My name is Isidora Guttierez. I study economics in Santiago. My father is Spanish, my mother is Palestinian. So was my grandmother who came to Chile as a child during the Ottoman occupation of Palestine. My great grandfather developed one of the leading textile companies in Chile. There was a close circle of Palestinian families who were all very successful in textile. That is the environment where my mother and grandmother grew up. None of them married a Palestinian man, so I ended up being a quarter Palestinian. I did not attend the Arab school, instead we were part of the Spanish community in Santiago.
“If people ask me about Palestine, I tell them about a beautiful place that is locked away. The more you get into it, the harder it is to get out. You start discovering and then you realize it is beyond reason. You end up with a huge amount of impressions. You cannot see how it all fits. You have to do something. then you are called an Activist.”
Although my mother informed me about Palestine, my grandmother was always my strongest link. My mother does not speak Arabic, she was always more focused on living as a Chilean. There are many Palestinians like her in Chile, sometimes we call them the “lost generation”.
But of course we did not deny our roots, my mother is an excellent cook and while she experiments with food from all over the World, she also cooked the traditional Palestinian dishes with us. I have sisters; we used to cook all together. These were always warm and homely moments. There was no anti-Palestinian atmosphere in our house, we were just more focused on life in Chile. My father is Spanish, I guess that explains it.
Did you visit Palestine already?
It started with a family trip a few years ago. We visited Jordan, Syria, Israel and Palestine. In Bethlehem, we went to the house where my grandmother was raised. My family is very proud on that house. It is very big and as the UN took office in it, it was never destroyed during the wars. Now it is part of the University in Bethlehem. When my mother saw it for the first time, she started to cry. Unfortunately, that proved to be the ‘wrong’ house. When we found the ‘right’ one, she cried again.
Though this was a very nice experience, it felt more like a vacation. Back in Chile, I started asking myself a lot of questions. I am a restless and curious person. What really happened in Palestine kept me busy. I felt I had not seen the ‘real’ Palestine. A few years later, I did win a funded scholarship that allowed me to travel to Palestine in a different way. I participated in a program of the Holy Christian Ecumenical Foundation and was confronted with a very different country. We did visit several refugee camps. In one of them, I got to know a young woman: she spoke Arabic, Hebrew, English and French and learned all that via the internet. She was an activist who travelled around to World to talk about Palestine. Many things happened on that trip, too many to tell. But I did come back inspired by a good kind of rage. For me, that second trip was like a breeze of fresh Palestinian air.
“In Bethlehem, we went to the house where my grandmother was raised. When my mother saw it for the first time, she started to cry. Unfortunately, that proved to be the ‘wrong’ house. When we found the ‘right’ one, she cried again.”
That breeze of Palestinian air did not sound as fresh and exciting to my friends and family though. That was quite confronting and it explains how I discovered the Palestinian community in Santiago. Most of the Palestinians in Chile are second or third generation, many live in mixed families. Their sense of Palestinian identity may be more on the background. But there is a smaller group of Palestinians who are member of the Palestinian Club or go to the games of the soccer club Deportivo Palestino. These people continue to embrace their Palestinian roots. It sounds strange but in Santiago, these are different social circles. For most of my life, I would never have thought about having a drink in the Palestinian Club. Now I do and joke about that with my friends.
I look Spanish like my father. My sisters don’t. I would pass all security check points in Palestine without problem, my sisters would not. But I am the one who seems to care most. At home, we are raised in the Spanish way. But when I was in Palestine, I would see my mother and grandmother in every person. Everybody seemed intense, they laughed loud and kissed and touched me all the time. It feels as if over the years, I have lost a part of me in Chile and found it back in Palestine.
Why do you call yourself an activist?
Maybe I am drawn to Palestine because I want to discover that part of my identity. But there is another and more important reason. The injustice in Palestine is brutal and exposed. While it is there for the whole World to see, it seems as if nobody wants to see it. So many people turn away from the situation with excuses like: “it is so complicated… if you are not personally involved you cannot understand… there are extremists on both sides…”. What made me an activist is how others react on my efforts for Palestine. My logic is that everything helps, so I do something. But then I realize that my helping out is a lot harder than it should be. That is what convinces me that we face something that is larger than the Palestinian issue. I am not sure that I can put my finger on it. In Spanish they say: “hay tramando algo”.
Palestine is not my country: I am not from Palestine. I could never live there. I am Chilean first. That sounds a bit sad but it is not. They raised me as a Spanish person: it defines how I live, feel and think. But I cannot ignore the injustice and choose to fight it as the Spanish person that I am.
By the way, traditions in Palestine can be oppressive as well. I come from a conservative family and see too many similarities. There is too much social pressure in Palestine. It seems as if the only innovation that is accepted is the one driven by business interests. But because of the occupation, there are so many other ideas that still have to find their way into Palestine.
Do you want to go back?
I want to be so active that I am not allowed to enter anymore. I have some good Jewish friends and from time to time, they advise me to be more careful. Some Palestinians in Chile are reluctant to be vocal because this may jeopardize their visits to their families in Palestine. But I think that there are things that you cannot be careful about.
What memories of Palestine do you carry?
There are many and they go deep. The early memories are actually from Chile. When my grandmother cooked lamb she always talked about how the tail was the best part, full of juicy fat. I always thought that the lambs in Palestine had big tails. Cooking traditional dishes together is part of these memories. Many Palestinians in Chile decorated their houses with Palestinian objects. I think about the intimidating setup of their living rooms, with the sofa’s in a circle so that you can drink tea and talk while looking at each other.
“WHEN I WAS IN PALESTINE, I WOULD SEE MY MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER IN EVERY PERSON. EVERYBODY SEEMED INTENSE, THEY LAUGHED LOUD AND KISSED AND TOUCHED ME ALL THE TIME. IT FEELS AS IF OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE LOST A PART OF ME IN CHILE AND FOUND IT BACK IN PALESTINE.”
The memories of my first trip contain images of my father. During that trip, he behaved so much as our protector. It felt good to have such a father on that trip. Tel Aviv came across as fake, a poor imitation of Miami. Bethlehem was such a small town, it felt like the kind of place where everybody would know everything of everybody.
Since my second trip, I think in terms of resistance and occupation. Akko and Haifi did look similar to other Palestinian cities on the West Bank. Bethlehem was both nice and touristy and sad. At night, it is totally dead. I remember entering a shisha place at 8PM and being stared at.
If people ask me about Palestine, I tell them about a beautiful place that is locked away. The more you get into it, the harder it will be to get out. You start discovering and then you realize it is beyond reason. You will end up with a huge amount of impressions in your head. You cannot see how it all fits but you have to do something. And then you are called an activist.