For Santiago’s Children
When the smog hangs like a blanket in the sky, it can be hard to remember days of blue. You breathe it in, sucking it deep into your lungs to send it swimming through your veins, day after day, until the moment comes when you cannot remember how fresh air is supposed to be. Instead it just lingers there above you, always reaching you but not always seen, a heavy cloud of grey that taints a place that could almost be perfect.
That is how I see Santiago. I call this city my home and I don’t want to leave, but it is not always wonderful. I am not burdened by this “grass is always greener on the other side” complex so I almost never compare Chile to my birth country. This does not make me blind to recognizing the issues at hand, however I try to view what happening here in its own context. Chile is not New Zealand. Santiago is not Chile. Santaguino’s are a whole different type of person to those in the far north. Even within Santiago there are multiple levels of experiences occurring. Many expats (and locals) recognize that there is a societal tier structure known as ‘class’ existing here, but it is difficult for them to understand what they have not lived. And vice versa. We all only know what we come to know, after all.
This is not going to be a post on how classism is flourishing in Santiago. I do not want to start a conversation about a topic that can be so very, very polarising. Every time we talk about people in terms of what they have, we create boundaries. Some boundaries are healthy, like when I tell Emilio to stop putting his hand in the toilet. Others become more like barriers, that instead of protecting you, rise up and block out the sun just like Santiago’s dirty smog. But it is the sun that gives us life. So what are we denying ourselves when we allow society to label us and then we turn around and judge others with those labels?
I am a New Zealander. When I lived there, the nation was divided into factions like everywhere else, and we only really came over weepy under the flag when the All Blacks won the rugby. But when we are overseas, we band together as “the kiwis” and wax lyrical about vegemite, walking barefoot (across scorching tarmac) and exaggerate our “she’ll be right” attitude. It is similar in Santiago. I have noticed a propensity of locals slamming their country but then change their tune the second an extranjero agrees. My point is is that the idea of ‘nationhood’ and ‘cultural identity’ are myths, hence why there are numerous social science disciplines out there investigating these concepts at this very moment. What is certain? That we are human. That we feel emotion, bleed when we are cut, breathe. Sometimes “we dream the same dream and want the same things” as well. Every time we define ourselves by our colour, our beliefs, our heritage, our jobs, our schools, or our salaries, we are simply placing more and more labels onto our backs to carry. Or maybe they calcify our hearts, so that when we see someone sleeping on the sidewalk or robbing us to pay for their drug addictions, we shrug our shoulders or scream blue murder … neither of which come close to getting to the heart of the problem and solving it.
Many people will read this post and disagree. Some may even insult me. Some may throw around the “left-wing” label like I am the devil incarnate. All of them will miss the point and are likely always going to. This blog is not for them. Instead it is for the people who can still remember the sun when they look up into Santiago’s smoggy sky.
Maria is eleven. She is slightly chubby with a huge smile and rather wide-set eyes. She has long black hair that is always tied up and she goes to school in Lampa. She lives with twenty extended family members in Recoleta. There are two entrances into where she lives, through the corner shop her uncle runs or via the door opening out into a side street. There are two houses adjacent to one another in front of a concrete yard, and the whole complex has been hurriedly and cheaply built over the years. Sheets have been pulled across the open spaces that peek into the neighbor’s property which also offer protection from the rain. There is the sound of non-stop chatter. Life is shared: doors are always left open, they all contribute to the microcosm of family needs, and every Sunday Maria and her family eat a late lunch outside in the courtyard. The smell of asado, fish or Cazuela drift away into the afternoon wind. Maria cannot read well and she cannot count past twenty with confidence. Before I showed her a picture of a giraffe, she had never heard of one before. She told me that there are two toddlers that live where she does and neither have many toys. They love to draw though, and draw all day long. When Maria came to my house she was amazed at two things: what we had … and what we didn’t have. She’d never seen a tablet before but she couldn’t believe we didn’t watch television. She picked up all of Emilio’s toys in wonder. Some of his simplest toys she didn’t understand how to use. Everything she touched and marvelled at. But she mostly marvelled at my son. They played very well while I just lingered about. She made him laugh, and he made her laugh. In those moments, it made no difference that neither could speak the same language (Emilio still speaks Baby, after all) nor that their world’s were a little bit different. They were just two children, enjoying a funny moment.
Maria’s auntie deals drugs that is delivered by Colombian’s who race about recklessly on a motorbike. This is not really unusual – the whole street deals drugs. It used to be really bad at one point, so the road became really unsafe. It used to be filled at all hours with slouching figures in baseball caps and ridiculously loud music. Maria’s aunties drove them all away when the new babies were born (the women are strong like that) and now there are only the residents, who are generally pretty quiet (but not always – eek!). Pasta base does rear its ugly head here and you can tell the users because you look into their eyes and see … nothing. Just an empty, empty sea. It breaks my heart.
I like Maria but she is not really my friend. This is not because she is poorer than I am, or because of the dodgy figures in her family. She is not really my friend because she is 11 and I am 28 – almost two decades apart. But I don’t dislike her and I care for her wellbeing as I would anyone else. Same goes for her family, some of whom I am quite friendly with, others whom I do not know. I want for her exactly the same as I want for my son, and that is education. Not because I want him to be able to get a good job one day (a bonus!) but because I want him to learn about the differences in the world and its people. I want him to grow up making mistakes but always being confident in who he is, where he is from and where he is going. Happiness is not something that comes from money but is a decision that you make for yourself. What is the biggest area for concern in Santiago in my opinion, you ask? Education. But education comes from all around us. I am here interacting with people like Maria every day, and every day they are learning about me and my life. Now I want to educate the other people like me, who live in this beautiful city. I want to humanize these people that are on our peripheries and show the world that they are beautiful too. I owe that to her, to my son and to every child in Santiago. I want us to all start clearing away the smog in front of our eyes. Please do it with me. #queridarecoleta