On my way home I want to be free not brave

memoir

Camino Libre

By Sara Alura

Jan 2020

En ese momento, dejé de huir corriendo de la muerte y, en su lugar, avancé paso a paso hacia el amor. Eso me salvó. Nunca he dejado de avanzar hacia el amor.

In that moment, I stopped running away from death and, instead, advanced step by step towards love. That saved me. I have never stopped moving towards love. (Author’s translation)

— Nando Parrado
Milagro en los Andes

I

In February 2018, I spent a week hitchhiking and camping along the Pacific coast south of Valparaíso, Chile. In every car and truck I hopped into, in every fisherman’s town I wandered through, each person I encountered exclaimed: ¿Pero andas solita? ¡Qué valiente! (“You mean you’re a girl traveling alone? How brave!”) Their reaction echoed the usual response I receive upon telling someone I moved alone from California to Chile. At their surprise, I would demur—something bothered me about the word brave.

Why must brave be the first adjective that comes to mind when confronted by a single woman traveling alone? Why must the act of camping on a windswept beach and hitching rides on country roads be an act of courage?

The answer is an old, tired truth: the same road presents a very different terrain to a woman than to a man. To inhabit a female body is in itself a risk (and riskier still the darker its skin and the further from heterosexuality it strays). Whether or not I was truly brave seemed beside the point—being female should not be a matter of courage. Yet I lacked the words—in English and in Spanish—to articulate this to myself and others.

After a week of heading south, I began to hitch back home to Valparaíso. It was night, I had taken a bus from San Antonio to Cartagena, and there, outside the bus window, was a wall bearing large, graffiti letters:

CAMINO A CASA
QUIERO SER LIBRE
NO VALIENTE

On my way home—what should be my day’s most mundane route—I should not have to don my armor. I would rather be free than be heroic (or a victim).

El patriarcado es un juez,
que nos juzga por nacer
y nuestro castigo
es la violencia que no ves.

Verses quoted from “El violador en tu camino” by LasTesis

ON MY WAY HOME I WANT TO BE FREE, NOT BRAVE. That graffitied phrase (a popular feminist slogan) sent me reeling. When I was seventeen, a young man from my high school stalked me every day for months. All he wanted was one chance, he insisted each time he cornered me, his eyes dark with anguish. Couldn’t I see how much I was hurting him? How could I be so cruel as to run away? Until I exhausted my supply of no’s, he vowed to follow me until he could drag out a defeated yes.

He succeeded, in one sense, in creating the close relationship he sought. He occupied my thoughts more than any crush. The more desperately obsessed he became with having me, the more desperately obsessed I became with escaping. When reasoning, threatening, or pleading did not move him, I would resort to the only defense left to me—I ran. There was no freedom or bravery on those long runs home, only blank terror and the urge to scream. I was a stubbornly independent girl who loved wandering solo on mountain trails. To fall under a stranger’s constant surveillance was the ultimate theft of self.

I worried people would dismiss my fears as paranoia, or worse: that I really was being too sensitive. No one around us, including myself and him, seemed to understand the difference between romantic pursuit and stalking. Harassment and abuse do not always occur behind locked doors—often they occur in the open, before the implicit approval of an entire workplace, sports team, family, nation. Where do you turn for help when your emergency is the normalized state of affairs?

Then there was the problem of language. How to explain this unspeakable feeling of captivity? I had no vocabulary to report the abuse; I did not yet know the terms harassment, manipulation, or even feminism. I knew what perdón and curación meant, but not how to speak them into truth. If I spoke at all, it was to reassure: I’m fine. He’s not so bad. He’ll stop soon.

Camino Libre Sara Alura
“Self-portrait I” ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

I never stopped running. It took three years to realize I was traumatized, another three to accept there will always be a psychological scar. Despite my efforts to move on, how could I forget the feeling of being watched, desired, pursued? So many other men—with their catcalls, honks, and hoots, their footsteps following me as I walked home, got off the bus, went to work; reminded me of the feeling—the fear. One sunny afternoon in Valparaíso, a strung-out youth tried to mug me and my friend. For a shocked instant, I took in his fevered eyes, the knife flashing in his hand. Perhaps he mistook my shock for fearlessness, for he turned to threaten my friend. That was when I remembered that my keychain emits an ear-splitting siren triggered by pulling a pin. The siren ripped apart the afternoon quiet; my friend yelled and lunged at him; a passerby approached and shouted; the youth backed away, took a last, nervous stab at the air, and ran off.

