2006: Visit to Villa Grimaldi with Pedro Matta 

Pedro Matta is a survivor who gives guided visits to people who want to know about what happened in Villa Grimaldi, Santiago de Chile. Given my work on disappearances in Argentina, colleagues thought I would like to meet him. He greets me and hands me the English version of a booklet he has written: A Walk through a 20th Century Torture Center: Villa Grimaldi, A Visitor’s Guide. I tell him that I am from Mexico and speak Spanish. “Ah,” he says, his eyes narrowing as he scans me, “Taylor, I assumed …”  

The space is expansive. It looks like a ruin or a construction site with old rubble and signs of new buildings—a transitional space, part past, part future. I look down at the small book Matta has just given me, and at the map he created that outlines the route of the visit. 

A crude, handmade sign at the entrance, “Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi,” informs visitors that 4,500 people were tortured here and 226 people were “disappeared” and killed between 1973 and 1979. This place is simultaneously a torture camp, a memory site, and a peace park. Like many memory sites, it reminds us that this tragic history belongs to all of us and asks us to behave respectfully so that it might remain and continue to instruct.  

Lesson One: Clearly, this place is our responsibility in more ways than one. But how does it belong to us? And who is the “us” being invoked and created by the sign? 

“This way, please.” Matta walks me over to the small model of the torture camp to help me visualize the architectural arrangement of a place now gone: Cuartel Terranova. The word terranova (new land) once designated unexplored territories on ancient maps, and indeed this site remains unexplored. Who knew the Chilean military was interested in historical scholarship? 

The mock-up of the site is laid out like a coffin under plastic, a slightly opaque sunshade that in itself distorts vision. As in many historically important sites, the model offers a bird’s-eye view of the entire area. The difference here is that what I see in the model is no longer there in actuality. Even though I am present, I will not experience it “in person.” So, one might ask, what is the purpose of the visit? What can I understand by being physically in a torture center once the indicators have disappeared? Little beside the sign at the entrance reveals any context. My photographs might illustrate what this place is now, not what it was. So, why come here?  

It’s enough for now that I am here in person with Matta, who has volunteered to take me through the recorrido (walk-through). Matta speaks in Spanish; it makes a difference. He seems to relax a little, though his voice is very strained and he clears his throat often. Maybe the words resist being conjured up. Maybe his stiff body belies current attempts to put the “past” behind him. For Matta, it is not just about “what happened” in the historical sense, but also about the ways in which his experience at Villa Grimaldi carries into the present. 

The compound, originally a beautiful nineteenth-century villa where artists and intellectuals once gathered, was taken over by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (National Intelligence Directorate, DINA). Active from 1973 to ’77, DINA was the special force used by military leader and dictator Augusto Pinochet to interrogate the people detained by the military during massive roundups. Many important artists, thinkers, and activists were disappeared and tortured. Taking up their space seemed as necessary as taking their lives. As thousands of people were captured, many civilian spaces associated with progressive intellectuals and left-wing movements were transformed into makeshift detention centers. Villa Grimaldi was one of the most infamous. One of the attractions for the military, I learned later, was that the remote site was close to an airport controlled by Pinochet. This was convenient for loading drugged or dead prisoners on “death flights” and dumping them in the sea. In 1978, once DINA disbanded and was renamed, one of the generals sold Villa Grimaldi to a construction company belonging to the Pinochet family, to have it torn down and replaced with a housing project. Survivors and human-rights activists could not stop the demolition, but after much heated contestation, they did secure the site as a memorial and peace park in 1995. Matta, among other survivors and human-rights activists, has spent a great deal of time, money, and energy to make sure that the space remains a permanent reminder of what the Pinochet government did to its people. Three epochs, with three histories, overlap on this space that even now has multiple functions: evidentiary, commemorative, reconciliatory, and pedagogical. 

