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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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