He was born into one of Chile’s oldest families but spent most of his life working for his country’s poor and campaigning for human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship. Father Jose Aldunate passed away at the age of 102 on September 28.
This blogger had the opportunity to interview Father Aldunate, known simply as Pepe to many, in the 1980s when he was a parish priest in a poor Santiago neighborhood. I wanted to pick his brains about living conditions for low income Chileans and what social services, if any, they could access. I expected to hear some kind of political speech, but Aldunate was thoughtful and deliberative. There was a foundation for malnourished children, he said, and some of his parishioners had taken their children there, receiving good care. But unemployment was high, and many of those who did have jobs worked in harsh environments.
He told me of one young man who worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, operating a factory machine. When he finished for the day, another worker arrived to begin the day’s second shift. The machine was only shut down on Sundays.
Aldunate had spent part of his boyhood in the United Kingdom (“I had an English nanny!”), attending a Jesuit boarding school in northern England where he played rugby and did very well academically. Back in Chile he followed his older brother into the Jesuits, later dividing his time between teaching and ministering to poor communities. And he didn’t just minister: Aldunate sought jobs as a laborer in order to better understand his parishioners’ worlds. At the time of the 1973 military coup he started working alongside construction workers in the city of Concepcion, in southern Chile. His residence was raided by soldiers, who confiscated issues of the Jesuit magazine. People were being arrested around him, but he was spared, and he later speculated it was because his prematurely gray hair made him look like a harmless elderly bystander. He spent five years in Concepcion, working half the year teaching and the other half as a construction worker.
Back in Santiago he worked in a neighborhood which became the site of one of the dictatorship’s most egregious abuses: the case of los quemados, the burned ones. In 1986 two teenagers, one a photographer who had grown up in Washington, D.C., were arrested by soldiers during a demonstration and set on fire. The case drew international attention, with CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace bringing a film crew to the neighborhood. What would happen, he asked Aldunate, if anyone from the area who witnessed the attack offered to testify?
“It would be dangerous for them,” Aldunate told them.
I obtained a copy of the 60 Minutes segment and invited him to my house to see the program. He arrived, smiled at my infant daughter sleeping in her bassinet, and watched the video without comment.
I later interviewed him for ABC radio on the anti-torture movement he had helped organize. It was a small group that included many Catholic priests and nuns, who staged brief demonstrations near police stations and any other sites where prisoners were interrogated. At the end of the interview I asked him if he could imagine a time in the future when the movement would no longer be necessary. He broke into a big smile.
“Oh, I hope so,” he said. “I hope for the day when we can happily dissolve the group because it is not needed.”
That day came the following decade, when Chile returned to democracy. A notorious detention site, Villa Grimaldi, was converted into a peace park and open-air museum and Aldunate participated in the inauguration ceremony. A group of former prisoners and their families walked through the double metal gate they had entered as detainees, and then the gate was locked securely behind them. The gated entrance was to never be used again, and Aldunate was appointed guardian of the keys.
“These walls which hid death and torture today will have signs of life,” he said.
I last saw Aldunate in 2007, when I visited him in a residence for retired priests in downtown Santiago. Most of his vision was gone, he walked slowly but was as lucid as ever and was still writing occasionally for the Jesuit magazine. I introduced myself as one of the many foreign journalists who had interviewed him back in the 1980s and mentioned our last interview. He recounted how, with democracy re-established in Chile, members of the group met and decided it was no longer needed. Nine years later he was awarded a national prize for human rights.
One of the board members of the converted Villa Grimaldi made a comment to me that seemed to perfectly sum up this extraordinary man:
“I think Pepe is not of this world.”