The miniature detention camp on display positions us as spectators. We stand over the model, looking down on its organizational structure. The main entrance of the complex, to the top left, allowed passage for vehicles delivering the hooded captives up to the main building. Matta’s language and my imagination populate this inert space. He points to the tiny copy of the large main building that served as the center of operations for DINA—here the military planned who they would target and evaluated the results of the torture sessions. The officer in charge of Villa Grimaldi and his assistants had offices here, and there was a mess hall for officers. The building also housed the archives and a shortwave radio station that kept the military personnel in contact with their counterparts throughout South America. Operation Condor, the transnational network of repressive military regimes operating in Latin America, in cooperation with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the CIA, shared intelligence and helped persecute progressive leaders and militants on the run. In the small buildings along the left perimeter, the prisoners were divided up, separated, and blindfolded—men here, women there. Miniature drawings made by survivors now line the periphery: hooded prisoners pushed by guards with rifles for their thirty seconds at the latrines; a hall of small locked cells guarded by an armed man; a close-up drawing of the inside of one of the cells in which a half dozen shackled and hooded men are squeezed in tightly; an empty torture chamber with a bare metal bunk bed equipped with leather straps, a chair with straps for arms and feet, a table with instruments; an image of the torturers. 

Torture is very literal. Breaking bodies becomes a way of breaking the resistance of workers’ unions and student movements. The fractures in society become the fractures on the body. The images show how literally, too, objects reference behavior. I ask to know exactly what happened there/here. Matta points to the model. It is clear that the displacement offered by the model gives him a sense of control—he no longer needs to fully relive the image to describe it; he can externalize and point to it. The violence, in part, can be transferred to the archive, materialized in the small evidentiary mock-up. He is explicit about the criminal politics and very clear in his condemnation of the CIA’s role in the Chilean crisis. His blue eyes pierce me, and then he remembers I am not that audience—an audience but not that audience. 

Looking down at the model in relation to the “actual” space, I see we are standing on the site of the main building, usurping the military’s place. Looking offers me the strange fantasy of seeing or grasping the “whole,” the fiction that I can possibly understand systemic criminal violence even as I position myself simultaneously in and above the fray. I am permitted to identify without identifying. I am not implicated except to the degree that I can understand the information transmitted to me by the mock-up and Matta, my guide. This happened there, back then, to them, by them … Recounting performs spatial and temporal displacement. The encounter, at this point, is about representation and explication of the facts. I take photographs, wondering how the tenuous “evidentiary” power of the photo might extend the fragile evidentiary claim of the model camp. I know what happened at Villa Grimaldi, of course, but wonder if being there helps me know it differently. Can I, being there, with my camera, do anything to further make visible the criminal violence? 

The “other” violence, the economic policies that justified and enabled the breaking of bodies, the annihilation of workers’ rights and aspiration to political freedom that Chile stood for in the early 1970s, remains fully operational today but safely outside the frame. 

We look up and around at the “place” itself. There’s not much to see of the former camp. The remains of a few original structures along with replicas of isolation cells and a tower dot the compound, emptied though not empty—emptied of something palpable by its absence. No history. No one responsible. Activists planted rows of birch trees (abedules), I learned later, to symbolize the fragile and solitary condition of the ex-prisoners, along with their resistance. With the camp demolished, Matta informs and points out things, but he does not seem to connect personally or emotionally to what he describes. Some objects have been reconstructed and placed to support the narration—“this happened here.” A model of one of the isolation cells for example, one meter by two meters, which forced four or five prisoners to stand upright for extended periods of time. They were called Casas Chile by the armed forces as an ironic put-down of Salvador Allende’s initiative to provide the poor with housing—small and cramped as it was. Matta told me later that he had learned to sleep standing up in one of those cells. 

Matta walks toward the original entryway—the massive iron gate now permanently locked and sealed, as if to shut out the possibility of further violence. From this vantage point, it is clear that another layer has been added to the space. A wash of decorative tiles, chips of the original ceramic found at the site, form a huge arrowlike shape on the ground pointing away from the gate toward the new “peace fountain” (a “symbol of life and hope,” according to Matta’s booklet) and a large performance pavilion. The architecture participates in the rehabilitation of the site. The cross-shaped layout of these additions moves the history from criminal past to redemptive future. Matta ignores that for the moment—he is not in a peace park. This is not the time for reconciliation.  

Matta speaks impersonally, in the third person, about the role of torture in Chile—half a million people tortured and five thousand killed out of a population of eight million. I do the math … 1 in 16. There was more torture yet fewer murders in Chile than in neighboring Argentina, where the armed forces permanently disappeared thirty thousand of their own people. Pinochet chose to break rather than eliminate his “enemies”—the population of ghosts or individuals destroyed by torture thrown back into society would be a warning to others. Matta speaks about the development of torture as a tool of the state from its early experimental phase to the highly precise and tested practice it became. Matta’s tone is controlled and reserved. He is giving archival information, not personal testimony, as he outlines the daily workings of the camp, the transformation of language as words were outlawed. Crimenes, desaparecidos, and dictadura (crimes, the disappeared, and dictatorship) were replaced by excesos, presuntos, and gobierno militar (excesses, “the presumed,” and military government). As we walk, he describes what happened where, and I notice that he keeps his eyes on the ground, a habit born of peering down from under the blindfold he was forced to wear.  

