Wednesday, August 24, 2011

El Paro Nacional

There's nothing quite like an emergency message from the U.S. Embassy to give you the sense of being in the middle of something important. The two-day national strike began today, and it's big. In every major city in Chile right now, thousands of university students are demonstrating and the largest labor union in the country is on strike. I'm sitting in my house by the sea, drinking tea, and weighing my photographic urges, intense curiosity, and total support for the student movement against the warning from the U.S. Embassy that specifically said "No, Lindsey, reject those urges. Stay home and blog instead."

Some background: the students have been on strike since May, when they started taking over the schools (more like taking them back, I think) and hanging banners that declared the institution "en toma." I don't know how to translate it literally, but it means "under conquest" or "captured." It's ripe for an etymology study! I thought it meant "entombed" for a long time, which I still think is a cool way of looking at it, even if that's not what it means at all. Here's a photo of PUCV, my university, in May:

See the chairs stacked against the inside of the door? In the building right next to this one, the students somehow managed to glue the chairs onto the ceiling. Neat! Now, three months later, the building is covered in chalk messages and cool banners. It looks like this:

I like the last message. It means "They are robbing us, they are lying to us. On TV, on the radio, and in the daily paper." Basically, the education system in Chile has become increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional since the 1970s, when for-profit universities were introduced under the U.S.-backed dictator and all-around terrifying dude, Augusto Pinochet. To give you an idea of how expensive it is for Chileans to attend university, the average cost of tuition (for both public and private schools) is around $600/month, and minimum wage here is the equivalent of about $390/month. In addition to the cost, the quality of education in many of the private, for-profit universities is seriously questionable. The students don't want a capitalist education system, and I agree. Mostly because I think the idea that increased competition in the market will improve the overall quality of the system has totally failed when applied to education: only students from the middle and upper classes can afford to attend university in Chile, and the quality has declined so much that recent graduates have trouble finding work in the fields they studied for five years. 

So basically, the past few weeks have felt only slightly less epic than the moment of anticipation before the Battle of the Hornburg in Lord of the Rings, when the Rohirrim are watching the Uruk-hai advance on Helm's Deep in the dark. While I'm not in any danger of getting chopped up by a terrible, gooey, vaguely human creature wielding an axe, the suspense in the air is comparable! My classes are canceled today and tomorrow because public transportation might be blocked or limited. I've walked out of metro stations to find groups of students clapping and singing at the top of the stairs (they're called "manifestaciones" which is another term that I think is accurate and evocative at the same time). I was in Valparaíso recently and I heard drumming closeby so I followed the noise to a plaza where hundreds of people were banging pots and pans in support of the students. There is a really vital energy here and it's almost tangible; like right before a lightning storm when the air feels thick, and it's brimming with all kinds of molecules that want to react. Sometimes I like to compare my life to Lord of the Rings and talk about molecules, alright? 

I'm being safe and aware and using my noggin and blah blah blah, but most of all I'm really excited to be here right now. I mean, how cool is it that I get to study in Chile right when studying in Chile is about to change forever?


  1. Even though I'm sure you wish to be in the thick of things, it is probably best that you're acting more like argon than Aragorn.

  2. Wow....sounds like you are witnessing a bit of history, and your Dad say'a that it's disappointing that the education system is in such a mess! He wonders how this will affect your ability to get credits? Always the pragmatist ..isn't he? I read him your blog as we are driving back from the Sand Dunes! Sounds like you are "minding your Head". ( do you lonw where that is from?). We love you!

  3. Sheila, it is disappointing. I haven't been able to meet many Chilean students, but I'm working on it! As far as credits go, I was being super cautious when I registered so I only signed up for classes in the international program. My classes are taught be university professors in Spanish, but I have a regular schedule and they started on time. All of the credits I take this semester will transfer, because I reeeeeally want to graduate. :)