July 24th, 2024

Toronto beach volleyballer plays in tribute to Chilean parents at Pan American Games

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on October 18, 2023.

Melissa Humana-Paredes is aware her parents’ relationships with Chile are a mixture of love and trauma.

The Toronto beach volleyball player could have skipped the Pan American Games in Santiago coming at the end of a long season and after the world championship.

The chance to wear the Maple Leaf in the country where her parents were born, and where they both survived a dangerous chapter in its history, compelled her to compete in Chile.

“It’s kind of my thank you to them that I want to do this,” Humana-Paredes told The Canadian Press.

The 2023 Pan American Games officially open with Friday’s opening ceremonies, although preliminary competition was scheduled to get underway Wednesday.

Chile’s Pan Am Games coincide with the 50-year anniversary of a military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power Sept. 11, 1973. His dictatorship lasted until 1990.

Chilean government commissions investigating those years have classified over 40,000 people as victims of that dictatorship through torture, imprisonment, murder or disappearance. Chile’s president vowed in March to find out what happened to approximately 1,000 people still missing from that time.

“Our September 11th is different than the September 11th we’re used to hearing about in North America,” Humana-Paredes said.

“Going to the Pan Am Games will be very emotional. I’m definitely feeling the weight of it and how special this moment will be for me and my family, and also the mixed emotions of it as well.”

Santiago was awarded the 1975 Pan American Games, but Pinochet pulled the city out of hosting. Humana-Paredes’ father Hernan would have played for the host Chilean men’s volleyball team.

Hernan Humana was a 20-year-old who loved volleyball when tanks assembled outside his university. He and his fellow students were ordered over school loudspeakers to go home immediately or risk getting shot or arrested. His stepfather Jorge, an engineer, was detained for weeks.

Humana’s parents and siblings fled to Canada in 1975. Humana didn’t see his family again until emigrating to Toronto in 1980.

He’d stayed in Chile to finish his university degree and play volleyball for the country he once loved, but no longer had.

“Somebody had to represent those who were being oppressed, those who were being tortured, those who were being killed, those who were being exiled,” Humana told The Canadian Press.

“Melissa will be a great ambassador for those who were exiled, who were forced to get out of the country because of what was going on. She’s the product of that.”

He wrote about his years under Pinochet in his book “Playing Under the Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile”.

A young Humana refused to look into cameras for team photos or sing the Chilean anthem, which was dangerous behaviour. His status as a national-team athlete wouldn’t protect him.

Chilean cycling champion Sergio Tormen Mendez vanished in 1974. Humana knew him.

Chile’s Rettig Report of 1991 determined the cyclist “disappeared at the hands of government agents.”

The Pan Am Games’ cycling velodrome was renamed Sergio Tormen Mendez Velodrome in April.

“I always felt guilt for having survived,” Humana said.

Myriam Paredes-Blaise was a dancer whose family stayed in Chile during the Pinochet years “in the wolf’s mouth,” as Humana puts it.

Paredes-Blaise says uncles, other relatives and friends were “tortured brutally” and never recovered from their physical and psychological injuries.

When the democratic election of 1990 signaled the end of the dictatorship, Paredes-Blaise danced at a celebration held at Santiago’s Estadio National, which was the site of detainment, torture and killings after the coup. The stadium is also the venue for the Pan Am opening and closing ceremonies.

“After 33 years, I will return to the stadium,” Paredes-Blaise said. “In the return to democracy, I was so emotional. It was wonderful to be there for the first time after that stadium was the main centre of torture and pain and detention for the ’73 coup.

“So it will be my second time to get into the stadium for the opening ceremonies and seeing Melissa representing Canada will be very, very special and wonderful.”

After first meeting in 1975, Hernan Humana and Myriam Paredes-Blaise later reconnected on one of his return trips to Chile from Canada.

Paredes-Blaise followed him to Toronto where Melissa and brother Felipe were born before the couple separated.

Chile attempted to prosecute Pinochet for human-rights abuses and financial crimes. He died in 2006 at age 91 without ever having stood trial.

Paredes-Blaise acknowledges there was tragedy in Chile during her life, but she adores the country because she considers it home.

Humana’s feelings toward Chile are more mixed, but he understands his daughter feels a kinship with the Pan Am host country.

“That’s her right as a free human being to feel that way,” her father said.

Humana, a York University associate lecturer, won’t travel to Chile to watch his daughter compete. Paredes-Blaise will be in Santiago along with 20 to 30 relatives from her side of the family to cheer her on.

Humana-Paredes and teammate Brandie Wilkerson of Toronto open the women’s preliminary round Saturday at the Centro de Voleibol Playa.

“I was born in Canada. I was also very proud to be Chilean, but I could also see the pain it had caused my family,” Humana-Paredes said. “We really didn’t speak of it that much growing up. It was something we started to talk about when (Humana) started writing the book.

“If you’d met my parents or my family you would never think they went through extreme tragedy through such a tumultuous time in their life, at such a young age as well. They’re so strong and resilient. They’re survivors and warriors.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2023.

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