In September of 2007, I arrived in Valparaíso, Chile to study abroad for four months. A friend who had suggested the trip told me that I would be “summer hopping”. I had imagined myself arriving in Chile in the middle of the warmest season. In my mind’s eye I would be wearing a strapless dress and displaying my cool new tattoo – an inscription on my back that would read mariposas amarillas , or yellow butterflies. My new friends and I would speak rapid fire Spanish over endless cigarettes on the beach. We would be decadent.
Unfortunately, I was greeted by a cold, Pacific winter and had lost the courage to get the tattoo before arriving in the puerto principal. Instead of cool Chilean friends, I walked among Pablo Neruda look-a-likes who wore berets and ancient sweaters. They dressed appropriately; it was the kind of cold that demanded wool and thick socks.
Houses in Chile are rarely equipped with proper heating, so at night I shivered beneath my blankets, and during the day my classmates and I packed in as many mango sours as possible to keep from feeling the damp.
One day, in mid September, the weather broke. The sun was shining and my friends and I felt like it might be a nice day for a stroll. So after a field trip to the historic ascensores, or old-fashioned elevators that make the city’s many hills bearable, we decided to walk to our class.
Upon reaching the Universidad de Santa María, we were greeted by attractive twenty-something boys handing out fliers. Yes yes yes, I thought, my luck is changing. Except that I soon realized that there were swarms of boys and girls. They were blocking traffic on the Avenida España, the main thoroughfare between Valparaiso and Viña Del Mar.
Drivers were honking their horns angrily, but the excitement among the crowd was contagious. The students had occupied the university. They were clapping and singing; protesting the forthcoming privatization of universities in Valparaíso. My friends and I were good izquierdistas (lefties) so we wholeheartedly joined in the riot.
For the first time since I had arrived in Chile, I felt connection. This was the contact with young Chileans that I had wanted all along. My friends and I were delirious. I have several pictures of us, three obvious gringas, smiling with raised fists.
The police began spraying water in order to disperse the crowd, but the protest resumed with more gusto than before. Despite the renewed energy, I started to worry. “Should we leave?” I asked my friend. Just as she was telling me that it was fine, the area was covered in tear gas.
I already knew first hand what tear gas is like because of a mishap in France on a festival night. I remembered that the gas gets into your throat, your eyes – some people react worse than others and often collapse. I have to get out of here, I thought, I can’t get caught up.
My friends and I had to fight our way inside the university, but the crowd was panicked. In typical Valparaíso fashion, the campus is located on a hill. We were trapped, easy targets for the police.
Blinded, I ran into one of the canisters spewing the toxic stuff. I screamed and ran as fast as I could uphill, packed in between hundreds of students. I finally reached the summit of the hill and charged the first campus building I saw. Women and men shared bathrooms, exchanging wet paper towels and crying together with red eyes. I looked in the mirror although I still couldn’t fully open my eyes. My face was puffy and didn’t show signs of returning to normal anytime soon.
Finally I left the bathroom and headed for the lecture hall, hoping to find my coordinators. They hadn’t arrived yet, but I saw a man working quietly at his desk. Incensed, I started a round of questioning. Bothering people who have nothing to do with your problem while abroad is a distinctly American skill. For as much as I liked to imagine I had surpassed my own origins, I hadn’t.
“How could this happen?” I asked. “We don’t even go to this university! Who can I complain to?” I lisped in my freshly honed Madrileño Castilian – which really wasn’t helping matters. He looked up at me, his face full of indifference. He was probably about fifty; old enough to have witnessed the highly politicized early 70s, with its militant communists and wealthy young fascists, the election of a socialist president, and the military coup that brought it all to a halt.
Maybe he remembered friends or family who had been detained by the new government and never came back. Perhaps he himself had been tortured by the regime. Or maybe he had supported the dictatorship all along, fed up with the illusion of choice in a manipulated democracy.
The man responded, “If you complain, nothing is going to happen.” And there it was.
I could, with my idealistic American notions about what’s right and fair, raise hell and high water, demanding recognition that the police had done something wrong and unjust. But it wouldn’t matter. People had gone through too much to get upset about something as trifling as tear gas.
I felt that day that the Chilean people are remarkably strong – Isabel Allende has expanded on this theme – because they have experienced governments who regard their citizens as dispensable. They face teargas and possible brutality one day, and the next they continue the struggle, or perhaps they just go on with their lives. It’s a process of moving on that I deeply admire.
After the protest, I went to my teacher’s house to take a shower. My friends and I cleaned up and then drank tea and ate cookies in her kitchen. I looked at her cabinet, which was full of that South American milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated until it’s been opened. “My son and I love it,” my teacher said. Later she told us about protesting in the 70s, and how she became an expert at avoiding and mitigating the harsh effects of tear gas.
Later that night some friends and I went out for pizza and beer. We lingered outside for a while and explored one of Valparaiso’s bohemian neighborhoods, Cerro Alegre. I fell in love with its graffiti, brightly colored buildings, and steep main avenue. We sat together in a funky bar, sharing stories about first loves, listening more intently as our blood alcohol content rose. I laughed that whole night; a way of saying “thanks” to the powers that be that the situation ended well.
The next day was perfect, a winter fog mixed with three cups of tea.