The year was 1973 and Florrie Snow Chacon, originally from St. Lunaire-Griquet, NL, was living in Chile with her young family when life changed forever. Chief of Staff General Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup and the military seized control of the country. His forces quickly started to persecute any possible opposition, with thousands of people being executed and tortured, while many others simply disappeared.
It all came back to Florrie recently when the Chilean government awarded her a certificate in recognition of her humanitarian work during Pinochet’s dictatorship. It wasn’t something she was expecting. “I was very surprised because it’s been such a long time now since those difficult years, very difficult years,” says Florrie over Skype from her home in Santiago, Chile. “I felt very honoured to receive this, but I felt that it was long overdue because I felt that I was representing a lot of people who were in the movement at that time.”
More than 40 years later, she can still recall those first years and the extraordinary things she and her friends did to save lives. Florrie and her husband, Arturo Chacon, were both professors at the University of Chile when the coup happened. The university was swiftly closed and some professors disappeared. When it reopened a few months later, Florrie was one of the few allowed to return to work, though she tried to keep a low profile.
It was through other groups, like the church, where she worked tirelessly to help others. “There was a very strong ecumenical movement at that time here in Chile, to look out for the situation, contacting lawyers, doing all kinds of things - even hiding other Latin American refugees who were here in Chile,” she explains.
One of the events that stands out to Florrie happened in January 1974, when she helped 46 people enter the Canadian Embassy. It was a major operation, she recalls. “We got 46 people into the embassy, which was on the eighth floor of a building in downtown Santiago, in 15 minutes, during the time when the ambassador went out for lunch,” she explains, chuckling. “And this was a time before cell phones, so you can imagine how difficult it was to coordinate things.” The Canadian government later flew the refugees to Canada.
Florrie and Arturo were also part of a network that helped people hide to avoid being apprehended by government forces. Many people walked through the doors of the Chacon home to lay low. “People even arrived at my house, were invited in to have tea but stayed for several days because they were in hiding,” she says. Keeping them off the streets could be a matter of life and death.
Things came to a head when Arturo was picked up by police and interrogated. When he was released, they arranged to get him out of Chile. “I stayed here and continued working while he was looking for asylum outside the country,” says Florrie. For several months she never heard from Arturo, but eventually the couple and their two children reunited and settled in Toronto in 1975.
While in Canada, their home was confiscated and the people who had been staying there were arrested. “My friend, who was working with the church committee here, she was imprisoned for a number of months. She disappeared for a while and we finally found her in one of the torture centres. And she had her baby in the torture centre,” Florrie remembers. “There were many things that happened at that time, friends that disappeared. I’ve managed to keep in touch with a lot of the families. That keeps history alive, I guess.”
Florrie and Arturo stayed in Toronto for a few years, where they worked to help Chilean refugees get established in Canada. She set up the Working Skills Centre, an organization to teach them the English language, life skills and job training.
All the while, Florrie and Arturo were eager to return to Chile. So when their children were grown, the couple moved back in ’83, still with the fear of the dictatorship hanging over their heads. “We came back with a small suitcase each; we rented a furnished apartment so that we could leave at any moment. It was a tense situation but we had friends here, so that was a help,” she says. Despite the hardships, it was still their home.
“We always wanted to come back. It had been my home for many years and my husband was born here, grew up here,” explains Florrie. (Arturo passed away in 2014.)
On some days all that Florrie survived seems surreal to her, and as an historian she worries that people are forgetting the ordeal.
“People are disconnected from history, especially global history,” she says, adding she believes it’s important to teach the younger generations about the country’s sordid past.
Where the heart is
While Florrie says her heart remains in Chile, she hasn’t forgotten her roots. Every few years she makes her way back to the “North” (as she calls it) to where her family is from in Newfoundland. But it’s evident to her that, in her absence, time marched on. Her last visit was in 2016. “Everything is changed there. I think my idea of Newfoundland is amiss right now. Last time I went I recognized very little, very, very few things about the places. The only place I felt comfortable was in the cemeteries because I knew all the people in the cemeteries,” says Florrie. When she walks through the communities now, she doesn’t recognize the people and has to ask who their parents or grandparents are. “And I realized that…I didn’t belong there anymore,” she says.
Still, there are some things from her first home that she longs for. In the refrigerator in her Santiago apartment is a jar of bakeapple jam. “And when I’m feeling low, I take a spoonful and eat it…So when it ends I know that I have to go back and get more!” she says, giggling. “So there are little things like that, but they’re connected more to feelings than anything else.” - By Elizabeth Whitten