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A punto de partir

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Some very brief reflections on my year spent teaching in Chile: 

As I prepare to leave Chile for Ecuador and Colombia and, eventually, the United States, I find myself thinking about the lessons I've learned during my time here. I tend to think of everything in life as a learning experience, so I've compiled a list of important take-aways. Some are more cliche than others. But all of them rang true for me, so I'm going to share them with you in the hopes that they may be helpful. 

  1. Ask for help when you need it.
  2. Working relationships, friendships, and social ties are important. Build them and maintain them.
  3. Not everything goes according to plan. Sometimes that’s for the best, even if it's not readily apparent. 
  4. Be flexible.
  5. Be humble.
  6. Be inquisitive.
  7. Be the only gringa in the room when possible. 
  8. Try new things - constantly.
  9. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  10. Take time to get to know yourself. Step outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself often.

Today I met with Tati and Nati to go ride the teleférico and also sort of as a despedida/farewell. But, the teleférico was closed for maintenance, so we walked around the park and then had juices at a vegan café. It was so nice to spend time with them. Nati gave me a graphic novel called A punto de partir, about a Chilean woman’s travels.

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I had a blast catching up with them. We reflected on my year here in Chile. We talked about relationships, social media, minimalism and documentaries we’ve seen. I think I have progressed with my Spanish even further during this year in Chile because I know I wouldn’t have been able to follow the conversation when I arrived here 10 months ago. Although I would have been able to understand the Spanish, the cultural elements and Chilean modismos would have been largely inaccessible to me. But, out of necessity, I have become more culturally literate since I got here.

My time spent with Tati and Nati made me realize that I'll miss my friends and coworkers here in Chile un montón. (Shoutout to everyone at Plaza Oeste and un abrazo enorme.) But I know I will take the next step in life confidently, many thanks to you all, with the knowledge that I am resilient and capable.

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A Day in the Life

Tuesdays and Fridays are feria days. After months of acclimating myself to the very special relationship caseros have with their clients at these open-air markets, I have begun to love the feria. Everyone’s yelling TOMATE FRESQUITO LECHUGA RICA TODO BUENO TODO RICO and singing MAL DE AMORES COMO ME DEJASTE CORAZON to the music being blasted out of beaten-up trucks filled with cauliflower and what seems to be the bounty of an entire orange grove. Salsa, bachata, cumbia. Never reggaeton for fear of offending the señoras. A pair of mutts fight over a stray ear of corn, stolen from an unsuspecting casera.

My caseros know what I like and what I don’t like. They hand me bananas, chirimoya to try – sin compromiso. Directo del campo. They call me reina, hermosa, rubia: queen, beautiful, blonde. Generally this specific variety of gendered nicknames grates on my nerves, but not from my caseros. They hold out halved mangoes glistening in the overbearing sun, an offering. Pruebe, profe.

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The caseros get jealous – just like lovers –  when I buy from someone else. If I choose to buy my broccoli from another offering a better price, I must prepare myself for my casero’s inevitable rebuff the next time I stop at his stand. Me engañó, they will say. You cheated on me. To which I will play my part by looking ashamed, but shrugging my shoulders. An ice queen.

I walk back home with a carrito full of broccoli, peppers, apples, pears, cilantro, bananas, guayaba, chirimoya, and palta. Whatever doesn’t fit into the carrito I carry in a bag on my shoulder.

There’s traffic getting to school – protestas against AFP. NO MAS AFP they shout, while I bury myself in underground mycorrhizal networks and fungi-tree communication, the newest addition to my morning podcast circuit. I arrive at school about 10 minutes late due to the traffic, pero paso piola.

My students are rambunctious, ready for the weekend. One student wants to know why eggplants are called eggplants, even though they certainly aren’t part-egg, part-plant. I silently curse my apparently lacking etymological knowledge and resort to Google.

As we’re grappling with the intricacies of the past perfect, the projector screen starts to wobble. Then, the floor begins moving under our feet. Ah, a temblor, I think. A tremor. These mini-earthquake-like murmurs are frequent in Chile and almost never progress into full-fledged earthquakes. I tell everyone to settle down, that class will continue as usual. I wave at my coworker across the hall.

Tenemos que evacuarnos. A la casa, entonces. No más clase hoy. The students prod me to dismiss class early, but to no avail.