Though we walked home unharmed, the encounter left me shaken. I had carefully, conveniently forgotten that women are never not vulnerable. The scab I had nurtured to cover over the old wound was violently ripped off—and I was mad. Twenty-two years of being female was too long to be putting up with this shit.

For weeks afterwards, I would not leave the house without pepper spray. I stopped exploring Valparaíso’s hidden staircases, its twisting alleys, and took only well-trafficked routes home. For all my precautions however, no defensiveness could guard against the shadow always two steps behind, now muttering in my ear, now three steps ahead, watching, waiting. Some days the shadow masqueraded as Anger. Other days as Resentment. Many nights as Grief. As tiresome as its company was, I realized—with alarm—that I had grown accustomed to it. I had allowed him (not him any longer, but the fear, the unshakable fear) to follow me for too long. Sometimes the fear rose as a blinding fury that triggered hours of raging at his shadow. Or I would wake from a nightmare of pounding footsteps: the bedroom quiet; heart frantic against its cage of ribs. Escape back into sleep was futile. You cannot extricate yourself from the kind of rage that blazes your skin from the inside out. I lay awake trapped by grief and rage, wondering where the way out was.

Y la culpa no era mía, ni dónde estaba, ni cómo vestía
Y la culpa no era mía, ni dónde estaba, ni cómo vestía

Finding a way out was a problem I had frantically tried and failed to solve during the abuse. How do you escape a man’s bizarre desire when the cause of it is your own body? Where can you run when the target is always drawn on you, affixed to your face, breasts, legs, the slightest betrayal of skin? I have wondered the same after every incident of sexual harassment since. No matter how modest or sober or vigilant you are, there are few barriers you can throw between a man’s worst intentions and your safety. A long gaze or a few groping, muttered words can send you shrinking small as their regard of you, crossing arms and donning layers until you no longer resemble a desirable object.

Abuse and, more generally, misogyny does that to a woman: makes you hate your own body as much as they hate it, so much that you wish you could step out of your body—that unasked-for vessel that has brought you so much undesired and discriminatory attention—and hand it over. Be done with this tyranny they call Gender.

But it was not womanhood, I see now, that I wanted to escape. Nor even him, in his frightening presence and lingering shadow. It was myself I wanted free of—that girl trapped within by fear, running herself ragged with regret. Who really was sabotaging my self-esteem and pursuing my serenity? 

The logic of fear.
How eloquently it speaks.
Run as fast and as hard as you can, girl. His shadow at your heels is yours now.

I needed so badly to let go. I wanted so much to be free: free to regard the past with acceptance and—was it possible?—even forgiveness. If I could hold still long enough to stop running away, maybe then I could begin walking towards healing.

The failed mugging occurred in January 2018. The apparition of the graffitied words occurred in February as I returned home from ten days of hitchhiking down and up the coast. A long line of quiet beaches and kind strangers stretched out in my memory, calm and endless as the carretera at sunrise.

The first week of March blew salt winds through the high, steep streets of Valparaíso, banging open mottled windows and billowing into clean sheets left to dry on clotheslines. Seasons were shifting; by some mystery, summer’s humid hours would soon sharpen into autumn. I shook the sand from my tent, went down to the market for corn and tomatoes to fill the empty cupboards. When I saw the flyers tacked on telephone poles and storefronts announcing Valparaíso’s International Women’s Day march, I suddenly knew what to do.

The high school abuse had been beyond my control, but the lingering scar was not. It was time to take full charge of its healing.

Woman warrior
“Self-portrait II” ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

II

Before Chile woke up, there was a dream. Of an oasis within Latin America, a post-dictatorial democracy running a successful neoliberal experiment.

Before high school students jumped metro turnstiles in Santiago, igniting a nationwide social uprising in October 2019, female students across Chile barricaded themselves within their university campuses for weeks, as part of 2018’s student movement demanding an end to sexism and sexual harassment in higher education.

