Living amid the Chilean protests

By Posted on Location: 9 min read
Militares pass by the supermarket.
La Serena, Chile, October 2019

When I was a teenager on holiday in Greece, I went to Albania for the day. That day remains in my mind, not because of the beautiful ancient ruins we explored, nor the earrings I bought, but because of the contrast between the red Coca-Cola signs everywhere you looked and the hordes of malnourished children begging for our money.

I am reminded of that day now, not because here in Chile the people are underweight, I’m told three-quarters of the population could do with losing some of their squidge, but because of the huge discrepancy between the life that is advertised and the life which is affordable.

For me, it started with the mystery of the price of coffee

It got worse every time I faced the white smiling faces used in advertisements and occasionally my frustration with the education system splurted out in my conversations. I struggle to comprehend the passivity of the students. For the country, the blatant inequality is a norm, but then, on Sunday morning, we awoke to find ourselves thrown into a state of emergency.

I’d known things were a mess on Saturday night when I went to bed, with friends and colleagues warning me to stay home. There were blockades on the streets, people broke into supermarkets and there were many fires, including the razing of a supermarket in the neighbouring city of Coquimbo where many of my students and colleagues live.

Traffic lights.
La Serena, October 2019.

Police officers attacked my housemate as he tried to walk home

The only road between the centre of town and our house was full of people and trying to pass through and come home, he got caught.

Fires were already burning when a friend and I passed down Calle Francisco Aguirre on our way home Sunday afternoon, trying to get home in time for the suddenly imposed 8 pm curfew. Soon after we passed, one of the statues, some pompous looking figure with ruffles, was dragged from his plinth and pulled into one of these fires. I figure that this is true, having seen the video and because the same image is on the front page of the local newspaper.

The truth though is always hard to ascertain

Many stories are being told. Some of them horrifying abuses of power. As always, the ones that spread easiest are those which are the most sensationalist. The average granny banging her saucepan because she believes her grandchildren deserve a quality education isn’t front-page news.

The newspaper also says that there was a death

Sunday afternoon in the mall. A 21-year-old boy. I had warnings that the military was shooting in the mall from one of my WhatsApp groups and then rumours flew back and forth, stretching my Spanish vocabulary and leaving me sad and disgusted.

Afterall, the image I think of when we talk about a 21-year-old boy is a nervous face in a classroom trying to find the courage to reply in English and tell me how many siblings he has. Or the stressed face of a young man fumbling over his calculator, not knowing how to use the bracket symbols.

Casarolaza.
La Serena, october 2019.

Inequality is tied to education

Not just English and mathematics but also self-discipline and the ability to make rational decisions. This educational struggle for the young people here was at the forefront of my mind on Monday, when I met up with some Venezuelan friends. We drank beer and chatted in Spanglish about the challenges that face us. The students have a genuine problem with paying attention in class, they’re passive and disengaged.

I’m told that many schools have large classes with poorly paid teachers

At university, I watch my physics students using a calculator to multiply single digits. They mess with their phones throughout their classes, having passed through a failing system is it surprising that they are disenchanted with learning. They’re stuck in this place for at least five years learning things I learnt at secondary school. No wonder they’re bored. I worry about how they manage their finances. There is an aggressive credit system here which preys on the vulnerable leading to a culture of deep personal debt.

The trajectory is worrying.

“The police officers, of whom we do not approve, are providing the president with oral sex.”
La Serena, October 2019.

Meeting up with my Venezuelan friends proved a calming influence

They know about living in a state of emergency under curfew with the military haphazardly shooting at protesters in broad daylight. If you’ve left your country because of the chaos, then you’re already adept at adapting to changing circumstances and having the military on the streets and a curfew in place is probably not so frightening. For them it’s sad, but unlike me, they’ve seen it before.

Haphazardly is my word

Perhaps it’s all organised and just appears haphazard to me because of the videos I’ve seen and my ‘British’ sensitivity to guns. Or perhaps the military here are mostly kids given guns with too much of a sense of power in their heads but still lacking in some of the same self-discipline and ability to make rational decisions.

The military and police are hated here

Until this week I hadn’t quite comprehended how angry the population are with those who enforce the law. They are despised. A long-term dislike and disrespect for the military and police are part of the culture here. The crowds chant against them. Police cars drive past, their sides dented. Graffiti describing the officers in vulgar terms now covers the city.

Wreckage has changed the city. The building in town have been boarded up. Traffic lights lay on the sandy barren earth. The statues along the main street of Francisco Aguirre hold cardboard signs and wear masks. I wonder though, what lesson is the state teaching the people by shooting at the looters and arsonists? Disregarding the sanctity of their lives (however badly behaved they might be) isn’t going to lead them to respect state property.

It’s all incredibly sad.

