Life after Pinochet

Delta nr 33, November 2006

As an architecture graduate from Chile University, Marisa Carmona worked for Chile's Ministry of Housing on the growing problem of illegal land invasion (slums) before General Pinochet took power in a 1973 coup coup d'etat. Forced to flee her home country, Carmona came to the Netherlands. She's now an associate professor in 'Globalization, Urban Form and Governance' at the Faculty of Architecture.

Having been born and raised in Chile, how did your long connection with the Netherlands start?
"In 1970 I studied at the Institute for Housing Studies in the Netherlands, where I got to know the work of Dutch architect John Habraken. When I returned to Chile, I decided to translate some of Habraken's publications. Somehow word of this reached him, so when he was in Chile for an international competition he phoned me and I ended up taking him on a tour through Chile's slums. From then on, we kept in contact."

What happened to you after the coup d'etat led by General Pinochet overthrew the Chilean government?
"After the 1973 coup, I was arrested and put in jail. I was arrested because I had previously been head of the Chilean government's 'Slums Office', and also because I was a board member of a former Soviet-supported factory that produced prefabricated buildings. Soon thereafter I wrote to Habraken to tell him I was in trouble, and he invited me to come to Eindhoven."

What did you do once you arrived in Holland?
"I arrived in 1974, and for 18 months I worked as a researcher and teacher for SAR, the Foundation for Architect's Research. Then Habraken left Eindhoven to work at MIT, and I got a job at TU Delft."

What does your present job at TU Delft involve?
"I deal with themes related to globalization and human settlement in developing countries. What impact has globalization had on developing countries, for instance, or how can we find innovative new ways to deal with growing urban problems and finance development? Since 1993, I've been coordinator of the IBIS network, which is an EU ALFA program-financed international network of 28 universities that focuses on collaboration between European and Latin American countries. The network's research focuses on the spatial, social and economical issues involved in urban planning, design and management of cities in developing countries."

What are the most satisfying aspects of your work?
"When my research efforts pay off. For instance, ten years ago we started a pilot project in Twsane (formerly Pretoria), South Africa, to develop new ways of introducing cooperatives for building self-help housing. Now the pilot project's 250 Casco houses are finally being built. It's such practical projects and actually helping people that I like most. I also enjoy the traveling involved in this job. If possible I try to visit my husband in Africa, where he has lived and worked in rural areas for 30 years."

Is there enough focus within TU Delft on developing countries?
"No. There used to be more possibilities for students interested in studying in developing countries. Nowadays the main focus is on the Dutch and North American situation, and although there's now growing interest in China, the importance of socio-economical realities of developing countries aren't considered enough anymore. It's a pity that TU Delft doesn't have an institute or department for Development Studies, as many other international universities do."

Will global inequality ever cease to exist?
"It won't unfortunately, unless some major changes occur in the developed world's way of thinking. For starters, there must be reforms within the United Nations, allowing more power to poorer countries. Globalization, exclusion, poverty and migration are all interconnected processes that must be debated more deeply in the rich countries. Over the past 30 years, there have been no improvements. In fact, things have gotten worse. Now, more than ever before, wealth is concentrated in the hands of rich countries."

Is there anything the TU could improve on?
"It's still very difficult for PhD students to get visas for their partners here. So many rules and complicated paperwork is involved, so it would be nice if the TU had more to say in this. And of course the TU could also start an institute for Development Studies."

Having lived in Holland for 30 years, what do you feel like most: Chilean, Dutch or a world citizen?
"I feel most like an international, although I haven't changed my Latin American way of life. I enjoy having friends and family around, as well as listening to salsa music. Of course I feel Dutch too, as I've now lived in Holland longer than I lived in Chile, but I think the Dutch will never consider me Dutch."

The Dutch tend to think of themselves as being very tolerant and open-minded. Do you agree?
"No. In recent years it seems the Dutch are becoming less tolerant towards foreigners and it seems things have gotten worse here ever since they invented the word 'allochtoon' to describe people of foreign descent. Before I was just a foreigner or a Chilean, but now I'm an allochtoon."

Do you plan to remain living in Holland after you retire in 2008?
"I probably will, as my three sons are Dutch and raised here. But I'd also like to stay in Chile more often. Life is easy in Chile and I have lots of friends and family there, and a house. Ideally, I'll spend half my time in Chile, and half in Holland."

Do you have any specific plans for your retirement?
"I want to learn about Geographical Information Systems, and I also want to learn Chinese and how to play golf. I'd also like to improve my Autocad, as I won't have students around anymore to do this work for me!"


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