Beneath The Tiles | Translation

Beneath The Tiles | Translation


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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: Hello. Before we begin, I want to share a fact with you: 900 hours. That’s the approximate time it takes us to produce an episode of Radio Ambulante. 900 hours of reporting, writing, editing, fact-checking, and sound design, among other things. Now, imagine the amount of time, effort, and resources required to put together a complete season.

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This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

What we are hearing is an archaeological excavation in Santiago de Chile in early March 2023. Under a very hot sun, still in summer, a group of archaeologists looks into a square hole, one meter by one meter.

They are not in the desert or in a rural area, but in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago, in the patio of a modest house, 10 kilometers from downtown, about 30 minutes by car.

They have been working there for hours. They arrived early with their tools: hammers, shovels, brushes, cords… First, they marked the place where they wanted to dig, then broke the tiles with a large drill, and then, with small shovels, began removing the dirt.

They are a team of four professionals. It is headed by archaeologist Flora Vilches. With them, wandering among the rubble, the broken tiles and the mounds of earth, are three more people: artist Francisco Medina Donoso, Pancho, who walks around with a tape recorder, writer Nona Fernández, who takes notes in a notebook of everything that’s happening; and photographer Paz Errázuriz, in charge of the photographic record of the excavation.

Guided by Flora, Pancho and Nona also dig. They wear hats to protect themselves from the sun. They immerse themselves in the pit up to their knees. The excavations last several days. Long days, more than eight hours, during which, in addition to digging, they eat, rest, and talk.

In these conversations, one topic prevails over all others: the Palacio de La Moneda, the Government House, a neoclassical style construction from the 18th century stuck in the chaotic and gray center of Santiago.

La Moneda is much more than a building. It is the heart of Chilean political power and was the target of the first attacks by the Armed Forces on September 11, 1973. That morning, La Moneda was attacked by land and air for six hours. It was the first gesture of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

That day, as the armed forces took over the building, President Salvador Allende issued a final message to the Chilean people: 

[Archive soundbite]

[Salvador Allende]: I am not going to resign. Placed at a historic crossroads, I will pay with my life for the loyalty of the people…

[Daniel]: Shortly after, Allende’s body would be found in his office with a gunshot wound to the head. Some say it was suicide. Others say he was murdered.

Since that day, La Moneda is the symbol of a collective trauma. More than fifty years later, what happened during the dictatorship in Chile is still shrouded in pain and silence.

They talk about all that while they dig. Because something connects La Moneda to that patio of gray tiles and wine-red walls. They have been there for days thinking about that. Nona Fernández is especially obsessed with how destiny can unite two spaces that are so different.

[Nona Fernández]: La Casa de La Moneda, which was built by order of the king, was supposed to be a great palace. I mean, then, of course with the Republic, it becomes the Government Palace. And now here we are in this patio, searching, searching for little fragments…

[Daniel]: Fragments of the Palacio de La Moneda. That’s what they’re searching for. They have a single piece of information to guide them: Someone told Pancho that they could find the rubble of the most emblematic building in the country there.

They didn’t know whether it was true, but they had to try.

We’ll be back after a break.


[Daniel]:  We’re back on Radio Ambulante. Lucía Cholakian Herrera and Emilia Erbetta produced this story. Lucia brings us the story.

[Lucía Cholakian]: All that excavating that we heard a moment ago was caused by one of Pancho’s anecdotes. Fifteen years ago, he was an actor. He had appeared in a few local series, and it was because of that fame that a friend’s mother wanted to meet him. They invited him for tea.

[Pancho Medina]: In Chile, they say you have la once, meaning you are going to have tea. I was asked whether I could go have la once with the family. And I said, “Sure, of course, that lady must be lovely. Let’s go to her house and have la once.”

[Lucía]: His friend’s mother welcomed him to a very modest wooden house, which had several photos of Allende in the living room. While they were having tea, they began to talk about the politics of the 70s, about the Unidad Popular government. But from all that conversation, one thing resonated with Pancho:

[Pancho]: And she tells me that she owed this house to Chicho. Chicho is the name of how… Salvador Allende was popularly called. And I ask her, “What do you mean? Why do you owe this house to Chicho? I don’t understand.”

[Lucía]: The woman told him that she had bought the land at the end of the 70s, a few years after the bombing, and that it had been very cheap because it was a sort of hole, in an area of vineyards, very irregular, which had to be filled. But what surprised Pancho wasn’t that—it was what she said next: 

[Pancho]: That they had brought trucks with rubble to fill that site. Debris from La Moneda, the bombed building, had been fill material, and on top of that, she had built her house.

