We had the opportunity to interview Eduardo “Mono” Carrasco, a famous Chilean muralist exiled in Italy since the military coup. He still lives in a small village in the province of Alessandria and, although held back by Covid, he is always travelling around Italy and abroad to create new murals, restore old ones and hold exhibitions. For years he worked with the group Inti Illimani, combining music with collective painting.
Throughout the interview, we alternate between those early years of the 1970s and the current situation of a country that has returned to the limelight after the victory in the presidential elections of the left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric. Speeches are mixed, emotions are reflected between the past and the present, aware that history does not repeat itself, but neither can it be erased. Among other things, Eduardo is one of the protagonists of Nanni Moretti’s film Santiago, Italy.
Where does the nickname “Monkey” come from?
It’s true, it’s not usually a compliment, but I’m proud of it. It happened in 1969: I was 15 years old, and during a demonstration against the Vietnam War in downtown Santiago, someone decided to raise a Vietnamese flag on top of a television antenna. I climbed up to hang it and that was the beginning of my nickname.
Did you study in a public or public school?
I always studied in state schools, but I’ll tell you one more thing: until the 1973 coup, Chilean state schools were excellent.
After the demonstrations by Chilean students in recent years, would you say that before Allende, public education was better than it is now?
Definitely. Chile is a very long country, full of remote places. Always, everywhere, you see a little house, a hut, with a Chilean flag. That’s a school. It all goes back to a president that Chile had since 1938, whose motto was to govern and educate. It was the military junta after the 73-coup d’état that systematically destroyed everything, embracing Milton Friedman’s free market theory.
There is one thing I don’t understand: looking at the images of the squares in Allende’s time and now, it seems that there was enormous and overwhelming support. However, in both cases, there are almost the same number of people voting for the right.
There has long been a great disaffection with voting in Chile; on several occasions only 50% of those eligible to vote have voted. But on some big occasions, such as when it was possible to elect the members of the new Constituent Assembly, 80% voted.
What family do you come from?
My father was a factory worker, a graphic chemist; I grew up surrounded by formulas and colours and perhaps my passion also came from there. It all started with that demonstration from Valparaíso to Santiago in 1969: with six other guys we followed the whole march with buckets and brushes, writing ‘No to the Vietnam War’ and ‘Yankee go home’ everywhere. I don’t consider myself an artist in the classical sense of the word, my works have always had a strong social characterisation. I also care about the participation of people, whether they are adults, young people or children, from conception to realisation.
Give me an example to understand how you share the moment of conception.
One of the next murals will be on panels in a high school in Casale Monferrato and will be about Dante. First of all, I want all the students to participate on a voluntary basis, without any obligation. I met with them and gave them some indications on how to make a mural, the “reading” that is done from left to right; then we “let loose” to look for images, symbols that we like or that interest us. When everyone has contributed their ideas, we try to put them together, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The procedure is similar with the children in the nursery school: the children make drawings following the instructions of the teachers I am in contact with. Then they all participate in the making of the mural, even if it’s just with a brushstroke. Finally, I always want there to be a final day when we look at it and fix it calmly.
Let’s go back. You ended up in Italy because in August 1974 you climbed the wall and took refuge in the Italian embassy in Santiago. Why did you choose it?
There was little to choose from. I had been sleeping here and there for some time, I had been in 12 or 13 different houses, in hiding. The military network was tightening, we were beginning to put our hosts in danger, and sometimes they were very normal families from all walks of life, not just militants. We had to leave and at that time the Italian embassy was the only one accepting refugees.
What happened to you when you escaped and arrived in a new country, did everyone experience it in their own way or were there common elements, anger, anguish, guilt or liberation, anxiety, despair?
There was a bit of everything you say, but I think the differences were mainly based on age; we young people were more reckless, my experience in Chile was very different from that of a man in his 40s, perhaps with a wife and children. For me, the first objective was to help in any way I could those who were left behind, and to do everything I could to bring down that dictatorship; I threw myself into it and continued for years….
After a short period in Rome, I moved to Bologna, where I was called to coordinate all the youth solidarity activities for Chile. I went everywhere – meetings, debates, murals – and I met a lot of people. At the beginning I had a hard time with Italian, I think I’m bad at languages; there was always a girl who did the translations, once she didn’t come and I had to make do somehow. However, there was a lot of solidarity. Once, in a small town, the morning after a meeting, an old woman on a bicycle, the kind dressed in black, told me that she had liked my speech the night before… Moscow radio had started a programme run by Chileans called “Escucha Chile”, which the Chileans secretly followed. A friend who was in prison in Arica, in northern Chile, heard a guard say, “You’re saved, your name appeared on the radio!” This is to say how important solidarity was.
For a 20-year-old today, it must be difficult to understand what communication with a country so far away was like back then.