I’m struggling to comprehend the situation

An Argentinian friend likens it to Argentina in 2001, a Chilean friend talks about 1973. I read pages on Wikipedia and try to catch up with my history. However, I’m still looking at it from the outside. I still have my European perspective. I’m missing a comprehension of the psychology of the people. Something like this doesn’t just happen, the resentment has been building up for a long time.

Trying to relax and not think about the sadness that permeates the country, I spent Monday afternoon with pink flowers in my hair

They were presented to me by a friend’s four-year-old daughter while we drank our beers and Venezuelan rum, apparently (and believably) one of the top five in the world. Then I was treated to Venezuelan hot-dogs, there was no bacon nor sweetcorn in the hotdog because of the situation with the supermarkets, but there was a whole host of other ingredients, including five sauces.

But what’s the most refreshing is how my Venezuelan friends talk about their country with immense pride and a deep love. I am told I must come back another day, there is so much Venezuelan cuisine I have yet to experience.

Securing the shops.
La Serena, October 2019.

Despite the state of emergency, closed shops and the curfew life continues

I buy vegetables from the same woman as I normally do. My housemate assures me there will be no problem with vegetables, even if the people are queuing to get into the supermarket – the military are standing guard and there’s a limit as to how many people are allowed inside at once. For now, ours is still standing. The shops alongside it are all closed and boarded up having been ransacked over the weekend. The sister supermarket in Coquimbo no longer exists, it was razed to the ground on Saturday night.

Trucks of soldiers pass by as I walk along with my vegetables in my rucksack.

With a friend I walk into town

Crossing the streets without the aid of the green men (they’ve been decapitated), but the car drivers slow down and wave us across. As we walk, I translate the graffiti using my newly learnt vocabulary and understanding of common spelling deviations and, with all my British correctness, suggest that it means that the police officers, of whom we do not approve, are providing the president with oral sex. Chilean graffiti isn’t the most creative.

We have lunch in the usual cafe, walk through the streets where workers are busy boarding up windows and sit in the warm sunshine in the middle of the tranquil park. As we walk back home there are more people about, some bashing pots cacerolazo style but under the watching eyes of groups of soldiers. It’s a simple but effective way for the people to protest at how the life advertised to them just isn’t feasible on their meagre salaries. After curfew, you can still hear the clattering of pans coming from houses further down the street.

“The bread that with blood was taken with blood will be got back”
La Serena, October 2019

The inequality is real

Living in Chile is comparably expensive. A tube of toothpaste, a bottle of face wash and a cup of frothy cappuccino are all more expensive here than they would be back home. Food ends up being a comparable price. I have only bought one pair of shoes, so I’m not particularly clued up about clothes prices, but they too seem similar. Unless you have the ‘meal of the day’ the price of a meal in a restaurant is like back home. My glass of ginger lemonade the other day cost £3.20 which is 1% of the monthly minimum wage here but not an unusual price to have to pay.

Paying for goods in instalments is normal

The BBC might have all these statistics about the ‘average’ income, but few of my colleagues at the university will be getting paid anything like that average. The statistics are swayed because the rich get paid a lot – look at the politicians’ salaries – as do miners, but the typical person on the street is working ridiculous hours to pay their bills and send their children to school. As my father says, averages hide variation and inequality is about variation.

So, whilst Chileans might have the same access to many of the goods we have back home, they do not necessarily have the funds to pay for them nor the education to realise how much big businesses are manipulating them.

Protests.
La Serena, October 2019

However, as much as it’s about money, it’s also about image

On Saturday afternoon, after buying my shoes, I stood in a salon, waiting for a friend to get her nails done. I stared at the faces which looked down at me from the wall and the long white legs and slender white fingers of women with complexions that make my 00 ivory skin look dark. Chilean women have a wonderful mixture of complexions, often even within a single family, but in general they have warmer skin than mine, deep dark eyes and thick, long black or brown hair. This alien, Barbie-like, photoshopped image used in advertising offends me. It has nothing to do with the Chile I live in. I hate that there is such a constant comparison with this globalised image of the tall slender white girl. It makes me angry because it does no service to the people here, nor to those of us who just happen to be pale and blue-eyed.

This unaffordable fake perfection is like a virus

When it comes to skin tone, then at least for me it’s obvious to see. But this dangling of a fake image has infiltrated all parts of life, as has the inevitable disillusion that follows. The disillusion is frightening.

So, am I surprised there are riots? The shock was real, it seemed to happen overnight, but on reflection, is it that surprising? No, not in the slightest.

Protests.
La Serena, October 2019.

And so, taking all that I’ve seen here into account, I wonder today, how are those children I saw in Albania doing? They will be adults now. Fifteen years have passed since I saw their hungry faces, fifteen years in which they will have been bombarded with advertisements showing them a life they will never quite be able to afford. I wonder how they see the world.