Before I marched in Valparaíso’s 2018 Women’s March to heal myself, there was the wound clamoring for healing.

Before the wound, the terror.

Before 9/11, there was September 11, 1973. Early that morning, the Chilean armed forces took control of the country, and by midday, bombs were falling onto the presidential palace in Santiago. The terrorists? The Chilean armed forces, emboldened by a weakened presidency that was crumbling fast, in part due to a decade of covert CIA intervention (propaganda campaigns, a coup attempt, support for right-wing opposition parties, economic sabotage—the works).

The American agency’s grand cause? To stop the cancerous advance of left-wing ideology in Latin America (and thus protect U.S. interests in the region). The target? Chile’s economy and democracy, which had the nerve to democratically elect a Marxist president in 1970.

By nightfall, mourners were preparing Presidente Salvador Allende’s body for an unmarked grave (official cause of death: el Presidente chose suicide over surrender, using the AK-47 Fidel Castro gifted him); police and soldiers were sweeping Santiago for mothers, husbands, granddaughters, boys and leftist extremists (they arrested up to 50,000 that first day); and somewhere in the great northern stronghold of liberty, Nixon and Kissinger were smiling as they sat down for dinner.

Santiago overnight became the site of a brutal experiment in torture, repression, and neoliberal policy. Over 250 locations, many of them ordinary houses, were converted into torture centers. One year after the coup d’etat, the military junta appointed General Augusto Pinochet as jefe supremo. Pinochet’s seventeen-year regime established over 1,170 torture and detention centers; created a secret police force that imprisoned, tortured, and/or exterminated over 40,000 victims; sent 200,000 citizens into exile; established Operation Condor, the notorious South American joint intelligence network (aided by the U.S. military apparatus) that hunted down grandfathers, sisters, boyfriends, and leftist extremists in Latin America and abroad; and earned the open support and praise of Presidents Nixon through Reagan—plus the dear friendship of one Margaret Thatcher—for its implementation of neoliberal economic policies.

El estado opresor es un macho violador
El estado opresor es un macho violador

Women were particularly vulnerable under the dictatorship, not only to rape, sequestration, and torture, but to propaganda. The Civil Organizations division disseminated workshops and publications promoting a woman’s duty to nation, husband, and children. If she was praised, it was for her infinite ability to negate her own needs. If she was granted political power, it was the bestowal of the noble role of raising children loyal to Pinochet. And it was women, the regime hoped, who would curb their male family members’ seditious urges.

But as all repressive regimes fail to do, el regimen militar miscalculated its victims’ capacity to survive, nurture, rise up. Women in the capital and countryside were fomenting rebellion: organizing to demand and research the whereabouts of the disappeared; expressing dissent through embroidery and folk music; opening health centers; supporting the unemployed. Others fought the country’s growing poverty with soup kitchens—for what, in the face of state-sanctioned terror, is more retaliatory than the act of feeding one’s neighbor?

Nonetheless, the regime’s brutality was so feared that during its first five years in power, public opposition remained muted…until March 8, 1978. Months of secret coordination between various organizations, in particular the Departamento Femenino de la Coordinadora Nacional Sindical (a worker’s rights organization), led up to the appearance of hundreds of women crowding the streets near the presidential palace. The marchers bore bouquets of red carnations which they handed out to other women. Inside each flower: a tightly rolled invitation. Las chilenas were declaring they’d had enough.

Chile women marching
“No more dead women” International Women’s Day March 2018, Valparaíso, Chile. ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

The women now numbered in the thousands as they streamed into Teatro Caupolicán, past the police harassing them at the entrance and dressing room doors. Inside the packed theater, the ambience was tense but excited. A gathering of that size and spirit had not taken place in Chile since before the coup d’etat. Women made speeches and musicians performed. For the first time on a public stage, la cueca, a beloved Chilean folk dance, was performed as a mournful protest. The regime had appropriated la cueca as a patriotic
symbol, decreeing it the national dance and enforcing its teaching in elementary schools.

That night, la cueca returned to its people in new form. The female musicians, each of whom had lost a loved one to the regime, arrived in a separate car from their guitars to avoid raising suspicion. When they came onstage, the women sang a new song—perdí lo que más quería, I lost what I most loved. Before the gathered mourners, Gabriella Bravo performed the first cueca sola. Her usual dance partner had been taken away to an
unknown death. So Gabriella Bravo danced alone, in mourning black, a picture of her disappeared husband pinned to her blouse.

