When the protests in Chile started and state violence and repression was escalating, my program was on an academic excursion to a rural area in the south of the country to learn about Mapuche communities and cultures and their situation in current Chilean society. It was a difficult time to not have consistent access to service or Wi-Fi, but I checked Twitter religiously when I could and endured cable news at night to stay as informed as possible. I talked with my host brother in Valparaíso, Fabi, and asked him how the city is. He responded: “fighting nonstop.” Good. He’s marched every day, getting driven out by police and fortunately avoiding beatings, bullets, arrest. Others have not been so lucky. All of this is happening in the real world, but within the SIT program bubble is a whole different universe. We talked about the protests, its causes, and its grand importance in a couple isolated instances for maybe 15 minutes. Aside from this, all discussion of the protests has only been in relation to our safety and security, which are allegedly being threatened, or the potential loss of credits while people lose their freedom and lives in the streets, or potential disruptions to our academic schedule. To me, this self-absorption is a joke, especially since we, a group of US college students, are one of the safest in the country with our extreme privilege. The last thing on my mind is credits or our next oral exam and somehow it’s all they can think about. The directors say that, worst-case scenario, we complete the semester in Mendoza, Argentina or Cuzco, Peru. Our stay in Pucón at the end of the excursion is extended two more full days as they scramble to make an updated plan, both short-term and long-term.
However, on October 28, the curfews and states of emergency that the president had imposed on so many parts of the country are finally lifted and we are set to return to Valparaíso, where our program is based. We are advised to avoid the main part of the city due to ongoing protests and to more or less remain in our homes for a week with a suggested curfew of 8 p.m. Fat chance. My first day back, I stepped outside my house and heard tear gas being fired and sirens throughout the late afternoon and early evening. I looked down into el plan, the center of formal city life, and saw huge police vehicles, guanacos spraying water at protesters, and people running. Fabi says it’s like this every day, which is no surprise. I mention the gunshots and sirens to my host mom and she seems entirely unfazed, almost unconcerned. People here seem accustomed to these sounds and scenes of resistance, but that’s easy when you’re sitting at home in the cerro, the neighborhoods in the myriad hills marking the city where most of Valparaíso’s population lives. Up in the cerro, it’s a completely different scene. I went for a run and saw many people and families strolling on the sunny late Monday afternoon. There were several people with signs returning from the protests, luckily avoiding the police violence. There’s a police station across from a park near my house and there was a lot of squad cars and other vehicles coming and going. My friends in other parts of the city report an uncomfortably heightened police presence in their neighborhoods too, despite the fact that the protests are always in el plan, never in los cerros. My cerro is plastered with homemade signs and posters denouncing the government and the system, showing solidarity with the protests and the movement. These signs and fresh graffiti adorn the whole city. I realize how much I’ve missed this beautiful city and its strong spirit of resistance.