I think they’re working the “Gringa teacher doesn’t have any experience with earthquakes so maybe she’ll get scared and let us go early” angle, until I notice other teachers walking down the stairs with their students in tow. Turns out, it was a fairly sizable one, about a 6.3 on the Richter scale.

So I accidentally teach class during an veritable earthquake.

My students confer upon me the title of “badass,” which I graciously accept.

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During lunch, I work on a story about a young immigrant to the U.S., but immediately hate it and throw it away.

My last class of the day is more relaxed, with only four students showing up, more likely because it’s Friday than because of the recent earthquake. A student who doesn’t usually participate at all is wearing a shirt that says Surf Something or Another, so I ask him if he surfs. He says yes. We talk about how he loves surfing and how I tried once in Pichilemu, but could barely stand up on the board. He seems to like this story. He laughs. I planned a creative activity in which students go on “the perfect date” in partners to practice phrases of agreement. Surf Dude actively participates and asks questions, much to my surprise. He struggles a bit at first, but eventually gets the gist. Most classes, I can’t get him to look up from his phone. This time, he doesn’t even glance at it once.

At the end of class, as he’s making his way toward the door and I’m erasing the board, I tell him, “Bien hecho hoy. Super.” I smile and he smiles back.

Honestly, I have no idea if he got anything out of the class or even if he’s going to pass English, but our brief exchange feels meaningful.

[Reflecting, I hope I can have more of these moments in the future. I hope to provoke similar exchanges in the university setting with literature and/or anthropology. These types of interactions are fulfilling and remind me that it’s all a learning process.]

On the way home, I stop to grab an impromptu guanabana juice on the street. This one in particular is subpar, but I like it because it came from the same guy I see every day. Not Jamba Juice, not Starbucks. A guy with a blender. A guy who frowns at me when I ask for a lid as if I had just committed a cardinal sin. No name tag, no apron, just a scowl.

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At home, I make a giant salad and head to yoga. After, I try to write, but wind up reading about B12 deficiency and soil erosion.

The next day, I take a bus to Isla Negra, one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses in Chile. Incidentally, it’s the last one I haven’t seen yet.

It is predictably beautiful, right on the beach, with fat, green shrubbery pushing out pink flowers like flares. Somewhat less predictably, it is neither an island nor black, contrary to the place’s name.

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I imagine sleeping in the white bed overlooking the ocean and writing in Neruda’s signature green ink in his nook fashioned after his childhood home in the South of Chile.

An audio guide informs me that one of the Nobel Laureate’s wooden statues is considered to bring life-long bad luck to anyone who looks at it too long,- the same one I have been staring at for the last ten minutes.

I buy chocolate-covered walnuts from a señora stationed outside Neruda’s house. She is wearing the quintessential blue apron and her eyes twinkle as she talks about her grandchildren. She was born and raised in Isla Negra and has never been to Santiago. “My name is Elisinia,” she says, showing off her English skills. When we finally part ways, she says, “Que Dios le bendiga.” The habitual blessing hangs in the air between us like a net. “A usted, también,” I call after her.

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On the beach, Allison and I talk about our childhoods.

“Isn’t it weird how I can remember exactly how those red popsicles taste all these years later?”

“How do they taste?”

A long pause.

“Red.”

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We laugh. Ultimately, we even find a loophole in the perennial  stalemate between Reese’s fans and Team Oreo – those long tubes of pure sugar called Pixie Stix that surely trump all other candies. We praise ourselves for making diplomatic headway.

Waxing philosophical, we wonder what the most important thing in life is. Allison thinks interpersonal connections are at the meat of the issue. I broaden the idea to include connections of all kinds, including connecting with nature, with animals, and with oneself, and I’m satisfied.

That’s what it boils down to, we decide. We don’t even exist independently – we are the result of the combination of two sets of chromosomes. We are conjoined creatures, adept at interlocking and knitting together in different formations.

I like to think that is what I was doing with Surf Dude in my class, with the friendly señora selling chocolates.  I like to think that’s what we’re doing here, on this beach in Chile, spinning our own webs beyond the intimacy of our family and friends back home, extending the net further and further. I carry them all, as they do with me.  We polish each other like sea glass.