Gradually, Matta’s manner of speaking shifts—he begins to reenact ever so subtly as he retells. He moves deeper into the death camp: here, pointing at an empty spot, he says, “Usually unconscious, the victim was taken off the parrilla (metal bed frame), and if male, dragged here.” Looking down, I see the colored shards of ceramic tiles and stones that now mark the places where buildings once stood and the paths where victims were pushed to the torture chambers. As I follow, I too know my way by keeping my eyes on the ground: sala de tortura (torture chamber), celdas para mujeres detenidas (cells for detained women). I follow his movements, but his voice also draws me in. Gradually, too, his pronouns change—they tortured them becomes they tortured us. He brings me in closer. His performance animates the space and keeps it alive. His body connects me to those that Pinochet made disappear, not just the place but the trauma. Matta’s presence performs the claim, embodies it, le da cuerpo. He has survived to tell. Being in place with him communicates a very different sense of the crimes than looking down on the model. Walking through Villa Grimaldi with Matta brings the past up close, past as actually not past. Now. Here. And in many parts of the world, as we speak. I too am part of this scenario now; I have accompanied him here. My eyes look straight down, mimetically rather than reflectively, through his downturned eyes. I do not see really; I imagine. I presenciar; I presence (as active verb). “Embodied cognition” is what neuroscientists call this, but what we in theater have always understood to be mimesis and empathy—we learn and absorb by mirroring other people. I participate not in the events but in his transmission of the affect emanating from the events. My presencing offers me no sense of control, no fiction of understanding.  

When he gets to one of the original trees used to torture prisoners in various ingenious ways, he acts out some of the positions he and others endured. He suffered a permanent lesion to his shoulder, he told me, and his heart was affected. In front of where the torture rooms stood, he relays how a body in a state of electrocution begins to release water from all its pores, despite being completely dehydrated. (The person cannot drink water because the remaining electricity in the body would electrocute him or her. It takes a few hours to de-electrify.) And electricity, he continues, makes the body contract, so the torturers would strap the victim down with a leather strap. Prisoners were left with lasting damage to their spinal column, and often their sphincter. When he gets to the memorial wall marked with the names of the dead (built twenty years after the violent events), he breaks down and cries. He cries for those who died but also for those who survived. “Torture,” he says, “destroys the human being. And I am no exception. I was destroyed through torture.” This is the climax of the tour. The past and the present come together in this admission. Torture works into the future, yet it forecloses the very possibility of the future. The torture site is transitional, but torture itself is transformative—it turns societies into terrifying places and people into zombies. Now, after the end of the dictatorship in 1990, nothing is the same. 

When Matta leaves the memorial wall, his tone shifts again. He has moved out of the death space. Now, he is more personal and informal. We talk about how other survivors have dealt with trauma, about similarities and differences with other torture centers and detention camps in Chile and other parts of the world. He says he needs to come back; the walk-through reconnects him with his friends who were disappeared. Whenever he visits with a group, he feels he is doing what he would wish one of his friends would do for him had he been the one disappeared. Afterwards, he goes home physically and emotionally drained, he says, and drinks a liter of fruit juice and goes to sleep—he doesn’t get up until the following morning. His body still hurts from the torture, and he has developed debilitating aftereffects.  

We continue to walk, past the replica of the water tower where the high-value prisoners were isolated, past the sala de la memoria (memory room)—one of the few remaining original buildings that served as the photography and silk-screen workshops—to stop at the pool, also original, where he tells one of the most chilling accounts told to him by someone on the inside, a collaborator … Different commemorative art and memorials for the dead have been installed here by some of the political parties and organizations most virulently hit by the armed forces. Those for the Chilean Communist Party and the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement), among others, line the periphery like small grave plots. 

Near the exit, a large sign with the names of the dead reminds us, El olvido esta lleno de memoria (Forgetting is full of memory). Accompanied by, of course, the ever hopeful Nunca Más (Never Again). Matta barely notices the fountain—the Christian overlay of redemption was the government’s idea, clearly. 

