Welcome to the AA meeting: Assimilating Activists…

I hit a wall.  An obstruction.  Like writer’s block, but a… thinker’s block, maybe.  An activist’s block?  Can that be a thing?

So here’s basically the conversation I’ve had with myself this week:

Me 1: I can’t find my critical thinking!

Me 2: When was the last time you used it?

Me 1: I don’t know… just, do you know where it is?

Me 2: It’s probably right where you left it.

What, what, what are you doing?!

I don’t know if I’m simply too flustered, too embarrassed by the catcalls, too wrapped up in trámites, too focused on wanting to fit in, or too desperate to get my feet on the ground and start a new life with my partner… Whatever it is, I can’t manage a scrap of clarity to figure out how to live congruently with my ideology.

It’s not as if I’m doing nothing.  I am.  I’m living.  I’m doing.  I’m acting.

In fact, I’m teaching English to students who can afford to pay thirty dollars an hour for a private class.  But most of my energy goes into trying desperately to avoid sticking out, to assimilate.

And that’s it; that’s why I’m in a fog.  I have lost track of how to identify myself, how to understand where I am located within these new social fields.

You cannot live as an activist while you are trying to assimilate to the mainstream in an oppressive society.

You got resocialized … like a n00b.

So, yeah.  It turns out that trying to assimilate interferes with your ability to think and act critically.  (Especially if you’re assimilating into an upper-middle class.)  You get lost in the soup of resocialization.  Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been living with my in-laws.

Resocialization at its best… Credit: http://www.pvtmurphy.com

As an immigrant, I’ve been thrown into this process, which involves both losing much of my previously formed identity and forming a different one that is more congruent with my new society and environment.

My first time around, I was a visitor playing the “act like a Chilean” game.  It’s part of the college, study abroad experience.  I didn’t want to adopt my host culture entirely, but rather to learn to navigate it adequately enough to pass.  Just like I was doing at an elite university back home.

I’m living here now.  And assimilation expects that immigrants adopt the norms, values, and roles of the host culture.


I know I don’t!  What was I planning to do, assimilate and pretend I’m not a white gringa?

The problem is that if I actively choose to assimilate, I actively take part in existing power struggles.  I, personally, would be assimilating into a place of privilege—the realm of being unquestioned and not questioning.

Everybody to Starbucks!

What is it that makes me regularly work at Starbucks in Chile while in the US I never set foot in the place?  Part of it is being unquestioned.  I’m not questioned if I enter the store just to use the bathroom and leave without so much as looking at the menu… basically whatever I choose to do, I won’t be questioned, because we have ownership of this space.

Furthermore, because of this white gringa immunity I’ve got going for me, I risk very little with nonconformity except the discomfort of standing out.  People assume the best of me.  And I have more freedom—I can “choose” to assimilate or not.  I will probably be successful either way.

To be an agent of change, I need to be willing to act in opposition to whatever system perpetuates oppression, whether it is in my native country or in a foreign country; whether the patterns of oppression are familiar, or whether they look slightly different; whether I benefit from the dynamics at work, or whether they limit my prospects.

What are you waiting for?  DO SOMETHING!

GO GRINGO, GO!!In this context—in a different country, society, culture, with close to no pre-established group ties—I really don’t have the right to speak for anyone here, nor do I know where to start.

The last thing anyone needs is for me to storm in on my gringo-righteous horse and fix the s!@# out of this country.

But maybe I’m actually in the best position possible for me now.  There is work to be done where I am.

It starts, as always, with listening and learning.  I want to seek a community of critical thinkers, a group of people who knows Chile and its needs better than I do, and listen to what they have to say.  And learn.  And listen some more.

Next semester I will probably be working with a population closer to my ideal—or at least with students that aren’t more or less guaranteed to learn English regardless of what I do.

In the meantime, I am in a place to speak to my students about the experiences in my country and to be honest about who I am.

I’ve heard and seen enough to engage in thought-provoking discussions about these two countries.  Our inequalities run parallel—we have the same heritage of colonialism and imperialism. (Oh, heyyy, Columbus blog post!)

I’ve lived with Chile’s working class and its upper-middle class, studied in the private Pontificia Universidad Católica and in the public Universidad de Chile, and worked in the extremes of Santiago’s neighborhoods, from El Castillo in La Pintana to the Cerro Apoquindo Community in Las Condes.  And now, I’ve found and married a straddler like me.

