Youth, Memory & Modernity in Chile


A review of The Dismembered Family: Youth, Memory, and Modernity in Rural Southern Chile, by Rita Isabel Henderson.

11 September 2013 marked the fortieth anniversary of the Chilean military coup that overthrew the presidency of Salvador Allende and ushered in seventeen years of military rule under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet. The end of the dictatorship in 1990 was reached through a political compromise that left many Pinochet-era laws and institutions intact. Over the last thirteen years, vociferous protests of students, indigenous groups, and farmers, among others, have continually decried these legacies. Little consensus exists with regards to a national neoliberal agenda and consumer culture perceived by many to have been achieved at the expense of a vibrant civil society and political participation.

In “The Dismembered Family: Youth, Memory, and Modernity in Rural Southern Chile,” Rita Isabel Henderson provides a timely ethnography of the status of memory in Chilean social relations. She skillfully excavates the neoliberal state’s historical re-education project that has, by promoting economic progress and deemphasizing past wounds, fundamentally transformed the landscape of Chilean civil society. Her multi-year study seeks to provide crucial nuance to what political scientists have dubbed Chile’s “lost generation,” a buzzword used to describe an electorally disinclined demographic group that came of age after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Henderson is particularly concerned with the post-dictatorship shift from political consciousness to a consumer “market logic,” which has helped politicians and entrepreneurs write off many persisting anti-democratic traditions as tools for economic growth (p. 13). She examines the expansion of southern Chile’s natural resource extraction and tourism industries in order to demonstrate that – counter to this logic – “free markets” in Chile have not created “free people” (p. 33).

Henderson’s larger project seeks to expose the hidden wires and trap doors that, adapting Fernando Coronil’s analysis of the Venezuelan petrostate, have promoted the allure of Chile’s neoliberal magic act. She reminds readers frequently of this illusion, beginning each of her chapters with an excerpt from the Chilean anthropologist and historian José Bengoa’s 2006 reflections on the nature of Chilean identity and memory. Bengoa’s argument that the 1973 coup was less of a societal rupture than a move to restore the hacienda culture characterized by serf/feudal relations figures centrally in Henderson’s analysis. She extends his insights about the return of nineteenth-century understandings of economic disparities, specifically the increasing preference for charitable acts over wealth redistribution projects, to her communities of interest. What results is a remarkable story of the privatization of Chilean life in which the state conspires with corporate interests in the areas of education, health, and the environment to wrest decision making from the hands of the public.

Where other scholars have taken Chile’s capital and other major urban areas as metonyms for the nation, Henderson restricts her study to three peripheral towns (San José de la Mariquina, Liquiñe, and Neltume) in the recently created Los Ríos administrative region. By decentering Santiago, she directly engages with a rural southern culture struggling with the ecological, social, and legal consequences of the neoliberal political economy.

Henderson employs a variety of methodologies, including participant observation as a municipal school instructor, to paint a vivid portrait of the processes through which political consciousness and social memory, or lack thereof, are transmitted generationally. She expertly navigates through several fields of inquiry, notably cultural studies, anthropology, history, and the ever-growing cross-disciplinary terrain of memory studies. Excerpts from Henderson’s field notes and informant interviews give depth to her social analysis. This raw data also reveals Henderson as a scholar deeply committed to the communities she has joined yet cognizant of the dilemmas posed by her foreignness. Her work thus makes incisive observations not only about Chilean society, but also about the discipline of anthropology at large.

The dissertation is structured around seven core chapters, an introduction and conclusion, and also includes a series of appendices. Henderson’s first chapter provides an overview of her intellectual influences, methods, and field site and informant selection processes. Here, she divulges her community connections through marriage and discusses the challenges and rewards of Clifford Geertz’s “deep hanging out” strategy (p. 65). This chapter also reveals Henderson’s clear command of anthropological debates unique to Chile, as well as those recurring more broadly across the field of Latin American anthropology.

