Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Unearthing the Past in a City Focused on the “Now”

Last night I went to see Sebastián Moreno’s fascinating 2006 documentary La ciudad de los fotógrafos, and I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts about it. The film revolves around a series of interviews with men and women whose cameras documented the state repression that marked Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile, which lasted from 1973 until 1989.

Moreno begins and ends on a personal note, because his own father is one of these photographers, and Moreno—like most of the viewers of his documentary—first became aware of the violence that was going on in his country through the photos taken by his father and his colleagues. Moreno’s experience of the photos is the first of many ways in which the photos—static, occasionally grainy, black and white, remote—come alive before our eyes. One of them, when he first sees it as a young boy, appears to be of a group of people standing around a castle; he later finds out that the stone structure is the entrance to a mine, in which a group of laborers, seen as threatening to the regime, were “disappeared,” buried alive within.

The most interesting aspect of La ciudad de los fotógrafos is the way it stimulates the photos taken so long ago into new significations, new angles, causing them to take on the dynamism sufficient to bring the past they depict into the present. From the mine, located on the outskirts of Santiago, Moreno moves closer and closer into the very center of the Chilean capital. More photographers lend their voices and their photos—works of art in themselves, starkly beautiful in their unblinking, up-close depictions of the horrors of the dictatorship—allowing a broader, more three-dimensional depiction of the past to emerge.

But Moreno supplements the photos themselves, along with the testimonies of those who took them, with video footage of the events photographed and, occasionally, testimonies of those who are photographed. We are also able to see the context of the photos—what happened before and after they were taken, who else was nearby, what else happened outside their frames. Violent protests on the streets of Santiago take on new gravity when we see how the water cannon—known in Chilean slang as the guanaco, a llama-like creature with a propensity to spit—mows down not just the man throwing rocks at the police in one photo taken, but also many others standing beside him. We can also better appreciate the bravery of the photographers, since we see what they had to go through to take their shots.

They also go to the very places where they took their photos; the documentary shows the mine on the outskirts of Santiago, with the photographer who took the photos of the bodies there, and of the protest against their murder. From there we move to a photo of a funeral procession and protest, following the regime’s murder of the teacher José Manuel Parada just a few years before the return of democracy. Not only does the photographer who took the picture of the procession return to the intersection in downtown Santiago where the procession passed, but we also turn to video of the procession as it approached the cemetery. There, the police try to block its entrance into the grounds of the cemetery with water cannons, and we see the shouts of Chile’s future president Ricardo Lagos denouncing the dictatorship’s tactics. And this signification, this stimulation of meaning, is infinite, as Susan Sontag shows in an analysis of Tyler Hicks’ photos in the New York Times in 2001: “the pity and disgust that pictures like Hicks’ inspire should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown” (Regarding the Pain of Others, 13-14). What wasn't photographed? What can we never see?

Many of these photographers are activists, in addition to being artists; one of them acknowledges that their guild, the AFI, or the Asociación de Fotógrafos Independientes, was popularly known as the Asociación de Fotógrafos de Izquierda—the Association of Independent Photographers was called the Association of Leftist Photographers. In addition to simply documenting the horror, they consider it their mission to publicize, and to remember, what they saw; to bear witness, in the spirit of protest. Several of them note that their cameras were as powerful as any weapon, and they wield them with purpose. Moreno shows how they use their photographs as tools of memory: photographing the mothers whose children have disappeared, they themselves, in turn, wearing the photos of their children on their lapels; documenting and archiving the photos of those who were disappeared, and photographing their loved ones holding those photos; and wearing their own photos, blown up, in a procession through the Paseo Ahumada, Santiago’s busy pedestrian thoroughfare, in the final scenes: a procession of memory.