Everywhere, I’ve seen the same patterns of oppression that exist in my country, sometimes more pronounced, sometimes less.

These conversations have already started with some of my students.  The next step is figuring out how to react to discussions about nannies.  ’Cause I’m like…

Anyhow, I guess what I’ve figured out is that I shouldn’t be so quick to hop into the Chilean melting pot or charquicán or whatever they have here.  I guess I’ve figured out that during the process of redefinition while you move from one country to another, it’s easy to lose track of where you left yourself.

While I try to find myself, feel free to give suggestions for the nanny conversations.  Because I’m really at a loss there…


Patagonia Jackets and Class Consciousness

This way to the secret garden...Is it bad that I felt breathlessly uncomfortable as I climbed the stairs and watched the rest of Santiago slowly kneeling behind me?  That I suddenly was six years old, watching The Secret Garden Climbing the edge of Santiagoand realizing again how it felt to be an impostor for the first time?  I feared judgment, that the people who lived behind these vine-drenched walls would see right through my red-haired, blue-eyed, privileged disguise.  I’ve no money, and I come from less.  But no, I assured myself, breathing deep and climbing another stair, these things are so well-hidden by Chilean assumptions about Americans, by my credentials, by the advantage of being young and pretty—I’ve never knocked on someone’s door before in Chile!—The door opens, and I smile.  Oh, I hope she doesn’t find me out.

Where's the badger hole?There are many other adults in the house—who are they?  Tan skin and checkered aprons, don’t treat me like I’m different from you.  I don’t want to feel more; I don’t want to feel less.

The house is warm, and with my nerves, my cheeks flush warmer.  Red is the color of an apple, and these frogs are green and speckled.

I had forgotten her name as soon as she’d said it—at exactly that moment, I’d been fighting to hear anything over the ruckus of my own clamoring class consciousness—but she offered me a ride to the bus stop.

The house is warm; my cheeks are red: I won’t put on my jacket.

To the door; and she puts on hers.  I see the familiar patch of cloth: Patagonia.  I remember a laugh, a “Patagonia, from Chile, right?  You won’t see that here.”

Yet there it was.  A way for me to buy in, a chance to feel a moment of peace, of legitimacy.  Is it bad that as I put on my jacket and follow her out the door, I don’t know if I’m hiding or revealing myself?The neighborhood playground

Hand to Hand and the Smell of Poverty

For those of you that don’t know, I’ve been devoting much of my time here in Chile to an internship with Mano a Mano, a research initiative in HIV/AIDS prevention.  I’ve done a lot of entering data, collecting questionnaires, and learning about how to implement a program while researching it simultaneously.  The greatest challenge for me so far has been developing my final project and research proposal, which I’m hoping might turn into a thesis.  It involves looking for a relationship between social capital and self-efficacy with regards to HIV prevention.  Anyhow, more on that later, I’m sure.  Here are some of my thoughts from one of my first experiences in the comunas in which we work.

September 2, 2009

Thornbushes and paths that lead to an open field border the narrow dirt road at the edge of the neighborhood.  Rodrigo parks the car on the side of the road, trying to avoid the huge puddles that haven’t drained from the rain yesterday.  We climb out of the car and walk toward one of the small houses, boxed in with a makeshift wooden fence that stretches almost to the tin roof and whose poorly fit boards create countless holes.  The roof also has seemingly random belongings strewn about it, like most of the street and properties—clothing, tarps, scrap wood… and dogs are everywhere.  We ask if the young man we’re looking for is home, and someone goes to wake him.  His mother is outside, sitting near a broken couch and making lunch over a small fire.  She picks up a hatchet to cut up more of the scrap wood spread out over the ground.  As she adds it to the fire, smoke billows up around the black pot and kettle, pouring out in the same bleak, subdued color as today’s overcast skies.  The Cordillera is invisible today.  A man standing nearby (I assume he was her husband) asks her what she’s doing.

Fanning away the smoke with a piece of cloth, she responds, “No sé si el humo les molesta.”  (I don’t know if the smoke is bothering them.)  She looks to us with a kind face of inquiry.  When we indicate that it is fine, she responds with a smile, “Olor a pobres, na’ ma’.”  (It’s just the smell of the poor.)

