Episode 13: Refugiados

Stella Forner will never forget her first wedding anniversary. It was March of 1976 and she spent the day at the Mexican consulate in Montevideo, Uruguay, which was in the midst of a military dictatorship. She, her husband and their baby weren’t there for a romantic celebration but to ask for political asylum. They had no idea how long it would be until they again felt at home in their own country.

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Transcript

Martina: In February of 1976, life was tense for Stella Forner. She had just given birth to her first son, Guillermo.

Stella: Cuando Guillermo nació, el país estaba muy dividido. Eran tiempos violentos.

Martina: Especially in Uruguay, where it was increasingly difficult to disagree with the government, to support unions, or be a member of a dissident political party.

Stella: Yo era todas esas cosas.

Martina: But however difficult things were then, they were about to get much worse.

Stella: Un día, yo estaba en mi casa cuando alguien tocó la puerta. Era un amigo del partido comunista, del que yo era parte.

Martina: Yes, Stella was a militant of the communist party in Uruguay.

Stella: Dijo que debíamos escapar. Nos buscaban los militares.

Martina: They said they were coming to get her. She immediately started packing.

Stella: Guardé algunas cosas en un bolso. Mi esposo, mi bebé y yo salimos de nuestra casa en solo unos minutos y nunca regresamos. Entramos a la clandestinidad.

Martina: Entraron a la clandestinidad. They went into hiding.

Martina: Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m your host, Martina Castro, and each episode we bring you fascinating first-person stories from Spanish speakers across the world. The storytellers will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context, in English. But these are not language lessons, they're real life lessons through language.

Martina: Stella Forner was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1954. She grew up in a leftist household, where it was common to talk about politics, the Russian revolution and the plight of the working class.

Stella: En los años 60, en Uruguay había muchos conflictos políticos. Todo estaba cambiando, y a mí me comenzó a interesar la política. Eran tiempos violentos: muchos comunistas fueron torturados, algunos amigos fueron a prisión. No podía aceptar esa injusticia. Entonces, cuando tenía 14 años, decidí unirme al partido comunista.

Martina: As a member of the communist party, Stella went to rallies in support of union activists. The government had started to clamp down on political opposition and to cede control to the military.

Stella: Poco tiempo después, vi a dos compañeros del partido comunista morir, asesinados por los militares.

Martina: This changed the stakes for Stella… Prison and death: they were just around the corner, if she wasn’t careful. On June 27, 1973, the Uruguayan military dissolved the parliament and officially took hold of leadership in Uruguay. They immediately took measures to suppress political parties and activities, especially those from the left. The unions reacted by calling for a general strike and the occupation of factories and universities.

Stella: Me casé en marzo de 1975. Un año después, tuve a Guillermo, mi primer hijo. En ese momento, vivir en Uruguay siendo comunista no era fácil.

Martina: About a month after her son’s birth, Stella heard some disturbing news.

Stella: Alguien nos cantó y tuvimos que escapar.

Martina: Cantar -- the word literally means “to sing,” but at this time in Uruguay, to say that someone “te cantó” meant that they had snitched on you. It was a term commonly used to describe when political prisoners gave up the names of their colleagues, often after being tortured. That’s when Stella knew she had to leave her house and go into hiding. They became political refugees, or refugiados.

Stella: Los primeros meses viviendo como refugiados fueron muy difíciles. No podíamos ir a la casa de mis papás o familia, porque allí el gobierno nos podría encontrar.

Martina: So instead Stella, her husband, and her baby would stay in different places each night.

Stella: Yo bañaba a Guillermo donde podía. Las cosas de todos los días eran ahora un problema para nosotros. Pero teníamos esperanza.

Martina: They didn’t think the dictatorship would last that long, maybe a few months tops. So they continued hiding, changing homes every few days to make sure the military never caught up with them. Until one day, Stella turned on the TV and saw her husband’s face.

Stella: Todos los días, la televisión publicaba fotos y nombres de personas buscadas por los militares. Un día, mi esposo apareció en esa lista y también en el periódico.

Martina: He was listed among the fugitives the military was hunting down. It was too risky to continue living in hiding. They needed asylum. Stella had heard the Mexican ambassador was willing to take in political prisoners. So on March 19, 1976, on her first wedding anniversary, Stella and her family went to the Mexican consulate.

Stella: Fuimos al consulado de México en ómnibus. Mi papá vino con nosotros. Estaba tenso y triste, pero intentó actuar lo más natural posible.

Martina: When they entered the consulate, they had to justify their need for asylum. Stella showed them her husband’s name in the paper and they immediately let them in.