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September 11th/Once de septiembre

Today, my friend and coworker took me to La Moneda, the Chilean equivalent of the White House.

In Chile, September 11th is the anniversary of the 1973 golpe de estado, ousting left-leaning Salvador Allende and installing General Augusto Pinochet as president. The resulting military dictatorship would last decades, making it the longest and one of the bloodiest regimes in el Cono Sur.

Having studied human rights in Latin America, I have always had a special interest in the Pinochet dictatorship. I’ve been to the Museo de memoria, the detention centers, I’ve seen the murals, visited the shrines. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a survivor of one of the torture centers and of helping to tell her story.

At La Moneda, the police had blocked off the entire area to pedestrians, but they waved us in, believing I was foreign journalist authorized to be there. It was a small, somber gathering. There were bouquets and floral arrangements at the door from which Allende’s body was taken out. Some placed photos of the “disappeared,” or desaparecidos, by a statue of Allende. A little boy left a red carnation at the makeshift altar.

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My friend’s mother began to cry as she recounted seeing bodies thrown into the Mapocho River. “It was the first time I ever saw a dead body,” she told me. She mentioned that the militares came to her uncle’s house and burned all his political books in one giant pyre. Most dissidents were either shot on the spot or taken to detention centers where they were tortured until their deaths. She didn’t say what happened to her uncle.

“It must have been hard to raise children during that time,” I said.

“There were no diapers, no food. The wives of the militares sometimes brought things to the hospitals. There was nothing.”

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This reconstruction of collective memory and processes of reconciliation are just as salient in the U.S. as in Chile.

Thinking back to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., I remember being shuffled in and out of classrooms, teachers refusing to disclose any information about what had happened, and my mom finally coming to pick me up from school.

I like stories of human resilience, of solidarity. I recently saw a Nat Geo photo of onlookers in New York, gathered on a rooftop, watching the Towers fall. Two were kissing, three men sat together in awe, and one person just lied on his back, looking up.

Photo credit: Robert Clark, National Geographic 

My mom and I didn’t hug and cry and tell each other how much we loved one another that day. We didn’t console each other. We wouldn’t have made a great story of human solidarity by any stretch of the imagination. I probably demanded McDonald’s on the way home and she likely conceded. We were invariably quiet in the car, my angsty pre-teen scowl doing most of the talking.

But at La Moneda, there is a sense of connection, a coming together to commemorate the past. A mother and her daughter stand hand-in-hand by the statue. The tears falling down my friend’s face are mirrored by a dozen other santiaguinos’ gathered there. Slowly, the group of police officers surrounding the shrine grows increasingly impatient. We move on, taking our time maneuvering over the cobblestones.

“Es una falta de libertad,” a nearby woman whispers to her daughter, nodding to the police. It’s a lack of freedom. Her hair is graying and she leans on her shopping carrito for support. Who knows what she had seen at that very spot decades ago? Her daughter will never know the fear her mother felt, the scrounging for bread, the desaparecidos who were her uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. All she will have will be her mother’s stories.

What stories will she tell?

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EN UNA SOLA VIDA HAY MUCHAS VIDAS

Valparaíso is the perfect microcosm of life – messy, smelly, and painfully beautiful like your first heartbreak. The gas delivery man’s banging out a tune on the propane tanks, a message in Morse code, tells you to get out of bed, look yourself in the mirror, and try again.

The porteños, or port dwellers, are known for their perfect blend of nostalgia and joie de vivre. Here are a people accustomed to battling the ocean day after day for time immemorial. The wins and losses are kept tally in cemeteries, back-alley bars and lovers’ lips. In the Cemetery of Dissidents, stray dogs guard the crypts of ancient Englishmen and their Chilean mistresses. “Náufrago,” reads tomb after tomb – shipwreck.

If santiaguinos deem porteños “rough around the edges,” it is because life’s jaws don’t chew you up and then spit you out with rounder, softer edges like human sea glass. They leave wounds – sometimes jagged ones. Instead of hiding their scars, porteñostattoo them on legs, arms, necks, and trade scar stories like Blackbeard and his pirate cronies.

