Interview with “Madres de la Constitucion” Organizer

Hola todxs.

I hope everyone’s been enjoying their summer vacation and taking time to rest before the school year starts all over again. I’m currently wrapping up my semester here in Chile which has been a very bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, I’m ready to return to my family and friends, but on the other hand, I’m very sad to leave the community, composed of host family members, program coordinators, exchange students and Chilean friends, I’ve formed here. While it’s amazing how fast time has flown, I do feel like I’ve truly spent each day here to my fullest potential so I’m very happy and satisfied with my experience.

Before my final post and before leaving Santiago, I wanted to take the moment to spotlight a Chilean political organizer, Erica Gonzales, whom I’ve had the great fortune of meeting. Erica and I met while volunteering for the group, “Las Madres de la Constitución” (the Mothers of the Constitution), that I attend every Thursday. Erica is one of the main organizers of this group, which is mostly composed of older, retired Chilean women. Every Thursday morning, I would commute to the Plaza de la Constitución in Santiago Centro where I would dedicate 2.5 hours distributing pamphlets of information related to the Constitutional Convention and the New Constitution to the public. I, and the rest of the chiquillas, would spend 11 am onward catching up with each other, sharing Cafecito and sandwiches all while discussing and informing the general Chilean public of the project of the New Constitution. Volunteering with these incredible, sweet, and dedicated group of women and volunteers were the highlight of my week; I would eagerly wait for Thursdays to arrive just to see them. Amazed by the work that they have done this past year, I decided to interview Erica so that I could capture the important role that these women have had to build a better society for Chile.

I am beyond grateful for Erica and the rest of “Las Madres de la Constitución” for welcoming me into their group and into their lives. These women have taught me so much about the new Constitution, politics and contemporary issues facing Chileans. They have also taught me the beauty of finding and celebrating community despite being in a foreign country. I’m proud to consider them as part of the family I’ve formed in Chile.

Erica holding a copy of the New Constitution, which she received at the Closing Ceremony of the Constitutional Convention on July 4th.

You can start off by introducing yourself. So, tell us your name, commune, occupation, family, political activities, etc.

I am Erica del Carmen Gonzalez Norambuena and I am a housewife. I am retired. I have three children and five grandchildren, and I only dedicate myself now to being a housewife. I was a nurse, but I finished that period of my life already and now have dedicated myself to housework. But lately, this has been a very workaholic time for me because I’ve dedicated myself to defending the new Constitution.

How did the formation of this group “Las Madres de la Constitución” originate?

One day X, I communicated with a friend of mine. It was late at night, at about 01:00 a.m., and we started to talk about what was happening in Congress, about the project of the new Constitution. We were talking with my friend about how the new Constitution was being very much attacked by the right wing and that really worried us. We thought and said, “Well, we elected it, we approved it, and we defend it”. So, we went out to the streets on Thursday, outside the Congress where the Constitution was being drafted. We stood there with two pieces of paper written by us and we stood there for a year (from 2021-2022) in fact. We were alone for about a month and very few people passed by. Later, more people joined us and accompanied us. It was very nice because the constituents started to help us hand out the flyers…The constituents were happy with our support. We were the only ones doing this type of work.

Erica standing next to former president of the Constitutional Convention, María Elisa Loncon

Mrs. Elisa Loncon (former president of the Constitutional Convention during July 2021-Jan 2022), one day she came outside, greeted us, and thanked us for what we were doing and said, “I am going to call you the mothers of the Constitution” and that is how we have remained for the media, for everybody. We are the mothers of the Constitution, the ones who supported the whole year that the [constituents] had [to draft the new Constitution]. That is my experience, and it was wonderful the affection of the people. We even made a book where people put all their testimonies, what they thought about what was being done in Chile, which was, is, something wonderful that is marked in our history, but as something unthinkable because we did not think of having a constitution made by the people. And that is the beautiful thing, that is what is wonderful, wonderful for me, for my family, for my friends and for all Chileans.

The two of us met through the volunteer group “Las Madres de la Constitución” (The Mothers of the Constitution). What do you do on Tuesdays and Thursdays?

