Joanne Lau talks to the 78-year-old political refugee who was imprisoned in both Argentina and Chile and continues to inspire through her work as a writer, poet and essayist.
Marta was granted asylum in the UK in 1976. She went on to earn a D. Phil. from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University and became a senior lecturer and researcher at Middlesex University. Though now retired, Marta is still an ardent social activist and cultural promoter.
You arrived to the UK as a political refugee in 1976. Can you tell me more about the events that led up to this?
I was born in Argentina in 1937. I’d studied to be an accountant, but when I finished, I decided I didn’t like the practice, so in 1963 I moved to Chile to do postgraduate studies in socio-economic development. During my time there, I became interested in the society of Chile and how different it was from Argentina, even though we’re right next door. The people were more politicised and it really opened my eyes.
After my degree, I worked for the UN in Chile on women’s issues. Chile was changing dramatically. It went from a very conservative government to a Christian democracy in 1964 and the left was forced to reorganise.
I joined a new left-wing political party. I stayed in Chile, got married, became a lecturer/professor of economics and had a child. I thought I was going to be there forever.
Then there was a coup in Chile in 1973. I lost my job, was put in prison, and then, eventually, expelled from Chile.
What happened then?
The Chilean regime wanted to have me killed, but Argentina asked for my life. I was released from the concentration camp in which I was being held and taken to Argentina across the Andes in an old bus, with my husband and baby daughter, and another 15 adults of various nationalities and 18 children.
I found it very hard to get a new job, but we lived there for three years. We were still recovering from the trauma of what had happened in Chile, when there was a coup in Argentina as well. It was horrendous – the worst dictatorship in Latin American history. They imprisoned my husband and I was interrogated repeatedly in the house of government over a period of months.
“I respect my neighbours and I love some of them, but I can’t talk to them about what I’ve been through and what I’m passionate about. I guess that’s the price of being a rebel in your home country – you are condemned to be exiled to a country where you are a novelty.”
Finally they expelled us from the country. We count ourselves lucky that all three of us – my husband, my daughter, and I – made it out, though we lost everything. We were given asylum in the UK.
What was it like being in exile?
The guilt I felt when I first came to the UK was unbearable. Thousands of people in Argentina just disappeared, but somehow we survived and made it to the UK. We had a lot of support here. We were given a place to live in the halls of residence at the University of Glasgow, where my husband was given work as a research fellow. My husband, my daughter and I, and later also my baby boy, all lived together in a one-bedroom flat. When my son was born I was 41 and I didn’t speak a word of English. It was terrible.
Eventually we had to leave the flat and so we relocated south. In 1978, with the help of Amnesty International, we found a small house to rent just outside London. I still live there to this day. It’s quite isolated to live in a semi-rural environment near a forest, but very idyllic. Some of my friends say it’s like I’ve managed to create an island for myself!
I am so grateful for the internet. The internet is very helpful in my work for human rights. I access different newspapers from various different countries each day, and I have two blogs, a Facebook account, and my webpage [links below]. I can communicate with people around the world, and I’ve even been able to re-establish contact with people in Argentina and Chile. I run two international networks – one for social scientists and one for female artists.
The networks are each composed of 60-70 people; each colleague has their own projects and some work in groups together with others. We do things like run interdisciplinary symposia and disseminate knowledge and ideas by publishing books, papers and journals. The communication aspect is important to me since I am so isolated from ‘real life’.
My house and my garden are beautiful, sweet and rose-tinted, but I don’t have much to do with the conservative culture of the place where I live. I mean, I respect my neighbours and I love some of them, but I can’t talk to them about what I’ve been through and what I’m passionate about – not about my work. I guess that’s the price of being a rebel in your home country – you are condemned to be exiled to a country where you are a novelty.
“Abortion is still not legal in Argentina and yet there are still about 500,000 abortions every year. Imagine the number of women who suffer and die.”
I think most people see me as an old lady around here and expect me to talk about rain and pains in my sides. I went to see the GP recently and he said I need to have more activities to avoid boredom: “You have a doctorate in economics. So you should work to become a millionaire.” And I answered: “I can’t because I have struggled my whole life for equality.” He didn’t know how to answer. But the nurse said: “You should write your memoirs”. And I answered: “I very much would like to do that, but who would read them in Spanish?”