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At the Ex-Cárcel, an old prison now converted into a public park, a group of teenagers dances to a kultrun beat, enacting a fight scene representing Mapuche resistance. Lower on the hill, someone blows the whistle on an abandoned train car – some baron’s get-richer-quick endeavor that never panned out in this uneven terrain. A man with a bottle stumbles by and spits on the teenagers’ shoes. Pablo Neruda’s old house winks at us from a little further down the coast.

It dawns on me that I was in this exact spot two years ago. It was here at the ex-cárcel that we saw the Great Fire of Valparaíso start – at first it was a thin, coal line in the distance, then ash started to rain down on us as it billowed up into a mushroom cloud. Thousands upon thousands of homes were destroyed. Then came the relief effort – we volunteered at shelters, we gathered food, clothes, diapers, we picked through the rubble in the hills to find cats and dogs. I remember going to the store with my former partner, then my friend, to buy cans of soup, pasta, pads, tampons, and toothpaste for people who lost everything. We were broke students and parting with our few lukas was hard, but it felt good to do something, anything, to help.

And the city was rebuilt.

Not all of it, of course. There are still empty patches of land were homes once stood. In fact, there are still mountains of debris where buildings fell from the 2010 earthquake. The people seem to tolerate such shrines not as eyesores, but as historical relics.

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Maybe not everything is meant to be rebuilt.

Looking back at the last two years of my own life, I realize how much I’ve grown as a person. The process hasn’t been painless. Falling in love, traveling around Peru and Bolivia in broken-down buses with chickens, finishing my last year of college, heartbreak, a few miserable jobs, and one colonoscopy later, here I am.

I’m a planner. I’ve always liked to be organized and have a rough outline of the next stages of my life, a neat little list so I could check off each box as I went.

I have no plan now. I’m throwing my hat in the ring for things like grad school, scholarships, and grants. I want to do a million different things. I want to write, to do yoga, to travel, to make delicious vegan food, to hike, to do research, to help others, and to have the type of friends who laugh at my terrible jokes at 3:00 am.

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As I write this, there’s a protest going on outside my window against the AFP with live Cumbia music. I should be studying for the GRE, but I close my eyes and listen, rapt. “La tierra no se vende,” a woman sings.

I would like to end on this note:

One of my favorite spoken word poets said, “The breaking is the holiest part.”

Maybe not everything is meant to be put back together – a gutted, abandoned train car, an earthquake-stricken building, the galley of a sunken ship collecting barnacles at the bottom of the sea. All testaments that we were here, we tried, and we will try again.

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Fear and Loathing in Santiago: Reflections on the Florida Mass Shooting

This morning at 5:00 am as the mass shooting in a Florida gay club was taking place, I was heading back from a gay club here in Santiago. I wasn’t feeling great and had planned to stay in, but my friend convinced me of the meritoriousness of this particular club. I got all dolled up for the event, shiny black spaghetti-strap top, slinky black leggings and boots. I even did my makeup – eyeliner, mascara, lipgloss that was supposed to say, “I’m fun and flirty and definitely would not rather be in my bed reading right now instead of at this club” - clearly duplicitous lipgloss because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wore a fake, gemmed septum nose ring to feel out if I want the real thing. I never know what to do with my unruly hair, so I left that alone, falling down my shoulders and back in what could politely be called “waves,” or more accurately “kinks from sleeping with wet hair plastered to my face.”

We were accompanied by my landlady’s friend, a transwoman who works the club scene. We talked about micropenises and makeup, machismo in Latin America, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and feeling safe (or not) in the streets. “Girly stuff,” she said.

At the club, I quickly remembered I hate large groups, loud noise, and cigarette smoke, which was not ideal for the situation in which I found myself. In line for the coat check, a large, seemingly out-of-place older man came up from behind me and almost pinned my friend up against the wall, until some onlookers pushed him back. As we snaked our way through the crowd, at least three men stopped us to try to talk to us, kiss us, or grope us.

Throughout the whole night, I was vigilant, wary, and even afraid at various points. As a woman, I was worried someone would slip something into my drink. So I didn’t carry one; I opted for a bottle of water. I was careful not to make eye contact, not to walk a certain way, not to smile too much. I was uncomfortable and on-edge when numerous men tried to grab me, touch me, kiss me, or otherwise invade my personal space. I was palpably afraid while taking a taxi home alone in an unsafe area.

But never once was I afraid of dying in a mass shooting.

