I’m buying post-protest chicken nuggets. I would have chosen something else, but the Chilean fast food restaurant that we’ve found has run out of bread.
I hand over my card and the chap behind the counter pushes it into the machine. This is my Chilean card. The machine is passed to me so I can key in my PIN, which I do. The transaction fails. I’m not surprised. This often happens. And no, it’s not the card. The chap tries again. I read the screen as he does so.
“No,” I say, “es debito.”
Because almost every time I go to pay for something the person processing my payment assumes that it’s a credit card. I became very self-conscious of my pronunciation of the word ‘debito’ and wondered what I could be getting wrong.
The truth is, half the time they tap the buttons on automatic pilot, not listening. I’ve concluded that they must be so used to processing credit card payments that the fact that I’m paying with my own money takes them by surprise.
I’m keeping myself occupied this week (when I’m not on the streets) by learning about neoliberalism, bank-deregulation, workers rights and a variety of financial and social crises. The more I learn, the more complex the story becomes. I want to understand how Chile came to have such inequality, but more than that, I want to understand what has occurred that has made the Chilean people so dependent on credit and so tied to consumerism.
So tied to it that they’re now looting the shoe stores and smashing the windows of the banks.
When I first arrived in Chile I was shocked at how European the place felt. The shopping mall here is pretty much identical to any shopping centre you’d find in England. Familiar brands line the supermarket shelves. The high streets have survived better than their English counterparts, and you can pick up some food from any street corner. There’s more litter on the streets here than in England, but less than I remember from Murcia in Spain. I might be the only person who uses an anorak, but I see coats with the same American branding daily.
A friend jokingly accused me of cultural appropriation, for wearing a pair of crazy hand-made earrings that I got here, but I just raised my eyebrows and asked him where he thought his flat-cap was culturally appropriated from.
The Chilean reality is not quite as shiny as it first looks. One of the things they shout is that Chile has woken up. I’m reserving my judgment. They shout that they’re not protesting because of the 30 peso* metro ticket rise, but against 30 years of a democracy that has successfully made the rich richer and done not a lot for the average person on the street. Whilst it might have made steps to tackle those in dire poverty, it’s not done much at all for the general poor. Plus, culture has changed. We live in a consumerist, materialistic world where higher education is becoming more and more necessary to get a decent job. And some of those decent jobs are paid a pittance.
Chile might have woken up, but I doubt my students have. One of the hardest things about teaching in Chile has been adjusting to the attitudes of the students. Or, you could say, the lack of attitude. I graduated at 21. The earliest my students can graduate is at 23, assuming they consistently pass their exams. But I have heard about classes where the entire class have failed. Normally I would say that if the whole class fails then it must be the teacher’s fault. And the teacher’s do tell me that they feel some responsibility for the situation. They feel the responsibility, but they have no idea what they need to change.
Why does a class fail? Because half the time they don’t turn up for lessons. When they do they’re reluctant to put pen to paper. When faced with an exercise to do, they stop as soon as the obvious solution proves to not be the case. Throughout any explanation, they play on their phones, message their lovers and friends or have an earphone in one ear to listen to music. They don’t even have the decency to look ashamed of their behaviour.
A friend asked me what I thought about the violence on the streets. I replied that I abhor the violence – both by the military and the people. I have a British attitude to guns. Additionally, I want to scream at those responsible for the plumes of black smoke that we ought to not take our anger out on the environment.
Mostly though, I see the violence as being a child-like tantrum, an ill-directed plea for power, a result of poor self-discipline and a lack of respect for the community. The same missing self-discipline that’s required to pay attention in class and pass your exams. The same lack of respect that the students show by listening to their music whilst the teacher is trying to teach.
This might all sound rather harsh and it doesn’t do justice to those people who have been out fighting for their rights whilst remaining peaceful as most have. Nor does it recognise how incredibly warm, kind and generous I have found the Chilean people to be.
I haven’t got the answers. I can only feel that there is a depth to this problem that I cannot comprehend. And the broken window
Meanwhile each time I step up to the till, I shall keep on repeating that my card is a debit card, with a smile.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Despite the state of emergency, closed shops and the curfew life
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 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.
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.
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.