[Lucía]: Using rubble on certain types of terrain was quite common in those years when Santiago was in full expansion. The city is built on a land full of hills, rises, and geological faults, and the neighborhoods built on the outskirts had to settle on those chaotic surfaces, often filling in pits to level the land.

But of course, this was not just any rubble. The woman talked about it so casually that Pancho thought that perhaps he had misunderstood. 

[Pancho]: So I ask her, “But how’s that? I mean, are we standing on the ruins of La Moneda?” And she tells me, very calmly, “Yes.” 

[Lucía]: Everything was so incredible. What were the remains of the Government Palace doing there? It was such a symbolic place, more of an idea than a building.

[Pancho]: As a child, I thought it was a giant coin, like a real coin. Later, when I grew up, of course, I understood the image that—at least nowadays—I think anyone over 18 years old knows what it means. What the image of the bombing of La Moneda means. And we have that image in our head. So the image of La Moneda being bombed is in our collective imagination. 

[Lucía]: And those remains, according to his friend’s mother, were not only real, but they were right there, under their feet. Pancho thought that was a good story to write a theater play about.              

[Pancho]: I remember telling her, “This story has to become a play, because it is the mega-story, the mega-story,” always thinking, at that time, that theater was the tool I had. I am an actor, I am a creator of theater; I have to make a play.

[Lucía]: But he didn’t do anything with it. Between his television work and other projects, the idea did not materialize. And he didn’t think about the issue again for more than a decade, as the fiftieth anniversary of Pinochet’s coup approached. By that time, his life was no longer the same. He had stopped working on television and was engaged in other artistic projects.

So he got this woman’s phone number. Before moving forward with any idea, he had to check whether he remembered this story correctly. After so long, his memory could be deceiving him. That same day, he sent her a WhatsApp message:

[Pancho]: “Hello, do you remember me? I am Francisco. This story that you told me, did I imagine it? Is it true? Did I dream it?” Because memory is very fragile. So sometimes memory is… like dreams—you dream them and you don’t know whether it’s true or not true.

[Lucía]: The response came very quickly: 

[Aunt]: “Yes, Panchito. Look, you’re not dreaming and it’s not something you have it in your head. It’s how it is.”

[Lucía]: With this confirmation, Pancho’s imagination soared. He began to think about La Moneda, standing and whole in 1973, a bit like the very image of Chile, and then under attack, defenseless, dismembered, and its thousands of fragments perhaps buried throughout the city, thrown into the river, hidden. 

[Pancho]: And the hope of being able to imagine the reconstruction of that body. Before that destruction, it was something very exciting.

[Lucía]: Now he was no longer thinking about a play. He still wasn’t sure what, but now he wanted to do something else, something more like a symbolic gesture of reparation.

We wanted to talk to the woman who told Pancho the story of the debris, but she agreed only to answer some questions via WhatsApp audio. She also asked us not to use her name, so we will call her Aunt, which is Pancho’s affectionate way of referring to her.

The Aunt was born in 1958 in southern Chile, and she was still there when two planes of the Chilean Armed Forces fired eighteen missiles at La Moneda. There were seven air attacks in all.

She was 15 years old and she heard the news that day on the radio. 

[Archive soundbite]

[Radio Cooperativa journalist]: The planes continue attacking the Palacio de La Moneda. It is 12 hours 9 minutes 30 seconds. This is Radio Cooperativa, September 11, 1973. Downtown Santiago is becoming a battlefield…

[Lucía]: La Moneda collapsed under the missiles. A fire made the second floor roof cave in. When the attack ended, only the brick walls remained standing.

In early 1974, the Pinochet dictatorship asked the College of Architects for a reconstruction project for La Moneda. The idea was to recover the original design of the building, in a neoclassical style. In addition, the Military Junta ordered the closure of the Independence Hall, where Allende had died, and the door at 80 Morandé Street, through which his body had been taken out.

The reconstruction works were suspended in late 1975 due to the economic recession, and resumed almost two years later. During that time, the remains of the Moneda, the ruins of Chile’s democracy, remained surrounded by wooden planks that left them exposed to the elements.

The Aunt moved to Santiago around that time. She came to the city in 1979 with her husband, both very young, and she started working at a downtown diner, near what was left of La Moneda, where the men working on the restoration of the building used to go for lunch. Nobody knew exactly, but rumors were that the remains of the Palace were being thrown into the Mapocho River, which runs through the city.