All this week I’ve seen photos of my friends at various Pride events in the U.S., decked out in their rainbow regalia and I have to admit I felt jealous. Lately I’ve been missing my queer community in the U.S. I’ve missed my safe spaces and places for intersectional discourse and dialogue. I’ve deeply missed diversity in gender expression and sexual identity. I miss my genderqueer folks, my flamboyantly gay friends, my masculine-presenting lesbians, and everyone in between. I miss feeling safe and accepted for who I am.

When I woke up this morning and heard about the Florida shooting, I realized that it’s still not safe to be who we are, even in the supposed haven of LGBTQ rights. Reading the news articles laced with thinly-veiled anti-Muslim slurs, I realized how deeply-rooted our problems as a society are.

As I write this, I notice my contacts are blurring from the onset of tears. I’m crying not only for my community, but for my Muslim friends who woke up to this news and immediately anticipated the number of times strangers would shout “terrorist” at them this week. I’m crying for my roommate who was refused service at a convenience store yesterday because of the color of her skin. I’m crying for my nineteen-year-old self, when I was sexually assaulted on campus and the first questions I was asked were, “What were you wearing?” and “Why were you alone?”

This is my generation, my family.

I would love to end this essay on a note of optimism. I would love to say that I think hate crimes, mass shootings, and general bigotry are on the decline in the United States and that in 5 or 10 years my children won’t even be able to relate this acute pain we’re feeling right now. But I would be lying.

It’s 2016 and we are subject to more mass shootings, not fewer. We’re seeing an increase in hate crimes, not a decline. And the discourse surrounding such issues is increasingly and more vehemently Otherizing, not less.

This is the myth of progress. We equate the passage of time to the improvement of society without critically analyzing what, if any, progress has actually been made. Of course, Jim Crow laws have officially been abolished and universal suffrage has been won throughout the course of recent decades. However, I don’t know about you, but I’m still fighting for a world in which my Black friend can leave the house without fear of being shot with impunity, in which I can hold my (hypothetical) girlfriend’s hand in the street without hearing threats of physical violence. A world in which you can go see a movie, go for a walk, or go dancing without fearing for your life.

I truly hope that significant change is around the corner. I won’t be so bold as to offer a panacea for all the world’s problems, but I do know that solidarity matters. Supporting your friend as she comes out to her parents matters. Engaging with and explaining to your mother why words such as “thug” she hears on Fox News are racially-coded and specifically intended to do harm matters. Understanding that Women’s liberation is directly linked to Black liberation which is directly connected to Queer liberation matters.

My roommate told me over tea the other day, “I’m so grateful to have met you. I’m so involved with the Black Lives Matter movement that I don’t really step outside that often, I don’t know much about queer issues. It’s so important to listen and hear other perspectives. Don’t you think?”

I do.

floridaPhoto credit: startribute.com

Bendiciones

June is the month for storms here.

Today, a man selling sugar-coated peanuts told me, “La lluvia es una bendición de Dios.” Rain is a blessing from God.

I laughed and said, “Maybe, but it’s not very nice to walk in.”

He guffawed, revealing two missing teeth and a glint of silver.

He kept smiling as I walked away.

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Machismo and Mascara: Making Up with Makeup

Wherever you go, there you are.

During my angsty adolescence, there were times when I would have genuinely preferred to die rather than go to the grocery store without wearing makeup.

I would like to say that this pathology had its roots in mainstream media’s gag reflex-provoking beauty tropes and messages of inadequacy, but the truth is perhaps more than skin-deep.

When I was in my early teens, my mom and I moved across town. I use the term “across town” liberally here since I am from Small Town, Texas – it was essentially packing all our things up and carrying them the ten feet to our new apartment.

She and I were makeup-less and sweaty from packing and carrying the boxes. We decided to take a lunch break at Panera, the staple casual eatery of Small Town. As my mom was placing the order, she kept telling the young guy at the cash register, “I’m so sorry, I’m a mess. We’re just moving, you see. I don’t usually go out like this. Please forgive our appearance.”

That one line stuck with me: “Please forgive our appearance.” My mother wasn’t apologizing because she was dressed inappropriately or insufficiently. She was apologizing that she did not adequately embody the regurgitated standards of beauty plastered in magazines and billboards, the glossy version of femininity that is as startlingly plastic as it is unattainable.

