The opening of Raymond Craib’s new book propels the reader instantly into the early and difficult history of Chile’s student anarchists: “The body of the firecracker poet wound its way through central Santiago. The funeral cortege extended some fifteen city blocks…”
That sense of drama, laced with lyrical description, carries through the “The Cry of the Renegade: Politics and Poetry in Interwar Chile.”
Craib, associate professor of history, says he began the book with José Domingo Gómez Rojas’ 1920 funeral because of the lasting impact his death had on Chilean politics and politicians, including Pablo Neruda and Salvador Allende.
In death, Gómez Rojas became a powerful figure of protest and opposition to politics as usual – but also a one-dimensional martyr. Craib’s vivid narration restores Gómez Rojas’ human complexity and fleshes out the characters of his fellow activists, painting an intimate portrait of their experiences and explaining what drew them to the anarchist ideas that fueled their protests.
Chile in 1920 was a dangerous place to be a student questioning national policy. Government officials responded with arrests and manufactured evidence, accusing the activists of trying to destroy the social order. Gómez Rojas was a member of the Chilean Student Federation, which had come under repeated attack for its critiques of Chile’s political system and ruling parties. He was arrested for sedition as part of the government’s “prosecution of subversives.” He died after two months in police custody and was quickly resurrected as a political martyr.
The story of Chile’s student activists in the interwar years has an important resonance for us today, Craib says, especially in light of new protest movements such as Occupy. He notes that 50 years before the global student protests of the 1960s, Chilean students led the fight against their own “establishment.”
And they still are, Craib says. For the past 15 years the most important social movement in Chile has been the student movement, involving high school and university students, and largely led by anarchists. Craib writes, “what began as a critique of profit in education has expanded into a broad-based movement deeply opposed to the radical capitalist economic models forcibly imposed by the dictatorship and sustained since.”
Earlier student activists were also dealing with a dramatically changing world, and Craib sees a strong global resonance in the “changing urban physiognomy” of the city where Chile’s anarchist movement was centered.
He writes, “by the early 1900s, for residents Santiago must have been an experience both exhilarating and unsettling, a dizzying world in flux,” where lights were being electrified, the number of cars was increasing dramatically and social classes were mixing.
“I was very interested in the real specifics of what was changing in their daily lives and the kinds of anxieties it was generating,” Craib says. “You can see it in the poetry of the time, which is filled with this urban melancholy and flux and disorientation.”
Some of those poems, translated by Craib, are included in “The Cry of the Renegade.”
In his epilogue, Craib focuses on the contemporary student movement in Chile, but his interviews with descendants of the interwar activists led to some surprising results. While tracing the history of an activist who was exiled to Bolivia, he discovered the man had grandchildren in Chile and Bolivia who didn’t know about each other. Craib put them in touch.
Linda B. Glaser is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.