Victor Toro: Chilean Revolutionary

Victor Toro’s 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 Pinochet’s most prominent torture victims.

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.

“It’s not like in Chile. The workers who come here
are usually not politicized. At meetings, we talk about what’s
happening in Chile and the rest of Latin America; what’s
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 women’s groups, the talk
is often about rape, beatings.”

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.”

the mid-1960s, Toro, along with Miguel Henriquez and Luciano
Cruz, founded Chile’s 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.

informer betrayed me,” says Toro, who asserts he was
lucky to have been seized by the Air Force and not the Army
or DINA, Pinochet’s 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 couldn’t,
he says. Too many enemies. He’d 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 it’s 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

“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. He’s seen people die in the streets
because they couldn’t 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 that’s
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 won’t 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.”