09/30/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

Chilean Chronicles, Part 5: Senora Carmen and Chile's Past

If there was one idea I had firmly committed in my mind before arriving in Chile, it was this: the people in the country agreed that the Pinochet dictatorship was bad.

Based on wrenching accounts of disappeared, tortured and murdered people, buttressed by a diet of books, poems, films and new programs, I had a picture of an unspeakably repressive military regime that controlled its people by sheer force. The United States government saw in Gen. Augusto Pinochet, as it did with the Somoza family in Nicaragua and Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran, an anticommunist bulwark and ally, however unsavory.

A couple of months into my stay here, the picture is becoming more complex.

The loosening of my viewpoint first came through watching The Judge and the General, Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco's award-winning documentary film about how Judge Juan Guzman, after leaving the insular right-wing world in which he had allowed himself to live, immerses himself in the gruesome details of the Pinochet regime, and ultimately indicted the man who had been largely responsible for his professional ascent.

The film opens and closes with footage of Pinochet's coffin being carried onto the street after the dictator died without having been prosecuted or convicted of the crimes that impacted so many Chilean families.

Then-President Michelle Bachelet, herself a torture survivor, exile and the first female president in the nation's history, refused to make Pincohet's death cause for a national day of mourning.

Her decision prompted an outpouring of venomous yelling and epithet throwing from hundreds, if not thousands, of Pinochet supporters who cursed their newly elected leader and changed, "They never got him!" (This footage starts at 10:39 of the movie clip.)

A dismayed Guzman speaks while watching footage of the protests about the division that clearly existed within the country.

It's still there.

That is the conclusion I drew after talking with Senora Carmen, an energetic and friendly retired elementary school teacher who taught for 17 years in one of Santiago's most impoverished neighborhoods . Dunreith and I met her Wednesday on the way to registering our visas within the required 30-day period.

Dressed smartly in a black jacket and orange scarf, Senora Carmen was manning the city's Biblioplaza right near the National Fine Arts Museum. Established about 10 years, the facility has books and newspapers available for residents to take out and return.

We talked for a bit about her teaching career, which included 17 years at one school and two additional years at another one. Carmen, who is energetic and friendly, explained that she would teach the same students for four consecutive years from first to fourth grades. That continuity was important, she said, because many of the students grew up in a drug-filled environment in a poor neighborhood in Santiago.

You must have been like a mother to many of those students, I said.

She agreed.

I told her about Dunreith having been an educator for many years as well as about my late mother-in-law Helen, who taught and was an elementary school principal during her 34 years in education.

I also told her about my experience of working as an apprentice for two years in former fourth grade teacher Paul Tamburello's class, the same classroom I had been a student a dozen years earlier. He felt that was the ultimate example of impact, I said, adding that last year I published a book called On My Teacher's Shoulders about learning from Paul at three different points in my life.

Que buena, Senora Carmen answered, a smile filling her face as her eyes danced with delight.

I imagine that you hear from former students, I said.

She said that she did.

How are they doing? I asked.

Some are doing well; others are not doing well, she replied, a shadow of sadness crossing her face.

It's gotten worse in the past 10 years, she said.

Worse? I asked.

She repeated her answer.

It was better during the dictatorship.

Things were more controlled, she added. There was respect.

I explained that we had always heard in the United States that things were worse during the Pinochet era.

Senora Carmen's face started to harden in resistance.

But you are telling me that you think it was better then.

It was better, she said again with conviction.

You have taught me something, I said. Thank you.

We started to leave, but Senora Carmen asked me to write down my name.

Dunreith asked if I had a business card. I started to open my backpack and look for one. But Senora Carmen said she only wanted my name to remember the conversation, which she had enjoyed.

I took one of the book receipts and wrote my name is capital letters as neatly as I could.

I told her that, as opposed to Chile, where people carry both their mother and father's name, but go by their paternal lineage, our last name was Kelly Lowenstein.

I had been Lowenstein.

She had been Kelly.

Together we were Kelly Lowenstein.

We also have two names, Senora Carmen said.

We thanked her again, shook hands and took one more picture before heading on our way to the police department where we were required to register our visas, my understanding of Chilean people's attitude toward their country's past slightly muddier than before Senora Carmen and I began to talk.

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