The House of: the Spirits/ Santiago/ Cerebral Cortex

Libby Northup

And now, the house stood before me. The one I’d heard story after story about, that used to have grape vines crawling up its fences and the Andes in the background of its photos. The one my mom grew up in, in Los Leones, in the heart of Santiago de Chile, right next door to the president of the country. 

The first time she told me this fact, in my ignorance, I exclaimed “Mom! You mean you moved in next to the Chilean White House! How did y’all have that much money?”

When my grandparents moved into that little white house in a middle class neighborhood, their neighbor, Eduardo Frei, was a congressman running for president. Then, to their surprise, he actually won. 

“In Chile, there is no designated house for the president to live in. When someone wins the election, guards and servants show up to their residence and they just keep living where they already were.” 

Soon enough there were guards lined up in front of the president’s home and down the rest of the street. I assumed this made my fifteen year old mother feel on edge, but apparently quite the contrary, it made her feel very safe. My grandfather even befriended many of the guards. As he explained, he would bring them unas coca-colas and chat for a while. Eventually, he became friends with the president himself, and my family spent many Christmases gathered in the living room of the Freis.

As I stood on the street, admiring my mother’s former home, my grandpa walked up to one of the guards and explained the situation. El presidente y yo hemos sidos amigos por muchos años he told him. One way or another, he persuaded the guard to go and see if Frei was available. We learned that he was not. The former first lady, however, would be delighted to welcome us into her home. To my grandpa and my mother, this was a lovely little surprise. To me, on the other hand, it seemed like the shock and honor of a lifetime. 

The ceilings were low. The walls were yellow and decked out in colorful, mismatched art. Rugs covered much of the light wood floors and bursted with blues, reds, yellows, purples. There were no furniture sets,–on one side, a pink and white floral chair, and on the other, a yellow and cream polka dotted couch. All pieces that seemed like they’d been elegant in their day, and I had no idea how long ago that day had been. Cushions had been indented by their sitters and some of the gold picture frames had been tarnished. It didn’t matter. It was extravagant in a different way than I’d ever experienced extravagance. I’d never seen a house decorated like this before, this was distinct from New Orleans decor. She asked us to sit down and drink some tea. 

We talked for a very long while, hearing all about her children and opinions on the current politics. Eventually, she looked at me and asked if I would like to see the president’s room of treasures. Naturally, I said yes.

Senora Frei ushered us through a little hallway that seemed to split the house in two. One side was personal, the other was for his work. My mom had never ventured to the working side. She led us into a long, rectangular room that contained a glass case filled with shining medals and awards from all over the world. As we stared at them in awe, she provided the stories behind one from Malaysia, one from Germany, one from another country and another. These were striking, yet there was something hung up on the other wall that called to my attention even more: a portrait of Eduardo Frei Montalva, the current Eduardo’s father.

“That’s the conservative president that preceded Allende, the one you read about in The House of the Spirits,” my mom whispered to me. Suddenly, scenes that had played out in my imagination seemed to come to life. “We are in his grandson’s house, who didn’t come directly after Pinochet, but one after. Isn’t it crazy, these are not just characters from a book, but real people?” she asked. I felt like I’d been dropped straight into the pages of the book, as if its words were crawling onto my skin and invading me.

Montalva was elected in 1964, defeating Socialist candidate Salvador Allende. He served a six year term. The book doesn’t directly name names, but grapples with the political happenings of the time. Within it, character Esteban Trueba, a conservative senator, works closely with the president and even develops a personal friendship with him. 

1970 meant a new election. This time, however, something radical happened: Allende won with 36% of the vote, becoming the first democratically elected socialist president of the country. The House of the Spirits dives into the immediate celebration in the streets, when members of the working class marched into wealthy neighborhoods with torches and songs.

“Marching in orderly columns, their clenched fists raised, workers began to arrive from the industrial belt on the outskirts of the city, singing campaign songs. They converged in the center of the city, shouting in a single voice that the people united would never be defeated” (Allende 378). The working class felt seen. The working class felt politically empowered for the first time. Tomorrow, my grandpa would point this street of celebration out to me as we went past it in the back of our taxi. But right then, I was taken in by the strokes of paint that created  Montalva’s face.

The excitement didn’t last. Property values split in half, and the mass exodus of the upper class followed shortly. Regular citizens could now afford to buy things they had always desired, but the stores were empty. The country fell into chaos. 

“Shortages of goods, which was soon to be a collective nightmare, had begun. Women woke at dawn to stand in endless lines where they could purchase an emaciated chicken, half a dozen diapers, or a roll of toilet paper” (Allende 386). I try to envision people lined up like dominoes in front of stores. The annoyance. The body heat. The anxiety of entering a store that lacks what you need.

Then came the next disaster, and one nobody imagined. In 1973, the angry conservatives had a Coute-de-tat.  and Augusto Pinochet rose to power.  A thirteen year reign of terror  followed, and along with it came the torture and murder of tens of thousands of people. Virtually anyone who was suspected of opposing him was kidnapped, and if you had any association with the former president Allende, you were guaranteed an attack. The main character Alba (ironically daughter of Esteban Trueba) experiences physical and emotional abuse, rape, and near death for her involvement with the left-wing guerrillas. 

It is the House of the Spirits, along with the voice of my mother, that taught me much of what I know about this period of Chilean history. Through the book, I felt that I ascended into the reality of what happened in Chile, and as I stood in this room decorated with honors and awards and a painting of that old conservative president, I felt that I ascended from reality into the book. Stories that had always been alive in my imagination became palpable, were placed right in front of me and all around me. 

We tried to restrain our gawking for a few moments, trying to let the image soak as if my brain were a darkroom. We walked out, and this time she took us into the kitchen. There was a half-eaten vanilla birthday cake sitting on the counter. It had golf balls sticking out of the sides and candles standing in the middle, “80.” Frei had just had his birthday party that weekend,  she explained, as she grabbed a golf ball and handed it to my grandma. 

“Seguro?” my grandma asked.

“Si, si, tomalo,” she answered.