Traveling naturally causes a rub of cultures, and nowhere have I noticed this more than in Chile. I spent my first semester bouncing between various reactions to that friction. Nº 1 I’ll call Self-Righteous Structured Capitalist Meets Socialism + Burocracy + Constant Strikes, which went something like: “ahhhh! why do they do things like that? what do you mean I have to wait 4 months for my visa and then wait in line for 3 hours to actually get it? how are three people necesary to sell me a pencil???”. Nº 2 I’ll call the Poor Lost Lamb (AKA White Girl), that went something like: “how do people just know how things work here magically? like paying the parking guard, or tipping the mailman, or coming exactly 1.5 hours late to parties and sometimes right on time, or always bringing your own toilet paper?”. Nº 3 I’ll call The Awakening, which went something like: “oh my gosh, why has my whole life not been like this? tax-evading street vendors and sidewalk street markets are the bomb! how come we never get off our scared little lily-white bums and participate in sweeping 3-month strikes about causes we believe in?”.
Thankfully, for the sake of my daily sanity, by the time my second semester rolled around, new insights had started to take the place of all that “???” and “!!!”. I’ve reached Stage 4: Meta Anti-Shock. Now, instead of freaking out, I reflect on all of those things that I no longer have to think about as I live here. Catching buses is a breeze, and I am never without my personal supply of toilet paper. But the more I reflect, or rather, the more I watch myself reflecting on my experiences differently, the more I get a little bit scared. I am watching myself build, before my own eyes, the cozy cottage of my own complacency.
It’s scary because I think that getting used to the status quo is one of the most dangerous things that we, as comunity members and citizens, can do. There are a lot of protests going on in Chile right now. It’s normal that everyone take to the streets on the day of their State of the Union equivalent, which was May 21st, but besides that, there have been ongoing student protests since 2011 to demand free and quality university education. Public school teachers are going on indefinite strike to demand fair working conditions, hospital workers as well. I know this isn’t the first time I’ve said this, but people here know how to occupy their streets!
It’s not all waving socialist banners and kumbaya in the calle, though. In my poetry class on Wednesday, the professor started talking about how the protests have gotten more and more violent with time, that now the carabineros (police force) incite violence, needlessly exacerbating the effect that any hooligans, rabble rousers and agitators might have in the mostly peaceful crowd. On the 21st, a kid fell from the water that specialized police tanker trucks spray on protesters, hitting his head so hard that if he survives, he’ll be severely brain damaged. The week before, two protesters were shot and killed by a resident who didn’t want graffiti on his building. While my professor fits perfectly any stereotype that exists about quiet, academic, faintly awkward and sensitive poets, his sensitivity to the violence is well-placed. And it reminds me of the emotional space I inhabited upon my arrival here.
As I slowly desentitize to the sluggish burocracy of Chile, I don’t want to forget to re-sensitize, as well, to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, gender-based violence and climate change along with the US, re-sensitize to cripplingly expensive higher education, teachers paid a mere pittance for too many hours and too many kids, and the human effects of natural disasters along with Chile. While we’ve structured our societies in such a way that these injustices exist, it doesn’t have to be that way.
On May 21st, I got up fairly early and went right away to boil water for my morning tea. I remember looking out of the picture window on the tranquil street as I waited for the water to boil and thinking, someone is going to die in the protests today. The thought was very matter-of-fact. I was then almost immediately horrified that I could be so nonchalant about any human life, much less the life of someone I might know, someone I could have been. While I’m not proud of that inital callous thought, I think I can count being horrified as a good first step re-sensitizing myself to the violence that surrounds me. It really is horrific to think that someone could die because they can’t currently get an education without a lifelong indentured servitude to debt. It’s horrific that news anchors can tell us, with a stony face, the body count, and then go on to talk about the latest equivalent to a Kardashian scandal.
Injustice is drowned in financial sticky sand, violence drowned in noise. But this situation calls for more than a life ring thrown from a safe bank, more than a moment of silence in full lotus.
This situation calls for a moment of horror.