As Giorgio Agamben points out, any witness of horror is inevitably complicit in that horror. Writing about those who gave testimonies of what happened to them in Auschwitz, he states that the witness’s duty is to demystify the horror of what happened, “even at the risk of discovering that what evil knows of itself, we can also easily find in ourselves” (Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 33). The photographers discover the same phenomenon: they find themselves craving violence, since this was what was necessary for them to obtain “good” photos, photos able to offer the coup de grace of evidence that could denounce the Pinochet regime once and for all. Many of them describe how this caused them great guilt; one states that she quit taking these photos as soon as she realized this. But this leads to the central problem that Agamben and others have described when writing about testimony: who will take the photos, then? Taking the photos implies complicity in violence, but not taking them means that no evidence can be registered. It’s a classic Catch-22.

The city of Santiago is as prominent a character in the documentary as the photographers are. By returning to the places where the photos and videos were taken, which are familiar to all Chileans and anyone else who has ever visited Santiago—the Paseo Ahumada, the General Cemetery, the intersection of Bandera and Moneda Streets, La Moneda Palace, the Alameda, Lonquén—we are forced to remember the city’s painful past. This is not always a pleasant exercise, since it reveals that Chile’s image as a stable, consensus-based country to be somewhat tenuous and perhaps even fleeting, given the recent protests that have cropped up there—particularly in Santiago—and the police repression with which they have been met. We are forced to realize that in this city, despite the flashy signage of neoliberal capitalism that lines places like the Paseo Ahumada, which privileges the latest fashions, the newest purchases, and in which goods from the past run the risk of being considered “out-of-style,” the past persists. La ciudad de los fotógrafos shows how this past is embedded in the very urban landscape that attempts to paper over it with signs that advertise the latest sale. No amount of neoliberalism can cause it to completely go away, however much it obscures and devalues the past. This is particularly clear when we are faced with the hard evidence that so many photographers risked their lives to obtain, and which Moreno works diligently to restore.

[Sorry to go all grad school on you, but, there were things that needed to be said.]

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Winter of Discontent

If there's one thing I remember about my time in living in Chile, it was the word conflictivo. If you're conflictivo, you're often more trouble than you're worth. This is a big difference between Chile and the US: a high social premium in Chile is placed on getting along with people, at all costs, whereas in the US, you're encouraged to "stand up for what you believe in" and "raise your voice." Anyone who has attended American public schools (a typical environment for the inculcation of US culture) will be familiar with these platitudes, even if they don't necessarily follow them in every possible situation. A phrase often heard in Chile, meanwhile, is agacharse el moño, which means literally "to duck your head down," and more figuratively, "to bow down," or even more loosely, "to suck it up." In the work environment, it's usually a much smarter strategy to agacharte el moño than to even offer your boss suggestions on certain things, because it's likely to be seen as threatening, and it's not in your best interest to be considered conflictivo.

So how do you explain this photo, taken yesterday from the safe distance of my balcony, or these pictures, taken by the brave photographers at the El Mercurio newspaper, from right in the thick of things? Chile is seething right now with social conflict (although not at the level currently seen in Argentina, where truckers have blocked the highways and food has grown scarce in the supermarkets). None of these kids are bowing down to anyone, not even the police decked out in riot gear (revealing the fascist roots of the Chilean military) and ready for a fight.

The current protests are related to the famous protests of the elementary and high school students just about exactly two years ago--right at the beginning of Michelle Bachelet's presidential term--demanding better learning conditions. Their main demand was the repeal of a law known as the LOCE, the Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Educación, which basically privileges the right of private citizens to make money by running schools over the right of students to learn. In Chile, a large proportion of schools are funded by the public purse but privately run; but that doesn't mean that they are non-profit organizations. So people are making money by running schools with public funds, and under the LOCE, the government does not have much freedom to regulate the way students are taught at these schools, even though it pays for them. Meanwhile, fully public schools in Chile are of generally low quality, and--as in the US--municipally run, which means that the amount of funding they receive depends on how wealthy the tax base in their area is. This exacerbates the already rampant level of social inequality in Chile. Then as now, students were demanding better conditions in publicly funded schools, and the most radical of them are now demanding that privately-run, publicly-funded schools be prohibited from profiting off the government and the students they (selectively) enroll. The LOCE, by the way, was put in place by Pinochet, signed on his last day in office. The dictatorship's economic focus was often on privatization and this law was no exception.

So the government has responded with a new bill, the LGE, or Ley General de Educación, to replace the LOCE. It's currently being debated in Congress, and passed the lower house yesterday, thanks to an accord between the presidential administration and the right wing (keep in mind that President Bachelet is a socialist). The new law does not prohibit school owners from using government money to run their schools for profit, which is why students are protesting. Meanwhile, it imposes stricter regulations on teachers, which is why they're protesting. Basically, no one's happy. So the Carabineros police bursts onto the scene with their water cannons and their teargas, and arrest like 3,000 people per day (setting them free hours can always see anxious parents waiting outside the police station the evenings after the protests for their kids to be processed). In Congress, one right-wing representative stated rhetorically that "if profit is a sin, let's all work for free," ironically defending the right of school owners to profit off their schools. A member of the teachers union, sitting up in the gallery, shouted back and challenged him to try making $500 a month, which is at the low end of teachers' salaries. [Members of Congress make approximately US$8,000 a month (senators make more); minimum wage in Chile is a bit over US$400 a month.] The members of the teachers union were escorted out after they began throwing ten-peso coins down to hit the representatives.

Chile is known as a country of consensus, thanks to the political climate that has generally prevailed in the years following the dictatorship, since the ruling Concertación coalition has continued the neoliberal policies introduced under Pinochet. Chile has become one of the most prosperous countries in South America, if not the most prosperous. And it is a relatively peaceful place.

However, I think it is simplistic, anachronistic and even unethical to deny Chile's tradition of social protest, as many do (such as analysts at the OECD) when expounding upon the country's "economic achievements." Assertions of this kind run the risk of whitewashing Chilean history for political and economic gain. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary, as well. This year the government commemorated the 100th anniversary of an uprising of nitrate miners in the northern region of Iquique, which was brutally put down by the police (all the miners were machine gunned to death). Also, there were many brave souls, about 3,000 in total, who lost their lives protesting against the dictatorship in the 70s and 80s.

It's quite inspiring to see these new generations of Chileans, who didn't grow up with their wings clipped by dictatorship, standing up for their legitimate rights, even at the risk of being considered conflictivos.

The Andes

These are pictures taken from the balcony of the apartment I'm staying in, which offers me a really impressive view of the Andes Mountains, or as they are called in Spanish, La Cordillera de los Andes. The Andes are the (almost) omnipresent backdrop for any postcard view of Santiago, towering over the city in a way that can only be described as imposingly majestic. I say "almost" omnipresent because thanks to the smog, sometimes you simply can't see them. The smog is due to the fact that in the wintertime, atmospheric conditions push the level of smog much lower; also, the past 2 winters, Argentina has periodically cut off Chile's supply of natural gas, and so factories must run on gasoline, diesel or even coal, which are much more polluting. But on clear days that immediately follow rainy ones, they are sharply visible.

This first picture was taken this morning; it rained the past few days, which cleaned up the air quite a bit, and today it's sunny.

This one was taken at sunset. For some reason I find myself fascinated by the red sunlight that falls on the mountains from the west on waning afternoons. Often when the city is completely in shadow, the mountains are still illuminated by the sunset, and it's a beautiful effect (again, when it's not too smoggy).

This last one is maybe a bit avant-garde, but whatever. A more prosaic view of the Andes, with my boxers in the foreground, drying on the line strung along the balcony.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Back in the Saddle of the Huaso

I’ve decided to continue with my blog for this summer as well, because once again I am beginning it in Santiago de Chile and planning to end it in California. After a somewhat arduous year at Princeton University, I have four months to regroup, recuperate, and collect my thoughts before returning for more in September. Concretely, I am planning to use this time to read books from the list of works that I will be tested on in my general exams next May, look around Chile for dissertation ideas, travel a bit in July (in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and possibly Brazil as well), and think. So once again this blog will serve as a travelogue and also as a place to jot down my thoughts on my surroundings and then submit them to cyberspace for reactions.

