Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Day of Remembrance, A Cry for Justice

I am going to be upfront and say that this is a really difficult blog post, at least for you to read. But I need to speak, to give voice, to everything that I have seen and heard and been processing for the last day, and this is the best form of catharsis that I know.

Yesterday my study abroad group and I went to Santiago for an excursion in remembrance of human rights violations in Chile. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the recent political history of Chile, here is a brief summary. In 1970, Chile democratically elected a socialist president, Salvador Allende. This was the first and only time this has happened in any country in the world. His term was revolutionary yet politically unstable, and this environment precipitated a military-led golpe de estado (coup d'état) on September 11, 1973. This day marks the beginning of Agusto Pinochet's 17-year-long dictatorship, which was repressive and marred by human rights violations. During the dictatorship over 2000 people died or disappeared. Of the over 33,000 people detained, more than 27,000 were tortured.

In case these facts are not arresting enough, I will share some eerier details. For example, the reason that Chilean parties last until 5 or 6 in the morning is the curfew imposed during the dictatorship. If you were found outside after dark, that alone was reason enough to be beaten, detained, or murdered. Another is an article from El Mercurio, the oldest and most widely circulated newspaper in Chile, which declared that the corpse of a woman which had washed ashore was the victim of a crime of passion. In reality the secret police had thrown her tortured body (and countless more) in the ocean in hopes that the remains would never be found. By the way, the documentary "El Diario de Agustín" which describes this and other ways in which El Mercurio justified and covered up the events of the dictatorship was not shown in movie theaters in Chile because the owners of the newspaper used their power and wealth to prevent its screening. This was in 2008, long after the dictatorship had ended.

It is one thing to learn about what happened. It is quite another to hear the voices of the victims, to walk through sites of torture. The point of yesterday was remembrance, and I can quite honestly say I will never forget.

I will never forget hearing Verónica De Negri speak at the opening of a new exhibit and the Museum of Memory. She was detained on seven separate occasions before fleeing with her family to the United States. Her son Rodrigo, an amateur photographer, returned to Chile when he was 19. He was taking photos of a political demonstration when the police seized him and burned him alive in the street. I will never forget the bitterness in her voice when she talks about the anger that has been tearing her apart internally for the past 40 years.

I will never forget hearing touring Villa Grimaldi, one of thousands former sites of torture, with Valkiria, a woman who was tortured in that very place. She is a social worker by trade and she worked actively in the countryside during the agrarian reforms of Allende's regime. She was also a member of MIR, the Revolutionary Leftist Movement. Because of this, Pinochet's regime targeted her. She went into hiding for a period, but nevertheless was found and detained.

I will never forget Valkiria describing the sound of the thick chain being unwound to open up the entrance gate, signifying that new prisoners were entering or dead prisoners were leaving:

I will never forget her describing the vulnerability she felt when she was stripped naked, when her eyes were forced closed with Scotch tape so she could see just a bit of ground beneath her feet and no idea where she was, when she was forced to walk in a line between her fellow female prisoners. That is why today at Villa Grimaldi all the placards are placed on the ground, and the trees are planted in lines:
"OLD ACCESS POINT- Through here began the prisoners' march. This gate will now remain locked forever."

I will never forget seeing a recreated version of the confinement cells which measure 1 yard by 1 yard and which contained 4 women for days on end (although some men say that there were 6 to 8 of them in their cells). Two of the women would stand while the other two sat because there wasn't enough room to lie down. I will never forget stepping inside, shutting the door behind me, and seeing the one tiny spot of light coming from the tiny hole in the door.
Valkiria (in the purple scarf) in front of a recreated cell
I will never forget seeing one of the metal bed frames to which prisoners were restrained while electric shock was sent coursing through their ears, noses, mouth, and sexual organs. I will never forget Valkiria describing the odor in the confinement cell after torture, with the menstruation brought on by having electric shock sent through their wombs, their unwashed bodies, the human waste that would accumulate on the tiny floor because they were only permitted to use the toilet once a day. And at the same time the sweet floral scent that would drift in from the rose garden outside the door, how completely senseless and foreign that smell was in their place of suffering.

