Life in Chile

Nira was born in the small coastal city of Valparaiso, Chile during the 1970s, when the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet began. Her father having passed away, Nira’s mother, a university-educated school teacher, was the “head of the household” and encouraged her daughter’s interests in reading and learning. Among Nira’s favorite childhood books were Papelucho and I’m A Bird, both of which she would later pass on to her own children.

(L-R) Nira’s personal copy of Papelucho which she read during her early-teenage years. A copy of Soy Un Pajaro (I’m a Bird) that Nira bought at a garage sale in Chile. An atlas that was among the few possessions that Nira brought with her while immigrating to Toronto. Courtesy of Nira Elgueta.

Life in Valparaiso was defined by stark social and economic hierarchies. Nira came from an educated, middle-class family but lived in a poorer neighbourhood under coercive police occupation. Nira remembers that anyone could be targeted for interrogation or arrested without reason, and many simply disappeared without any trace. To her, it was normal “to be walking on the street and see police officers in [riot] gear…[break] into a house, [arrest] people…, and destroy the house.”

As she became a teenager, Nira became increasingly critical of this political situation. Many students started anti-government protests and rallies to provoke reform. However, Nira saw that these formal movements were “asking for democracy…without knowing anything about it.” During these difficult times, she entered teacher’s college and began her career shortly after. She developed a passionate interest for issues of women’s rights, equality, and social justice. Nira’s activist work did not occur on the political stage, but rather in her community, participating in marches and maintaining her network of family and friends.