Strange.  I would never think of the smell of smoke as a smell associated with poverty.  A moment before, the smell combined with the Chilean winter air and overcast skies was taking me back to calm November days in Vermont—days when only stubborn brown oak leaves still cling to autumn and the air smells of wood stoves and my hair is wrapped with the breath of earth and coming winter.  But here, gas stoves are used to heat the house and cook your food indoors.  Unless you have no means to cook inside your house.

This comment sticks with me, and I stand, waiting, watching a hand-sized puppy nip around the woman’s heel, and mulling over those words.  She delivered it with good humor, but beneath lay the shame of poverty, the stigma and isolation that separates greater Santiago from this infamous part of La Pintana, el Castillo.  Her husband leaves with a wheelbarrow and walks down the street into the field.

The young man we’ve come to speak with comes out, wiping sleep from his eyes. Rodrigo pulls out the questionnaire that the man had filled out, and, thumbing through the many pages with little yellow sticky notes (each marking an incomplete question), he tells the man that he might want to put a jacket on.  Rodrigo introduces me and explains that I am a US intern who will be listening in to the interview, as long as he doesn’t mind.  The man greets me with the typical Chilean kiss and says that it doesn’t bother him.  Rodrigo had said that I would leave during questions that were more private, but at no point during the interview does he ask me to leave.  I stand by and listen to most of the interview attentively, as the 28-year old talks about his 3 children from 3 different mothers, how the mothers won’t let them see him because of his heavy drug use, and what he thinks of gender roles in Chile.  At the parts I would expect to make him uncomfortable, like detailed questions about his sex life for the last three months, I try to step aside a little and look around at the dogs, the women walking by with bags of bread or young children, the house at the end of the street playing loud reggaeton, cumbia, and other Latin American music.  The man’s mother, with whom he, his partner, and four other adults live, is eating a hard-boiled egg while the puppy eats the shell at her feet.  Rodrigo keeps his voice quiet but his tone friendly, trying to put the participant at ease while still keeping the conversation private.

Upon finishing the questionnaire, Rodgrigo wishes the man good health and safety, and with a shake of the hand and a kiss on the cheek, the two of us are back in the car, driving to another house to complete more questionnaires.  He asks me what I thought of the experience, and I have too much going through my head to know for sure.  I talk about the concept of privacy and how I was surprised that this man allowed a young woman to listen to what many would consider a very private interview.  I feel like an American would have asked to be left alone at some point.  Rodrigo points out that the man might have felt uncomfortable and not mentioned it because of my position as an intern or scholar.  I nod in agreement, but I can’t help but wonder how my presence might have caused the man to answer differently; he still said he was drugged every day on weed, cocaine, pasta base, or alcohol; he talked about his medical history and whether he’d been tested for HIV/AIDS, what his sex life was like… And what about the questions that asked if he thought a woman should know about politics?  Or if he could keep himself from using drugs for the next three months?

And then I think about how after having three children from different mothers, a man can still view condoms as more of a nuisance than a form of protection, or that wearing one is more of a difficulty than the possibility of having another child that is not allowed to see his father.

We continue through the comuna, passing row upon row of houses boxed in with fences taller than I am, almost each hose with a satellite dish raised half-mast to so-called poverty mentality… maybe that’s odd to say, but these people are in situations where at times they can’t meet basic needs, yet television is a necessity.  It reflects the need to escape, you know?

Now, looking back two months later, I still remember the brown and the gray; gray satellites, gray sky, brown roads littered with holes and who knows what else.  I don’t know what it means.  I don’t know what to do with the experience.  I can’t say it was life changing; I’m sure it was, but I won’t know how for years to come.  Then I’ll be sitting, reading a book, writing a letter to a friend, wondering how I got where I am and how on earth I am to continue, and I’ll think of those satellite dishes.  I’ll think radical thoughts of being caught in the system, of sticking it to the man, of walls painted with Allende’s dreams and Pinochet’s reality.  I’ll sigh and miss that powerful mountain range that persists, remains the same for every ciudadano, whether in La Pintana or Las Condes.  I’ll remember the faith that stirs the hearts of those with the least hope, and how their hope plants disbelief, doubt, and bitterness in the minds of the others, witnesses to injustice and suffering.

Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turns grey and cold.”