My mother was apologizing for being human.

It was in that moment that I vowed to never apologize for my humanity. I wouldn’t say sorry for a zit, a wrinkle, a mole, a sweat stain after working out or hiking. I would confront the world with the reality of personhood, of womanhood.

In college I almost disavowed makeup entirely. It felt good. But I also didn’t quite feel like myself, since I’ve always enjoyed some of the more archetypal trappings of femininity, including dresses, jewelry, and, occasionally, makeup. For me, these two ideas of representing the reality of womanhood combined with traditional aspects of femininity were not mutually exclusive.

Image courtesy of Youtube.com

At the same time, I found it repulsive that I was essentially required to wear makeup for a summer job in real estate at the risk of losing my livelihood. That an overt and conventional display of femininity was demanded of me in order to survive was problematic, to say the least. Before, I had dabbled in clothes and makeup when I felt like it; now it was compulsory. Even for a self-proclaimed “femme,” this element of societal pressure to conform and appeal to the male gaze, for the express purpose of surviving, was too much for me.

So, of course, I rebelled. I refused to wear makeup initially, then I conceded to wear nude lipstick or light mascara. But I resented every minute of it, this act of presenting myself for the consumption of others. Moreover, to sell goods – houses, in this case. Embodying both Stepford Wife and Saleswoman has never been my forte, but in this case it felt particularly stifling. The plucking of hairs, the waxing, the buffing, the powdering, the painting of skin, of nails, of hair, was not a labor of love. Rather, it was strictly labor. The modification of my body and the way in which I interact with the world in exchange for paper bills expressing my monetary value. Such papers would then, in turn, be exchanged for food, clothes, and other elements required for subsistence.

I had never thought about the phrase “to earn a living” until I was placed in such a position. The implication of the statement is, “You must earn the right to live.” In that moment, my right to live and my desirability as an object for masculine consumption were intimately interlocked.

That experience presented me with a whole slew of new issues to introspect when it came to my gender presentation, especially with regard to makeup.

It was the age-old question of, “Do you wear the mask or does the mask wear you?”

Image courtesy of Popsugar.com

I came to the conclusion that refusing to leave the house without makeup was unhealthy, but so was shunning my entire gender presentation out of fear or due to a misguided principle.

I was toying with all of these thoughts simultaneously when I arrived in Chile. While sexism surely exists in both the US and Latin America, machismo is arguably a distinctly Latin American phenomenon.

Street harassment, or what is blithely referred to as “tirar piropos,” is quite common. A few weeks ago, I was walking in an isolated area when I heard the familiar whistles and garabatos.

There were about four men in total, and they followed me at least five blocks until I turned onto a main road. Naturally, I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable during the whole ordeal. You never know when things are going to turn ugly – in Latin America or in the US.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it was something about my gender presentation – the pink scarf, the long hair, the necklace. If only I had dressed differently, did my hair differently, did anything at all differently.

Upon further reflection, however, I decided to take the more suitable, more holistically apt stance of, “Fuck them, I should be able to wear whatever I want and still feel safe.”

My face when someone starts mansplaining to me. “OOOH TELL ME MORE ABOUT WOMEN’S RIGHTS, KIND SIR.” [Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com]

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Especially when your body is made to feel like public property both at home and abroad.

Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to meet some wonderful folks working to combat street harassment and to promote gender equality in Chile. I interviewed a fellow teacher and friend about this very issue. One of the questions I posed to her was, “What can we as a society do to combat street harassment?” Her answer was that we need to educate youth about consent. She also mentioned that we need to stop placing the blame on victims of street harassment and sexual abuse by asking, “What was she wearing?” or “Why was she out so late?”

I think that’s a fantastic start. I’ll also echo her sentiment that women need to occupy public spaces openly and often. We should feel comfortable taking up space, both literally and figuratively.

Here’s to the folks of all genders working to make public spaces safer for everyone.

Down with manspreading and up with makeup! Or, more accurately, up with doing whatever the hell you want with your body because it’s yours and belongs entirely to you!

Dear reader: Hopefully one day our paths will cross on the metro, you with your earbuds in and me with my nose in a book. Each of us taking up as much space as we need and feeling completely and totally safe. We’ll smile at each other, a knowing smile, and then continue on with our days.