The problem is that aside from my long (really long) flight from New York to Santiago, I’m not really planning to stray that far for the next two months. So I’m hoping to use this space in the meantime more as a place for thoughts than as a travelogue. Which brings me to my first question, one I’ve kind of been turning over in my mind these days as I’ve shuttled around Santiago with dear friends, revisiting places that are at once familiar and quite foreign: by traveling to Chile, to Santiago, am I really traveling? Or just moving from one home to another? I lived here for two and a half years, after all, and only left just over a year ago. This is a place I love (and hate); this is a place I know. And yet, even a short time away from it blurs it in my mind, placing it out of necessity on the back burner, in order to make room, and to process stimulations and situations that require more immediate attention. My intimate knowledge of Santiago is always mediated by this distance. Things that used to be routine for me, things I did day in and day out for years, are once again strange: for example, making sure you have your fruit weighed and labeled in the produce section of the grocery store rather than at the check-out counter, and looking for the ATM in the airport, even though it’s in the same place it always was. Now, when one “travels” to an “exotic place” (and Santiago de Chile could be considered exotic by the standards of most gringos like myself), one expects to encounter the unknown, the unfamiliar. And what I’ve encountered here isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but it’s not familiar either. So have I “traveled,” or have I just returned?

After all, this is Chile! The people hurry through the streets in their practically-identical dark coats, talking on their cell phones and looking intently ahead of them. I spent years doing just that. The gleaming stores, monuments to this country’s neoliberal economic achievements, under constant renovation, bringing in new goods and slashing the prices of what goes unsold, pricing it to move. All of it under the constant vigilance of security guards, looking down from their perches one floor above, protecting and enforcing the system, but also joking with each other in their high-pitched voices. The cranes along the skyline (just below the jagged line delineating mountains from Chile’s cielo azulado), building apartment complexes at alarming speeds and casting shadows upon the tin-roofed shacks down the block.

I’m afraid that I’m going to catch myself being overly critical of my beloved adopted Chile this time around, after a year of full-time training in how to spot the flaws, the dark spots of the past that neoliberalism tries to erase, as Idelber Avelar says. Chile focuses constantly on commodifying whatever’s new on the showroom floor and sweeping away last season’s goods, just as it sweeps away painful periods of its history into oblivion, to be replaced by the gleaming haze of “consensus.” Is the security guard watching for shoplifters from above analogous to the often-violent vigilance of the military regime that installed this free market “paradise”? Despite the fact that Chile is now a democracy, how much has really changed?

How much have I changed, since the last time I was here? In a way I feel like a huaso, a Chilean cowboy—sometimes a word used in Chilean slang for a clueless yokel unable to cope with “modern” things. I have moments where I have no idea what I’m doing. Other times I’m afraid that I know too much.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Conclusions, Part 2

Some people have requested that I put up a Top Ten List of my favorite places along the way. Here they are (in order from South to North):

-Humberstone, Iquique, Chile (because it was awesome to walk around this mining ghost town and imagine what it was like during its glory days)

-Codpa, Chile (because I had such an awesome time hanging out with my friend Tibor, eating grapefruits still warm off the vine and stargazing at night)

-Coroico, Bolivia (because I loved the place I stayed, and I loved the tropical feel to it, and I was reading a really good book at the time)

-Isla del Sol, on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia (because of the sunset over the lake the night before in Copacabana, drinking coca tea on the hotel balcony, and because it was awesome to imagine the Inca kings on retreat there)

-Guayaquil, Ecuador (because I had such a good time with Carlos in this cosmopolitan, orderly port city)

-Quito, Ecuador (because it was easily accessible, and because of the awesome shawarma and the gilded Jesuit church)

-San Agustín, Colombia (because of the sugar cane juice with lemon, and the tour of the sculptures, and the heaping bandejas of Colombian food)

-Playa Blanca, Islas del Rosario, Colombia (because of the snorkeling, and the beautiful beach...and because next year they're going to build some homogenized resort there and I got to see it before they do that)

-Monteverde, Costa Rica (because we saw quetzals there, and howler monkeys and an agouti...and also because of the Tarzan swing)

-Tulum, Mexico (because we had a beautiful white beach practically all to ourselves)

-Chichén Itzá (and the cenote azul), Mexico (because we got to Chichén Itzá before the crowds did)

-Mexico City, Mexico (because it sent me into sensory overload)

Sorry, that's 12. I couldn't narrow it down. But that's the cool thing about having your own blog: you can make up the rules as you go along.

