Francisco Letelier gazes up at the bigger-than-life portrait he has just painted of his late father, Orlando, who, in turn, is depicted also gazing up, searchingly, toward something unseen. What is the man in the mural yearning for? The defeat of the dictator? Justice for the torturers? Mercy for the disappeared?
Three days after a then-17-year-old Francisco took the original Polaroid snapshot upon which this new portrait is based, Orlando was dead — assassinated, blown up by a remote-control bomb planted in his Chevrolet. It exploded on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 1976, in Sheridan Circle, on Washington’s Embassy Row, as the exiled former Chilean ambassador was driving to work at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. He was giving a lift to his American colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who also was killed. Moffitt’s husband, Michael Moffitt, survived the blast.
It was a shocking case of foreign state-sponsored terrorism on U.S. soil. In the two decades that followed, members of the Chilean secret police and military and their hired hit men were prosecuted in the United States and Chile. More recently, declassified documents suggested that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet personally ordered the murder of Letelier. Pinochet, who died in 2006, was never prosecuted for the killings.
The portrait of Orlando Letelier is part of a five-panel mural, 10 feet by 40 feet, that was recently unveiled in the sculpture garden of the American University Museum. Now, as the artist contemplates his work, it’s clear that his ambition is broader than simply invoking the memory of two martyrs frozen forever in the prime of life. The mural, titled “Todas las Manos” — “All the Hands” — is Francisco Letelier’s way of seeking to redeem the tragedy by telling the story of the idealism it has inspired in the decades since.
“We’re commemorating not just the tragic events that happened on the 21st of September 1976,” he says. “This project celebrates the way that tragedy was turned into a legacy of activism, of landmark cases in global justice, of continuing to build a world in which justice and international cooperation are real and felt. … Many campaigns toward a better world … spring from difficult moments, and it’s up to us to overcome those moments and to make them have meaning.”