Being a social activist, what are the main causes you support?
I have so many. It’s why I’m still alive – there are still so many issues I need to fight for! My first interest is for women to achieve better opportunities at work and politics and receive equal pay. I’m very concerned about women because they have historically been subordinated and discriminated against. When I was young I was impressed by the ideas of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir. That’s how I started to be a feminist. Later, I founded a group of feminist women in 1971 in Chile called the Revolutionary Women’s Front.
Now I work a lot to denounce human trafficking and the sexual abuse of women and children, especially in Argentina and Mexico. It sometimes seems there are more problems now with aggression against and murders of women, but it’s just that in the past it wasn’t talked about. And it’s not just that women are battered and children abused, but the judges don’t seem to do enough about it. Argentina has an interesting and beautiful culture, but just last week there was a case in court in which a man confessed that he raped a girl and because of his confession to the crime, the judge ruled that he should go free.
It’s a country where we now have same-sex marriage, divorce is legal, and we’re a little more open to diversity, a female President, but nevertheless, most of the people don’t seem to care about women. I mean, abortion is still not legal in Argentina and yet there are still about 500,000 abortions every year. Imagine the number of women who suffer and die. I remember one of the girls I sat next to at school suddenly disappeared one day. It turns out her father who was a doctor had helped someone terminate their pregnancy. He was jailed and banned from practising medicine. That was 69 years ago and yet nothing much has changed.
I don’t just work for women, though. They are my main concern because in a way it’s a fight for me, but I fight for men as well. Women must help men because they are much weaker in a way. They are a bit lost at the moment because some women have achieved so much in relative terms in the last 40 years.
“I volunteered with Amnesty International putting together the first list of people who had disappeared in Argentina. It was terrible to go over these thousands of cases at the time, but now because I did that, I know more about what really happened in my country.”
My other priority is to denounce what happened in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s because having survived the experience, it is my obligation. I saw women raped in the concentration camp. The main reason I have survived is I have been helped by a lot of people, including my friend Paulo Freire. We could easily have been killed when we arrived back in Argentina from Chile in 1973, but we weren’t because of the public outcry and solidarity the world over.
When I came to the UK I asked myself, “Why do people persecute me in this fashion? Just for being honest and trying to help the poor and vulnerable and to improve society? Why did this happen to me?” So I started my doctorate in order to understand the logic of my own life and of the women of my country. But I also needed to do something to help the people who were still suffering in Chile and Argentina.
I volunteered with Amnesty International putting together the first list of people who had disappeared in Argentina. It was terrible to go over these thousands of cases at the time, but now because I did that, I know more about what really happened in my country. You need to talk about what happened because we are still living with the consequences. The coup and regime that followed ruined the culture, the politics, and the psyche of the population. It takes several generations to recover.
I would like to be a young woman in any century – it just depends how much money you have and what opportunities you have!
Life for women now is much more enjoyable. You don’t have to strive as much for things like going to university, for example. When I went to university, I was surrounded by men and some of them were supportive, but in the wider community and within my family you could feel the hostility towards the few women who went to university. There was hostility from other women as well as from men. When I was 17 my mother cried because I wasn’t yet married and didn’t have any children. But I think women are still discriminated against in this country, also in the universities, of course.
Also, the sexual repression was horrendous back in my day. That being said, I have done lots of interviews over the years and it’s funny because young women ask me things like how I became a feminist or being a feminist in Chile, but no one ever asks me about sex or my relationships with men. Perhaps young women think that the things they are doing now are very extraordinary, but our struggle has been going on for centuries! It’s always been going on.
What advice would you give to young women now?
To be yourself. To do your very best and not care what people think about you. Especially don’t care what other women judge you for! We think about other women’s opinions a lot. We are perhaps more interested in women’s opinions than men’s nowadays. It is better to be independent and just be who you are because at the end of the day if you lose everything the only thing you really have is yourself.
Look after and love yourself. Don’t put yourself through all those surgery procedures and pretending to be eternally young! The only thing you’re left with at the end of your life is your spirit and your principles. If you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else. It’s difficult and it’s a process of learning and changing, but you can do it. It’s possible. When you are in control of your life and you don’t follow other people’s rules it is very pleasant.
Do check out Marta’s blogs, Facebook account, and website to hear more of what she has to say:1917 Views
Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.