Stella: Esa noche, dormimos en el consulado. Al día siguiente, fuimos a la casa del embajador.

Martina: During that time, the embajador, or ambassador, and the consulate of Mexico gave refuge to hundreds of Uruguayan political activists. The Mexican president had opened up its embassies in Argentina and Chile as well.

Stella: El presidente de México en ese momento era Luis Echeverría Álvarez. Quería ser candidato para Secretario de las Naciones Unidas (UN).

Martina: He wanted to be el Secretario de Las Naciones Unidas, or the Secretary of the United Nations.

Stella: Por eso, él ayudaba a los refugiados.

Martina: In a short time, up to 120 people had arrived to live in the Mexican ambassador’s residence, along with Stella and her family. Stella remembers the house well.

Stella: La casa era muy grande, con dos pisos. Había una sala, una biblioteca, una cocina, muchos baños, y otras áreas grandes, como el sótano...

Martina: The basement...

Stella: Y un ático...

Martina: An attic...

Stella: En estos lugares dormíamos. Todo era enorme.

Martina: All of these rooms were gradually converted into dorm rooms.

Stella: La casa era muy grande y confortable, pero muy pequeña para 120 personas.

Martina: At first, there was a steady flow of airplanes out of Uruguay carrying the exiles who had managed to secure special visas to get asylum in Mexico. But then the Uruguayan government decided to stop issuing the visas.

Stella: Declararon que los refugiados eran delincuentes y que no debían obtener asilo político.

Martina: The Mexican ambassador, Vicente Muñiz Arroyo, played a key role here because he refused to kick the exiles out of the embassy. This began a waiting game for the exiles, one that was made more difficult given the disparity in their situations.

Stella: Había mujeres solas con sus hijos o embarazadas, sus esposos en prisión o desaparecidos.

Martina: “Desaparecidos” were people who had disappeared or gone missing. Nobody knew if they were alive or dead, but people believed they had been killed by the military. There are still close to 200 “desaparecidos” in Uruguay from that time.

Stella: En la casa había niños chiquitos y grandes, también bebés. Muchos hombres tenían a sus familias fuera de la residencia del embajador. Cada refugiado vivía experiencias muy diferentes.

Martina: At that moment the exiles started organizing committees, which they called “comisiones”. Each committee had a specific task, like cleaning the house, taking care of the small children, or resolving conflicts that came up in daily life.

Stella: Teníamos turnos para las comidas. Primero los bebés, después los niños, y finalmente los adultos. También había comisiones para organizar juegos y actividades para los niños. Yo aprendí a ser mamá en esa casa. Nunca pensé que la primera comida de mi hijo iba a ser en un lugar así, y sin la ayuda de mi familia, de mis hermanas, de mis amigos. Aprendí a ser mamá en un mundo extraño.

Martina: Stella remembers one of the doctor’s sons being rather jealous of Guillermo, her son, because he had both of his parents with him in the embassy. When Guillermo would sleep, the kid would wake him up by hitting him with a pillow.

Stella: Yo tenía que estar con Guillermo todo el tiempo, porque no quería conflictos con otros niños.

Martina: These kinds of issues were common with the children. If the kids weren’t in their room, they had to be in someone’s arms, which really exhausted the mothers.

Stella: Teníamos que limpiar la casa todos los días. Los niños corrían por toda la casa y las paredes quedaban negras. 120 personas, con niños de 6, 7 años, dentro de una casa por meses. Era imposible.

Martina: Stella held onto the hope that the dictatorship would dissolve soon and everyone could go back home. But on June 28, 1976, the situation for the exiles in the Mexican embassy took a turn for the worse.

Martina: On that day, Elena Quinteros, a local teacher, jumped over the wall of the embassy of Venezuela.

Stella: Ella gritó su nombre y pidió asilo político. Pero militares uruguayos entraron a la embajada y la tomaron a la fuerza.

Martina: That was the last time she was ever seen. The incident led to the breaking of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Uruguay.

Stella: El caso de Elena Quinteros marcó un antes y un después para todos los refugiados. Por primera vez sentimos que la embajada mexicana no era un lugar seguro, que no teníamos protección. Los militares podían entrar en cualquier momento.

Martina: The situation at the embassy only got more tense as the exiles retreated further from the public eye.

Stella: Los militares nos observaban las 24 horas del día. Todos estábamos nerviosos, teníamos miedo. Los niños estaban adentro, en la casa, todo el día. No salíamos al patio. No sentimos la luz del sol en nuestras caras por mucho tiempo.