Aida Morena, a leader in domestic workers’ rights, delivered the keynote. She spoke with indignation of the infant malnutrition under the regime. Midway through her speech, the police took to the stage. They had had such patience throughout the strange dancing, the speeches, the songs—but one can’t wait forever, especially for women to have their say. Time to go home, they menaced as they approached the podium. They grabbed her script, then grabbed Aida, and would have taken her away if not for the intervention of lawyers.

The tension that had threatened the hopeful gathering broke through; the audience rose. The women escaped through the theater’s exits and ran home through clouds of teargas, past tanks and barricades.

Ni una menos
“Not one woman less.” International Women’s Day 2018, Valparaíso, Chile. ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

The women ran home not to hide, but to reorganize. Nine months later, three hundred female delegates attended the First National Meeting of Women. In Santiago, female academics founded a women’s studies organization to investigate women’s cultural and political repression. Women chained themselves to the gates of Congress, demanding justice for the disappeared. They banded together under hundreds of political and social organizations to organize hunger strikes, massive protests, press conferences, labor strikes, boycotts, street art interventions. And the more that women demanded democracy and human rights, the more they realized they had never truly possessed them. Chilean society, then as now, is marred by machismo. The massive unemployment during the dictatorship left many men stewing at home while their wives brought home the family’s bread. For the activists with machista husbands, they crossed from one conflict zone to another: the state’s wrath for fomenting opposition and their husbands’ ire for leaving the house.

A new slogan emerged: Democracia en el país y en la casa. Democracy in the country and in the home (with some women appending “y en la cama”). If democracy was to return to Chile, it would have to address the many degrees of disenfranchisement that half the population suffered. In 1983, feminist leaders published the Manifiesto Feminista, demanding a society free of violence, one in which women—not men—choose how to
define a woman’s selfhood.

In the regime’s final year in power, 25,000 women gathered in Santiago to mourn the past decades and celebrate the return to democracy. March 8, 1978 may have ended in violence, but it had galvanized a movement. For the remainder of the dictatorship, El Día Internacional de la Mujer would remain a national call to celebration and protest.

Sara Alura Camino Libre
“Self-portrait III” ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

III

On the 40th anniversary of that landmark Women’s Day, in the hometown of both Pinochet and Allende, one hour before Valparaíso’s 2018 women’s march, I imagined those heroines whispering, ladling soup, marching with carnations, dancing alone, running home through teargas, chaining themselves to Congress’s gates. What strength had brought them through it all? The regime had mandated that women live for their nation, spouse, and children, while also denying them a choice of methods. The only decision left to women was the extent to which their fear controlled them.

Had those early activists felt the same sensation of rising, of holding still and standing firm, of nervous anticipation and pending freedom, that I now felt? I held my breath and straightened up. My friend was inscribing a battle cry on my back. The paint touched down cool and soothing on my skin.

The black paint dried and covered my back, once the zone of so much terror (he had tried to assault me there, from behind). Now I looked over my shoulder at the hall’s spotted mirror and saw a new woman standing with her back towards me. She faced the hard road she was learning to walk. Her pose, graceful and strong, affirmed she was sure of her steps.

I took a photo to remind myself I was capable of becoming her. Then I wrapped a scarf around my neck, hugged my two friends who had agreed to march with me, and together we walked to the march. The late summer air felt warm and soft enough to wear alone. I pulled my hair to the side and walked straight with my shoulders back, so that anyone following me could read the writing on the wall. For the march’s few hours, no man would render me vulnerable. For once, my vulnerability would be a choice.

On Día Internacional de la Mujer 2018, I marched topless down Avenida Pedro Montt towards the national Congress building. It started out as all Women’s Day marches should be—joyous, with a strong dose of righteous indignation. Mothers and daughters, sisters and neighbors marched, danced, chanted, juggled, and drummed. (Chile sí es una tierra de mujeres fantásticas.) There were many fathers, sons, boyfriends, and brothers, too, lifting their little girls on their shoulders to see the marching women. Valparaíso had sent its best.