There was simply no communication, or it was very complicated: you had to phone Rome and ask for a line; you couldn’t always get one, you could run out of line and then it was very expensive. Letters didn’t always arrive, they got lost or were lost. And in any case, you had to “say without saying”.
I’d like to discuss with you the subject of fear: how much fear was there in making a poster or an illegal mural, and how much fear was there in your murals, your writings…?
Fear is a legitimate feeling, the important thing is to overcome it, and this is achieved through the strength of ideals. Although we were young and, therefore, we didn’t show fear, there was fear. How scared were we? Very much so. During the election campaign in which Allende won and afterwards, the right wing unleashed a brutal campaign against us: according to them, these groups of muralists were delinquent, violent and armed. More than once we had to defend ourselves, even in court, against non-existent fabrications. Our “Ramona Parra” brigade, made up of young people who wrote or painted on walls, was very disturbing; during the Allende government, if something happened in Santiago at six o’clock at night, by seven o’clock there would be writings denouncing it on some wall in the city. We would get together and go out with paints and brushes, there were no mobile phones.
I remember that the military junta had a book of photographs printed in which there was a kind of parallelism between “yesterday’s Chile and today’s Chile”, on the left-hand page, THE BAD, on the right-hand page, THE GOOD. On one page (on the left, of course) I was painting something, on the right a class of well-to-do, neatly groomed students in shirts and ties.
Each group of muralists consisted of 12 or 15 young people, with a precise division of tasks: the first one started to draw the letters of the sentence, then some painted the background, others the letters, and then a couple of us went over with the black paint, correcting defects and embellishing the mural. We were very fast. Keep in mind that I was arrested about fifteen times, every time I spent one or two nights in the dungeon, then an adult had to come and pick me up. I was an only child and I was lucky to have my parents always by my side. They supported me and were proud of me; of course, I didn’t tell them everything (especially when there were confrontations with the fascists) and my mother knew less than my father. During the Allende government, we were no longer outlaws; it was forbidden to write on some walls, but we did it anyway.
During the dictatorship they covered all their murals and writings. Have you ever seen the work of one of these painters?
Did you know that Bertolt Brecht calls Hitler “the painter”?
I find that beautiful, with all due respect to the painters.
On the internet you can see a beautiful mural done in a small village in Campania, San Bartolomeo in Galdo, where the hunger march, later repressed, took place in 1957. You and Inti Illimani seem to have stepped off a spaceship, while people look at you with curiosity…
Yes, it was director Ugo Gregoretti’s idea to take us there, to Sannio. It was a bit strange at first, but in a short time we integrated with the population. A short time ago I went back to restore the mural. You can see an interview with Ugo Gregoretti and myself here.
A fist often appears in your murals.
Yes, it was a symbol of strength, of struggle, of victory. Today we wouldn’t do it again, but at that time it was very common. I remember that for a Unity Festival I drew one of those stickers they give you in exchange for a subscription: it was a fist with the colours of the Chilean flag, I don’t know how many thousands were printed.
In those years, you lived through a period of great acceleration in Chile. Do you think it’s a similar moment now?
In some respects, yes, but today’s Chile is very different and young people use different tools than we do. Certainly, the ideals have been maintained and taken up again since then.
Can it be said that human beings in times of very high tension, in extreme conditions (I’m thinking of wars and revolutions) give extraordinary responses?
On the one hand, yes, but the coup d’état in Chile gave rise to great experiences and people, as well as the worst of the worst. Let me give you an example: there was a boy I used to play football with until the coup d’état. Later I found out that he was in the military and he kept saying that if he met me he would kill me.
Have you ever thought about returning to live in Chile?
At first, yes, to the point that as soon as the referendum was held in 1988, I went back to Chile with a RAI team. It was a very difficult trip, I no longer recognised the country I had left. I got lost in a city I knew like the back of my hand. I felt like a foreigner. I couldn’t go back.
Does painting a wall convey a sense of freedom?
I think painting in general can convey that.
But there is also a transgressive component to painting a wall.
Of course, that’s why young people like it so much. There’s also the joy of being able to say: “I did it! I remember many years ago we painted a bus in La Spezia, which would later be sent to Chile. First we took the children on a tour of the city in the colourful bus. Many of them, especially the girls, were moved to tears. They told me they would never forget the experience.
When you came to Italy, did you ever fear that there would be a coup d’état here like in Chile?
No, I really didn’t. You don’t know what you have. You don’t know what you have, a Republic born of Resistance. In difficult times, the Italian people know how to react properly.
We said goodbye and promised to see each other in person and maybe do a mural in Milan. The day before the interview I had seen many YouTube videos about him. In some of them he is very young, wearing overalls, with long hair and wandering in front of a mural that is being finished. Seeing him again now, he seems to have changed little: he has the same liveliness, the same bright eyes, like an elf moving fast, careful not to spill the many pots of paint.