Luisa Toledo Sepulvéda was a lifelong fighter and the mother of three children who were killed fighting against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. She passed away this week after many decades of activity, having inspired thousands to participate in the efforts that ultimately brought down the dictatorship and its legacy. In the following eulogy, our correspondents in Chile explore her legacy and recount the funeral ceremonies for her, which exemplify what some have called “rebellious mourning.” One of the rewards of participating in social struggles is that you become part of something greater than yourself, which can outlive you. ¡Luisa Toledo Presente!
You can watch interviews with Luisa in the film The Chicago Conspiracy, which is freely available on our site. In the appendices, we include the program Luisa Toledo and her husband Manuel Vergara read aloud on the 30th anniversary of the Day of the Young Combatant.
For decades now, people throughout Chile have observed March 29, the Day of the Combative Youth (Dia del Joven combatiente), with vigils and protests honoring the political dissidents murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship and commemorating the role that rebellious youth play in social change. The date marks the day in 1985 that two brothers, Rafael and Eduardo Vergara Toledo, ages 18 and 20, both university students and militants of the MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, Revolutionary Left Movement), were shot by a police patrol in Estacion Central sector of Santiago. One of the reasons that people have gravitated to this anniversary is the continuing active commitment of their parents, Luisa Toledo and Manuel Vergara, who remember their sons as partisans who participated in the anti-Pinochet revolts of the 1980s.
Luisa Toledo Sepulvéda passed away on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, after battling chronic illness. All this week, elected officials—including the president of the constitutional convention—have paid tribute to her as a courageous defender of human rights against the Pinochet dictatorship. By contrast, generations of rebellious youth remember her as the mother of the combative struggle, who bore witness to the fact that it was widespread revolt that ended Pinochet’s regime, not a ballot box. On each dia del joven combatiente, as well as in the ongoing Mapuche conflict for territorial autonomy and the 2019 Estallido social (social explosion), she continued to illuminate the contradictions between democracy and justice, affirming revolt as a path towards justice in the face of state violence.
From the Vergara Toledo Family
COMMUNIQUÉ (Santiago de Chile)
To the national and international community
To the women, the children, the elderly, and the honorable men of this land
To the political prisoners
To the clandestine ones who plow through rebellions
To the Mapuche people
To those who fight
To the residents of Villa Francia
To the combative youth:
It is with deep sadness that we inform everyone of the death of our beloved comrade Luisa Toledo Sepúlveda. Surrounded by her most intimate family circle, she passed away peacefully in the privacy of her home on the morning on Tuesday, July 6.
On this cold July morning, we were proud to be able to say goodbye to an unwavering, timeless, and essential woman. And although Luisa leaves us physically, her legacy has deeply penetrated the history of those who fight beyond the borders of this territory called Chile.
With incalculable courage, Luisa fought for a justice that she never received after the murder of her children, Eduardo, Rafael, and Pablo, a pain that made her decision to fight unbreakable.
Today will be marked as a before and after with the indelible mark of Luisa. Luisa, mother of the fighting youth, will continue to be an unfaltering beacon for those who fight.
Let it be known to all the traitors, syncophants, and those who remain comfortable during moments of revolt, that her tenacity and consistency will remain the trailheads for new paths of struggles and rebellions in every poor corner of this world.
Compañera Luisa Toledo Sepúlveda, Present
Villa Francia, July 6, 2021
On the day of combative youth, the central vigil takes place in the neighborhood of Villa Francia. At the Villa Francia monument, a crowd gathers before a podium to hear the testimony of those whose suffered state violence—and fought against it. Most years, the speakers include parents of Mapuche youth killed in southern Chile and the family members of political prisoners. After live music, Luisa would step on stage and make a speech to the crowd. As the sun set, she would direct her attention to the young people preparing to go into the streets to build barricades and clash with the police:
“By all means,” Luisa said, “I believe the violence within us is just. It’s necessary. I believe that we can no longer try to turn the other cheek. Not only is this motto a lie, but it also isn’t good for anybody. It can’t be. We have to be capable of defending ourselves by being beautifully violent. We must cover our faces (“encapucharse”) and go out into the street to be against everything that represents the atrocious powers we fight against.”
The Candlelight Vigil
On Tuesday, July 6, 2021, a candlelight vigil and viewing took place in the Espacio Comunitaria Pablo Vergara, a community space named for a third son of Luisa’s who was found dead in 1988 after a bomb explosion, so that the public could pay their respects to Luisa Toledo. A crowd slowly gathered outside, comprised of groups from all over the city. They hung banners on the surrounding trees and fences to represent their respective neighborhoods, organizations, and political tendencies, then joined the line of people waiting to pay their final respects to Luisa. Groups of encapuchadxs (masked ones) circled throughout the crowd with hands full of coins, asking the mourners for money to buy fireworks for that evening’s march.