Conclusions, Part 1

It's good to be home. You can get the best of both worlds (north and south) right here.

The fact is, I can gain access to all the cultural goods of Latin America, even when I'm in the US, so I'm never too far from Chile. Or at least, from Spanish. I have the internet. I can watch Univision, and Telemundo. "José Luis Sin Censura" (Google it, you won't be disappointed) is on every day at 6:00. "La Esclava Isaura" comes on every night at 9.

I have learned the following things from my little trip.

1) If you are familiar enough with the culture of one Latin American country, you can manage in all of them. Even if the culture you're most familiar with (Chile) is the most un-Latin American country of the bunch.

2) Travelling is a good time to catch up on your reading. I read some really good books along the way, and I would recommend these ones in particular:
-Los detectives salvajes, by Roberto Bolaño (translated into English in the US as The Savage Detectives)
-Noticia de un secuestro, by Gabriel García Márquez (Translated into English as News of a Kidnapping)
-Assassination on Embassy Row, by John Dinges and Saul Landau
-What is the What, by Dave Eggers
-Calibre 39 (an anthology of Colombian authors under 39)

3) I love cities. The grittier the better.

4) Latin America will only leave poverty behind if other countries do what Chile has done, economically speaking. I saw no other viable alternatives.

5) You can't travel from Chile to California in just three months on a small budget, unless you plan really well. You need to either have money, or more time (or both), to do it right.

6) There are very few cheap "travellers' paradises" in Latin America anymore. The word is out on most of the nice places, and locals have jacked up the prices accordingly (as well they should). There are still lots of unexplored places, but I didn't have the time to take the risk to see if there were cool things off the beaten track (in most places). Next time.

7) I have a lot of faith in the people of Latin America. Its greatest resource, far more valuable than all its minerals put together, are its human resources: clever, resourceful, warm, friendly people--extremely highly trained, in some cases. I have faith that the people of Latin America will find solutions to their problems, and that these solutions will have a human face.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Border/La Frontera

(En español, abajo)

I flew to Tijuana, and then crossed over the border into San Diego. From there, I called my brother David, who lives in downtown SD. No sooner had I sat down to a "Meat Lovers' Breakfast Burrito" (god bless America) at a Jack in the Box just over the border, when a familiar-looking minivan pulled up outside. My parents and my brothers picked me up, and we had a nice day in San Diego before driving back to Camarillo.

My parents had been following my progress on a bulletin board in the breakfast nook. I hope I inspired them to see some of the places along the way. When are you going to Colombia, Mom?

Así que volé a Tijuana, y crucé la frontera a San Diego. De ahí llamé a mi hermano David, que vive en el centro de San Diego. Mientras lo esperaba, fui a un Jack in the Box (una cadena de comida chatarra) y pedí un burrito de desayuno (en gringolandia los burritos se comen a cualquier hora). Lo hice en español, a todo esto, porque la señora en la caja no entendía inglés. En fin. Una vez sentado y comiendo, entró una señora, gringa, apoyada por lo que parecía su marido. Tenía la cara hinchada, muy grotesca, y llevaba bata y pantuflas. Entraron al restaurante y fueron derechito al baño. Hubo una pausa en la conversa, y todos los parroquianos nos mirábamos. Un mexicano sentado delante mío de repente dijo: "¡Una fantasma!" Y todos nos reímos a carcajadas. Supongo que muchos gringos cruzan a México a hacerse su cirujía plástica porque ahí ahorran algo de platita.

Bueno, después de un ratito llegó una minivan que me era familiar. Mi familia entera salió y nos abrazamos en frente del Jack in the Box. Tuvimos una tarde agradable en San Diego, antes de emprender rumbo a Camarillo, nuestro pueblito en los suburbios del mero sueño americano.

Resultó que mis viejos habían estado siguiendo mi viaje en su sala de estar (véase foto del mapa, arriba). Así que estoy en casa, descansando. Preparándome pa' la próxima aventura.