I will never forget her outrage that justice still has not been served. That the military and government continue to deny that they have evidence of what happened, despite the fact that she and every other prisoner who entered Villa Grimaldi were photographed, and their vital information and dates of entry and exit meticulously recorded. That the teenagers with whom she works in poor neighborhoods have to go to jail for 5 years after a few repeated incidents of theft, but that the government officials and police and military members who are known to have tortured and killed walk free. That the few who are imprisoned live in luxurious prisons with private tennis courts and are allowed to leave to go to family events. That the Constitution guarantees the indemnity of all crimes committed during certain years of the dictatorship. That the businesses which funded the golpe de estado continue operating without penalty.

I will never forget reading the story of Michelle Marguerite Peña Herreros, a woman who was also tortured and murdered in Villa Grimaldi when she was 27 years old and 8 months pregnant. I will never forget the tears which surged to my eyes when I saw the toys that she had left with her family members, which were intended for her unborn child:
I will never forget leaving a red carnation at a memorial in her honor.

I will never forget hearing about one guard who was secretly left-leaning, who would sneak medicine to the prisoners when they were severely injured and who would whistle a classic revolutionary song on his round. I will never forget seeing the grove of trees where he was brutally murdered for being a traitor.

I not only have experiences which I will never forget, but also questions that will probably never be answered. How can people do this to other people? How does Valkiria live with these memories stored inside her every day? The Bible says we are to forgive- how is it possible to forgive the torturers? How can individuals and families and nations move forward after such horror? How can they not carry bitterness and hatred in their hearts every day, emotions which can do nothing but tear them apart? What is the fair treatment for the aggressors? For if we torture them too, is it not true that we are no better? And yet shouldn't they have to experience the pain which they caused others? Why did the United States government help orchestrate the golpe de estado, and why were we in general (with a few exceptions such as Senator Ted Kennedy) approving or silent during the entire dictatorship? Why does the US government continue to do the same thing today with so many regimens that are similarly unjust? 

I suppose I can only say two things for sure. One is that I have a new resolve to speak out against and advocate for those whom are repressed. The other is that I pray that our God who is ruler of all will bring justice and restoration.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Source of All Worth

Quick: Name a Chilean fútbol player from the national professional team. Now the President of Kenya.. And the top-selling Korean recording artist.

If you´re like me, you wouldn't be able to answer any of these questions without a quick internet search. These people have reached the height of success in their fields and are household names in their respective countries, and yet you have no idea who they are. Outside of their spheres of influence, these celebrities are rather unremarkable.

The funny thing about accomplishments are that their worth is 100% based on the perceptions of others. Success, recognition, achievement: all of these things are all contextual. This is true for famous people, but it's just as true for everyday people like you and me. Now that I live in Chile, the "impressive" labels I wear like badges of honor when I'm in the US- valedictorian, team captain, nominated to Homecoming court, intern with a prestigious organization, scholarships, successful projects, every reward I've ever received- mean nothing. I mean, I can use my broken Spanish to explain them, but who cares? No matter how impressive I may consider myself to be, not many people here will view me that way. The same goes for relationships. Even if I were the most popular person on the DU campus (which we all know is not the case), here I am just a gringa who is a little strange and doesn't know the cultural norms. No matter how much effort I have put into building deep and long-lasting relationships with family and friends, I am currently apart from those people so I can't take the same comfort from having them as an integral part of my daily life.

These worldly things in which I could have put my identity, these things I used to point at and say "Yes, that makes me an important person, that makes me lovable," have been stripped away.

The only thing which is constant, which hasn't changed, is who I am in Christ. I am a daughter of the King, fully loved, fully accepted, made whole and new through the sacrifice of his son Jesus. I have worth because I am His, not because of what I have done, who I know, or what others think of me. I realize more and more every day how futile it is to place my identity in anything other than this, because all the things I cling to can be taken away in a second.

Just think about it- even the prettiest girl will grow old and her beauty will fade. Even the strongest athlete could get into a tragic accident and become a quadriplegic. Even the smartest intellectual could suffer a brain injury and lose their mental processing abilities in a blink.

So how does this realization change my life? Externally, it doesn't change much. I will still continue to work hard, to aim for my dreams, and to build relationships with people. What is drastically different is my heart attitude. I will study, run, and love not because being a good student, athlete, and friend defines who I am, but because I am completely confident in who I am apart from these things. Instead of thinking, "I am somebody because of X," I am starting to think, "I am somebody because God made me somebody. I will do X as an expression of my thankfulness to Him for this joy of being alive, being capable, and having this moment, this opportunity."

