As It Happens

Chilean activist Ana Gonzalez never stopped searching for her family lost under Pinochet

In 1976, Ana Gonzalez's family were apprehended by police, never to be seen again. She went on to become an unstoppable advocate for Chileans who had disappeared under the Pinochet regime. Her grandson says she celebrated life while carrying a "deep sadness."

The outspoken Chilean activist died last week at the age of 93

Ana Gonzalez with photos of four of her relatives who were disappeared during the military dictatorship, participates in a protest march in Santiago, Chile in 2002. (Santiago Llanquin/The Associated Press)

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Ana Gonzalez never stopped fighting for justice, or searching for her family.

The Chilean woman spent more than 40 years searching for the truth about the thousands of people who disappeared or died at the hands of dictator Augusto Pinochet. 

Gonzalez died in Santiago last week. She was 93. 

Her work began in 1976, after her own husband, two sons, and pregnant daughter-in-law disappeared.

She helped found the Association of the Relatives of the Disappeared, and with other Chileans went on hunger strikes, traveled to the United Nations, and spent countless hours marching with photos of missing loved ones.

Luis Recabarren is the grandson of Ana Gonzalez. He was just two years old when his parents were abducted by Pinochet's security forces. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off from Stockholm. Here is part of their conversation.

What do you remember best about Ana Gonzalez?

The memories that I have from her is that she is one of the strongest women. And at the same time, she is a very happy person. It's two conflicting qualities that she had: celebrating life, [and] at the same time, a deep sadness.

Luis hugs his grandma Ana at a family dinner. (Submitted by Luis Recabarren)

She had a great loss — you had a great loss. Her son — your father — and your mother, who was pregnant with your sibling at the time, all taken. Never seen again.

Exactly. It happened the 29th of April, 1976, when I was two-and-a-half. We were on our way home. Then the police took us and they hit my mother. She was pregnant, three-and-a-half months. They took us to the concentration camp Grimaldi. That was the name of it. 

That night, for some reason, they released me. And a man drove me to the [neighbourhood] of my grandmother, Ana Gonzalez​. And I was crying and searching for my house. And a neighbour saw me and took me to my grandmother. 

All the criminals are still free. There is kind of a status quo in the military in Chile, that they are in silence.- Luis  Recabarren , grandson of Ana  González

You were abandoned on the sidewalk, just dumped there, two-and-a-half years old.

Yeah. For some reason I survived that night. The next morning, my grandfather went out to see what's going on — where were my parents? And he disappeared also. They took the whole family from me.

A mural of Ana Gonzalez in the Yungay barrio of Santiago, Chile. The inscription, loosely translated, reads: A toast/ I raise my glass to the beautiful life/ For it I put myself at risk/ And to defend life/ I seek what I am searching for. (Submitted by Luis Recabarren)

As far as we know, there's probably 3,000 people who disappeared under Pinochet. Ana Gonzalez went on hunger strikes, she was among those who chained themselves to the gates outside the National Congress, she gave interviews, she spoke openly. It must have been very dangerous for her to be so outspoken.

They underestimate the power of all our mothers and grandmothers, the dictatorship. For some reason, they let them continue with the fight.

They were told they were fake, that the disappeared were living outside the country. And that they had a really lovely life. So a total manipulation of the truth. And that was really painful.

What were the politics of your family that led to these disappearances and abductions and murders?

They were socialist, in the context of a history of 50 years of democracy. We had a process of building a welfare, a structure that will be more like Canada, like Sweden. But we didn't have any kind of violent history — no guerrillas confrontation. It was just people that were very naive. The consequence is that the military had support from the U.S.

[My grandfather] distributed food and literature. He was involved in the printing of the Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, in clandestine. It's ridiculous that it was a crime.

Your grandmother — did she ever get any answers at all about what happened to her family?

She told us she had some names, of [those] responsible in the operation. But they were not in jail or ... in legal process. All the criminals are still free. There is kind of a status quo in the military in Chile, that they are in silence.

Ana Gonzalez (Submitted by Luis Recabarren)

How do you live with that?

Of course it's a trauma. But when you realize that you have that in your experience, you try to celebrate life. You surround yourself with a lot of positivity, because life is too damn short. You always find the beauty in life. It sounds like a cliché​, but it's one thing that you learn how to survive.

I think you inherited your grandmother's strength.

[Laughs] I dunno. As human beings I believe we all have those strengths. 

Written by Donya Ziaee and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Donya Ziaee and Sarah Jackson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.