Santiago

Notes from the Street: Luis’ Story

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The simple truth is that I would not be living in Santiago if there was no Luis.

We met dancing Cueca in New Zealand and then I followed him to Chile … after just one night together. It was an amazing one, to be fair.

“Are you out of your flaming mind?!” was the general reaction from most of my friends. “He is going to rob you of your organs and sell them on the black market!” My latino friends all warned me with complete sincerity. My parents just looked at each other with a knowing look and then gave us their blessing. I was 24 with enough worldly experience to see me through an infatuation in Chile, they reckoned. They were, of course, correct. Four years later with a baby, a house and our own travel memories, our relationship is pretty solid. No regrets is a motto worth living by, I think. Making excuses just wastes time.

I love Luis but that is not why I am writing this. I am writing this because although Luis is Chilean, he breaks every stereotypical mould. When I created Organizacion Ojos Abiertos I thought of him, growing up within the public school system in Chile. His life has been by no means easy, but he has achieved his goals and overcome many obstacles. For that, he is my inspiration.

Luis

Luis’ mother went into labour in the house that is today occupied by Luis’ brother and his partner. He was born within the public healthcare system here in Recoleta, and spent the first years of his life living down Victor Cuccuini. His parents separated when he was eleven, at which time he went to live with his father, a corner store owner, and his brother (older by one year). The separation was not easy, particularly because Luis’ father was unable to even boil an egg. I am not sure how they managed with such limited survival skills, but survive they did, albeit with much comida charra (junk food). Over the next eight years, the family moved around multiple times, across Recoleta then into Huechuraba (Antigua) and even to Curepto, a small town in the south near to Curico. Luis was a bright boy but his attention at school was always … somewhere else. Being one number in a class of over forty meant his skills were never recognized and his participation never encouraged. His final high schools exams (PSUs) were not the best.

He did, however, manage to go to a professional institute for higher education, studying for a degree in International Business. He studied full-time and then came home to work nights in his own corner store. His father and uncles all ran stores and thought it was a good way of earning an income, and when Luis’ father began to work as a taxi driver he offered his store to Luis to buy. The store was in Huechuraba and was very popular. Sometimes it was too popular and attracted the wrong kind of attention, so Luis would fire a gun into the air to scare people when they broke in.

It is difficult to escape drugs in any country. In New Zealand, ecstasy, marijuana and ADHD medication were trending when I was at school. In Luis’ time it was horse tranquilizers, cocaine and pasta base (derivative of cocaine-making process mixed with toxic chemicals). The latter is a highly addictive substance that is very prominent in lower-income barrios because it is cheap. It gives a big high but also has an intense down that is very difficult to shake off. Cocaine was, and still is, very popular. When you play with drugs, however, you enter into an underworld that has very different rules.

People do drugs for all different reasons, whether they be for recreation or for emotional survival, and this mixing of motivations and levels of addictions makes for an unequal playing field. Disagreements can quickly turn into something serious when one’s senses are impaired, and this is exactly what happened the night Luis’ brother was stabbed in the back. Multiple times he was attacked – here in Recoleta – and at the end he was unable to move and thought to be dead. He spent three months in hospital and many more months re-learning how to walk and co-ordinate his body. Today his body bears only the scars of this ordeal, but the mental wounds have been enough to stop Luis, his family and their close friends, to all cease using hard drugs.

Luis travelled to New Zealand on a one year working holiday visa in 2011 without knowing a single word of English. He did so because he wanted to learn about the world, its people and its languages. This in itself is inspiring, because all of his childhood friends still live down Cuccuini and have rarely left Santiago. Once in New Zealand, he navigated the strange culture and found friends, which eventually led him to that fateful night with me.

Luis has travelled, speaks English fluently, has two stable jobs driving a taxi and a bus, owns property and jointly owns cars that work as taxis. It could have been very easy for his life to go differently. He could have easily become addicted to drugs, like several of his friends. He could have gone to jail, like another friend. He could also have zero assets or speak little English or have travelled not at all. He has done so much with so little behind him, and very often without any guidance or support at all. I am intensely proud of him and for that he is my inspiration. His story I tell to teenagers who think they cannot do much with their lives. I tell them to follow their dreams – no matter how unlikely they may seem – and, most importantly, to have no regrets.

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