We discussed that we would organize every Thursday. Every Thursday we were going to stand in front and deliver information, tell people what it was about, because people were very uninformed. It turned out that later, seeing that we were well received, we went to subways stations to deliver information. Then we went to Paseo Ahumada (a popular, busy pedestrian street located in Santiago Centro) also to give information about the Constitution. We bought T-shirts, we bought badges and we started to work intensely…. We always stood at the front of the Plaza de la Constitución. Always outside the Congress. And we even went to the schools. I went to two schools where we had a tremendous reception. We worked with high school juniors and seniors.

Erica and I, joined by other volunteers in front of the stand, located in front of the Plaza de la Constitución

I know that the role you have is shared with many, but can you describe more what your specific role is as an organizer in this group?

Well, my role is to integrate everyone, but I don’t feel superior to them. I feel that we are equals. If we are going to work, we all must work as equals. If I tend to, from time to time, coordinate more events it’s because people (from the press/media or Constitutional Convention) know me better, and because sometimes I have gone alone. So, they know me better and they come to me because of that, but I think the members and I are all the same and, in the end, we are few, but we did something beautiful.

Who are the members of this group and how did you get to know them? How long have they been doing the work they do?

Well, with my friend and I we were, I think it was more than a month that we were both alone, standing in front of Congress. We were both part of Michelle Bachelet’s political/campaign group when she was the president of Chile. We called ourselves, “Michelle we are with you”. There were many [people from all over Chile]at that time; there were many people from Arica. Through Facebook we all communicated, became friends, and celebrated the former president’s birthdays. And we called those people who [remained in the group] after the president left, because many had all gone to different places. [With those who remained], we gathered for once (Chilean type of dinner, akin to teatime) and with that small group that came, we told them what we were doing, and they thought it was very good so they said they would help us. And that’s how they started to support us, to help us from time to time, of course not everyone, because we are all old. I am 76 years old, so in reality it is hard, but with desire it can be done.

Of course, and I was also going to ask, how far is your house from la Plaza de la Constitución/Congress?

Oof, I must take two forms of transit. I take a bus to the subway and [commute all the way to la Plaza]. So, it is about an hour and fifteen minutes away from my house to Congress.

Snapshot of the rest of the team and I eating breakfast that Erica and another volunteer had brought.

So, on Thursdays, what time did you get up to get everything ready?

I get up at 7:00 a.m., have breakfast, sometimes I do sometimes I don’t, and I leave around 9:00 a.m. and arrive at 10:00 a.m., sometimes at 11:00 a.m. From there we don’t stop working until 4:00 p.m., 4:30 in the afternoon. By then we are already exhausted. Winter and summer. I mean, summer was terrible for us.

How come?

Because it was so hot. We had no seats to sit on, we had nothing. It was really like that, very simple. We bought everything we could buy with our own money. We never asked anyone for money to support us. Once a constituent came and gave us a sunshade and [a stool] that were lost over time.

What is the purpose behind the political work that you and the other women do? What does the work mean to you? Or, in other words, why do you go out to the streets every Tuesday and Thursday?

The purpose is to have a new Constitution. We want to end with what the dictator left us, which was horrible, very terrible for many Chileans….The people with more resources, too many resources, they are interested in keeping this Constitution we currently have. But we want a new Constitution. Everybody wants that. Well, half of the Chileans, not all of them, because [the right wing is] now with a horrible campaign, which is terrible for us to hear after that man (Pinochet) stole, killed, did the greatest barbarities here in Chile…This [old] Constitution is being supported by the right wing and the right wing is evil, wicked… They have treated us (people from her similar social background) the worst, the worst. We are the lowly, poor, uneducated and ignorant ones for them. We are not welcomed. For them we are the backwards ones from the population. Where they see us, they (rich, right-wing people) act in a very classist, derogatory way against us.

I want the best for my family. For my friends. For my family. For my grandchildren. I’m not going to see [the New Constitution in action]. I am sure of that. But I am working for [all of my loved ones], for them to be better people, to have free education. It doesn’t matter if it

is not free, but that it is of quality, because we poor people don’t have quality education and we get into so much debt. I am still paying a debt for my daughter, and it has cost me a lot to educate her. Health is also fundamental.  I have to get surgery but have not had it, have not wanted to, no, I have not been able to have it because it is too expensive for me, that is, to go to the hospital. I have to wait a year, two years, to be able to have my knee operation. And yet [things would be different] if I had 7.000.000 CLP (around $7,620), which is too much for me because I am not a person of means. I live off a miserable pension that does not give me enough for 7 million CLP. So that’s why I want the new Constitution because that’s where [the promise for better] health and education lie. And I don’t want [the government] to continue with corruption either, because that has already got us up to our necks. It is already too much to repeat.