From her post at the diner, the Aunt watched the trucks loaded with debris come and go, and she thought that they could be used to level the land that she and her husband had bought in the western area of Santiago. One day, she got up her courage to ask the workers.

[Aunt]: I asked them whether they could give me some truckloads of those remains of debris. And that’s how those remains of La Moneda came to my, to my… to my little piece of land.

[Lucía]: The trucks left the cement rubble on the street in front of her property, and every afternoon, when they got home from work, the Aunt and her husband brought them in using a wheelbarrow. 

[Aunt]: And it was something we did without thinking about what we were doing, because deep down we needed to fill in, just fill in the site so that we could build a little house to live in. 

[Lucía]: La Moneda reopened two years after that, in March 1981. By that time, Aunt and her husband had managed to build their little house, where they would live for over thirty years before selling it to one of their nieces and returning to southern Chile. So if Pancho wanted to do something with the rubble story, he would have to talk to the new owner, Mari.

Mari welcomed Pancho at her house in October 2022. When he arrived, he noticed that it was a little different from how he remembered it: the patio, for example, no longer had cement; it had been replaced with dark gray tile.

Mari didn’t know anything about the Moneda debris or what it had to do with her house. So Pancho told her the story from the beginning, from the bombing to the filling in of the patio.

He was determined to convince her. 

[Pancho]: So I told her that the dictatorship had been installed with a gesture of destruction of that building, and those tons of rubble from the structure of La Moneda had been abandoned there. I had the testimony that under her house there might be evidence of that crime. And what I wanted to do was, with the help of professionals, break up her patio, dig up the dirt, find a fragment of La Moneda, and exhume the body of La Moneda. 

[Lucía]: Pancho talked and talked, and Mari looked at him, trying to understand what he meant by “exhuming the body of La Moneda”… And then, she interrupted him: 

[Pancho]: And then the niece asks me: “And what will become of my patio?”

[Lucía]: Pancho didn’t know what to answer. The future of the project depended on how he went about it. He wasn’t sure about almost anything, but he did know that he was going to have to break the patio up and break the tiles that the family had put in with a lot of effort. But, obviously, he needed her authorization. So, to convince her, he promised her something in return:

[Pancho]: And I tell her, “Look, I don’t know; I don’t have money for anything. I still don’t know how much this project is going to cost. I don’t know, but tell me that you agree. Aside from getting money for the professionals, archaeologists, photographers, documentary filmmakers who help me make this gesture, I am going to leave your patio better than it is now.” 

[Lucía]: Not only would they put down new tile, they would also level the ground. She accepted, and they sealed the deal with a handshake.

With the new owner’s permission, Pancho began to think about how to move forward. He now needed two things: money and a team.

He began by calling in Nona Fernández, who, in addition to being his friend, is one of the most important writers and artists in Chile. He thought she could help him execute the project, because almost all of her work revolves around the problems of post-dictatorship memory.

They met in a cafe, and while Pancho told her the story, Nona recalled the first time she toured the interior of La Moneda. It was in 1992, almost twenty years after the bombing, during a guided tour. 

[Nona]: And when we walked around, everything had the smell of smoke. And I remember the impact it had on me, because it was seeing a space that was just beginning to take a place in a democracy, being remodeled and with new things, beautiful things, whatever. But the smell was there. It was the first time I thought about the building as a body, you know? I felt it was there, I was seeing something, but there was a hint of something else.

[Lucía]: Something else: that hint of horror that Nona perceived while walking through the corridors of La Moneda became an obsession and her life’s work years later. She was 2 years old when the Pinochet dictatorship began, so she did not remember seeing La Moneda in ruins.

[Nona]: And I never asked myself what it had been, what had happened to it… Until Pancho arrived and told me he had this story that someone had told him. And when he told me, my head exploded. One of the first questions I asked him was, “How is it possible that we had not previously asked ourselves what happened to that debris?

[Lucía]: To complete the team, Pancho thought of Flora Vilches, an archaeologist from the University of Chile, whom he knew from her work during the social outbreak of 2019. While people were still in the streets, Flora investigated how the mobilization was transforming the city: the walls, the pavement, the sidewalks.

To Pancho it seemed a perfect combination, because she could see the marks of history in places where they were not yet evident to others.

When Pancho and Nona told her the story, Flora accepted immediately. Although she had never worked on projects linked to the dictatorship, she felt that what they were proposing to her had a lot to do with her previous work. She has always been interested in the archaeology of recent memory that involves current evidence. This is Flora:

[Flora Vilches]: That archaeological evidence is everywhere. And now it was in the patio of a house in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago. And of course, it was also very symbolic because they were… It was a type of materiality that was also forgotten.

