Although in theory all days are equal, in truth some matter more than others.
Some dates, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, evoke images of joy and tradition and connection. (Many non-Christians have a different take of the former, while many Native American have a dim view of the latter.)
But others days are noteworthy for the memories they stir of pain, suffering and destruction.
In our country, December 7, a day that then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy,” is one of those occasions.
So, too, is September 11, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Here in Chile, September 11 is also a day of major national significance.
University of Diego Portales Department Chair Carlos Aldunate made the point during a dinner one of our first weekends in Santiago that Chile has seen similar tensions before in its history.
But the memory that resonates loudest in Chile are the echoes from that fateful day.
The anniversary is a moment of significance every year, and this one promises to be particularly important.
The first and most basic reason for this is that a week from Wednesday will mark 40 years since the Pinochet coup.
There’s something about the passage of a full decade, or decades, that prompts intense revisitation and analysis of key events. (I’m not in the United States at the moment, and can only imagine the frenzy that will build in November around the 50th anniversary of the assassination of 35th President John F. Kennedy.)
The second reason is that November marks the presidential election.
These two highly accomplished women have similar military pasts, but very different political visions for the nation.
In 2006, Bachelet became the nation’s first female president. A divorced mother of three children, she served as Defense Minister at the same time as Donald Rumsfeld held that position in the United States.
She is also the daughter of a former Chilean Air Force General.
So, too, is Matthei.
In many ways, the two women share important similarities besides their fathers’ military backgrounds.
The families were close, and the two women were friends as children.
Both grew up in privileged homes, attended elite schools, learned to speak multiple foreign languages and took advanced training in a discipline that requires many years to master. (Bachelet is a certified pediatrician, while Matthei is a classically trained pianist.)
It was during the Pinochet era, though, ushered in by the 1973 coup, that the similarities ended.
Whereas Matthei’s father was part of the junta, Bachelet’s father remained loyal to the constitution and to Allende. Because of that, he was tortured daily at the facility headed by the elder Matthei, even though he personally was not there at the time Bachelet’s torture occurred.
Bachelet and her mother both were tortured as well in the infamous Villa Grimaldi compound where legions of others also were tortured, murdered and disappeared.
Even though she did not break, Bachelet has said that she still grapples with the emotional scars from that experience.
Bachelet has at different points shown compassion for the torturers, saying they carry bags of guilt with them.
When she was elected president, in a gesture of reconciliation, she hugged the elder Matthei and called him “Uncle Fernando.”
Yet, in some ways, the most basic reason that the coup’s anniversary is such a cultural lightning rod is the basic fact that Chile remains a profoundly divided nation, and memory is at the heart of the divide.
I’ll write more about this aspect in the upcoming days.
Tonight, I wanted to signal the deluge of news coverage, television shows, books, conferences, and museum exhibits that have already been published, or will be so during the upcoming week and a half.
Sifting through this flood of material will be my focus during the next 10 days.
This includes a week from Wednesday, when the date that bonds American and Chileans alike in suffering again occurs for the twelfth and fortieth times since the mornings when history in each country was permanently and irrevocably changed.