Chile march women
Photos from International Women’s Day March 2018, Valparaíso, Chile. ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

To my initial embarrassment, my friend and I were alone in protesting the discriminatory laws that would arrest a woman who, for want of the sun or breeze on her skin, would expose her breasts in public. (What about our vulnerability do they find so threatening? It must be that our nakedness scares them—our bared skin shows our lack of fear.) I had never gone topless in public before, but my shyness passed as woman after woman asked if they could photograph my back.

Where Avenida Pedro Montt meets Calle Simón Bolívar, the festivities stopped. A police barricade awaited the marchers. At first the police stood impassive before the dancing women and their daughters, the husbands and their sons, but as the crowd grew more jubilant before the barricade and its waiting tanks, the police grew impatient. Time for them to go home. They sent out a warning: cold water imbued with teargas. When this only elated the crowd into louder song and chants, the police lifted their shields, fell into formation, and opened the barricade. Heavy streams of toxic water shot out of the tank, dousing the crowd of children, sisters, husbands, neighbors, and friends.

When the air around you suddenly, invisibly turns toxic, your face burns as if a giant hand had slapped some sense into you. Its message stings your nose, throat, lungs, and when you can no longer open your eyes or breathe, you do the only thing left to do—run.

8M marcha Valparaiso 2018
barricada pacos 8M 2018
pacos Valparaiso
guanaco Chile marcha
Chile guanaco agua 8M
Photos from International Women’s Day March 2018, Valparaíso, Chile. ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

People escaped into side streets or crammed into stores. The sidewalks went slick with toxic water. Three tanks advanced through the emptied streets, hurtling their sirens’ wail against the shuttered apartments. I looked over and saw a woman trotting and stopping, making an inefficient escape. Every few yards she stopped to move her four-year-old daughter to the other hip. Enraged, she yelled over her shoulder at the faceless tanks.

¡¿No ven que hay niños aquí?! ¡¿No podían esperar?!
Can’t you see there are children here?! Why couldn’t you wait?!

But how can you hear the voice of love and reason when you are marching in formation, encased in helmet, boots and bulletproof vest, with your supervisor’s orders coming in your earpiece and sirens outside so loud they shout down any whisper of that same, still voice surfacing in your thoughts?

The woman gathered up her child and continued her dogged march back the way we had come, towards the march’s hopeful beginning in Plaza Victoria. The state had sent its best for this march-in-reverse: following the mother were three tanks and ten Carabineros policemen. The police formed two tight clusters of five men each. Two led the way with plastic shields; the other three placed their left hands on the preceding man’s
shoulder. Thus united they lurched forward. Who they were pursuing I do not know. The streets were empty and so wet they reflected a blurry, upside-down world of building fragments muddled through by two wandering shadows. In the wet pavement, the ten helmets and ten sets of boots merged into an inky blotch that wandered from puddle to puddle, splashing out the streetlights.

Pacos Valparaiso 8M
Av. Pedro Montt. International Women’s Day 2018, Valparaíso, Chile. ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

My friend and I stopped running when we reached a small plaza off the main street. People were gathering there to wring out their hair and strip off their wet layers. Acrid teargas sharpened the air, sprung out of our pores. My friend and I had nothing to take off. We looked at each other through streaming eyes and drew deep heaving breaths. Our first Chilean baptism, I said, and we cheered and hugged. Let me be clear: the mood in that plaza was happy. Triumphant. Alive. The setting sun struck the air through with a golden glow. People were laughing in that brazen light as they shook themselves off. A few struck up the rhyming freedom chants: ¡La revolución será feminista o no será! The revolution will be feminist or it will not be!

What danced in the air between us that was sharp and more potent than the chemicals clawing our skin? I believe it was hope triumphant. Our running away had an element of intention. We had not fled a machine, nor even a set of desperate men. Misogyny is subtler than steel and boots—it is a hate that invades us all. It causes a woman to hate her own body for its femaleness (curves, blood, womb) and its not-female-enough-ness (muscles, brain, hairs). It causes men to demean women and to deny their own so-called “feminine” traits (any softness of heart or body, any inclination towards gentle care).

