"When you've read my letters, please burn them," Victor Videla Godoy told his mother, Berta.
A victim of torture and political persecution, the Chilean prisoner addressed about 100 letters to her from cell number 147 of Villa Devoto Prison in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the hellhole where he spent almost nine months in 1976 and passed his 29th birthday. His jailers allowed him to see his mother, who traveled from Chile to Argentina, once for just 15 minutes. It was the last time they were ever to be together. She died in 1983.
Copies of those same letters, some of which Videla Godoy found 24 years later in a suitcase given to him by his sister, will be lining a re-creation of his prison cell in a powerful, grim art installation he assembled called “147 memoria.” It will be open to public viewing Monday, Oct. 25, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Design Media Arts Grad Gallery in the Broad Art Center.
Now an artist living in democratic Chile, Videla Godoy, who was imprisoned and tortured during the Pinochet dictatorship and later kidnapped by an Argentinean police force, will be giving a talk, in Spanish, at the exhibition opening on Monday.
He is one of three survivors of state torture and imprisonment who are telling their stories on campus this month. On Oct. 6, Argentine torture survivor and Truth Commission member Patricia Isasa gave a lecture sponsored by UCLA's International Human Rights Law Program and cosponsored by UCLA Center for Argentina, Chile and the Southern Cone (CACSC), which also sponsored Videla Godoy’s visit.
A 1974 photo of Victor Videla Godoy, taken two years before he was arrested.
Then on Oct. 17–18, Houshang Asadi, an Iranian journalist, writer and translator now based in Paris, spoke to campus audiences in Persian and English about his ordeal at the hands of the revolution he'd once supported. His talk was part of an ongoing bilingual lecture series organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Of the 105 political prisoners jailed in his section of Villa Devoto, Videla Godoy was one of only 12 who lived to tell what happened to them, he said.
Only after imprisonment could he speak truthfully. In his own letters from prison to his mother, Videla Godoy offered a pleasant fiction about his treatment under Argentina's dictatorship, which then was cooperating with the Pinochet regime and other governments in the persecution of leftists. Partly to evade censorship by the two governments, he spun fantasies that now remind him of Roberto Benigni's 1997 film, "Life is Beautiful," in which an Italian Jew shields his son from the realities of a Nazi concentration camp.
"I never told my mother that I was hungry, that I was cold, that they hit us, or that they punished us, but just the opposite," said Videla Godoy. "Since the prison was called Villa Devoto – villa, town – I told her there was a big field full of things, with animals. I told her stories that weren't true."
He kept corresponding with his mother after he was expelled to Zurich, Switzerland, and until her death in 1983. But it was not until 2000 that Videla Godoy, by then an artist living once more in Chile, received from his sister a familiar blue suitcase in which their late father had once locked private papers. Inside, organized by date and country, was the preserved mother-and-son correspondence, including letters from her that he never received. They were simply returned to her.
In his art installation, Godoy recreated the cell where he was held as a political prisoner under the Pinochet regime.
"You have to keep fighting," Videla Godoy urged. "Everyone fights however they can. This art that I make is also an art of denunciation."
To read more about the presentations by Asadi and Isasa, go here.