What challenges have you faced this past year while handing out flyers?

Oof, it’s been terrible, it’s been terrible.

Why don’t you share the bad parts first, and then tell us the good parts.

They have insulted us, those from the rejection side (referring to those planning to reject the New Constitution) because they are paid by the right wing, and they insulted us. One lady wanted to hit me because she asked me “what was I doing there?” and speaking without foundation. They talk stupid things that are not even worth repeating, and people who suddenly talk to us ask if our work is to defend the president. It is not to defend anyone; it is only for Chile. For Chile I am doing this, not for the president, not for anybody. It is for Chile. To have a fairer Chile and that we may have some privilege at some time because we have not had it for a long time. After the dictatorship, came the Concertación (Coalition of Parties for Democracy) and they told us that they were going to change everything, that life was going to change for us. The changes they made were for their own good, to fill their pockets, but not for us. We remain in the same conditions.

Photo of Erica next to president of the Constitutional Convention from Jan 2022-June 2022 cycle, María Elisa Quinteros.

What have been the best parts of volunteering?

And the good thing about all this is that there have also been very good people: people who supported us and congratulated us with much affection. I have received gifts from other places and some that the constituents have brought me… [There have been a lot of] people like me, humble people, people who want a change, so that satisfies me a lot. I am very happy, very happy because of those people, of my friends who have come to support us. 

What do you think is the general reaction of Chileans to the new Constitution? What reactions have you seen in your own family and community environment?

When we first started with this [initiative], it was not very well-received [by the public], but later it was. Little by little, people became integrated, they became informed and thanked us for what we are doing, what we did and what we continue to do, because this ends on September 4.

The biggest job for us is going to be convincing people, because there are many undecided people, people that the right wing has frightened because they have been fed many lies, lies that are not relevant. I am left with all the people who listen to us, there are a lot of people who listen to us and support us at that moment.

What are your plans after September 4 (the day in which Chileans vote whether to approve or reject the new Constitution)?

From now on, to work for this to be a success, so that the right wing does not win. In other words, we, the people, have to win. The right wing cannot. They cannot, or else we will be left with the same Constitution, because that is what the [right wing and those voting “I Reject”] want; they want privileges for themselves. And I do not want that… I am going to work until September 4, until the 3rd. On the 4th I am going to vote, “I approve.” […]

Erica holding a draft  of the New Constitution while out in front of Plaza de la Constitución.

After September 4th I am going to rest, I am already a little exhausted and I want to rest. As I said, I am 76 years old, and I already feel a little tired. Now, we must let the young people work. The young people are going to take this country forward because the youth is governing, the youth is supporting us, so the youth is very valuable right now. A lot has been lost…because of everything we have gone through in Chile. It has been very terrible, very terrible for us… and I do not want my grandchildren to live a restricted life. That if they don’t have money to be educated, they can’t be educated. I don’t want that, I want education. An educated country is an almost perfect country.

What have been the most valuable things you have learned from this experience?

Well, with the Mothers of the Constitution, the most valuable thing has been to meet people, wonderful people who came and asked us “where do I have to sign [in the book]?” “What do I have to say?” [I’d answer], “What you feel, just what you are feeling at this moment” …That was our job. And, to convince the undecided… Many people did not know what [the New Constitution was about] and we started to inform them bit by bit, and people started to learn...

Selfie of Erica, Francisco (another volunteer), and I towards the end of the interview.

Well, meeting you both, Jeanyna and Francisco (another college-student volunteer from Chile), was wonderful. Jeanyna, she was a girl who committed herself to us. She went on Thursdays, came however she could, but she arrived and for us she was a joy for me, I treated her a lot and I loved her. I loved her. I would like to see her again. She is leaving, but I would like to see her again and show her affection.

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