16 December 2021

From concentration camps to Canberra, Victor Marillanca has made his mark

| Max O'Driscoll
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Victor Marillanca and Eduardo Peña

Victor Marillanca receiving his award alongside the Ambassador of Mexico H.E. Eduardo Peña. Photo: Eugenio Bobadilla.

Victor Marillanca was a university student in Chile in September 1973 when a military coup overthrew the democratic government of President Salvador Allende.

Over the next 16 years of dictatorship, thousands of Chilean citizens disappeared, never to be seen again.

Almost half a century later, the Canberra man’s contributions to a country thousands of miles away have been recognised with a prestigious award.

Victor, and all the other students on government scholarships at a university in Chile’s capital city, Santiago, were instantly considered friends of the previous government and placed in concentration camps.

He was kept in a camp until 22 October 1975. He was tortured, alongside thousands of others who did not survive. After his release from the concentration camps, he was forced to report to the army twice a day, describing the experience as like “being a prisoner in my own town”.

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“The military was moving everywhere, shooting people on the streets and taking people into the concentration camps,” said Victor.

The Whitlam Government first attempted to get him out of Chile soon after the coup, but Australian officials were incorrectly advised that Victor had been killed. In March of 1975, after 18 months under military rule and not yet 21, he boarded a plane to Australia and headed into unknown territory.

“It was the first time I’d got on a plane … we flew from Santiago to Easter Island, Easter Island to Tahiti, Tahiti to Auckland, Auckland to Sydney, and then to Canberra,” said Victor.

“I knew nothing about Canberra. Nothing at all.”

He arrived on 11 March 1975. Forty-six years later, he still calls Canberra home.

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However, that isn’t where the story ends. With a small Spanish-speaking community in Canberra at the time, Victor emerged as an important figure within the community, bridging the gap between their community and wider Canberra, most notably by establishing Conneccion Latino Americana.

Conneccion Latino Americana was the first Spanish-language radio program in Canberra, giving thousands of Spanish speakers a voice.

The show has been broadcast on community radio for 45 years.

For this service and his ongoing diplomatic support to Spanish-speaking countries to help deepen the ties between them and their communities in Canberra and the wider nation, the Mexican Government bestowed on him the Ohtli Award.

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The Ohtli Award is given to one person from each country who has aided, empowered or positively affected the lives of Mexican nationals. In Mexico, it’s considered one of the highest honours you can receive as a non-citizen. Victor is the first Canberran to receive the award.

Victor believes it was how helpful the people of Canberra were when he first moved that led to him loving Canberra and inspired him into a life of service.

Commenting on the prestigious honour, Federal Member for Bean David Smith described the impact of his “remarkable” near-half-century of service.

“His support for the Spanish-speaking community within Australia and abroad has been far-reaching and worthy of this esteemed award,” said Mr Smith.

“Congratulations, Victor, on 45 years of remarkable service and on this remarkable recognition from the Mexican Government.”

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