[Lucía]: Just like Pancho and Nona, Flora had not thought before about what had happened to the rubble of La Moneda. But once the question was asked, she could no longer avoid it.

[Flora]: So it was a big question to think, “Hey, what ever became of that debris? What transformation processes did it undergo and how did a building go from being an emblem, an icon of the power of a nation to ultimately becoming trash and getting buried?”

[Lucía]: Flora recruited a team of two archaeologists and one student. And while she planned the excavation, Pancho and Nona went out to look for financing.

They didn’t have much time. If they wanted to be on time for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing, in September, they had to start digging during the summer, or in March at the latest. And at first, the response they received was not very good. 

[Nona]: When we went knocking on doors, everyone found it intriguing. And everyone wondered the same thing: Where did these remains or debris go? Nobody had ever asked that. But of course, the enthusiasm went only so far, and we needed money.

[Lucía]: Pancho had been warned that getting money for a project like that in Chile could be difficult. It was not so much a question of the amount, but rather that it was a very sensitive issue. He was dealing with a painful episode that had been hidden for decades.

In Chile, almost 4 out of every 10 people feel that the coup was justified, and the figure has grown in recent years, as time passes and the crimes are still not repaired or clarified.

The fact that Pancho’s project was not clearly defined did not help much in the search for money, either.

[Pancho]: When I begin to ask or state this art idea of a gesture of reparation, they tell me, “What is it going to be? Is it a dance piece, is it going to be a documentary?” And my answer was always, “I don’t know what it’s going to be. This is an expanded practice that originates with the excavation, but I don’t know where it will end up.” So the answer was always, “Then I can’t support you in anything because I don’t know what it’s going to be.”

[Lucía]: They knocked on several doors without any luck. Until one door opened: The Libraries, Archives and Museums Administration of Chile, which agreed to finance the project. The director understood the importance of the search itself, whatever the shape of the final project might be.

[Pancho]: That person also understood that there was no… We did not have to create a play, a circus act or a dance, but just understand that the gesture of searching for this heritage was in itself the artistic gesture.

[Lucía]: They began digging on March 2, 2023. Flora left her house early every morning and picked up her team at different points in Santiago. In the car, they carried everything they needed for the excavation: buckets, spatulas, levels, nails, brushes, special bags, etc.

While they were digging, the family in the house went on with their normal life.

[Flora]: The idea was always to disturb them as little as possible. After all, we were making a hole in their patio. So it was like, “Hey, this family’s life comes first, let’s disrupt it as little as possible.” This cannot be something we want over their own lives and comfort.

[Lucía]: As head of the team of archaeologists, Flora assigned the tasks. Every morning, as soon as they arrived, she indicated where and how they would dig that day, with what instruments, and what questions had to be cleared with the Aunt or the family.

These were not easy decisions. They had received permission to dig only three spaces, measuring one meter by one meter, and she had to choose carefully where to dig them. For Flora, it was a totally different job from what she was used to.

[Flora]: Usually in archaeology, what you do with the fill—which is basically artificial, because you bring something in from somewhere else—is that you take out the fill. Then you throw it away and discard it. And here it was the complete opposite. So archaeologically, it was really interesting that we were looking to study something that is ruled out in archaeology. It was a completely inverted archaeology.

[Lucía]: Since the excavation was planned based on Aunt’s testimony, they began digging at the end of the patio, where she told them there was more fill. First, they broke the tile with a drill, and then they began digging with small shovels. A thin layer of dirt, and then another.

[Flora]: Archaeological work is methodical and slow. It’s about going down, down, down…

[Lucía]: Go down 10 centimeters, measure, photograph, take samples, and go down again… Flora and her team were used to those long times, but Pancho and Nona were not. They were anxious. They had been thinking about that moment for months.

[Pancho]: Both Nona and I were very on top of it and wanted to learn. We asked all kinds of questions: Why this? Why the other? And Flora and her team had infinite patience. Because, of course, they work with a methodology that they know perfectly well; we don’t. Imagine our curiosity—when there was even the slightest hint of anything, we yelled like crazy. So for them it was also sort of like, “Please calm down, control yourselves, don’t ask so many questions, learn by watching.”

[Lucía]: When they began going down that first hole, Flora noticed that what appeared was not rubble, nor any other type of fill, but the normal types of sediments for that area of the city.

