Forgotten Leeds mural tells enduring story of solidarity

Gilberto Hernandez, one of the Chilean exiles who worked on the artwork, pictured with the mural. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Gilberto Hernandez, one of the Chilean exiles who worked on the artwork, pictured with the mural. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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For decades a giant mural painted by a group of Chilean students and refugees had been forgotten about, hidden from view behind a wall in the foyer at Leeds University Union.

It could have been lost forever had a Chilean PhD student not happened to catch a glimpse of it during a refurbishment earlier this year and recognised his country’s national flag.

The student posted a picture online of the artwork, which turned out to be a mural painted in 1976 by Chilean exiles who had fled from General Pinochet’s reign of tyranny in their homeland.

The mural, copied from the kind of cultural poster often found on the streets of Chile prior to Pinochet’s military coup, features miners and agricultural workers along with the slogan ‘And There Will be Work For all’ written in Spanish.

Now, more than 40 years after it was first painted, the damaged mural is being restored with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It was originally created in the Students’ Union to help draw attention to the plight of the thousands of Chileans who suffered under Pinochet’s rule in the aftermath of the coup that ousted the democratically elected Marxist leader, Salvadore Allende, in 1973.

The story of the Chilean students and refugees who painted the mural was covered at the time by our sister publication the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Among those who worked on it was Gilberto Hernandez. He had been a journalist in Chile and spent two years in prison before being released.

He was allowed to leave the country with his young wife, but left behind his mother, sister and friends.

Thousands of political refugees fled Chile during this period, with many arriving in the UK and in particular places like Sheffield and Leeds.

Mr Hernandez was among those who came to Leeds, arriving here in the autumn of 1975. He said: “There were over 200 Chilean people that came to Leeds and we were supported by organisations like the Chile Solidarity Campaign, which helped us find accommodation and families to stay with until we were settled.

“We went to the university for meetings and to use the cafe and we asked them if we could paint a mural and they said ‘yes.’”

Mr Hernandez studied at the university before working as a librarian at The Yorkshire Post for more than 20 years, but over time he and his Chilean friends forgot about the mural.

Which is why he is delighted that it has now been ‘found’ and is being restored.

He believes it is not only important to Chilean exiles living in the UK, but all those who have found themselves in a similar situation.

He said: “It has a strong meaning to me because it denounces the crimes committed by the Pinochet dictatorship and still acts as a symbol of solidarity and friendship for the people who have been persecuted by dictators and continues to show hope for refugees.”

Once restored, the mural will form the centrepiece of a resource library dedicated to refugees and asylum seekers, bringing members of the student, local and Chilean communities together.

Union Affairs Officer Jack Palmer said: “We hope that the mural’s inspiring story will encourage new political artwork in Leeds and bring students, refugees, local residents and the Yorkshire Chilean community closer together.”

The restoration work will begin next month and is due to be completed by February.

In September 1973, Chile’s president Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically-elected Marxist head of state, was overthrown and died in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and backed by the CIA.

Under the subsequent dictatorship, more than 3,000 political opponents were killed, while thousands more were tortured or disappeared.

People were arrested for their political or trades union work, or simply for supporting the previous government.

Many of the refugees that fled to the UK ended up in Leeds.

About 30 refugees landed in the city in November 1974, with the remainder arriving in October the following year.