Hernán Reyes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Negotiating Prisoners' Rights: Conversation with Hernan Reyes, Medical Coordinator for Detention-Related Activities, International Committee of the Red Cross; 12/2/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Hernán, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you Harry.

Tell us a little bit about your background. Where were you born?

Oh, that's a long story and a rather complicated story. I was born in Santiago, Chile, of Chilean parents, and actually I only lived there for, I think, something like twenty months. When I was not quite two years old my father got a job as a translator at the UN in New York. So we moved, my mother, my dad, and myself, to New York where I stayed for thirteen years. And then at age fifteen, he was transferred, still with the UN, to the Palais des Nations, the Geneva office in Switzerland of the UN, so I moved to Europe. By then my sister had been born, she is an American citizen, she was born in New York. And I stayed in Geneva for the next thirty years and then moved to France for five years and now I've been in New York for eighteen months, so it's a bit of a complicated story.

So internationalism came with your mother's milk, so to speak.

Yes, in a way.

So your secondary education was in Geneva.

In Geneva, in French. Yes.

Did you have any teachers in particular that influenced the direction you took, or was it all because of what your father did, and where you were living?

More than any specific teacher, it was more the secondary school which I just did a bit of in New York, which was the UN school, the United Nations school, which is a private school but essentially it's for the people who work in the UN. So there I had classmates from everywhere, from Outer Mongolia, from Peru, from everywhere in Europe, from Africa and Asia, so that was the international approach which really influenced me because we talked, we had debates about what was going on. We learned much more about international affairs than we would have in a public school, for example.

There must have been extraordinary diversity among the students.

Oh yes, and the school was very keen on promoting tolerance and showing that we were all equal. This was in the sixties, when the Civil Rights movement was just catching on and we already had debates on racism, on all these issues which were very important.

Do you remember any books in particular that you read as a young person that influenced you?

That influenced what I am doing now?


I've thought about that lately. I read a lot of books on prisons at the time, never knowing that I would ever get near a prison. The Wooden Horse, for example, by Eric Williams; escape stories of World War II; stories about prisons in the Middle Ages, Reynald de Châtillon, who spent sixteen years in the dungeons of Saladin, and I never really gave it much thought. But of course this comes back to me now when I am working in prisons; for the past fifteen years at least, they've come back to me.

Do your visits to prisons and your work recall images from the books that you read?

They recall one specific film which I don't remember the title of, which I saw a very long time ago, about a visit where you see somebody from the Red Cross, and one of the prisoners, a woman, stands out and says, "Don't believe them, its all lies," and the Red Cross official gets completely turned away, and [the prison official] says "No, she's just crazy, come this way." And she gets tortured and she is killed. It shows a farcical Red Cross visit. At the time I had no idea what the Red Cross was, I never imagined I would be working myself for the Red Cross. I remember that film now.

You saw this film when you were young?

Oh, when I was twelve or thirteen, on the television.

That's amazing. What about your parents: how do you think in retrospect they influenced you and shaped your character?

My father was a linguist, he went to the UN because he spoke English, French and Spanish, and he taught himself Russian while he was in New York, so that's probably why I also picked up a few languages. No way with the effort he had, actually; I learned them "free" so to say, in the States and in Geneva. That was definitely an influence. And my mother was a professor of history, so that's maybe why I have always been very interested in history.

So they helped place you in the world?

Yes, in a way.

But you chose to seek a medical degree. What led you into medicine?

Medicine was a second choice. In Geneva my big hobby when I was a high school student was Maya archaeology, of all things. But of course being in Geneva, Switzerland, it wasn't very practical. I could do Egyptology, but I wasn't interested in the pharaohs, I was interested in the Maya. And the only way [to study that] would have been to go to Mexico, which was impossible at the time. So I said, okay, forget that. What else gives me an outlook and a wide span of choices? Medicine; why not? In medicine I decided to take obstetrics and gynecology, which was really what I was interested in.

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