by Marcela Oñate-Trules
I have lived almost my whole life in the suburb of Walnut Creek. I have grown up in a middle class family with loving parents and I have been raised with privileges that I usually take for granted. Sometimes it is hard for me to believe that I am the daughter of a working class, Chilean political refugee, Edgardo Oñate Parra.
In September of 1973, Augusto Pinochet led a military coup to overthrow Salvador Allende, a democratically elected progressive socialist. Under Allende, Chile’s government benefited the working class families like my father’s. He grew up in Tomé, Chile, a small fishing town with ten siblings. My father didn’t agree with the Pinochet regime, and he was considered an enemy of the state. So, he was tortured and held as a political prisoner for two years because of his dissenting opinions.
When I first found out about my dad’s past I was confused. I knew him and I knew he was not a criminal in any sense, so why was he in jail? What did he do wrong? I was embarrassed to tell my friends because they may not have understood the implications of being a political refugee and I didn’t know enough to explain.
Now, I know why he was in jail. He was too passionate about his beliefs to hide them or to change out of pressure of violence. He was willing to fight for his brothers and for the rest of Chileans who couldn’t speak up. I have no reason to be ashamed and embarrassed, I am tremendously proud that I am the daughter of a hero. I want everyone to know my dad’s story.
When my dad was in the Chilean military under Allende, the soldiers got a warning that there was going to be a coup taking place and then told they either needed to support the military regime or be considered enemies of the state. My father refused to give in to a cause he didn’t believe in and wouldn’t fight for the Pinochet regime. He was taken into captivity, held and tortured, because his captors were trying to get information out of him about the Allende supporters. He was held in prison with fellow political prisoners; intellectuals, rich people, poor people, students, anyone who didn’t agree with Pinochet’s coup was considered an enemy of the state. It didn’t matter your age, race, or social status. In jail he was tortured so severely that he had one of his knees broken.
My dad wouldn’t be the same person if he didn’t go through such intense trauma in his life. His mind and spirit was changed and he has scars all over his body from electric shock.
My dad was granted amnesty by the US in 1976, but returned to Chile to visit his family a few year after arriving in the US. While he was there he was kidnapped by the Chilean Secret Police and held in captivity for five days.
He was beaten, starved and received electric shock. His experiences have made me more accepting, more patient and more understanding of the world.
Sometimes it can be frustrating and difficult because we come from two different worlds and it is sometimes hard to relate to him. I live in Walnut Creek and attend one of the best public schools in the area. I live in a middle class family and take almost everything for granted. He grew up with ten siblings in a working class family. He didn’t finish high school and served in the military, while I’m on track to graduating and have plans on furthering my education. He was in jail for two years for speaking for what he believed in, and at this point of my life I don’t feel capable of so firmly standing behind my beliefs.
I have realized that my dad will never be the typical “American Dad”. He does not speak perfect English because he taught it to himself. He isn’t interested in the Super Bowl. He cooks and gardens and cleans. He doesn’t understand what I need sometimes because of our language barrier. He buys all his clothes used for a reason I will never understand. He is generous and hospitable.
My dad is one of the strongest people I know and growing up living with him has shaped my life in many ways. My dad lived through hell to stand up for what he believes in and lives with the physical reminders of his torture. His knees are always in pain, and he has had two knee replacements because of the abuse. Before his surgery, he was unable to go on walks, bike rides or stand up for long periods of time without being in constant discomfort. Like his knee pain that comes up from time to time, he sometimes has flash backs of his torture in Chile. Despite everything, he remains lighthearted and generous. He is smart and, knows how to survive, and he did survive.
Some people say everything happens for a reason; I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t grown up with such a passionate, fearless, loving and practical father.