Alongside others whose loved ones were tortured or murdered during the reign of Augusto Pinochet, Luisa Toledo played a key role as a witness to the atrocities committed by the US-supported dictatorship. She and her husband, Manuel Vergara, were involved with the Vicariate of Solidarity (La Vicaría de la Solidaridad), recording testimonies about state violence for the Catholic organization’s international reports on human rights. Like many of their neighbors in Villa Francia, a neighborhood known for its long history of community organizing and political action, the two played an active role in ollas comunes (community kitchens) and protests against the dictatorship throughout the 1980s.
In response to their political activism, police subjected the Vergara Toledo family to constant surveillance and harassment. When the police murdered their sons, the official version did not mention the family’s political dissidence, claiming instead that the brothers had tried to rob a bakery. In fact, the narrative from the police bore no resemblance to the reality of what happened.
On Tuesday, as night fell over the vigil, groups began to start chants in honor of Luisa. In call and response, the crowd would yell:
”Hasta Que Morir!”
People in the crowd emphasized these words with fireworks and with gunshots each time they were chanted.
“I am absolutely a partisan of violence! So that they don’t beat us up again, kill us again, jail us and disappear us again! Why do they demand that we be pacifist until our deaths? Why us? Why can’t we use violence against them? Don’t ask me to be pacifist. I never will be! The month of March comes and the youth come to me again… I see the smile of Rafael in every child, in every youth who goes out to fight. The serenity of Pablo, the eloquence of Eduardo, and this is who I am, compañeros.”
In the so-called “transitions to democracy” that took place in Chile and several other countries at the end of the 20th century, fissures emerged between the movements for democracy and the movements for justice. People often pushed those who spoke about the victims of state violence—both during and after the dictatorships—to affirm their innocence and civility in face of arbitrary, unjust treatment. Movements for democracy value “civility” as a core principle of the liberal democratic system they seek to establish. In this framework, those tortured under the dictatorship and the loved ones of those who were disappeared by the military and police can only demand justice insofar as the victims occupy an undisputed moral high ground as harmless law-abiding citizens.
Rejecting the choice between portraying her sons as innocent victims and letting them be portrayed as criminal delinquents, Luisa affirmed their militancy as revolutionaries and their role as partisans in the revolts against the state and capitalism. Starting with the hunger riots of 1983, widespread and diffuse protests had already been shaking the Pinochet regime to its foundations. As militants of the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR), her children were committed to direct action in the insurrections against the dictatorship. Both before and during Pinochet’s reign, the MIR’s political activity included actions such as building barricades to protect protesters from police violence, looting stores and robbing distribution trucks to redirect resources to community kitchens, and establishing connections between urban and rural land occupations. Luisa affirmed these as legitimate and necessary forms of political engagement.
As in the dirty war in Argentina, the Pinochet regime sought to present the MIR and political dissidence in general as part of an armed guerrilla movement that sought to violently overthrow the state in order to install a communist regime.1 In response, most of Pinochet’s opposition, including the social organizations and political parties operating underground, sought to emphasize their civility in the face of state violence. This meant claiming that militant actions in protests were the work of delinquent youth or outside agitators who had nothing to do with the movement for democracy; many even went so far as to claim that the actions of groups like the MIR were carried out by police infiltrators who staged violent confrontations as a pretext for Pinochet to legitimize the violence of his regime.
The Funeral Procession
The day after the vigil, there was an 11-kilometer romeria (funeral procession) from Villa Francia to the Cementerio General in Luisa’s honor. Behind the Vergara Toledo family, a caravan of cars, buses, and encapuchadxs on bikes stretched for blocks. As the caravan passed through downtown Santiago, groups of encapuchadxs began to loot stores, set up barricades, and spray-painted words of endearment for Luisa. As the caravan shut down traffic on the Alameda, many vehicles stopped in traffic honked their horns to the rhythms of the march. Although cyclists blocked the intersections, on a couple occasions angry motorcyclists attempted to drive through the caravan. To defend it, a crowd of encapuchadxs descended on the cars, smashing their windows and lights.
“When I stopped to rest on the side of the Alameda, a young child came up to me and offered me a piece of chocolate. I gladly accepted, and he pulled down the chocolate bar’s yellow wrapper to break off a square for me. I looked to my friends a few meters ahead and saw more people offering them the same chocolate with the same yellow label. A group of encapuchadxs had looted a nearby gas station and passed a bar to the cabro (kid) and his parents. His mom let him keep it as long as he shared with other people in the procession.”
