Photo: Pablo Neruda (1966) @ Wikimedia Commons

Protests in Chile over Pablo Neruda’s legacy

In Chile, students, writers, and feminist campaigners have protested a decision to rename the Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport to the Pablo Neruda International airport.

They argue that Neruda, the renowned love poet, doesn’t deserve this celebration as he openly admitted to raping a maid in his 1977 memoir.

He wrote that: “One morning, I decided to go for all, and I grabbed her forcefully by the wrist and looked her in the face. There was no language I could speak to her. She allowed herself to be led by me unsmiling and soon was naked upon my bed. […] She was right to have contempt for me.”

By recalling the rape as an “experience” in which the woman “allowed herself to be led” by him, Neruda invents a reality that removes himself from the brutality of his actions.

Earlier on in the memoir, he describes the maid as a “shy jungle animal”. His racist depiction of the Sri Lankan woman exacerbates power dynamics already existent between maid and lodger. Misogyny, classism, and contribute to his inability to recall this woman’s name.

As discussion about the poet has resurfaced and the Chilean equivalent of the ‘MeToo’ movement has gained traction, there has been open protest. Rape is not a small issue to be overlooked despite the cultural significance of the poet: it is an issue of not just accountability, but the message communicated to those who have been subject to sexual violence. It re-enforces a power dynamic between the abuser and the abused through a co-ordinated cultural erasure.

Renaming the airport to commemorate Neruda presents a fundamental issue in the reverence of individual figures as proponents of cultural identity. Should Neruda be revered as a icon of contemporary Chilean identity despite the knowledge that he is guilty of raping a woman? Does his acknowledgement of his wrongdoing rectify his character?

Other writers, such as Isabel Allende have waded into the debate. Though she is “disgusted by aspects of Neruda’s personality”, she believes that his writing “cannot be dismissed”. She describes Canto General, his best-known collection, as “a masterpiece”.

It is true that Neruda’s work is significant. He made a large contribution to the establishing of Chile’s international identity, and the contextualisation of Chilean history contingent to American Imperialism.

Chilean parliamentarian, Carolina Marzán, during The Culture Committee of the Chamber of Deputies session announced that Neruda was a figure who “filled all Chileans with pride by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature”, and that he was significant in the recognition of Chile’s national identity internationally.

The discussion also expressed the desire to have Pablo Neruda’s name as “the first thing” tourists see “when they reach Chilean soil”. This comment seems to pander to and prioritises international reception of Chile by the foreign eye, capitalising on Neruda’s cultural reach as a recognised commodity, or cultural export of Chile’s.

Patricio Alvarado Barría takes this point further, by noting that Neruda still pays political capital to those who reminisce on the Allende era, noting his literary works have been “displaced” by more daring authors.

At its core, the renaming manages to absolve Neruda of his wrongdoing. Changing the name of the airport sends a message that the physical, psychological and sexual violence that impacted this unnamed and forgotten woman’s life means little in the grand scheme of things. His poetry is worth more than her life. 

Chilean activists have made clear that this is not acceptable. Neruda admitted to this crime, and it has been overlooked for 45 years. Is it such a task to refuse cultural icons an infallible status for the sake of an airport, for the sake of international acclaim?

Tags: activism, chile, Isabel Allende, MeToo, Pablo Neruda, sexual assault

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