Trauma as Durational Performance  

After my visit to Villa Grimaldi with Pedro Matta, a friend tells me that he gives the tour the same way every time—stands in the same spot, recounts the same events, cries at the memorial wall. Others find this odd, as if the routine makes the emotion suspect. Are the tears for real? Is this a performance? Is Matta a professional trauma survivor? The reenactment, I believe, is central both to trauma and to performance. Trauma, like performance, is known by the nature of its repeats, “never for the first time.”1 We speak of trauma only when the event cannot be processed yet produces characteristic aftershocks. Trauma, like performance, is always experienced in the present. Here. Now. For a survivor of torture, going back to the torture camp is a deliberate reentry into a painful memory path. Memory, we know, is linked to place—one clear reason why that place needs not only to exist but to be marked for the violence to be acknowledged. Through the recorrido, the act of walking, the body remembers. These “tours,” then, give him a way to keep his past alive yet under control.  

For Matta, trauma (like his activism) is a durational performance. His experience does not last two hours—it has lasted years, since his imprisonment by the armed forces. His reiterated acts of leading people down past paths characterize trauma and the trauma-driven actions to channel and alleviate it. I can understand what Matta is doing in being there better than I can understand what I was doing in going there. I wonder about aura and worry about voyeurism and (dark) tourism. What does Matta’s performance want of me as audience or as witness? What does it mean to witness and what is the quality of being in place? He needs others to acknowledge what happened there and to demand justice. Witness, a transitive verb, defines both the act and the person carrying it out; the verb precedes the noun—it is through the act of witnessing that we become a witness. Identity relies on the action. We are both the subject and the product of our acts. Matta is the witness for those who are no longer alive to tell; he is the witness to himself as he tells of his own ordeal; he is a witness in the juridical sense—he brought charges against the Pinochet dictatorship. He is also the object of my witnessing; he needs me to acknowledge what he and others went through in Villa Grimaldi. The transitivity of “witness” ties us together—that’s one reason he’s keen to gauge the nature of his audience. Trauma-driven activism (like trauma itself) cannot simply be told or known; it needs to be enacted, repeated, and externalized through embodied practice. 

In our everyday lives, we have no way of dealing with violent acts that shatter the limits of our understanding. We all live in proximity to criminal violence; although some of us have felt it more personally than others, this violence is never just personal. This is the strength and weakness of this kind of memorialization. It’s so personalized and concentrated that it tends to focus just on designated victims and its spaces. But if we focus only on the personal trauma, we risk evacuating the very bad politics. When we stood there, together, bringing the buildings and routines back to life, we bore witness not just to the personal loss but to a system of power relations, hierarchies, and values that allowed and required the destruction of others. 

2012: Contested Sites, Return to Villa Grimaldi 

Six years later, I hear that under President Michelle Bachelet—herself a victim of detention and torture in Villa Grimaldi—the government had completed the renovation of the site. Her father, a general, was killed by Pinochet’s forces. The site has been renovated and outfitted with an education and resource center. An audio tour is now available in Spanish and English. Clearly, it was time to go back—this time without a survivor, to try to understand how presence and voice affected my understanding of the space.  

The outside looked very different, more institutional, though understated. Inside, the homemade sign at the gate, reminding me to behave, is gone. A steel plinth maps out the timeline. There is no reference to an “us” nor any shared responsibility. Who is the intended audience or visitor for this renovated place? Villa Grimaldi, I sense, has been incorporated into the international memory-site industry. Thus yet another layer has been added to the site.  

I pick up the headphones and transmitter from a young woman at the new resource center and choose the tour in Spanish. As before, there was no one there. Why? This too, I sense, is a historical question. I ask the person in the resource center if I might be allowed to look inside the new buildings. She says there is no one to show me, but sensing my disappointment, she hands me the keys and asks me to lock up and to bring them back after I have finished. Even without the sign asking me to behave, the keys on the heart-shaped key ring make me feel very responsible. 

I put on the headphones and start my walk. The quiet, rhythmic voice of an unidentified female “guide,” I learned later, belongs to a well-known actress of Chilean telenovelas (soap operas). Even without knowing this, I assume that the young, fresh voice has been untouched by the violence she is describing. The instructions were clear from the outset: I was to move to the different points in the audio tour, marked on the photocopied map. 

The recorrido followed the same route taken by Matta—the handmade model camp was gone, replaced by a new, glossy, and machine-made replica. Everything about it was brittle and white, as though set in a deep freeze. Everything in white marked what had gone; remaining structures were dark. I recognize the buildings but not the feeling. The model had been drained of color, drained of a handmade quality, its human history. It was a different kind of emptying that I felt from when I was there the first time—the brutality of the demolition had been replaced by the negation of life itself.   