Until then,
J

Teaching Update: Adorable Things that Are Adorable

During my favorite class, the one with my graphic design students, I intended to take a short video of them doing an activity and submit it to a video contest. So, I bought some cookies and played some music in class. I asked them to finish the sentence “I like English because…” and draw a corresponding picture. For example, if they liked to read in English, they could draw a book.

I only intended for the activity to last 20 minutes maximum, but they were soooo into it. I’ve never seen them so motivated before. They were sharing ideas, staying on-task, drawing, writing, jumping out of their seats to participate.

They really wanted to help me win, which was nice. I promised them desserts if I won, but still. I could tell it was coming from a genuine desire to help.

Javier, who is one of my favorite students, directed the whole thing. He had everyone form a circle and I filmed from the center of the circle, so it would be more fluid. He even chose which background to use. He’s incredibly artistic.

After the class, three students stayed 20 minutes late to edit the video for me. Javier was telling me where to go for tattoo design ideas and which studios are the best. Tomás was telling me how to learn to draw, and Diego edited the video.

I was thrilled to find something that really motivates them. Now I know what to do in my lesson plans for the future – anything that has to do with drawing, design, photography.

It was such a good feeling to have them doing something they loved. I could see how happy it made them.

That’s one really cool thing about teaching.

Hopefully I’ll have tons more of these stories to share in the months to come. Knock on wood.

 

GRACIAS Y NADA MÁS

“The ends of the earth are never the points on a map that colonists push against, enlarging their sphere of influence. On one side servants and slaves and tides of power… On the other the first step by a white man across a great river, the first sight (by a white eye) of a mountain that has been there forever.”

–  Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Admittedly a few of my “discoveries” in Chile while studying abroad were from this perspective of the colonial veranda. That is, looking at local culture from the comfort of a metaphorical (or literal) air-conditioned bus, without having to step out into the mud. I say “a few” because I consciously pushed myself outside my comfort zone so much that I eventually fell off the bus entirely.

But, still, I find myself reflecting on this idea of discovery, of exploration, of conquest. As much as I eschew jingoism and imperialism, I occasionally “discover” Chilean cultural idiosyncrasies that I immediately analyze from my distinctly gringo worldview. Notions of time and punctuality, for example, are distinct in each culture, with the Chilean view of time being much more flexible.

Over the weekend, a friend and I went to el Cajón de Maipo, a mountain range that’s only an hour outside Santiago. We hiked five or six kilometers, then hitchhiked with a Swiss-Chilean family, got a tour of their Refugio Suizo, then hiked another however many kilometers to one of the mountain peaks. We stopped every once in a while to share the food we had packed: a cucumber, tomato, crackers. I have this theory that a hunk of raw vegetable in the mountains tastes better than any five-star restaurant in Paris. My French roommate disagrees. But she’s never tasted snow from the cumbre at the Cordillera de los Andes at sunrise after walking so far your legs just about fall off. But, then again, I’ve never been to Paris. So my theory’s up in the air.

In any case, seeing the snow-capped peak of the cajón reminded me of this sensation of discovery. I was overcome with the desire to capture the moment, to have it forever. Of course, photographs were taken, including photos of myself in front of the mountain, selfies, and photos of the mountain range itself from countless angles. Again, discovery. Seeing (with my white eye) for the first time a mountain that has existed forever. I wanted viewers of the photo to know I had been there (and there would be an audience, thanks to social media). Moreover, I wanted to remember, to petrify in amber that single moment, to conquer both time and space in one click.

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The irony, of course, is that that mountain will be around for a hell of a lot longer than I will. That anything I do, anything I “conquer” is almost inconsequential next to that formidable chunk of earth. It may be that this is what people are referring to when they speak of the tranquility of nature. It’s a humbling experience to realize how small you are. But also a freeing one.

The real discovery was this: There’s nothing to conquer except myself, nothing to “discover” except for myself, and nothing to preserve for all eternity. The “discovery” in question, then, is really about my own personal evolution. The mountain changes you; you don’t change the mountain. So it goes.