[Flora]: So it was normal stratigraphy. We got to the bottom and there was nothing.

[Lucía]: Flora took it calmly. It wasn’t the first time she’d gone into a hole and come out empty-handed. But Pancho began to despair.

[Pancho]: And it was very frustrating. You go down every ten centimeters, you measure, take photographs, you study it, make an analysis of the type of materials in the ground. And we went down, down, down, we went down and we found things that for us were very decisive, but they thought, “This rubble is nothing,” “This is a brick that is of no use,” “This is…” And Nona and I would yell like, “We are finding a mummy from Egypt,” but no… of course, we didn’t know how to read it.

[Lucía]: Everything seemed significant or revealing to them, but they really didn’t know how to interpret anything they saw.

They continued going down for a few more hours. Then Flora decided to stop. To her, it was obvious: that hole had nothing to offer. They were facing an archaeological silence.

[Flora]: In which no piece of ceramic, no piece of cement, no nails, no wire, no plastic, nothing appeared.

[Lucía]: Flora was calm. But Nona and Pancho weren’t ready to stop.

[Nona]: Flora says, “No, we are not going to find anything here.” And we said: “No, let’s continue, well, a little more.  Let’s continue.” And we went on and on…

[Lucía]: To the team of archaeologists, it was clear that it made no sense to continue, to tire themselves out and stress the family over a pit that had produced nothing for them in two days. 

[Pancho]: And I was very stubborn with the idea that we had to keep digging. They say, “No, we don’t continue.” And there is a little struggle and I say, “Well, give me the pick,” and Flora, seeing that I was a stubborn guy, says to me, “Well, if you want to continue, smash your hands and your back to pieces. But for us archaeologists, this is as far as it goes.” 

[Lucía]: Pancho took a cylindrical, pointed iron bar and began to break the earth, while Flora and the rest of the team watched.

[Pancho]: And I took the bar and started to break, just breaking and breaking. I think I went down about 20 centimeters more, but I didn’t find anything new and I had to agree that the archaeological silence was real and the evidence is clear, and there was nothing there.

[Lucía]: Pancho dropped the tools. But he felt defeated by those lost first days of digging.

And for the first time, he dared ask himself the impossible question: What if there was nothing in the other holes either?

We’ll be back after a break.


[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Lucía Cholakian Herrera continues the story. 

[Lucía]: After two days without results, the archaeologists returned to the patio of the house, ready to continue excavating. The mood was different from when they started. Some of that initial joy had dissipated and now there was worry and fear of not finding what they were looking for. Frustration began to paralyze Pancho.

He decided that the best thing would be to contact the Aunt, to see whether she could give them some better guidance. He wanted to check that she had not made a mistake or gotten confused. He recorded a video there, at the patio, so she could see what they were doing, and sent it to her.

[Archive soundbite]

[Pancho]: Look how we are working with the team of archaeologists digging the hole… We are digging the hole right here in the patio at the exit of the little house, and so far we have found only dirt and stones; we have not found much else. Do you remember whether there was more debris there, or was it somewhere else?

[Lucía]: Waiting to see what the Aunt would say, the team of archaeologists delayed the start of the second excavation.

[Flora]: I looked at Pancho and told him, “If she insists so much that there is something, it’s because there isn’t anything.” Because one also has experience that stories become confused over time. So just because she tells you that there is something does not necessarily mean there is something.

[Lucía]: Flora was evaluating how to continue. She only had two more chances left. It’s not that she mistrusted what Aunt was saying, but she from experience knew that people can get confused. 

[Flora]: Imagine that 40 years go by and your sense of space changes. There are things that you see bigger or smaller. Locations change. So, oops, you’re right, it didn’t absolutely have to be there. And in her head she saw it there, but it could be on the other side. 

[Lucía]: Flora explained to Pancho and Nona that it is quite common in Chile for a geological phenomenon called stratigraphic inversion to occur. This is when the elements of the earth reverse and the older sediments end up on top of the newer ones. In other words, the past is mixed with the present. Very similar to the way memories can work.

Despite her doubts, Flora decided to continue. For the second hole, she thought: if the house was built on a filled-in hole, then there should be rubble right underneath. So she chose a space right next to the house, assuming that the fill they were looking for was also around the structure. And this time there was no archaeological silence.

[Archive soundbite]

[Archaeologist]: A ping pong ball! Lying here… And with a face… They must have made this face, like Goofy…

[Lucía]: There, in the second hole, next to the ping pong ball, they found the archaeological remains of almost fifty years of daily life: candy wrappers, pieces of tableware, pieces of plastic, glass, aluminum, and parts of toys. Also food scraps, shellfish shells and pork bones.

Flora was excited. Those pieces showed how the life of a working-class family had changed over half a century, from the ‘70s to today, and as an archaeologist, she found that fascinating.

But none of all that had to do with La Moneda. And while they removed and sorted marbles and toothpaste tubes, Pancho remained nervous, wandering among the pieces of broken tile, careful not to step on the tools, recording audio, asking questions, talking with the team about Chile, reviewing the Aunt’s story.

They were doing that when suddenly they saw something different on the ground, mixed in with the trash. A piece of ceramic. Flora cleaned it with a brush to see whether it had any relief. Then they recognized what it was—a brown tile, typical of the center of Santiago, where La Moneda is, and other areas, such as Providencia and Ñuñoa, two of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.

[Flora]: It is a classic hydraulic tile that is called chocolate because of those little squares it has.

[Lucía]: They had seen them many times, but the owner of the house and a neighbor assured them that they had never been used in that neighborhood.

Pancho and Nona got excited. Could it be that it came from La Moneda? Flora warned them that it was too early to draw conclusions.  

[Flora]: They are clearly not from here. They’re probably from somewhere else. But I can’t say, “Sure, they’re from La Moneda.”

[Lucía]: If Flora laughs, that is because at that moment a tug-of-war began between archaeologists and artists, between caution and anxiety.

[Pancho]: At first Flora said, “Everything we find here, nothing is going to be La Moneda. La Moneda is a building that was destroyed. We will find materials that are no longer La Moneda.”

[Nona]: Pancho and I began to understand all those things there, the fact that things appeared, but… no, nothing that appeared was “La Moneda.” So in reality nothing, nothing we had found was going to tell us it immediately that it came from La Moneda, much less the tiles.

[Lucía]: But they were a good indication that there was debris from other parts of the city under the house.

The appearance of the tiles reignited in the team all the excitement that the archaeological silence had extinguished. But after two days working on the second hole, not much else turned up.

The next day, on the fifth day of excavation, they opened the third hole. It was their last chance. They hadn’t gone very far when they began to see something different from what they had encountered before.

[Pancho]: We found many pieces of large bricks. There’s a rusty nail the length of my index finger. There are traces of melted metal, full of rust. A piece of metal that was like a corner of a star… A piece of ceramic that could be bathroom ceramic. Other remains of mortar, the cement, glue and stone material that joins the bricks. There are remains of black stone that—no, no, we don’t know what that could be.

[Lucía]: While Flora and the other archaeologists worked, Pancho and Nona recorded everything, taking pictures, drawing, writing things down. They were excited, although nothing they found was anything like what they had imagined.

[Nona]: Of course, I think I imagined bigger things, you know? I thought of finding a handle, I don’t know, maybe a column or more recognizable things, right? I never imagined a nail, for example, which was what we found the most of. I never imagined tiles. Since I had been reading about La Moneda, I thought of brick. But of course, I think that in my fantasy I imagined more things… dishes… I don’t know. If only a bullet had appeared… I… it was all in my head.

[Lucía]: Flora was aware of Nona and Pancho’s disappointment. She explained to them that archaeology is a job of finding clues. Nothing was conclusive. What they unearthed had to be analyzed in context, relating some objects to others, and that would give them the clues to continue searching. But nothing had the name of La Moneda on it. 

[Flora]: When you find different indicators and add them up, you say, “Ah, I have nails here, I have the pavement tile there, this here.” But no, I couldn’t be so quick to say, “Bravo, there’s the rubble of La Moneda, because… you have to wait and see.”

[Lucía]: They finished the excavations on March 7, 2023, after six days. When the day was over, Flora loaded the boxes with what she had collected into her car. Everything was wrapped in bags, classified by type of material, headed directly to the University of Chile, from where it would be distributed to different laboratories for analysis of each piece.

Now it was Pancho’s turn to think about what he was going to do. He could no longer continue avoiding the question that had been asked so many times when he requested financing. All this, for what?

He knew that he wanted to talk about memory from La Moneda in Chile. So he decided to start with his own memories.

He remembered that when he was a boy, he used to go on vacation with his family to a lake in central Chile, and on one of those trips he heard his cousins talk about how Pinochet had saved the country from hunger after the food shortage crises during the last months of the Allende government. hat was the first time he heard about the bombing.

