• The Globe and Mail
  • April 27, 2004

Carlos Pasten

On the night that Carlos was born, his father, Urbano, walked to the nearest town, Pampa Union, in order to register his son. On his journey through the desert, he came upon a large black dog, red-eyed and wearing a gold chain, wandering through the dunes. Urbano thought he had seen the devil.

Carlos grew up in nearby Tocopilla, where he became a high-school teacher and, later, a university professor of Spanish literature. It was in Tocopilla that he fell in love with and married a beautiful student in his high school, Carol. They went on to have three children: Carlos, Carol and Patti. In most matters, Carlos was calm, measured and rational, but in his love for Carol, he was intense and passionate.

Although he came from a middle-class background and was well-educated, he detested affected mannerisms, and always identified with the working class. He taught his children that it was wrong for extreme wealth to exist alongside extreme poverty, that everyone should have the opportunity to read history and experience art, that everyone had a responsibility to take a stand against injustice and that all children should have shoes.

An eloquent speaker, he quickly rose to prominence in the Socialist Party in the province of Antofagasta. He suffered a personal setback in 1973, when he lost an election within the party. The setback may have saved his life: In the military coup that followed, his opponent was killed. Had Carlos won, he would likely have been killed, too.

Carlos was taken away by men with guns. He was tortured and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. His wife got him released, and the entire family went into exile. Along with the families of 60 other Chilean political prisoners, they were airlifted to Canada, arriving in Winnipeg in 1975, and moving to Toronto in 1980. Those were difficult years for Carlos: recovering from trauma in such a strange place, not understanding the language and enduring the bitter cold.

Although he had not come to Canada by choice, he established roots here and found new purpose at the Centre for Spanish-Speaking Peoples, where he worked as a settlement counsellor, helping immigrants and refugees adjust to the hardship of life in a new country. He believed philosophically in helping all immigrants, regardless of their legal status in Canada, and he had a special tenderness for senior citizens, spending extra time with his elderly clients.

In his final months, Carlos was called to testify in a special tribunal created to bring war criminals to justice for human-rights violations committed during the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Carlos was bedridden, but determined to tell his story. His written testimony will be used in the coming trials.

At the time of his diagnosis with cancer, his daughter Patti was married, but his other two children remained single. Following his diagnosis, both children married their respective partners. That made Carlos extremely happy. As he said to his family: Life is stronger than death.

Carlos spent his final months reading and writing. He devoured Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Torah, the Bible and the Koran. He responded to his diagnosis by deciding to write a diario de muerte, a diary of death. Its entries are filled with descriptions of a richly lived life.

Carol Pasten is Carlos’s daughter. Maria Amuchastegui is a former president of the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples.