Featured image: Kat, Omar, and me in front of the lookout at the Sebastiana in Valparaíso, one of Pablo Neruda’s famous homes.
So… this was technically due a week ago and believe me, it was my intention to get it turned in on time. However, this was made less possible by the current political unrest going on in Chile that started more or less this past Friday, October 18 and that spread to the region of Valparaíso (where I live) by Saturday, October 19. To start, I am (and have felt) completely safe and have been throughout the past week. It is incredible to think I am witnessing history. I will include some details about my personal life a bit later in the post, but I believe it is crucial to use this opportunity to share the current situation in my beloved Chile.
I also want to preface this post by saying my understanding of the situation is limited and also one of a foreigner—as a result, I hope my perspective can complement the news, videos, and articles about Chile, not replace it.
This past week in Santiago—the capital city, which is home to nearly a third of the Chilean population—it was announced that the price of the already expensive public transport system was going to increase. This price increase for transportation—an unavoidable expense that can consume upwards of 20% of a Chilean’s minimum wage salary—was la quinda de la torta, the last straw for Chileans who already felt that their current government and their billionaire President (Piñera) have failed to address their needs. This led to widespread frustration; Chilean high school students and other social groups took to the streets to protest, evade and hop metro turnstiles, and galvanize their peers to demand affordable fares. The political activity quickly escalated and, in many cases, became violent.
In response to the protests, the government (hastily) declared a state of emergency (that continues) throughout nearly every region, deployed the military to the streets, and enacted a mandatory curfew in various cities around the country. While it was important to reduce the violence, this move happened before the government addressed the people, thereby adding fuel to the fire, as it lacked empathy about the inaccessible cost of living. It is clear that violence has been caused by both sides—there have been high amounts of police brutality and burning and sacking of corporate businesses by groups of protesters. However, I believe the majority of people demanding change are people just like us, not in the streets vandalizing and destroying, but asking their leaders to listen.
On the surface, the unrest, marches, riots, destruction, and outcry of the Chilean people started over 30 Chilean pesos—about 5 cents in USD. However, as many protesters have said, this is not about 30 pesos, it is about the past 30 years of inequality that was enabled and exacerbated by the implementation of neoliberalism and capitalism during the Pinochet Dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Chile is one of the most privatized countries in the world and is infamously known as the neoliberal experiment. Thanks to Pinochet and the Chicago Boys, a group of elite Chileans who studied economics at the University of Chicago and brought their ideas home, it was the first Latin American country where full-fledged free-market capitalism was implemented. To name a few of the reasons beyond the metro as to why people have taken to the streets: Chile lacks a reasonable public pension/social security system, is filled with strong corporate collusion/overpricing for basic resources (water, electricity, medications), workers receive an inadequate minimum wage, and salaries of political elite can be more than 30 times higher than that of the minimum wage.
To say the least, the past week has been an interesting one.
It has been a week of fear, less for myself and much more for my friends, loved ones, and the well-being of the Chilean people who have less access to resources and safety nets than my American program peers and I. It has been a week of sleepovers—when there is a 6 pm curfew and classes are cancelled, sleeping over at two of my friends’ homes was a real treat. It has been a week of connection and conversation, discussions about the current situation and the similarities and differences to the past and also to the United States. It has been a week of staring at screens and trying to stay informed, but also finding myself exhausted from the lack of clear information and also (for my own safety) not being able to attend political events and see the situation with my own eyes. During one of the sleepovers, we had a front-seat view of some protesters burning trash cans and running from assault-rifle bearing police offers and military personnel. This week marks my first time participating in cacerolazos, where you bang empty pots and pans to call for action—I will say my Chilean brother and sister had MUCH better rhythm than me.
The worst part of this week was receiving an email from my study abroad program that we might have to evacuate Chile. I cried for about 30 minutes after reading that email. I understood and appreciated that our safety was their top concern, but my heart ached at the thought of leaving the country and the people that in so little time have come to mean so much to me, as well as the privilege we have to leave without a trace. Fortunately, there are positive signs: the government has begun to listen (and must continue listening), the curfews are a bit later, and the majority of protests are non-violent. I am relieved that for the moment, my program has decided to not cancel the semester!!!
As a US citizen, I am struck by the similarities between Chile and my own country. I also have endless admiration for the political activism of Chileans to fight against corporate abuse and demand a more equal society.
In terms of my personal life, minus the chaos of the past week, things have really started to click here for me. About three weeks ago, I made the decision to switch host families after not feeling very close to my previous family, and also having a lot going on in the house due to an unexpected injury. It has been a super positive change and I adore my new host family, made up of my host mom, my abuelita (she is the CUTEST), my sister Pati, and my brother Ruben, who are both close in age to me. We bake banana bread, knit, watch movies, talk about politics, religion, and history, and fill the house with laughter when we eat once—the light meal that replaces dinner here.
I have limited words now so here’s a few more fun things:
- At my internship at the family and community health center, I organized a meeting with a higher up and have started developing a protocol for how to care for and transport individuals in need of an abortion who qualify for the three circumstances—mother’s heath, viability of the fetus, and rape—that abortion is permissible in Chile. The law around abortions in Chile changed in 2017 (before it had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world) and in the meantime, no one has had the opportunity to develop guidelines for this sensitive situation. I am very excited to contribute my knowledge and energy to develop this much needed protocol.
- When we are cleaning up at my house after eating, I always say, “¿Dónde vive este plato?” or “Where does this plate live?,” instead of “Where do we keep this?,” and my host family thinks it is the CUTEST thing in the world. They always respond something like “Make sure the plate gets home safely!” with a big smile.
- The way you say punch buggy no punch back is “¡Auto huevo pasó! ¡No pasó!” or “The egg car passed by! No, it didn’t!” and the characters from Spongebob Squarepants are named Bob Esponja, Patricio Estrella, and Calamardo (Squidward), and those two facts make me happy. Also, my legal name is Miralah, which is even worse in Spanish than Mira or “look!” One day my friend mentioned something cool I did to his host mom and she responded, “¡Mirala!” or basically “Oooooh look at her!” but he couldn’t stop laughing because she also had just said my legal name.
- There are two SUPER good bubble tea places near me, which is great since I thought I would have to live without it for almost 6 months.
- I was gifted the most amazing purple leather jacket by my polo’s family and now have matching jackets as his 10-year-old little sister who I ADORE, and this picture makes my heart happy :’).
Here’s some more articles about what is going: