In April 1989 I came to Santiago for the first time with my parents to visit my brother who was doing post-graduate research in political science after having worked with Paul Sigmund (a conservative scholar of Chilean political history) at Princeton. I don’t know what it was exactly that I liked so much about the city, especially given the nature of a family trip and the usual activities such a trip implies. Whatever it was, I wanted to come back and so my mother bought me a ticket as a graduation gift and I returned after graduating from high school that June.
My return had been welcomed by my brother who made grandiose promises of urban adventures and trips outside Santiago. But when I arrived he claimed to be too busy to entertain me and came up with the bizarre idea of sending me to a private school so that I could meet people my own age. Why I agreed to this is still a mystery to me — because who in their right mind would go back to school the summer after finally completing over a decade of torture? However, as I soon learned, school was quite different here from what I had been accustomed to in the U.S. Students walked in and out of classrooms and hung out in the yard for what seemed to be a disproportionate amount of time, so that the hours flew by and it felt more like leisure time than anything else. After a week I’d made enough friends to drop out. (I’d also developed a crush on the school principle, a recent college graduate from the U.S. who I thought about from time to time many years after).
Around that same week I’d met a classmate of my brother’s who scolded him for sending me to mix with cuicos and suggested that a better idea might be for me to go to La Chile with his brother who was studying history at a campus in a remote part of La Reina. So every morning I took the bus to meet with Julio and his friends and to engage in the same activities I’d participated in at my private school (hanging out in the yard, not attending classes) but, now, with students from a very different social stratum. I soon learned that my new friends were all members of the MIR and that they were generally suspicious of Americans but had made an exception in my case. I won’t even try to deny that for me it was quite exotic to temporarily abandon my sheltered middle class life in suburban Georgia and to suddenly find myself among peers who lived in poblaciones and who sometimes didn’t have money to take the bus to get to campus. And if, at the time, I was conscious that I was slumming in Chile, I was also aware that, despite their good intentions and generosity towards me, Julio and his friends also participated in the game in the way they perceived me as a sort of little sister, rich gringa convert connected to them only through a chance, precarious situation. There was the time, for instance, that they took me to a MIR party but blindfolded me on the bus to keep the location of the house where the party was being held secret. Of course I had spent enough time in Colombia by this point to understand the problem of class, especially coming from an ultra-cuica/politically conservative Colombian family (on my mother’s side) and seeing the sense of self-entitlement of family members that contradicted the middle-class values with which I had been raised. This is a complicated subject and of course in the 1970s class differences in the U.S. were still subtle (or at least hidden) enough for Americans to continue living out their deluded fantasy of living in a classless society, blind to the American foreign policy that made this delusion possible. I think that the development of my political orientation, then, was product of both a complicated family background and an education in (and subsequent rejection of) Cold War ideology.
The most vivid memory I have of that summer is one that I’ll never forget and that, in many ways, determines my still idealistic image of Chile (in contrast to my damaged relationship to Colombia). One evening I took the bus with a friend of my brother’s visiting him from Connecticut, to go to an event at the Universidad de Chile, Casa Central. Unaccustomed to the velocity of nighttime bus travel and lost in conversation, we ended up in San Bernardo. I realized we’d gone much too far and another passenger listening in on our conversation offered to show us to a payphone near to his stop but the bus driver, also eavesdropping, turned around and prohibited us from leaving the bus and then told the guy to stay away from us. And so we stayed on until he finished his route after which he drove us back into the city center to make sure we arrived home safely. When I offered to pay him for the extra gasoline he had used for the long trip back he refused and asked me only for one small favor. Instead of money he preferred that I send him a postcard from every city I traveled to and this I did for many years after. I still have his address and as I write this I realize that I am long overdue in sending him a postcard from Berlin.