Former Chilean refugee José Márquez, who is retiring after teaching Spanish to university students for forty-one years, is currently a grateful Finnish citizen
He is thankful for Finland for everything.
José Márquez appreciates that Finland saved his life and received him as a refugee in 1974. He is grateful even though his home was attacked with a Molotov cocktail in 1989.
“I do not want to hate anyone. Hatred is the worst sin humankind can succumb to,” Márquez says.
In 1974, Márquez ‘ended up’ in Finland after escaping Chile when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in the autumn of 1973.
“I ‘ended up’ in Finland even though any country would also have been all right as long as I stayed alive. Our survival was at stake,” Márquez says.
Márquez has not discussed these issues for several years.
“I have not forgotten. I am now able to speak about my past experiences without breaking down so time has done its job,” Márquez adds.
He had two options: he could either ‘die heroically’ or leave. He chose the latter option and was surprised that he managed to leave.
“I have always felt grateful even though our family went through a rough patch in 1989,” he says.
The coldness and darkness were irrelevant for a refugee in the 1970s. Picking up the pieces and providing for the family were more important.
Márquez was about to graduate with a degree in journalism when he had to leave Chile and come to Finland where he would not be able to find a job as a Spanish-speaking journalist. Márquez also felt a strong religious calling, but he did not want to become a Catholic priest.
“I fell in love and decided that earthly love was too important for me to become a priest,” Márquez explains.
Learning the language
at a construction site
In the 1970s, Finnish society did not recognise the special needs of refugees and there was no expertise on how to support them. However, the Chilean refugees made friends and got job offers. Márquez was offered even as many as three different jobs, and he chose the one with the best wages and went to work for a construction company building the Hervanta suburb in Tampere.
“The construction workers were excellent co-workers. I did not learn much Finnish but at least I learned some dirty words,” Márquez says.
No dirty words were used in the Spanish classes Márquez teaches even though the students sometimes showed their interest in such talk.
“I have not accommodated their wishes. I have a good ear for the Spanish language but it is one thing to know the words and another to use them,” Márquez says.
in the Spanish language
Through friends, Márquez got the opportunity to try teaching Spanish at the Orivesi Institute.
“Teaching, especially teaching my native tongue, is a great source of joy. I am thankful that I have been able to retain my identity and language, which has not rusted even during these long years,” Márquez says.
Márquez taught Spanish for a few years at the adult education centres in Tampere and the surrounding municipalities until the Language Centre of the University of Tampere, which was founded in 1976, offered him a regular job.
“At that time, Spanish was an exotic language in Finland,” he says.
Finnish people started to become increasingly interested in the Spanish language in the 1970s because of the Chilean solidarity movement and the popularity of Latin American literature.
The other Finland
‘Thankful’ is a word often repeated by Márquez even when he talks about the ordeals he has had to encounter.
“I can never forget the friends who offered their unquestioning support even though we did not have a common language. On the other hand, because I did not know the language, I was unable to read between the lines what the other Finland was thinking about us,” Márquez explains.
In 1989, Márquez had a bad experience when someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the window of his home. It was a nasty shock but luckily, nobody was injured. At the time, there was a series of about ten such attacks against families with foreign surnames or their places of business in Tampere.
“I got to know the other Finland, which I had not encountered so much. Previous to the attack, my life was very safe and had consisted of the university, family and church,” Márquez says.
At the end of the 1980s, some voices in the Finnish parliament demanded that Finns should not let refugees walk all over them.
“That felt really bad because they said that we were just collecting pity points,” Márquez says.
The Márquez family contemplated returning to Chile in 1990 when the first democratic election was organised after the military dictatorship. However, it turned out that the military presence was still strong, the outlook continued to be bleak and there were few job opportunities. The family decided to stay in Finland.
“It was a bit bitter to realise that there was no place for us in Chile,” Márquez says.
After the Molotov cocktail attack, the Márquez family received a lot of support from regular Finns. Unknown people sent them postcards expressing their support. Some even offered their homes to shelter the family.
“Someone called me from a distant municipality saying that he has a rifle and is ready to defend us. That was touching because he was a completely unknown person ready to support us. Perhaps it was just his way of speaking, but we found solace in all those messages and flowers we received. That helped us make the decision to stay here,” Márquez explains.
Many Chileans left Finland because they longed for their native country and found it hard to adapt to living in Finland. Márquez says that his own language and culture have enabled him to live here.
“I have been able to adapt and combine the two cultures. I have had the great good fortune to work here and will be so sorry to leave, but I am leaving because I am sixty-five years old and it is time to leave,” Márquez says.
Márquez is leaving the University but he will stay in Tampere because his children and grandchildren also live here. He has a second home in Málaga, Spain, where he will spend autumns and winters.
“Last week, I spoke with a priest from the Catholic Church who assumed I would be leaving Finland. I told him that I will be buried in Finland. When I die, my funeral mass will take place here and not in Chile or Spain,” Márquez says.
“Offer people the opportunity
to settle in this country”
Chileans were the first group of refugees Finland welcomed after World War II. After them came the Vietnamese boat people, Somalis and people fleeing the war in former Yugoslavia. Conflicts between Finns and refugees escalated in 2015 when over 30,000 refugees arrived in Finland mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Márquez says that he has noticed that prejudices tend to disappear when Finns get to know the foreigners.
“We should offer people the opportunity to settle in this country like I did. Any healthy foreigner or refugee really wants to work and become a good citizen in this country,” Márquez points out.
He remembers how scared he used to feel over forty years ago when his future was still insecure.
“Most of us who have come to Finland are thankful. Everyone starts to think that they should not be unfair to the country that has opened its doors for us. Every newcomer in Finland is seeking a job and wanting to build his or her own life if only given the opportunity,” Márquez continues.
Not a refugee
but a Finnish citizen
Márquez says that he has been afraid of not having the capacity of talking about the hard years in his life. He has not always been able to talk about them without bursting into tears.
“Many of my students do not even know that I am Chilean, not to mention that I have had tough experiences there. I have not talked about these things; not because I am ashamed, but because I have not wanted to be misunderstood.”
Márquez has lived in Finland for over forty years and no longer wants to be a refugee.
“Being a refugee is a label that follows you for years after the fact. There was a time when I was a refugee here but now I regard myself a Finn who has the same rights as everyone else, the right to talk and participate in Finnish matters,” Márquez says.
Four years ago, a Spanish publisher asked Márquez whether he would be willing to write his memoir. At that time, he did not have the time for writing but things might be different now.
“If the offer still stands, I might consider doing it even though my children do not want me to talk about these things. They are still frightened by the events that happened in 1989 even though they are not saying it aloud. They, too, have children now and they remember being scared,” Márquez says.
Past traumas are not so easy to shake even though there is much to be thankful for.
“I am not bitter. My philosophy is to forgive and pray for the people who acted blindly and caused so much harm to other people. That pain still exists today. I can pray for those people that they would one day understand to apologise for what they did,” Márquez concludes.
Text: Heikki Laurinolli