Chapter 2 presents a critical interpretation of the field of memory studies and its trajectory through several disciplines. Henderson situates herself within a genealogy of scholarly understandings of memory, highlighting the contributions of French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs on collective memory, as well as the pioneering work of Elizabeth Jelin and Carlos Iván Degregori on political repression and memory in Latin America. Henderson also questions the underrepresentation in these studies of how non-Western worldviews conceptualize memory, which she argues is both a process and “form of cultural labor” (p. 114).

In her third chapter, Henderson introduces readers to the culture and history of southern Chile, where the hacienda system has remained a critical tool for state control. She explores how the center has laid claim to the south as progenitor of Chilean culture while simultaneously reinforcing its dependence through political, ethnic, and economic subordination.

Henderson displays her ethnographic skills in Chapter 4, which focuses on the political subjectivity of individuals who express ambivalence about the expansion of industrial projects in their communities. Her discussion examines the phenomenon of political withdrawal by exploring “the extent to which rural southerners relate current industrial incursions that affect their homes and livelihoods to macro historical processes already described, such as colonialism, fascism, and neoliberalism” (p. 161). Henderson devotes a particularly vivid section of this chapter to her adolescent brother-in-law’s battle with colon cancer. Henderson describes the larger structural issues, like high unemployment, that have allowed several sources of industrial pollution, like those to which her brother-in-law was exposed, to go unchecked.

Chapter 5 discusses the expansion of private education in the context of 2011 student and youth protests. Relating her experiences as an employee of a school funded by a charitable foundation, Henderson analyzes the corporate sponsorship of education for the lower classes that deemphasizes state responsibility for education and discourages critical interpretations of military rule. Henderson argues that private entities are recontouring the political landscape by promoting a curriculum that normalizes tenets of neoliberal thought like privatization, deregulation, liberalization, and decentralization. This chapter also returns to Bengoa’s interpretation of charity as a tool for oppression, which Henderson neatly discusses vis-à-vis Marcel Mauss’s theories on gifting.

Chapter 6 narrates Henderson’s experiences with a land occupation convened to protest the usurpation of indigenous lands. By focusing on a female Mapuche shaman whose lands were illegally sold by a relative, Henderson explores the generational divides that appear among the Mapuche, as well as their relationships with non-indigenous supporters, the state, and land developers. Henderson examines how the massive internal migration of the Mapuche to urban areas has shaped the political attitudes of younger indigenous activists.

Henderson’s last chapter discusses how memories transmitted in both the private and public domains impact middle-class intellectual sensibilities.  Henderson relates a young man’s questioning of his parents’ failure to discuss the 1973 coup, which he learned about as an adult. Her interview excerpts reveal how older generations’ conflicting views of the pre-Allende and dictatorship periods have been complicated by memories of poverty, sympathies for the plight of young soldiers, and the belief that rehashing “political themes” will derail Chile’s progress (p. 319). Of note in this chapter is Henderson’s appraisal of historian Steve Stern’s extensive study of Chilean memory, trilogy, which she criticizes for privileging urban autobiographical memories over rural, collective, and youth perceptions.

Henderson utilizes her conclusion to discuss the political stakes of practicing anthropology as a foreigner in Chile, especially in indigenous communities. She contextualizes her own struggles within a larger debate about access to knowledge involving members of the Chilean academy, other non-Chilean anthropologists, and Mapuche representatives. She concludes her dissertation with a reminder that contests for memory and citizenship rights in Chile, especially in its southern periphery, are far from quieting. Chile’s upcoming presidential election between former president Michele Bachelet, a torture survivor whose father died after months of detention, and conservative economist Evelyn Matthei, whose father served on the military junta, will undoubtedly place many of the issues Henderson has explored at the forefront.

Taylor Jardno
Department of History
Yale University

Primary Sources

Ethnographic research in San José de la Mariquina, Liquiñe, and Neltume, Chile.

Dissertation Information 

Université de Montréal. 2013. 444 pp. Primary Advisor: Jorge Pantaleon.



Image: Historical-cultural mural in Panguipulli waterfront, southern
Chile. Painting by artist Victor Igor. Installed 2009.

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