‘More and more people were being detained or disappearing’

Isabel Cortes and her family arrived in Northampton in the 1970s after fleeing Pinochet’s Chile 

By Natalie Bloomer

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On September 11 1973, General Pinochet staged a military coup against the socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende.

That day Isabel Cortes’ mother rushed to the local factory to be with her workmates. The factory had a strong union presence and she knew it could be targeted. When she arrived, the workers were lying on the floor surrounded by the military holding guns to their heads. 

Isabel’s mum, Juani, was heavily pregnant at the time. She managed to persuade the army to let the trade union representative at the factory leave by saying he was her husband and she was experiencing labour pains.

“By pretending that he was her husband, she managed to save his life, not many people know this” Isabel, 49, says. “As time went on, communities were torn apart and more and more people were disappearing or being detained.”

Both of Isabel’s parents were socialists and active trade unionists at a time when it was increasingly dangerous to be so. Political activists, students, artists and academics were all targeted.

Despite going into hiding, her father was turned in by neighbours and was arrested and tortured. He knew he would have to flee the country to survive and he later managed to cross the border into Argentina. He wasn’t alone. During Pinochet’s 17 year reign of terror, it’s estimated that at least 200,000 people were forced to leave the country with 3,000 more executed or ‘made to disappear’.

“That was a really hard time, my mum was alone with young children and we didn’t hear from him for a long time. We finally managed to track him down through his political party and we later joined him in Argentina.”

Isabel’s parents’ marriage didn’t survive the trauma they had experienced and they soon separated and Juani remarried. The family were in Argentina for around a year but when the country also entered a period of instability, they claimed political asylum in the UK.

Isabel was aged just five when she arrived here in 1977. Staying in a refugee hostel in London, she remembers there being lots of other Chilean children in the area.

“The Chilean community had organised itself very quickly in London. I think there was a big effort to protect the children from what had happened to them so I have memories of all us kids playing together and falling asleep under tables at political meetings.”

After a few months the family were offered a council flat in Northampton.

“The flat was on East Park Parade and I can still remember arriving there. There was a note on the mantelpiece saying ‘Welcome to Northampton’,” Isabel says. 

“We were really welcomed by the local trade union movement and Labour party. They helped us get furniture and rallied round to help us in whatever way we needed.”

The well-known Northampton couple John and Marie Dickie became like a surrogate aunt and uncle to them, Isabel says. She can remember going on holidays with local trade unionists and says the family felt cushioned from some for the difficulties of being refugees because they were made to feel like they had family in Northampton. 

“These people were lifesavers to us, we had a family away from home and that kept us all grounded and made us feel welcomed.”

But it wasn’t all easy, Isabel and her siblings were the only Chilean children at the schools they attended in the town and she says there were some incidents of racism over the years. She also recalls often seeing National Front graffiti around Northampton while she was growing up. 

Isabel says that although there were no other Chilean children that she knew of in Northampton, there were about three other families from the country. 

“I used to do a lot of translating for them,” she says. “I must have been the youngest translator in the town!”

Juani, now 76 still lives in Northampton but Isabel left to go to university in London when she was 18. 

Today she is an organiser and the women’s officer at the United Voices of the World union (UVW). The organisation has run various high profile campaigns to support often low paid or outsourced workers. Restaurant workers at Harrods, cleaners at the Ministry of Justice and security guards at St George’s, University of London are just some of the people who have been supported in employment disputes by the union.

“UVW was born in the Latin American community in London but we now have more than 40 nationalities in our membership. This is a direct action, grassroots union,” Isabel says.

Following an uprising against inequality in Chile in 2019, Isabel, together with other second-generation refugees, founded the Chile Solidarity Network. The organisation aims to spread awareness about human rights atrocities in the country and works with grassroots campaigners, trade unionists, social movements, human rights campaigners, and solidarity groups in both the UK and Chile.

“International solidarity like what we experienced in Northampton and in so many towns and cities in the UK is what saved my family and many others. It’s the reason I’m here now doing what I’m doing. The trade union movement is in my blood, and it’s extremely important to me to continue that work.”