I move to the locked iron gate, but now, on my own, I stop to peer through the aperture previously used by the military guards. I don’t stop for long. Now, the designated stops are marked by plaques with numbers associated with the audio guide and new tile markers that underscore the center’s mandate to both fix in place and to update. I find some new buildings, locked. I locate the right key and let myself in. Display cases inside exhibit pieces of metal that the military had attached to the bodies that they threw into the ocean, ensuring they wouldn’t float. A magnifying glass is present to offer proof, if any is still needed, of the attachment and what is imagined as having happened to the bodies.  

The site is much more ordered, the paths are clearly marked and illuminated—some of the beauty of the nineteenth-century villa has been restored with wading pools and multiple fountains. The site has also been integrated, visually and politically, into the surrounding neighborhood. Houses are now clearly visible. Their view, in turn, facing the “park” must be quite pleasant. The torture site has been domesticated—the visceral pain I felt with Matta has given place to repose. This clearly transmits the sense of a different political moment. With the opening of the new Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago in the same year, early 2010, it appears that contestation has given way to a time of acceptance and memorialization. Later, as I peer behind buildings, I see all the original handmade materials in a heap, under tarps, in a shed behind a building. The names of the dead have bled on the sign, reminding us that “forgetting is full of memory.” Memory, clearly, is also full of forgetting. 

I feel very alone as I continue the walk-through and, as before, wonder what I am doing there. If Matta needed me to presenciar and acompañar, I realize now how much I needed him to experience Villa Grimaldi. I fumble with the buttons on the digital recorder and feel silly with the headphones even though the site is empty. I get impatient as the voice tells me in a matter-of-fact way about the political acts that lead to the creation of this torture center. The details—the names of the generals, organizations, and so on—overwhelm. I am face to face with “History,” but I miss the human scale.  

Tempted to pull the headphones off, I resist and continue on. When each audio segment comes to an end, I search the map for the next stop and move toward it. The same bland tone of the recording speaks of an unimaginable brutality and describes the woman captive with a voice like Edith Piaf’s who sang to drown out the screams of the torture—even when the voice cites specific testimony, there is no change in tone. As I walk, the voice points out the rose garden, disclosing where the torturers raped the women, a site now honoring female victims. Each plant in the garden is named—another case of individualizing terror.  

I take in the facts but find it hard to relate to the events and to the space. The voice does not speak to me, and I find the disconnect between the tone and tale troubling. It’s as if we could pull apart the different moments, routines, and spaces. The pauses between segments, too, seem very different from Matta’s recounting. His silences were full of memory. His face, body, and mood transmitted his thinking processes and affective swings. I cannot identify with the silences of the audio—they are simply blank nothing, not even tape. If forgetting and silence are full of memory, full of life, the audio has a hard time capturing that life. I was left feeling dutiful but not engaged as I followed the voice around Villa Grimaldi. It was a pedagogical experience, a physical exercise in Never Again. 

What does this tour ask of me? The voice thanks me for my visit. It explains that Villa Grimaldi is a material and symbolic trace of state terrorism under Pinochet. The explanation clearly lays out the criminal practice linked to neoliberal economic politics. It says that the visit is a look to the past. Still, “we hope” (says the voice) that it prompts reflection on the present and is an impetus to halt human-rights abuses throughout the world. If I am interested in knowing more, please visit the web page, etc. She also gives me a phone number. 

I take the headphones back to the office and ask the woman at the desk about the narration of the audio. She thought they had chosen a young actress with no direct ties to the violent past because they want younger generations to identify with her. Villa Grimaldi, then, is no longer about Matta, and trauma, and justice deferred. It is about getting the next generation to understand their history. This, then, is the very future envisioned by Matta with his booklet, but he is nowhere part of this new postsurvivor moment. Memory has been actualized, and now the battle lines have been drawn differently. After the right-wing Sebastián Piñera became president of Chile in March 2010, Villa Grimaldi and the Museum of Memory lost almost half of their operating budgets. The struggle has shifted yet again. These are still contested spaces, contested presents, and contested pasts. 

