“Si cruzo por las calles, soy para todos una cosa vacía que ayuda a formar la impresión de la vida” — Pedro Prado (Chilean Poet)
My interest to study abroad stemmed in large part to growing up amidst two cultures. My family is from México and from a young age, I wondered what it would be like to live and study in my parents’ home country. I also grew up not knowing where to call home: was I from Salinas, CA or from my parents’ home town in México? Consequently, I did not know how to identify: was I Mexican, Mexican-American or American? These questions occupied the forefront of my childhood and adolescence. However, in Chile I was surprised to find a sense of belonging in regards to my identity that I had not experienced before in California.
I studied abroad with the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP) in Santiago, Chile at the Pontifical Catholic University for the 2013–2014 school year. I originally packed for 6 months, but after the first two months in Santiago, I knew I wanted to extend to the full year. There was too much to learn, see, and experience to fit into one semester and I wanted to challenge myself by living abroad for a full year; I was determined to create a second home for myself in Santiago.
It is extremely difficult to summarize a year’s worth of living, especially when everyday presented a new challenge, in a new city, in a new country, in a new continent, across the world from the place I had always identified (vaguely) as home. Some of the little things I miss and cherish the most from Santiago now are:
- Commuting on the metro and micro (bus). I learned a lot about Chile while commuting, from people’s conversations and the street performers that would hop-on while the driver was not looking.
- Buying mote con huesillo, in addition to all other Chilean food readily available at every other street corner, such as empanadas and completos.
- Having once, Chilean tea time, with my host mom Maggie everyday after school, listening to her tell me about her past host children and her adventures.
- Spending afternoons with EAP peers eating and drinking at Plaza Ñuñoa.
- Sunday studying at the Bioblioteca Municipal de Providencia, catching up on a week’s worth of procrastination and reading endless amounts of Chilean literature.
“Chinchineros” performing in Santiago
Before boarding the plane, I knew that Chile was a long, geographically diverse strip of land located on the southwest point of South America, between the Andes mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, an attractive location in terms of travel as it borders with Bolivia, Perú and Argentina. The knowledge I had about Chilean history, culture and society can be summed up in the following words: “Neruda,” “dictatorship,” “Pinochet,” “Allende” and “student movements,” all of which I definitely learned about while in Chile. However, through my interactions with my host family, Chilean professors and classmates I realized that one cannot simply attach a definition or a set of facts to people and historical events. I had the opportunity to truly get a sense of the immense complexity of the things I thought I knew even a little bit about.
At the beginning of the program, I remember my program director saying that Chile, despite boasting a stable and growing economy, had the widest income inequality among all Latin American countries. I took this to be true and thought I knew what it meant. However, the longer I was in Chile the more I understood the meaning of the phrase “economic disparity” and how it played out in people’s lives. I learned the meaning of what my director had said one afternoon while touring the city with a friend.
It was a couple of weeks before my return, when a friend and I rested on a bench at the foot of el cerro Santa Lucia, where history says that the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago. As we ate the leftover french fries from the day’s lunch, we talked about school and classmates when my friend said, “What version of Chile do you want to leave with? The real version, or a “nice” version?” I said the real version-she did not seem convinced. Nonetheless, she proceeded to confide in me the economic discrimination she had faced by some of our classmates at the university, specifically pertaining to situations where she was made to feel inferior for not owning a credit card. “They have money” she said, “And money in Chile gives people a lot of power.” After hearing this story, I understood her remarks and the uncomfortable atmosphere that would arise between us whenever I took out my credit card to pay for something.
In my EAP packet there was a phrase that said, “credit cards are widely accepted and ATMs are easy to be found,” which is true, to an extent. However, I came to learn what a credit card signifies for many Chileans. For my friend, the sight of a credit card signified the economic disparities in the country and her lived experience of that situation. In these circumstances, what does “widely accepted mean”? Who is the “vast majority of people”? The vast majority certainly did not include my friend, the person I had become the closest to during my time in Chile.
This experience, along with countless others, taught me that life is infinitely more complex than it seems. What we know about ourselves and other people is a lot more undefined and unknown than known and defined. Just as my identity signified something different in Chile than in the US, so does a credit card — things are not set in stone. Labels and objects are essentially empty, by realizing that we are the ones that fill them with meaning, we are able to let go of our presuppositions. This is an understanding that can only come from building relationships and genuinely looking into our own lives and those of others. Studying abroad was the perfect opportunity for such a task.
My time in Chile was definitely full of surprises. Who knew that in Chile people would not question my identification with México or try to gauge how “Mexican” I was? Who knew that the way I presented myself was more easily identifiable for Chileans with my parents’ home country than with the U.S? I even came back with a new term to identify with! As I became the mexicana californiana (Mexican Californian) for some of my friends. In other words, in Chile I felt at ease in many ways with my identity, an experience that was warmly welcomed.
I am extremely thankful for the time spent learning, growing, seeing, feeling and breathing (maybe this last one not so much because of the smog) in Chile. My mind and body were challenged in every possible way and I came to realize my capacity to adapt, explore and take care of myself. I know that every experience, every lesson learned and every relationship I formed has impacted me greatly and that that impact will last a life time.
“Que el verso sea como una llave
Que abra mil puertas.
Una hoja cae; algo pasa volando;
Cuanto miren los ojos creado sea,
Y el alma del oyente quede temblando”
Vicente Huidobro (Yet another Chilean Poet)
Nos vemos pronto, Chilito
Carol E. García