Ondaatje writes in The English Patient about the namelessness, the nationlessness of the desert. The shedding of skins, the clothing of countries. How some can die happily, nameless in the desert, and others want every sand dune to bear their names. In particular, there’s one wealthy English adventurer who wants an entire oasis named after him. Naturally, he “discovered” nothing in the true sense of the word – the Bedouin had lived there for centuries.

The audacity to believe your eyes, your name, are the only ones that matter.

Herodotus writes, “For those cities that were great in earlier times must have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before.” Shit changes. Empires rise and fall. Your name will be washed away by sand or by sea.

The important thing, I think, is to have seen, done, touched, tasted, smelled. Reflected, analyzed, concluded, learned.

That brings me to the gratitude part of this lengthy internal monologue. The other day I saw a wall of shrines dedicated to deceased family members who granted concedidos or prayers for the living. Most of them said things like, “Gracias por el favor concedido, Aníbal, 5 marzo 1958” or “Muchas gracias por el favor concedido – Gina.”

One plaque in the center read simply, “GRACIAS Y NADA MÁS.”

The more I thought about it, the more profound it became. No name, no date, no reason given. Just, “THANK YOU AND NOTHING MORE.”

That’s all that was necessary. An expression of unindividuated gratitude unbound to time or place.

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That night I looked up at the sky in Santiago Centro and cried. Despite the inevitable smog that comes with life in a capital city, I could distinctly make out the Big Dipper and a slew of other constellations. Likely my emotions were at least in part due to my sappy poet’s heart and my natural inclination towards over-romanticizing. But I also felt a tremendous overflowing of gratitude that usually comes with this feeling of being small, humble, nameless and nationless. When being Seer of Stars is more than enough.

Folks taking the time to read this – I hope this week grants you at least one moment of the kind of peace that comes with desert namelessness or star-gazing. I wish you the type of gratitude that surpasses both giver and recipient.

As a final note, I would like to thank my fellow teachers for their kindness and generosity this past week and for going out of their way to make me feel welcome.

A Tale of Two Cities

On the bus to work yesterday, I saw a man ration a single piece of bread to last the entire day. A couple hours later, a few miles away, I saw a woman with a diamond ring drinking Evian in a supermarket.

To describe Santiago as segregated would be an understatement. The northeastern portion of the city, Las Condes, could be easily equated to Manhattan. The southwest, then, is the Chilean equivalent of the Bronx. I work in the southwest in a little town called Cerrillos. Something that has become exceptionally salient to me is the trash in Cerrillos. There are few trash cans and the ones that are there are spilling over with garbage.

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I forgot cleanliness existed until I went to Las Condes for a dentist’s appointment. The streets were pristine and litter couldn’t be found for miles. Even on the metro, I noticed a distinct change – with each stop the passengers entering got whiter, blonder, and thinner. With each stop on the way to Las Condes the passengers wore more and more expensive clothes – often European brands. With each stop they were noticeably more and more hesitant to touch the sticky handrails or to make eye contact with their fellow travelers.

This whole “garbage discourse,” if you will, made me reflect on my own positionality in the United States. We tend to be oblivious to this discordant juxtaposition of the Haves and Have Nots in the US, unless you happen to be in New York City, for example. This style of living could be likened to life in a bubble. In fact, at my alma mater, students often referred to the area immediately surrounding the campus as the “Georgetown Bubble,” separating a wealthy area of town from the nearby pockets of abject poverty. That is, students could go four entire years sipping their iced-mocha-fraps at the local Starbucks without ever having to venture into those yet-to-be-gentrified sectors of the city.

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Here in Santiago, the contrast is absolutely unavoidable. It’s shocking to note that the people on the southwestern side of the city are the ones keeping Las Condes clean. They’re the construction workers, the dishwashers, the lawn movers for the rich in Las Condes. Las Condes depends on sectors like Cerrillos to function.

Incidentally, the receptionist and maintenance staff at the dentist’s office I went to were all from Cerrillos. The dentist was from Las Condes. He had traveled all around Europe, Australia, and the US, spoke perfect English and French, and showed me a photo of him with Steven Spielberg. When I asked him if he’d ever been to Cerrillos, he said, “It’s too dirty.”

To conclude this dialectic on cleanliness, I’ll summarize Simone de Beauvoir paraphrasing a founding father of the Catholic Church: “You have to have gutters to keep the palace clean.”

On whom does your palace depend?

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