If within and between us is where the hate lies, and hate is begot of fear…fear of the Other, which is really fear of the stranger lurking in oneself…then celebrating women, banding together to grieve, chant, dance, and even run away together—those must be the first rejections of that fear, the first manifestations of a revolution in love. For fear and hate do not begin in the street or battlefield (nor in the house-turned-torture center, nor the march-turned-pursuit). They begin in the heart, and it is there that they must be rooted out.

That terrified, terrifying boy and every sexist man since had poisoned me with their fear and the same nightmarish hate. It is the kind of fear that makes you hide from your own beloved, beleaguered self; the kind of hate that turns you as bitter and incapable of intimacy as they are.

It was not him that I fled from all those years, nor even my diminished self that I fought to free myself from.

It was the fear itself that I feared succumbing to, the hate itself that I hated becoming.

So there it was, exposed at last—met, named, spoken, blessed.

Av. Pedro Montt. International Women’s Day 2018, Valparaíso, Chile. ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

A common accusation lobbed at feminists is that we are men-haters—a lazy, dangerous accusation. It is an understandable, even necessary gut reaction to hate certain men and despise oppressive systems. But hate is that system’s poison and fear, its chains. We cannot embrace those weaknesses if liberation is what we are after. Nor can we root them out in our hearts without also replacing them with radical love for self and others. A love that illegally bares its body’s breasts. A love that kneels in obedience to the cause that its life matters. A love that burns sage over the waters and prays for peace between earth and its children. A love that cares enough to shout at the men bearing down on her and her daughter.

Can’t you see?! this love shouts. Can’t you hear?!

This love addresses its enemies like the human beings she believes they are, not the faceless oppressors they pretend to be. So ashamed are they by that woman’s power that the men stay silent behind their raised shields. They may never learn to lower them and surrender their false security. They may forever march under the illusion of their power.

Duerme tranquila niña inocente,
sin preocuparte del bandolero,
que por tus sueños dulce y sonriente
vela tu amante carabinero.

The mother shifts her child on her hip and does not let go all the way home.

The child buries her head near her mother’s pounding heart. She trusts that sound more than she fears the sirens.

I run down the sidewalk between them and the police—watching, remembering.

My friend puts her arm around me and says, Come on, keep going. When we get home, soaked and burning with teargas, we will cook dinner with our hermanas and hermanos and tell them everything we saw and felt.

Now tell me: Who in that scene is most oppressed by patriarchy and misogyny, and who the most likely to free themselves?

I would not understand all this that March day. I think I will spend my whole life struggling, failing, and learning to walk away from that self-dividing fear and lonesome hate. It may take many years and many words to craft and become the woman in my reflection. But for the first time, I glimpsed that fear loosen its grip during those moments in the plaza when we had stopped running and could tend to our burning skin. Fear flew out of people’s mouths in gasps of astonished laughter. It dissipated in the warmth of their embraces. It transformed into passionate energy in the rising rhythms of their songs.

That is what liberation from misogyny looks like in a human civilization that has never experienced gender equality. That is how the dreaded feminist revolution is redefining the word power.

Sara Alura Camino Libre
“Self-portrait IV”
After the water works. On the night of March 8, 2018, a local news article reported: “las manifestantes…luego de cumplir el trayecto se retiraron en total calma a sus hogares.” (The protesters…after finishing the route, retired in total calm to their homes.)
©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

IV

All night on March 8, I wrote down the story of my liberation and the march’s repression. Words hold power—using the past tense in telling my story helped set the stalking in its distant place, where its shadows could no longer eclipse the present. For the first time, I used the word “abuse” rather than “what happened to me.” That one word made my trauma make sense, gave it logic.

I knew the thorough healing I sought was only possible in community. And so, on March 9, I published on Facebook the story and photographs of my protest.

If revealing my breasts in public was daunting, baring my most guarded story was terrifying. The next weeks took me on an unexpected emotional rollercoaster. Never had I felt more vulnerable. Never had I felt so deeply shattered by grief. I was finally allowing myself to grieve the abuse that my younger self had suffered. In doing so, I honored her. I told her she no longer had to flee the past. It is healthy to feel indignant and aggrieved: such grief proves that deep down, you know how you deserve to be treated. In tending to your grief, you treat yourself with the love and respect the abusive person denied you.