Pancho thought of La Moneda as the first body broken by the dictatorship. The first victim, the example of what the Pinochet government was capable of doing. And above all, he was shocked that it had been there almost ten years, between ’73 and ’81, visible to all of Santiago.

[Archive soundbite]

[Protesters]: Chile woke up, Chile woke up….! 

[Lucía]: On October 18, 2019, a demonstration against the 30-peso increase for a metro ticket in Santiago escalated into a popular uprising unprecedented in Chilean history.

Those were months of mobilizations, with thousands of people on the streets, most of them young, protesting against the systems of private education and health, against police brutality, against inequality… in short, they demanded a change in the system in Chile.

[Pancho]: That’s why the movement says: “It’s not 30 pesos. It’s 30 years”. It’s been 30 years of a democracy that did not do what was expected of that democracy, which was to modify the neoliberal system that was installed in Chile.

[Lucía]: It seemed that Chileans were determined to bring about change. And they did it: in 2021, Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old student and left-wing leader, won the elections, and formed a cabinet as young as he was.

Boric promised to repair the wounds of the outbreak. In 2022, his government supported an environmentalist, feminist and diverse constitutional reform. But the proposal lost and was rejected. With that defeat, expectations for change were deflated and the country’s youth were left in a state of frustration and paralysis. So was Pancho.

[Pancho]: And that utopian and wonderful idea, this dream of social manifestation kind of remained stuck there, because it was not achieved.

[Lucía]: All this was in Pancho’s head when he thought about what to do with the rubble. It had been clear to him from the beginning that the excavation meant more than an artistic gesture, and that it was not just about the past.

[Pancho]: If I think that Chile currently continues to deny the crime of heritage or the crime of the dictatorship in general. I can say that what I am looking for is the evidence of that crime. And no matter how much they deny and say, “The dictatorship… those crimes are not there. Crimes against humanity with detainees and missing persons do not exist,” I can say, “Well: there is a crime that is undeniable, which is the crime of the heritage of the Government Palace.”

[Lucía]: So he wanted to provide proof of that crime. He wanted to exhibit in La Moneda what he had found, even if they were small remains. And he wanted that exhibit to open on September 11, 2023, 50 years after the bombing. A simple, but important gesture: to recover something of that democracy that had been broken in 1973 and return it to the present.

The installation was at La Moneda Cultural Center, in the basement of the Palace, and was called “Exhuming Memory”. The inauguration was originally planned for the 11th at 10:56, the time the attack began.

But just moments before the appointed hour, Pancho was told that it would have to be canceled because there were disturbances between protesters and police not far from the place, so it was rescheduled for the next day. I was there.

It was a small exhibition. The unearthed objects were exhibited in display cases, one next to the other. There were the nails and the chocolate tiles, and also the children’s toys, the marbles, the wrappers and food scraps.

And in the middle of the room were five wooden balustrades, that is, ornaments from the outside area of the building, which were part of La Moneda during the 19th century and were abandoned for decades in the warehouse of a ministry. Although they had been replaced before ’73, Pancho decided to add them to his exhibit as another layer of the Palace’s history.

On opening day, Pancho asked us in the audience to close our eyes. And then an audio began over some loudspeakers; 

[Archive soundbite] 

[Lucía]: It was a sound performance, with a real archive from September 11, 1973. It lasted about 15 minutes, and when it ended, the audience began to walk around the display cases.

The exhibit moved me. And all the effort behind it, and the craftsmanship, and the teamwork caught my attention. Maybe because in my country, Argentina, things were very different in the post-dictatorship. The State held trials against the military, searched for children stolen and captive, and worked to find the missing people.

In Chile, on the other hand, the efforts were few and far between. There were no systematic public policies. It’s not that nothing has been done. Much of what is known about the crimes of the dictatorship was thanks to the efforts of disperse teams like Pancho’s, who composed a choral history that is still full of holes.

Those who search for their missing relatives always say that it does not matter if what shows up is a bone, a piece of shirt, or a scribble on a piece of paper. What matters are the traces, the signs from the past that help us understand what happened. The things that somehow allow the victims to move on, or to mourn.

That is why the search for the remains of La Moneda, even if they are just those little pieces, makes so much sense.

I returned to Santiago almost two months later, to report on this episode, and visited Flora’s laboratory. I wanted her to show me some of the things they had unearthed in that yard and to explain to me in the simplest way possible whether we could tell what belonged to La Moneda and what didn’t. 

[Lucía]: And what is this right here?

