05/27/2012 06:00 EDT | Updated 07/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Casseroles, Pots And Pans Protests In Quebec, Stir Memories In Chilean-Montrealers


MONTREAL - The deafening clangs of pots and pans on the streets of Montreal have evoked haunting memories for local restaurateur Pedro Gonzalez — and it has nothing to do with dish duty.

Quebecers have turned up the volume during evening demonstrations to oppose their government's controversial new law that clamps down on protests.

For several consecutive nights, hordes of marchers have collectively drummed on everything from frying pans, to pot lids, to even barbecues.

These boisterous events were born from the months-long student movement against Quebec plans to hike university tuition fees.

The demonstrators drew inspiration for the noisy events from Chile's noted anti-government protests of the early 1970s and 1980s. The Chilean kitchenware-rattling, anti-government protests were called the cacerolazos.

But the din of Quebec's version of the cacerolazo immediately triggered troubling recollections for Chilean-Montrealers like Gonzalez, who did not agree with the politics of Chile's original pot-knocking protesters.

The first cacerolazos, held in the Chilean capital of Santiago, were orchestrated by women of the middle- and upper-class in the early 1970s. The women made the racket to protest the Marxist policies of then-president Salvador Allende, claiming they did not have enough to eat.

Gonzalez didn't buy the argument behind the early cacerolazos, calling it a political game and saying it was the poor who had little food.

Since that time, he's held a negative view of the cacerolazos.

"It's a very bad memory," said Gonzalez, 58, who fled to Canada from Chile in 1979.

But this time the cacerolazos — or casseroles —represent something he can relate to.

Gonzalez criticized the Quebec government for mismanaging public funds and heaping too many costs onto citizens.

"I was very happy because even if it's bad memory for us it's a good way to tell the government: 'That's enough,' " said Gonzalez, owner of the Barros Luco restaurant in the city's Mile End district.

"What happens is that everybody is fed up of paying, paying, paying. So the students' affair is a good way to tell the government, all the governments, that we've had enough."

For other Chileans in Montreal, the casseroles stir positive memories.

"This is like in Chile, I remember when they used to do that," Lorena Lara said to herself last week the moment she heard their distinctive metallic sound.

"It gives us flashbacks."

Lara, 45, was a child at the time, but recalls her mother banging pots outside their home in Chile.

She said her older relatives, like her uncle, are proud that Quebecers are using a Chilean-inspired form of protest to stand up for their rights.

"We're happy that people are taking a position," said Lara, who occasionally works at her mother's Montreal restaurant, La Chilenita.

"It's a good way of protesting peacefully."

A couple of nights last week, Lara slammed pots together and cheered for marchers from a Montreal balcony as they passed by.

She said the casseroles have even helped them get to know their neighbours, who have also emerged from their homes to contribute to the cacophony.

The cacerolazo demonstrations re-emerged in Chile in the mid-1980s, but that time they were held by the poor.

The protesters banged pots to denounce what they saw as a lack of democracy and jobs under Augusto Pinochet's regime, says a McGill University expert on the country's political history.

Philip Oxhorn, a political science professor, said one could hear the pots-and-pans clamour throughout Santiago in 1984.

"The sound reverberates across entire blocks," Oxhorn said in an interview from San Francisco.

"It was kind of awesome in a sense because you know what was going on, and it was people just saying, 'Enough is enough.' "

Oxhorn said Chileans participated in cacerolazos from their backyards and inside their homes, at a time when it was too dangerous to venture out into the streets.

"What better way to know that you're not alone, the day before Twitter and the day before easy communication, than to hear everybody else banging their pots?" said Oxhorn, who wrote a book on the protests against Pinochet's military regime.

He said the cacerolazos were extremely effective on a symbolic level in helping lead to a military coup in early 1970s and in contributing to a transition to democracy in the 1980s.

"It's just a very dramatic and very clear message," said Oxhorn, who hadn't yet seen or heard Montreal's casseroles protests in person.

The pot-whacking demonstrations have also taken place in other parts of the world, including Argentina, Spain and Iceland.

Back in Montreal, Gonzalez said he planned to take part in upcoming casserole demonstrations.

"I saw many families with children (at the protests)," he said. "I agree with that, so for sure I'm going to go with everybody."

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