Throughout my limited time spent in Chile, one theme kept recurring over and over again. A cultural undertone that transcends the food, the language, the habits, and even the beautiful traditional dance, la cueca. This is more than just a way of life, but a very fiber of being in the Chilean people. It is not easily identifiable, but it is something that could be found in almost every person I encountered, it may even be a genetic trait. It’s so intuitively part of them, that you wonder if it was something that is taught, or if it is somehow innate. This quality, one to admire, is their pure tenacity.
To understand this completely, we need to go back a few years and revisit a little Chilean history. Chile is one of the most developed and democratic countries in South America. However, for such progress, fairly recently, in 1973, Chile experienced a Coup d’état. They were living under a dictatorship, a socialist leader by the name of Salvador Allendé. But this was not the first historical sign of Chileans standing up and fighting for what they believed was right. From 1879-1883, the Chileans faced a double-threat, as Peru and Bolivia teamed together against them in the War of the Pacific (Guerra del Pacífico). Despite all odds against them, Chile prevailed, and their pride stands tall in a statue in Plaza Sotomayer in Valparaíso, Chile- honoring the fallen heroes of The Battle of Iquique and the Battle of Punta Gruesa.
More recently, the Chileans’ fierce and steadfast attitudes are reflected in the 2010 Copiapó mining accident. If you haven’t seen the cinematic retelling of this incident in The 33, then this may be a spoiler. After 33 Chilean miners were trapped under 700 meters (2,300 ft) under the earth by the collapse of the mine they were working in, the Chilean community came together and their concern ignited action by the government that ensured a rescue. It was the deep-rooted demand for righteousness, the unfailing faith, and insistence of the Chilean people that resulted in the rescue of all thirty-three men 69 days after the accident.
Perhaps these historic events have laid a path of expectations for Chileans today. I found, that even in the smallest concerns of daily-life, a residual tenacity that reverberated through the Chilean people. In only eight days there, three events, in particular, stood out.
The first event was already happening as we arrived to our hotel. Down the street, we thought that a party was happening. We heard music, drums, chants, singing. We saw some balloons and matching t-shirts. Upon further investigation, we also saw military police, riot- gear, and tanks. This was not a party, but a protest.
Organized by university students, the protest was to advocate, and insist on, free university for all. While the government has legislation in the works to make this a reality, it is being rolled out in waves, to the dis-contempt of most current students who will miss this opportunity by the time the final wave is enacted. Since there isn’t any retroactive compensation to be considered for them, they are peacefully, and even vigorously and jubilantly, protesting and demanding free university for all immediately. While it seems like a very lofty goal, their perseverance is very admirable.
In tandem with the protests of the University students, the students in high school or liceo, also share the petition for free university, as it will soon affect them. This was the second event. Since my visit to Chile centered around visiting many different schools and liceos (around Grades 7-12), this student-led protest was very prominent. They call it a Toma. Toma does not really translate to English, and does not even resonate with many other Spanish-speaking countries, and is therefore a truly Chilean term. The toma refers to a period of time in which the students of a liceo go on strike. When we first learned of this, most of our American-teacher-minds jumped to the conclusion that this meant students refused to come school. However, it is in-fact, the opposite.
Pictured above, is the universal symbol to announce a toma. Students haul the desks and chairs outside of the school, into the most public place, in complete disarray. This is a signal to the media, to the administration, and to the teachers, that a toma will occur indefinitely. Upon seeing this, the administration and teachers are instructed not to enter to building. Instead, the students take hold of the school, sleeping, eating and living there for the entire period of la toma. While there is a lot of contention about the efficiency and intent of the process, it is definitely something that merits the media attention desired to ignite government consideration. Many view it counter-productive and misguided, since the students aren’t receiving any education during the toma, and yet, they desire free university. However, it certainly reflects the deep-seeded inherent persistence in the Chilean youths.
The final event, unrelated to students of any sort, was ignited from the depths of the metro station by an impassioned man who wanted a refund for his 600 peso- metro ride that he did not receive. The metro we attempted to board in the Plaza de Armas station was too full. We decided to wait until the next, already having more than one painful experience aboard a packed Chilean metro car. We waited, along with those on the train car, for the doors to close and for the train to depart. After waiting more than three minutes, it seemed that this probably wouldn’t be happening any time soon. There appeared to be a mechanical issues as the universal sound of power dying resonated throughout the station and all the lights inside the train car were extinguished. Many left the car and headed upstairs. Many exited the car and decided to wait alongside the tracks where we were standing. One of our group members asked the metro police, who told her that it could be thirty minutes before it was up and running again. He also told us to inquire about a refund upstairs at the ticket booth. Excited to try out more new Spanish, I bolted to the front of the line and asked, “¿Puede reembolsármelo por favor?” as I handed him my ‘Bip!’ metro card. He looked at me as if I had three heads. I repeated, louder, clearer. He still looked confounded. I continued to explain in my best Spanish that the train was not working, something I assumed he was already informed of. My Chilean friend tried to clarify in her perfect Chilean Spanish, and he simply replied, “no…”. Meanwhile, the line next to me had similar questions. The man at the next window received the same “no…” that we did. While I was willing to accept the lack of refund and start the long trek to the bus station, this man would not settle. He started yelling, asking for a boss, a manager, then instigating the crowd, telling the line that they wouldn’t give a refund. Chanting started. He rallied the crowd some more. “Let’s go!” I said urgently to my group, anticipating the potential riot in the small dark underground space. We bolted for the escalators, against the sea of commuters, and a group of riot-gear-prepped military police. We are still unsure if a riot was ever started. But one thing is for sure, that man, and the crowd he bolstered, shared the same tenacious trait as the university and high school students, as the heroes fighting against Peru and Bolivia, as the Mine workers and rescuers, and as the civil resistance to the dictatorship.
Overall, these three events were only the largest-scale events that I witnessed in my short eight day visit. From the moment I stepped off the plane and the insistent taxi drivers used their very best English to convince our group to take their prospective taxi service, I knew I was somewhere unique. I saw it again when our tour bus to Valparaíso ran out of battery, and the tour guide enlisted strangers on the street to help him push the entire bus (full of 8 American women) 500 feet to safety on a quieter part of the street. It is truly something inherit and special that distinguishes the people of Chile, and it is something to commend and even to emulate to make for a more cohesive and honorable society.