2013: This Is Not the Place  

I once again return to Villa Grimaldi, this time with Teresa Anativia, a close friend who had been detained there and tortured. She can speak far more directly to the things that women have experienced in that place. She told me about the first time she and other survivors returned after the site had been reclaimed. They all met—about 150 of them, she recalls—outside the iron gate that opened for the last time. The survivors hugged and wept in silence. She recalls that everyone shut their eyes as they embraced. They had never seen each other before, they had never heard each other’s voices: “The silence at a reunion of the blind who had been together and had never seen each other.” They went on to look around the space, covered with brambles and barbed wire, and recognized nothing. “We looked for those places and we couldn’t find them. I know I will never find them,” she concluded. The gate will remain locked forever.  

When we were there at Villa Grimaldi together, I asked her if it upset her to go back. 

“No,” she said, “this is not the place.” 

Then, later: “But my bones hurt.” 

The redesigned space, landscaped gardens, roses, beautiful trees, the water pools, and pavilion had nothing to do with the place in which she had been tortured, violated, and denied her humanity. That “place” remains in her; she carries it with her everywhere.  

She, like Matta, had lost an enormous amount there—another tortured woman lost the twins she was carrying. Teresa and Pedro both admitted to losing not only friends but part of their own humanity, their ability to trust others. Their bodies changed, and they now carry the pains and fractures induced by torture into their old age. The loss and grief of disappearance and torture belongs to that realm of invalidated grief. No one has been brought to trial. How can one grieve under such circumstances? While those killed in Villa Grimaldi are named in the roster of victims on the current Villa Grimaldi website and carved into the Memory Wall, survivors have no place. The 1991 Rettig Report issued after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission listed only the cases of those disappeared and murdered by the Pinochet regime. The Valech Report, issued by the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture in 2004, finally acknowledged those who had been tortured and detained, as well as the children of the disappeared. The Chilean state used that list to make reparations to survivors, but the names and circumstances have been locked away for fifty years and continue to be until all perpetrators are no longer alive—torture and disappearance, we know, continues to affect the victims and their families for generations.  

Places like Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi remind us of what happened within those walls, but they also transcend the violence and pain in search of peace and reconciliation. The park performs a restorative, world-making gesture. But it can never be the terror place, the center for unmaking the worlds of the many people who died in or passed through Terranova. I cannot capture that place with my camera. Pedro Matta cannot conjure it for others to see. Teresa Anativia does not recognize it. But being in the park with them, I sense the power of the place, I feel the pain they associate with it, and I accompany them for a little while on their very long journey toward justice, acceptance, and renewal. 

2016: Transmitting Trauma 

Our Mobilizing Memory working group for the Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro conference and performance festival in Chile decided to visit Villa Grimaldi just last year. I asked Pedro Matta to walk us through. After a back and forth on how much we would pay him, he greeted all thirty-five of us at the gate. Teresa Anativia joined us. The question, again, was what language he would speak. The group decided that he should speak in Spanish, and I volunteered to translate for the rest. 

Once more, we started at the model, the explanation of how Cuartel Terranova had worked, and then we began the walk around the Villa. At first, the translation was easy—Matta transmitted facts, and so did I.  Here this happened—back then, to them. All distanced, all third person. We walked to the locked iron gate, and then the first torture chambers. Gradually, as before, Matta’s pronouns slipped. They tortured them, became they tortured us. The words gnawed into me. They tortured us, I had to say, they strapped me down here, put electrodes to my genitals, to my temples, in all my orifices. My body arched with the shock. I sweated so much I was at risk of electrocuting myself.

As I said these words, my body began unconsciously to take on Matta’s gestures and movements. His pauses became my pauses. My body became the medium. It happened gradually, imperceptibly, the further we got into the past that was not past, the torture that had never stopped or gone away. I lost my distance. I followed him there, to that place. I accompanied him, my voice an echo of his. Against my wishes, I began to embody the pain. I felt the words violating my body, my resentment  growing even as I said the words. Why me? Why don’t these people learn Spanish? He kept telling his story in a low, undramatic way. He used no adjectives, I realized now that the words were in my mouth. My senses locked down, focusing only on what he was relating. Translating became interpreting and then inhabiting, identifying with him and what he was recounting. I felt a loss of agency—I could not interpret or explain or interrupt. I continued to translate. I didn’t want to be there. But maybe I was also channeling his feelings of not wanting to be there either.  

Anger became my distancing device. At the end of the trajectory, I handed Matta the money, promising myself I would never come back again. Never Again! He might be a professional survivor but I am not a professional observer. 

And yet, of course, I am.