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Victor Toro: Chilean Revolutionary
Victor Toros thumping abrazo is more than just the ritualistic pounding of flesh on flesh. The act resonates symbolically over Villa Grimaldi, the Air Force Academy, places thousands of miles to the south of the South Bronx, where Toro was among General Pinochets most prominent torture victims.
Now 60, with long straight silver hair that vanishes inside his black beret when the weather turns cold, the Chilean émigré receives visitors in his tiny office dominated by his computer, the prized possession of his old age. His office, with its piles of paper, cans of paint, its quote by Chief Seattle (The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.), and its photo of Che, is hidden away inside the ramshackle vastness of La Pena Del Bronx.
Toro founded La Pena 15 years ago as a center for undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America, who work for minimum and sub-minimum wages (living often 12 to 14 in an apartment) in the factories and restaurants of the South Bronx.
Its not like in Chile. The workers who come here are usually not politicized. At meetings, we talk about whats happening in Chile and the rest of Latin America; whats happening in the world.
They talk to each other about their problems: How can I pay the rent? How can I send money home when I earn so little? In womens groups, the talk is often about rape, beatings.
At the age of nine, Toro began working as a miner, a transporter of minerals in Mineral de Tofu, the mine in which his father worked in the north of Chile. It was a small iron and copper mine. He used to go to the miners meetings led by Communists and Socialists.
When he was older, he organized workers in the fish industry in the north, then Mapuche Indians in Arauco in the south, around land claims. This he continued doing, even after Allende came to power in 1970.
The Mapuche are the only Indians in Latin America who never surrendered to the Spaniards. They resisted the Spaniards for 300 years.
In the mid-1960s, Toro, along with Miguel Henriquez and Luciano Cruz, founded Chiles pro-Castro MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left). Toro went underground when Pinochet took power on September 11, 1973. He was seized a year later by an Air Force contingent in a safe house in the working class district of San Miguel in Santiago.
An informer betrayed me, says Toro, who asserts he was lucky to have been seized by the Air Force and not the Army or DINA, Pinochets secret police.
They definitely would have killed me as I was on the Most Wanted List. But the Air Force, though they tortured you, believed in destroying the organization not the person. So I managed to stay alive.
Would he consider returning to post-Pinochet Chile? He couldnt, he says. Too many enemies. Hed surely be killed.
In his corner of the Bronx, there is no resistance, no labor movement, no link between the undocumented workers uptown and the unions downtown.
We have contacted UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) and asked them for their support. They say, We support you. But they do nothing. There is sympathy, but no action. The undocumented workers are left to fend for themselves. They are isolated, completely at their bosses mercy. Have there been strikes?
Toro points in the direction of the Pride Furniture factory up the block by the railroad tracks. Once there was a strike at the factory by regular and undocumented workers for higher pay and benefits. The company fired everyone.
For Toro its a little like plummeting from post-graduate level organizing back to kindergarten. But no unions remained in the Chile he left in 1978. (He was exiled to Sweden.) Starting over with nothing is something he knows a lot about.
He spent the early years of his exile traveling around Europe and the U.S., speaking out against the Pinochet dictatorship. In the course of his travels, he stumbled on the South Bronx. I liked it immediately. It was Puerto Rican, black, Mexican (most of the Central Americans came later). In the summer, people were out in the street playing dominoes, playing drums, drinking beer, dancing. There was all that life-giving energy.
More and more of late, workers are taking to selling flowers or peddling fruit on the street corners. They say they make more money that way than by working in factories or restaurants.
Toro shakes his head. Hes seen people die in the streets because they couldnt afford to go to doctors. He can think of only one local hospital, Bronx Lebanon, that runs programs free of charge for the uninsured poor suffering with AIDS or cancer. The struggle here is for survival, plain and simple.
Mainly through the Internet, Toro stays aware of the changes in the Chilean labor movement. Pulverized by Pinochet, the Communists and Socialists have failed to re-establish their monopoly over the labor movement.
Not such a bad thing, really, Toro concedes. The labor movement is now less bureaucratic, less controlled than it was in my day. Not nearly as strong, of course, but thats to be expected. A socialist [Ricardo Lagos] may be in power, but the right still calls the shots.
After all these years, he still speaks of Chile as if it were right there on his desk, the extension of his arm.There is a fine new spirit of independence that the young workers have. They think for themselves. They are not ideological like we were, but they are against globalization, against the multinationals. Toro puts his faith in the anti-globalization movement. The world has changed and he with it.
Will things ever change for the undocumented workers of the South Bronx?
It wont be easy. As illegals, they have no rights. And having no rights, they have no power. But if they can organize and get the support of other workers and if it can be proven that there has been a violation of their rights as workers, then finally we can get somewhere.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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