My grief then swelled to encompass the innumerable harassments accumulated over these twenty-two years of being female, and then it flooded the barriers of skin and self to embrace the suffering of women everywhere, in all times. Who knew that deep, intentional healing could be so painful? But that is love for you: if you are to truly love your life in all its fragility and wildness, you must be willing to grieve for the wounds inflicted on it, painful as that process is.

My long process of healing from trauma has paralleled the grief process. I was in mute shock throughout the abuse…in denial for three years…then rage broke through, demanding retribution…attempts to bargain with the situation were made, and failed. (If only he had never noticed me; if only I’d been one of the bolder, braver girls; if only the world would wake up…) For the “situation” I wanted reckoning with was not really my little story of abuse. It was all of world history, the entire violent system. (It ignored my requests for it to self-destruct.) Better and easier then to focus my healing efforts on my small role in that history and system. Looked at that way, I discovered a humbling, empowering truth: The past is immutable and so are scars. Bargaining with the past only places blame on the wounded person, not on the one who inflicted the trauma.

I had tried everything. Nothing changed the facts. There was nothing left to do but tell the story straight: I suffered a period of intense abuse. It affected me deeply. Still does, will always. And now here I am—incapable of divorcing myself from said story, so I might as well write it as my own.

Acceptance set into place like a stone. In grieving a loved one, we eventually integrate their absence into our continuing lives. In healing a trauma, we ultimately accept ourselves as is. We put a friendly arm around our beaten, beating heart and say, Come on, keep going. You’re home now.

Despite my anxieties over sharing my story, it felt relieving to finally speak the past. The conversations my “coming out” forced me to have proved therapeutic, as I discovered not only how much people loved, but how much they understood. Then came the final relief. At some point during those weeks, I realized that I had forgiven him.

I put away the computer, the phone. I went on long runs along the sea road with my friends. We went camping. We hitchhiked to Argentina. We came home. I called my best friend from high school. She told me she had something for me. He had contacted her. He had read my piece and emailed her a letter. He had written only good things. Did I feel ready to read it?

I said Yes, but meant No. When is one ever ready to read such a letter?

I felt satisfied with the healing achieved over the past months. The persistent scar had been exposed and then laid to rest, the wound so thoroughly tended that it no longer burned. The prospect of an apology from him seemed so far-fetched that I had never thought to want it.

But sometimes our deepest needs announce themselves only in the moment of fulfillment. And most of the time—I have come to believe—we underestimate people’s capacity to regret, reflect, reach out (and humbly, thoroughly, with all his heart, apologize).

As I read his letter, great peace washed through and through me. And awe. For six years, he had remained unchanged in my memory and nightmares. But the real him had spent those years in earnest, wrenching introspection over what he had done. He had delved into learning about stalking as a form of abuse; he now wrote about it with searing awareness. He allowed his past self no room for excuses. He vowed to watch out for such misbehavior in himself and in other men. I got the feeling that if I were to meet him one day, I would see not my enemy but an ally.

I had often imagined what I would do if we crossed by chance. Every scenario involved some variation of iciness, blazing anger, and dropkicks. But when I sat down to write the most important letter of my life, what came out instead surprised me.

I thanked him. His letter had given me a closure I thought I would never receive. I was happy for him—from what I gathered, he had turned his life and heart around, no easy feat. I was at peace with myself, and proud to be so. Up until the past few months, I had succumbed to the fallacy that, when it comes to psychological trauma, my choices were: coping or just deal with it. Now I knew otherwise. And I was glad to see that he, too, had granted himself new choices.

Sara Alura Camino Libre
“Brave, no. Impatient, yes.” Self-portrait IV ©2022 Sara Alura Rupp

V

Now when people tell me, ¡Qué valiente eres! I know how to respond.

Valiente, no. Impaciente sí.

I am impatient for the day when home will be a safe place for every girl and woman to walk to (and enter). I am impatient for the day when my bared body is just that—my body—and not a political act. I’m impatient for the day when the two countries I call home cease to be “homes” that expel, repress, and imprison their immigrants and citizens. I’m so impatient that I can’t wait any longer. It may be generations until the world becomes safe for women to live, love, and travel without fear. But I want that world now, while I’m alive to enjoy it. It is not bravery that impels me to take risks, but selfishness—a radical claim to my human right to live well and love freely.

Hitchhiking solo and marching topless go against my every defensive instinct as a woman. But I have discovered that my freedom lies in each risk I consciously choose to take.

Sharing my story necessitated conversations that were years overdue. The most emotional was with my mother. Her voice arrived from six thousand miles away sounding soft and afraid and sad and tender and wounded. Her baby had been tear-gassed in a foreign country and stalked in her hometown. All she wanted was to hold that scared, silent girl of seventeen, but even a mother’s fierce embrace cannot reach around six years and six thousand miles. So instead, she gave her daughter her blessing.

Oh honey. I just hope what happened to you doesn’t cause you to make decisions based on fear.

How had she known that was exactly what I was trying to live by? How had she gathered the courage to let her love walk free over this vast and dangerous earth?

I hope someday to know.

For now, I told her, I am learning. I am learning that the act of living is in itself a risk. That those in power often forcefully insist that how we carry out that act depends on our gender, race, class, creed. That they would have us believe that our vulnerability is total. That they would have us forget that there are some vulnerabilities that we can choose. That our freedom lies in the only real decision left to us: to run in fear or to walk in love. That the same hard road presents a very different terrain when traversed together. I am all the time surprised by our impatient marching. It gives me hope. As long as we love, we are never not vulnerable. But isn’t that our strength? And isn’t that our beauty?

8M Santiago 2020
Seguimos Luchando
Sara Alura 8M
Clippings from the week of March 8, 2020 during the estallido social. 

Author’s Note

 January 2020

The original version of “Camino Libre” was written in the months following March 2018 and never published. In wake of the Chilean social uprising that began on October 18, 2019, I know the time has finally come to share this essay.

As demonstrated by the events of the 2018 Valparaíso Women’s March, the violent repression of peaceful protests did not stop after Pinochet’s regime transitioned to democracy in 1990. The Chilean police force (Carabineros), along with the Chilean armed forces, have continued to commit torture, arbitrary detentions, disappearances of political activists, and repression of protests over the past three decades.

On October 18, 2019, high school students in Santiago jumped metro turnstiles in protest over the rising cost of living. Their protest inspired a massive public outpouring of grievances regarding the past thirty years of state abuses. Chile’s massive national protests are calling for the democratic reformation of thirty years of extreme economic inequality; neoliberal policies; abysmal public health, education, and pension systems; environmental abuses; political repression; women’s, gay, and indigenous rights; and police brutality.

Though millions of Chileans are protesting peacefully, President Sebastián Piñera’s forces have unleashed a wave of brutal repression unseen since the days of dictatorship. Since October 18, 2019, the Chilean police and armed forces have committed human rights abuses including torture (879 cases), detentions (9,787) and disappearances; rape, forced stripping, and sexual assault (192 cases); and the shooting, beating, and killing of unarmed citizens. [Statistics from the Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos; January 31, 2020.]

Amid daily state terrorism, a new battle cry has risen from the streets of Valparaíso. The performance “El violador en tu camino,” (quoted throughout this essay) created by the feminist theatre group LasTesis, drew thousands of women to occupy the streets of Valparaíso, Santiago, and other Chilean cities, and quickly spread to cities around the world. This March 8, 2020, Chilean women will don safety goggles and gas masks as they once again take to the streets to demand an end to state and gender violence.

As for me, the long road to healing that I began on March 8, 2018 most recently led me to seek therapy, where I discovered that the nightmares, hypervigilance, flashbacks and other debilitating symptoms that I struggled with for eight years were actually symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There really was a wound, hidden within my amygdala, thalamus, medial prefrontal cortex, and other parts of the brain that process memory and danger. His fingerprints were all over my brain. La herida en mi cerebro eres tú.

So my story closes alongside millions of others still being written, within an overwhelming saga of women’s oppression. The struggle, la lucha, never seems to end. Yet small victories occur each day, as they always have.
I invite you to share this essay as a form of protest and solidarity with our Chilean hermanxs struggling for their rights and lives. Así caminaremos a casa juntas y juntos ¿no? That way we’ll be walking home together.

– Sara Alura

Valparaíso, January 2020

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