Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.
As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

My grandma’s first kiss happened in a Chilean prison

KUOW Photo / Diego Villarroel
Beatriz Alvarez at her home in Edmonds, Washington. She met her husband during the aftermath of Chile's 1973 coup.

September 11, 1973, was the day everything changed for my grandmother, Beatriz Alvarez. She was attending university in Santiago, Chile, on her way to becoming a history teacher.

That morning, she listened to a radio address by President Salvador Allende. He was Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president, and my grandmother and her family were avid supporters.

A few hours after that radio broadcast, he was dead — overthrown in a violent coup.

That event changed the course of many people's lives, including my grandmother's. She dropped out of university when the military began to arrest people who weren't loyal to the new government.

Diego created this story in KUOW's RadioActive Youth Media Intro to Journalism Workshop for high school students. Find RadioActive on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on the RadioActive podcast.

A family friend was arrested and tortured. Then they came for my grandma's brother Alfonso, who was part of a large political movement that supported Allende.

The police surrounded the whole neighborhood, my grandma told me.

“Alfonso wasn’t even home, but they made a really good show to get him —  like he was so dangerous,” she said.  

The police arrested Alfonso, and my grandma spent the next week searching for him. She eventually found him in jail about 30 minutes away from her home.

Every day for a year my grandmother rode her green low-rider bike to the prison to bring her brother lunch and keep him company.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Beatriz Alvarez as a young woman. She was studying to be a history teacher when the coup happened, and she had to drop out.", "fid": "141311", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201712/grandma_cropped_young.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Diego Villarroel"}]]Then one day he got a new cellmate, another political prisoner named Miguel. Miguel and Alfonso became quick friends, and my grandma liked Miguel too. She thought he was well spoken.

And handsome.

“After we was talking for a few months, it got more interesting,” she told me with a laugh.

There were always family members visiting the jail, so she also met Miguel's mother before long.

“I think by that time we had already started going together,” she said.

“What do you mean by going together?” I asked her.

“Just be together,” she said. “When I go and visit my brother, we sit there and talk and all those things. It wasn't all about my brother anymore. It was about Miguel too.”

She giggled.

She even had her first kiss in the jail. It happened “in front of everybody,” including her parents.

She laughed out loud at the memory. “That was embarrassing!”

My grandmother would bring Miguel candy. Then Miguel began to write little notes on the wrappers. Whenever leaves fell into his cell, he would write notes on them, too.

Eventually, the leaves and miscellaneous wrappers couldn’t contain their feelings, so my grandma started hiding a small notebook in the basket of food she would bring, and they would secretly trade it back and forth every day.

[asset-images[{"caption": "My grandma, Beatriz Alvarez, still has the notebook she and Miguel wrote messages in while he was in prison.", "fid": "141309", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/feat.ure-21.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Diego Villarroel"}]]This is the first entry, translated to English:

For the longest time I didn’t feel the need to cry but today I have to hold back the tears so they don’t fall down my face. I can feel the heaviness of the jail on my shoulders because I can't hold you in my arms. I remember your smile, your face, your voice, and your laugh. Miguel

Inside these notebooks are dried and crumbling leaves marked with faded pen, as well as flowers and folded-up wrappers left forgotten between the pages.

There are three more notebooks just like this.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Miguel wrote little notes on candy wrappers to my grandma, nicknamed Bachy. Whenever leaves would fall into Miguel's cell he would write notes on them too. ", "fid": "141310", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/feat.ure-23.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Diego Villarroel"}]]This is my grandma’s response to that first letter:

How many tears have I cried today? I can't recall! But who cares about that because I love you and that makes me strong. No one will ever be as magnificent as you.

My grandma continued to visit and write. Then  about a year later, Miguel called my grandma up and said he was being released. She went down to the jail and walked him home.

A few months later, in her hometown of San Felipe, they got married. Her whole family was there; even her brother Alfonso came from jail with an armed escort.  

Everything that my grandma cared for was in Chile, but it wasn’t a safe place for the man she loved.

She and Miguel applied for refugee status. A few months later, they left everything behind for a new life in Seattle.

“My parents went to take me to the airport,” my grandma said. “It was sad. I was the first one to leave the country. It was hard but that was the only way.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Miguel Villarroel and Beatriz Alvarez, in Seattle in June 1977. Everything they cared for was in Chile, but it wasn't safe for Miguel.", "fid": "141319", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/miguel_y_grandma.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Diego Villarroel"}]]My grandma and Miguel lived together in Seattle for almost 20 years. They had a house of their own and raised two kids: my Tia and my Dad. So yes — that means Miguel was my grandfather.

But things didn’t work out for them. They got divorced, and my grandpa Miguel passed away years later.

Now my grandma lives near me in Edmonds, Washington.

Her parents and siblings are scattered around the world. She never became a history teacher like she wanted, but she works as a program assistant at a local community college.  

She’s now married to my Grandpa Julian, who was good friends with my Grandpa Miguel.

“Are you guys happy?” I asked the two of them.

“I'm happy. I don't know about him,” my grandma laughed.

“Yes, I’m happy,” said Grandpa Julian.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Beatriz Alvarez with her husband Julian. He was good friends with her first husband, Miguel. ", "fid": "141312", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/feat.ure-26.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Diego Villarroel "}]]They’ve been together almost 25 years now, so he is my grandpa. And he’s always taken care of me, honoring a promise he made to my Grandpa Miguel.

“I never told you this,” Grandpa Julian said. “But the last day before [Miguel] died, he told me, 'Can you please take care of Diego?' And I said of course.”

My grandma sacrificed so much for love. She lost her family, her country, and her dreams of being a teacher to be with the man she loved.

That love ended, but it didn't have to last forever for it to mean something. And there was always a chance to find it again.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Diego Villarroel with his grandmother Beatriz Alvarez. ", "fid": "141313", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/feat.ure-9.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Diego Villarroel "}]]This story was created with production support from Ann Kane and edited by Jenny Asarnow. Music: "Love Is Not," "Feel Good (Instrumental)," and "Something Elated" by Broke for Free. The RadioActive theme song is by Patrick Liu and Abay Estifanos.