En Toma: The Education Movement in Chile

I’m using this blog post to take a quick detour from my usual gastronomic guide of Chilean cuisine (and other unnecessary additions) and give some brief reflections on the current political frenzy happening in Santiago, Chile.

My first encounter with tear gas was hardly memorable. I don’t remember being scared or even that bothered, really. I actually just thought my contacts were acting up. The only reason I took any notice was that everyone around me was coughing, holding scarves up their face, and generally acting a bit skittish. When I finally got home after a long day of teaching, I found out the gas was a reaction to the Hydrosen protests happening in Plaza Italia (a plaza generally famous for providing the grounds for protests, city wide parties, and general madness of all kinds).

The Hydrosen issue was an important one; not just for Chileans, but also for environmentalists worldwide and I myself felt there was a great injustice being done and was sad to think such a beautiful area of the world was not being protected, as it should. Yet, more than the ecological issue, what struck me about Hydrosen was the passion with which Chileans voiced their opinion on the matter. Still, I had no conception the kind of deep-rooted anger that existed when it came to the education crisis. Until now.

To be honest, my life and work here in Chile does not really involve University Education. I have a few private classes with college age students, my roommate is a Master’s student at Universidad de Chile, but generally my time is spent with businessmen in Las Condes who could really care less about these “poor people” issues. But that’s not to say I haven’t been watching. On the way to work every day I  have noticed the schools and universities now deserted–chairs eerily stacked up along the chain link fence, and graffiti proclaiming “educacíon gratuita”–it’s kinda hard to miss. Many students have now been out of school so long that they will have to take the school year over again.

(Photo by National Turk)

And protestors have really stretched the imagination when it comes to being heard.

From Thriller flash mobs, 30-day hunger strikes, faked group suicides, to mass scale “kiss ins”; Chileans are determined to get their message across. Can’t ignore the pink elephant.

But while the education protests have been accumulating momentum over the past few months, this is by no means a new issue here in Chile. Education has been a hot topic for Chileans ever since “democracy” was established in the country in the 90s. Since then, the Chilean Education System has been based on economic structures put into place by Pinochet’s team of free market activists called “The Chicago Boys”. The outcome was a deep fissure between private and public education, making it extremely difficult for lower-income Chileans to receive quality education. Piñera initially responding to the protests by “offering US$4 billion in extra state funds for education, as well as more scholarships, more transparency and help with debt. He also appointed a new education minister, replacing the beleaguered Joaquin Lavín. But critics and students are not satisfied, claiming that deeper change is needed.”-Clare Bevis, Santiago Times

(Photo by RoarMag)

And we are now seeing the consequences of years and years of built-up frustration. On Thursday, August 4th, Chile had one of its biggest protests to date in which,

“Incidents of fires, break-ins, road barricades and confrontations with police were reported in at least 12 locations across Santiago. At the intersection of San Diego and Tarapacá demonstrators  set fire to a La Polar department store — destroying all of its merchandise.”-Clare Bevis, Santiago Times

Not to mention the over 874 arrests made that night, and the general chaos that ensued throughout the streets of Santiago (my close friend Katie called me in a panic around 2pm because she could not get to her house and people were running and screaming in the street). Later that night as I was casually perusing Twitter and Facebook, I noticed my news feed was abuzz (all a-twitter, if you will…..har har har) rallying Chileans to bang pots at 9pm in protest. I was initially perplexed, but at 9pm I ventured out on my balcony, and sure enough, in every single apartment window, Chileans were banging pots and pans furiously in a symphony of cookery.

I later learned that this ‘pot banging”, or “cacerolazo” was a “tradition from the days the upper-middle class protested against food shortages during the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende, and later during the Pinochet dictatorship when citizens used the technique as a means of safely and anonymously protesting the government.”-Adeline Bash The Santiago Times

Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night, but I do think that the physicality of the pot banging, the tangibility and the power of having a city united in action, really started to hit me hard. I felt like I could really feel the frustration, the cry for change, released in the clashing and clanging. Okay, okay…. too much you say? Well, maybe, but I think enacting old traditions does carry a certain undeniable weight that can be truly powerful.

(Photo by FuckYeahProtest)

So what is it students want? I personally get a little confused. Obviously, the two main demands are higher quality and affordability. And those seem not only like reasonable, but necessary demands in a country whose economy is booming by the minute. But, what does that actually mean? Some students want a total education restructuring, to create a free education system for all (seems a tad lofty in my view) while others just want better programs, more affordable programs, and more investment. Specifics get blurred when it comes to mass movements.

(Photo by “International Student Movement“)

Some students seem to be simply recreating history, reliving the past,

The movement has become about more than education, university student Dominique Bueqazo told the Santiago Times. It has transformed into retaliation against the entire government, she said.

“The government is not listening to us. They are treating us like fools,” Bueqazo said, comparing the movements in 2011 to those of youth during the 80’s.

“Chile needed a change in the mindset of its youth to end the Pinochet dictatorship,” Bueqzo said. “We are the young people.”-Adeline Bash The Santiago Times

I find it sometimes difficult to swallow when kids of my generation try to compare current situations to past events, even though it may be inevitable. How else do we learn, except through watching history? Yet, sometimes I feel people just want to feel apart of something so they create analogies guided by nostalgia.

That said, I think as a foreigner abroad, with the intention of only staying here for about a year, it’s hard for me to feel like I can really have an opinion on this issue. I’m not a student, nor do these issues really affect me because if I do go back to school, it would be in the States. Yet the entire fiasco has really made me take a harder look at our education system back home (the problems are endless) and has also allowed me to witness, in action, just how essential technology has been for my generation in creating new movements. First Egypt and now Chile, its been remarkable to see how social media has been able to not only assist, but also truly reinvent what it means to mass organize groups of people. But, that’s a whole new essay in and of itself. Maybe next time.

For now, I’m just going to take a back seat and watch, with a curious eye, to see how the issue develops in the next few months. I’m definitely not the first, nor will I be the last lost gringa to give their take on the action, but I think just the process of writing helps me to digest the events around me.

In a recent NY Times piece on the topic, Piñera was quoted as saying in reference to the protests ” There is a limit to everything”

Now, isn’t that just ASKING for a revolution?

For more photos of the protests in Chile  go to This Ny Times Slide Show



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2 responses to “En Toma: The Education Movement in Chile

  1. Great post, Grace! I’m going to link it to mine!

  2. Dad

    Good stuff, Bud. You are good at your craft.

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