve the right of self-determination. To continue with the occupation of their lands violates the spirit of Israel as a vibrant democracy. Only a two state solution will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and with the dignity each one deserves,” Agosin states.

Agosin is inspired by her “amazing group of politically engaged” students at Wellesley College whose worldview, commitment to academic learning, open expression, and internships across the world to engage with the vulnerable reflects in their “gratitude for the possibility of learning as they face economic and emotional challenges amidst a pandemic.” Her immense empathy and loyalty to amplify all injustices reveals an undeniable allegiance to the spiritual and universal values of preserving memory.

“Memory is the active cause. Memory will not remember itself, like the Stolperstein tiles. Memory is a process, a constant commitment; without it we won’t remember the future. Memory is the future of the past,” Agosin confirms.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackieabramian/2020/11/05/chilean-american-poet-marjorie-agosin-unpacks-remembrance-giving-the-future-a-past/?sh=5b80f5fb12f4

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