[Flora]: This here is a nail. It is one of the few metals I have here that came back from the metals analysis that another professional did…

[Lucía]: Flora explained that, of everything they found during the excavation, the nails were perhaps the most interesting because the metal provided clues as to what time period they belong to. 

[Flora]: We know that La Moneda dates back to the 18th century, that its construction began in 1784. So the way  certain metals are forged could take us back to that time. And that’s what happened with some of the items, like the nails.

[Lucía]: These nails that Flora showed me are nothing like the ones we know today. They are thick and covered with rust and sediment that give them a grainy texture.

She explained to me that, in short, they are pieces of cut iron and this indicates that they are not current, because the nails from the 20th century on have a different shape. They are circular.

[Flora]: And this particular one I have here is from the 18th century and is imported. I mean, it’s not even from here in Chile. It probably belonged to the construction of an elite building. And that brings them closer to the probability that they are from La Moneda. No, we cannot say for sure “they are,” but they are closer than not being.

[Lucía]: The “Exhuming Memory” installation ended in late 2023, after three months. During that time, some people approached Pancho to tell him that they believed they had seen fragments of La Moneda in other places. One of them was a professor at the School of Architecture of the University of Chile. Pancho invited me to see them.

When we got there, we went straight to a covered gallery that joined two parts of the building. A place of transit for students and teachers. There, Pancho pointed to some large metal pillars that supported the structure.

[Pancho]: All this—this sort of gallery—the initial supports or structures, they were from La Moneda. They are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 pillars…

[Lucía]: I was struck by the fact that there was no sign saying those pillars had been part of the palace.

Then we left the gallery and crossed the patio.

[Archive soundbite]

[Lucía]: Oh, are we going to the dump—the dump?

[Pancho]: Yes, indeed.

[Lucía]: Where the real trash is, the rubble of the La Moneda Palace.

[Pancho]: Actually, these are not rubble. They are metal structures that once belonged to the Palace…

[Lucía]: When we arrived, he pointed out some iron beams stacked against each other. Pancho had investigated and found photos from before 1973. They show a large winter garden in the Palacio de La Moneda and some beams just like these, which now had no protection of any type. It was as if someone had just left them there, and that was the end of it.

We continue walking. We pass by a sports field with some stands. Pancho points out that they are made with the same beams we had seen in the garbage dump. I asked him how it felt to see those remains there, used as bleachers for watching soccer games.

[Pancho]: I don’t believe there is ever a bad intention. I think it is a result of ignorance, just not knowing what they were. Someone simply saw the potential of those materials.

[Lucía]: For some time, Pancho has begun to understand La Moneda as a puzzle, and its reconstruction as a commitment to his country. He knows that he is not going to repair what happened, but he wants to trace the pieces of history that go unnoticed today in landfills, stands, galleries, pillars of buildings. For him, the importance of these small fragments is increasingly greater. He wants to know where La Moneda has left its traces.

[Pancho]: The destruction of La Moneda is an image, an international image of the fracture of a democracy. And the pieces left from that fracture were and are distributed all around, under a house, in a university garbage dump. Now, in the remains of an exhibit at the Cultural Center. Others are not there, they are not in a museography. There is something quite spontaneous. They are just placed there, in the sun, in the open air. Chile is a bit like that… as if it were left to its own fate. And if someone can find, interpret and perhaps rescue it, that’s great. Otherwise, things may be left lying there… forever.

[Lucía]: Or until someone decides to look for them, even if it’s in pieces, to unearth the past once and for all.

[Franklin Codel]: Hello, I’m Franklin Codel from West Des Moines in Iowa, United States, and I’m part of Deambulantes, the membership program of Radio Ambulante Studios. I support them because they ask the necessary questions and delve deeply into the important issues of our time. If you want to help them continue telling Latin America’s stories, visit Radio Ambulante dot org slash donate.

As part of the benefits of being a Deambulante member, I’ll read today’s episode credits.

Lucía Cholakian Herrera is a freelance journalist. Emilia Erbetta is a producer at Radio Ambulante. They both live in Buenos Aires. This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri with music by Ana Tuírán.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Andrés Azpiri, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, Bruno Scelza, David Trujillo, Ana Tuírán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.

If you enjoyed this episode and want us to continue doing independent journalism about Latin America, support us through Deambulantes, our membership program. Visit and help us continue narrating the region.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.



Lucía Cholakian Herrera and Emilia Erbetta

Camila Segura and Daniel Alarcón

Desirée Yépez

Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán

Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán

Sabrina Pérez


Episode 28