Since October 20, last year, Francesca Mendoza has been thinking about whether her father could be a murderer. The 27-year-old teacher with the thick black curly hair has been on the street almost every week since the protests in Chile, mostly in the front row. And her father is a police officer. But Mendoza is not afraid to meet him on the street. She is afraid of his past because he was with the secret police during the military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
Helmet, mask, glasses
On a Friday in early January, Mendoza stands among thousands of other protesters near Plaza Italia in the center of the Chilean capital Santiago. A major demonstration was scheduled to take place in the plaza, as is the case every week, but the police have blocked the access roads. Again and again the demonstrators run to the front, the police drive them back with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Mendoza wears protective gear like most here: a silver bicycle helmet, a breathing mask and plastic glasses.
By the end of January, the Attorney General's Office had registered 31 people who had died as a result of the protests. The Chilean Human Rights Commission counted almost 3,800 injuries by February 18, more than 400 of them injured in the eyes. "El que no salta es paco," Mendoza calls out in unison. "If you don't jump, you're a bull."
"When people started protesting against social inequalities in Chile everywhere in October, it was a personal matter for me," she says. The mass protests began on October 18, 2019, when she was at the university in central Santiago. When the first police cars appeared, the bystanders had already dug stones from the sidewalk. "My first stone on a police car was a stone of relief," says Mendoza.
Por mi tita Grafito by Francesca Mendoza
Back then she worked as a teacher, drove two hours to work and two back every day - but the money was still not enough. Shortly afterwards she became ill, but could hardly afford the treatment. In 2018, her grandmother also got cancer and started coughing up blood. Because the family could not pay private health insurance for her, the old woman had to wait a long time for a treatment appointment. Too long - when the appointment for cancer therapy came, she had been dead for six months. Mendoza always has a spray can with him during the protests. "Por mi tita" she writes on the walls - "For my grandma".
Thousands of Chileans have been protesting week after week for fates like that of Mendoza's grandmother. During the reign of Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, the country was transformed into a laboratory of neoliberalism. Education, the pension system, the health system and even water resources have since been privatized. The governments afterwards did little to change it, and if they did try, the Constitutional Court often declared reforms invalid, such as those of the education system in 2018. Those who want to study today have to pay the equivalent of between 5,000 and 10,000 euros a year. Half of the population earns the equivalent of less than 500 euros a month.
But the protest does not only have economic aspects. In Mendoza's family, he flushes painful questions about the past to the surface.