As the caravan arrived at the gates of the Cementerio General, the cars and buses parked and people proceeded into the cemetery. Mourners paid their respects to a series of important figures as the funeral procession passed their tombs: Salvador Allende, Gladys Marin, Violetta Parra, and the Colo-Colo Cracks (the legendary soccer players of the Colo-Colo team).
“One of the first tombs you see when you walk into the Cementerio General belongs to Jaime Guzman, the fascist mass murderer who created the Pinochet constitution. I had always dreamed of vandalizing his tomb, but others ahead of me in the procession had already vandalized his grave by the time I got there. Instead, I settled for joining the line of people who were spitting on his grave.”
Continuing to celebrate Luisa’s life, the crowd climbed on top of the surrounding mausoleums to hang banners and wave flags, continuing to chant and launching fireworks. Dispersing throughout the Cementerio General, groups of young people spray-painted Luisa’s inspirational quotes on mausoleums around the cemetery. A passerby overheard one young person ask a friend, “Is it a bad idea to spray-paint this mausoleum?” and responded, “Hey, he had to be a pretty big asshole to afford a mausoleum bigger than your house!”
Luisa’s challenge to be beautifully violent (ser hermosamente violenta) is both a call and a provocation. Rather than dictating to the crowds of young people what they should do, like the legions of social organizations and leftist political parties that regained a public presence after the dictatorship, instead she challenged young people to have the integrity to respond to injustice appropriately. Rather than the sort of violence that is enacted against one’s community, or a symmetrical violence between state and anti-state forces, Luisa’s speeches on the day of combative youth affirmed self-defense as an asymmetrical yet necessary part of the fight for justice and to create the conditions for the world we want to build.
As the estallido social gives way to the constitutional convention, hundreds of rebellious youth remain in jail, either charged for crimes related to protests or in preventative detention awaiting trial. A movement has grown to demand the release of all the prisoners of the revolt. This movement includes a large portion of the constitutional delegates who have refused to negotiate until they are out of jail. Inevitably, this discussion will lead to a nuanced debates about questions like Who counts as a prisoner of the revolt? What actions are political, and which actions were criminal?
Luisa leaves us a lesson about how to escape this discursive quagmire. Instead of debating who to include or exclude, we can start by affirming that the end result of the disruption and destruction that occurred during the estallido social was to produce the conditions for the profound institutional changes that we are now beginning to witness. The important thing is not to be civil, but to fight.
Appendix I: The Chicago Conspiracy
Appendix II: Program from the Day of the Young Combatant, 2015
This program was written and read aloud by Luisa Toledo and her husband Manuel Vergara for the 30th anniversary of the extrajudicial killing of their sons, the Movimiento de Izquiera Revolucionaria militants Rafael and Eduardo Vergara. Each year, Luisa and Manuel hosted an act of commemoration in Villa Francia, the neighborhood where the murder of the Vergara brothers took place and where their parents continued to live.
The program opens with revolutionary greetings to all the comrades, friends, and fellow travelers in different sites throughout Chile and the rest of the world. There are brief biographies of their sons’ lives, poetry written about them, and shout-outs to others, including other members of the Toledo-Vergara family, who died in armed struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship.
“But, we were also betrayed by the so-called ‘left-wing’ political parties (Partido Socialista, Partido Comunista), who, in their pursuit of power, forgot their fallen, forgot their disappeared, forgot their tortured—to sum it up briefly, they forgot their history and instead joined—without a hint of shame—the bourgeois circus of electoral victory, full of those who were always behind the tyrant Pinochet, backing him to continue in his blood-soaked tyranny against the people.”
The program closes commemorating those who died in recent prisoner and student massacres, greetings to the Mapuche people in struggle for their ancestral lands, as well as greetings to anarchist and subversive political prisoners throughout Chile, Latin America, and Spain.
For example, in Operation Colombo, the dictatorship covered up the murders of 119 political dissidents (mostly MIR members) by claiming they were a part of a conspiracy to rally a guerrilla army and invade Chile from Argentina. Seeking to conceal the reality that they were tortured and killed in hidden detention facilities throughout Chile, the government faked documentation to the effect that they were killed in various shootouts with the police and military. Such documentation even included fake Argentine and Brazilian newspapers, only distributed in Chile, reporting on the victims’ deaths in shootouts with Argentine and Brazilian police. ↩