Martina: Stella's son had gone so long without feeling the sun, that he was later diagnosed with rickets due to his low levels of vitamin D.

Stella: En la casa no teníamos asistencia médica. No teníamos medicina, ni kit de emergencia. No teníamos comida o necesidades básicas suficientes para tantas personas. Hacíamos comidas muy simples y Vicente, el embajador, comía con nosotros.

Martina: Through the whole process, Ambassador Vicente Muñiz Arroyo was very supportive of the refugees. Some days, he even gave up his own bed so it was available for those who didn’t have anywhere else to sleep.

Stella: Vicente era una persona excepcional. Él hizo mucho por nosotros en esos tiempos. Muchos refugiados llamaron a sus hijos “Vicente” en su honor.

Martina: In July of 1976, it had been four months since Stella and her family entered the Mexican ambassador’s home, when suddenly they got word that the Ambassador’s diplomatic work to secure their visas had been successful. Something Stella had never considered likely was happening -- they were leaving Uruguay.

Stella: Sentíamos muchas emociones. Estábamos felices por salir de la casa del embajador, pero estábamos tristes por dejar Uruguay.

Martina: And yet, before she and her family could feel safe, they would have to leave the walls of the ambassador’s residence, and make it onto that airplane.

Martina: Stella remembers the day they walked out of the ambassador’s house.

Stella: Fue terrible. Yo tenía mucho miedo. Era un día muy frío y llovía.

Martina: They cautiously got into a car, which was surrounded by the Uruguayan military. They were escorted to the airport by a motorcade of military vehicles, international human rights organizations, and members of the Mexican embassy.

Stella: Cuando llegamos al aeropuerto, yo estaba nerviosa. Había muchos soldados uruguayos con armas y no paraban de mirarnos.

Martina: Stella made it onto the plane with her family. The Mexican ambassador and his staff were close behind them. They didn’t leave Stella’s side until right before the door of the plane closed behind them. As the plane took off, Stella waved to her father who had accompanied them to the airport. She wondered to herself...

Stella: “¿Cuándo voy a regresar a Uruguay?” Estaba saliendo de mi país y no sabía si iba a regresar.

Martina: Even though she wasn’t sure if she’d ever return, she decided to look forward. Stella and her family ended up in Toluca, Mexico.

Stella: En México me sentía sola. Tuve dos hijos más, un niño, Martín y una niña, Lucía, lejos de mis papás, lejos de mis amigos y familia. Además, mi relación con mi esposo no iba bien.

Martina: She raised her kids with romantic stories about the marvelous Uruguay she had left behind, a country she still hoped she’d see soon. Months turned into years.

Stella: En 1985, finalmente, las cosas en Uruguay cambiaron. El gobierno nos permitió regresar.

Martina: In 1985 the dictatorship ended and democracy was restored in Uruguay. It had been nine years since Stella left.

Stella: Regresé a Uruguay el 9 de enero del año 1985. Probablemente el día más feliz de mi vida. ¡Fue mágico! Cuando llegué a Montevideo, no podía parar de sonreír.

Martina: Stella remembers being struck by the crowds of people at the airport waving Uruguayan flags. She remembers thinking, “Someone important must be coming today because look at all these people!” But they were there for her and for the hundreds of exiles returning to Uruguay since democracy had been restored. It was a historic event.

Stella: Los refugiados veníamos de México, pero también de Cuba, Venezuela, Francia y Suecia. Mi familia y mis amigos también estaban allí.

Martina: When she saw her father, Stella was surprised to see his head full of white hair. He seemed shorter. He had aged so much since she last saw him.

Stella: Cuando lo abracé, mi papá lloró – era la primera vez que lo veía llorar. Estaba feliz y triste al mismo tiempo. En ese momento entendí cuánto había sufrido todos esos años que estuvimos lejos.

Martina: Images of their last goodbyes rushed to Stella’s mind. At the time, she had no idea she was leaving not only her father, but also her country for the next decade.

Stella: Pero poder abrazar a mi padre, volver a casa y a un Uruguay libre y democrático… al final eso es lo que importa.

Martina: Stella Forner now lives in Uruguay and works as a copy editor at city hall in Montevideo. This story was produced by Florencia Flores Iborra, a Uruguayan podcast producer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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I’m Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from Arturobat, InspectorJ and Metzik under the CC Attribution License from freesound.org, and was produced by Adonde Media.

Script Editor: Teresa Bouza, Martina Castro
Sound Designer: Claire Mullen
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga