Recently my program went to northern Chile for a week, where we learned about issues facing the Aymara indigenous group. This trip included a short stay with Aymara families in a town called Putre, high in the Andean altiplano, a flat-ish region at around 10 – 15 thousand feet in elevation (altiplano means high plain). Before arriving in Putre however, we kicked off the week in Arica, a larger coastal city at the northern tip of Chile. Here, we had a cultural exchange of sorts where we met and got to know an Aymara community. They taught us a traditional dance and included us in a Phawa, a ceremony centered on the relationship between people and earth, and we shared with them a song and poem. Afterwards we had time to eat and talk, which soon evolved into more dancing.
In the moment, it felt like a very positive and even profound experience to take part in this meeting of cultures, but as I reflect back, I can’t help but think that we Americans may have gotten a lot more out of it than the Aymara group. After all, they came to Arica to meet us, provided the food, and gave us an intimate window into some very significant and meaningful aspects of their culture. Our song and poem were definitely nice gestures, but Western/American culture has saturated so much of the world that it feels a lot less significant to share. Maybe I’m overthinking it; no one seemed like they didn’t want to be there, but abroad has taught me that I should be more aware of the impact my presence has on the spaces and people around me.
This same doubt I have about the cultural exchange in Arica also applies to some of the activities we did in Putre. We visited a classroom of 6th graders at the local school, as well as a group of younger kids at a preschool. In both instances, it was fun to be there and meet the kids, but it felt like we were getting the benefit of learning about the education system while offering little in return. In both cases, the schools attempted to incorporate Aymara culture into the activities and lessons. The preschool had a strong focus on Aymara culture and education, but the 6th grade class fell more in line with Chilean schooling, reflecting the government campaign to foster a national identity throughout the 20th century in a process known as Chilenization. More recently, there have been efforts to incorporate indigenous culture and language into schools in indigenous communities, but based on what I saw at the school, they don’t seem very impactful. The lesson my program took part in was about the Aymara and English words for different emotions. While it’s great that these students are learning their native language, the fact that they were learning it concurrently with English and learning such basic concepts in 6th grade is very telling. The schools are still dominated by Chilean culture with just a sprinkle of Aymara thrown in there, a product of the generations of oppression faced by indigenous people in Chile.
On a more positive note, the mountains were absolutely beautiful. We got the chance to go to Lauca National Park, where we visited Lake Chungara, one of the highest lakes in the world complete with a massive volcano as a backdrop. We also got to see the wildlife, including close-up views of llamas and viscachas, which are rodents that look kind of like rabbits.
Later on, after returning from Arica and Putre, my program took a day trip to Santiago to learn more about the history of the military dictatorship in the 70s and 80s and to visit a former torture site. This was our second trip to Santiago for this purpose. On the trip (as well as the previous one) we saw see firsthand the spaces where prisoners were held and learned about the techniques used for interrogation and torture. It was a heavy, sobering experience, but very important in the context of my program. The trips focused on preserving the memory of the human rights violations that are so often forgotten or ignored here in Chile but remain a very important part in not only Chile’s history but also the state of Chile today. Many of the weak state institutions in present-day Chile are relics of the dictatorship and re continuing to cause suffering and inequality now, just as they did decades ago. The country is still recovering from Pinochet-era policies and practices, which only makes the preservation of this history more important.
After our trip, I stayed the night Santiago with a group of friends rather than returning to Valparaíso right away with the rest of the program. The next day, one of my friends wanted to look for a gift in downtown Santiago for his host family. As we walked further downtown, we noticed there were few people on the street and no cars; it was almost eerily lifeless. We started to pass groups of carabineros (national police of Chile) dressed in full body armor at each intersection. My friend asked one of them what was going on. We learned there was a protest, and it looked like we were in its path. We kept walking and ended up on the opposite side of a large, divided road from the demonstration. The protest seemed fairly tame from what we could see. A mass of people marched forward, pounding drums, chanting, and waving flags and banners. Despite this, a steady jet of water sprayed from a water cannon on a massive armored police vehicle that drove alongside the protesters. Protesters who had left the mass and seemed to be trying to get away from it, particularly groups with younger children, passed us on the sidewalk. We stayed and watched for a while as the protest and police vehicles moved closer and closer. The flames of a Molotov cocktail flared up on the street near one of the police vehicles. We watched a group of armored carabineros complete with riot shields run to the front of the protests in a grossly militaristic formation. It seemed that in the few minutes we were watching, the carabineros became gradually more repressive of the protesting; at first I could only see the water cannons, but a short while later came the loud pops of tear gas canisters and the absolutely chilling sight of a group of carabineros shoving against the side of the protest, batons swinging.
Someone on the street had told us it was a Mapuche protest (the biggest indigenous group in Chile), but we didn’t put together until later that it was an anti-Columbus Day (known as Día de la Raza in Chile) protest. The Chilenization I described earlier in this post is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the centuries of abuses faced by indigenous groups in Chile (not to mention like everywhere else too), and this oppression is still in the process of entering mainstream awareness here. I was most struck by the excessive police response to the protest, which did not look like it needed a whole lot of policing. I wouldn’t say I was surprised, however, as the police here in Chile are well known for their abuses of power, including protest suppression. But witnessing it firsthand really sears it into your mind and overall consciousness in a way that just hearing about it doesn’t. A few weeks earlier, I saw two carabineros smacking a man they had already arrested and cuffed before throwing him into the back of their police van. Both events are harsh reminders of the excessive force and brutality regularly employed by the police here. And the way the protest was suppressed highlights the unreceptiveness of the government as well as the disconnect between the state and the people.