No longer do I have to accomplish my own list of goals, nor the expectations of others. No longer do I have to earn the right to tell myself at the end of the day that I am somebody. Because let's be honest- my self-conversation never ends that way on days when I'm trying to prove myself. It sounds more like "Idiot. You screwed up here and there and everywhere really. Who are you really? Nobody." Instead of this destructive cycle, I get the joy of dwelling in each moment knowing that I am loved just as I am.

Living this way is so freeing. The amazing thing is, the less I care about what others think about me, the more confident I feel because my identity is not subject to the rising and falling tide of others´approval. God already approves. I am also more free to listen to His voice and follow Him where He leads me. After all, He knew full well His plan for my life when He made me. He made me exactly how He wants me to be, and He doesn't do anything less than the best work.

God says that I matter, and that's all that matters.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

¡Viva Chile!

September is a beautiful month in Chile. It marks the beginning of spring; the elderly in Chile have a special day to celebrate the end of August because it is the coldest month of the year. It also marks the anniversary of Chile's independence, which although officially recognized on the 18th, is celebrated with a whole week off school and work. Ok, let's be honest... Chile starts celebrating as soon as September 1st rolls around. Every store, every taxi cab, every public space, is decked out in red, white, and blue. The Chilean flag flies proudly on every pole. 

There is no better time to experience the traditions of Chile. This week I went to a workshop to learn the cueca, which is the national dance of Chile. It is a partner dance in which the man and woman interact in a series of turns, all the while waving a handkerchief. They repeatedly approach each other only to return to their respective spots. The audience claps in time with the music. The whole dance is flirtatious in general, but especially the Porteño version (Porteño is the term for a person from Valparaíso because it's the major port city of Chile). My region specializes in being a little more racy. For example, the man can drape his handkerchief across the shoulder of the woman and later return to snatch it back using his teeth. She can trick him by sliding the handkerchief into her cleavage and forcing him to remove it (using his hands, thankfully, and not his teeth). To which he can respond by tucking the handkerchief in his waistband, front and center, and having her pull it out. Overall, I enjoyed learning the dance, and I am excited to practice at the Independence Day parties coming up this month!

A couple dancing la Cueca in traditional garb
At the same time that football madness is starting to take over in the United States, fútbol madness continues to run strong here in Chile. This weekend I was fortunate enough to have the chance to see the Chilean national team play against Venezuela in the game which would determine which country would continue to the Mundial (World Cup) in Brasil in 2014.

A heap of other gringos and I piled on a bus and headed to the national stadium in Santiago, the capital, which is about an hour and a half away. We made a pit stop in a park for an asado, or BBQ, which is another Chilean tradition which centers around choripan, or grilled chorizo sausage placed on a bun. We painted each other´s faces and enjoyed the afternoon:
Then it was back to the bus and off to the game! We only got more excited the closer we got. There were guys poking their heads out the sunroof, flying flags out the window, (thereby eliciting supportive honks from every Chilean driver who passed us), and booing at every Venezuelan license plate we passed.

My friends Harry and Merisa even danced the cueca in the aisle of the bus as everyone clapped along!

The game was pretty crazy! The entire stadium was packed out with spectators decked out in red, white, and blue, with exception to the one (very small) section for the Venezuelans who made the pilgrimage to come support their team. 

To demonstrate the sentiments in the stadium, here is a video of the fans doing the wave before the game even starts (pardon my shouting the background haha):

Here is a quick run-down of Chilean sportsmanship:
1. Instead of booing at the other team or at unfavorable ref calls, Chileans whistle. Shrilly.
2. (profanity warning) When the announcer was reading off the names of the Venezuelan players, after each one the entire stadium shouted in unison "Concha tu madre!" which is probably the most offensive thing you can say to a person in Spanish. It literally refers to someone´s mother as female genitalia, but the sentiment is closer to our "F*** you."
3. The most important chant any Chilean fan needs to know is as follows:
(person who starts the chant) "C-H-I"
(everyone else) "Chi!"
(everyone together) Chi, chi, chi, le, le, le, ¡Viva Chile!
4. To get everyone in the stands pumped up, a section would start singing: "Olé olé, olé ola, Los que no salta, no va a Mundial." Translated, it's "Hurray hurray, hurray to the wave, Those who don't jump don't go to the World Cup." This gets everyone up on their feet!
5. After a goal, everyone sings the classic soccer chant "Olé" but substitutes the last few Olés with Chile.
6. As the second half drew to a close and Chile was clearly going to win, the entire stadium started waving at the Venezuelan section and yelling "Adios!" or "Chao!" 

In the end, Chile won 3-0! Here is a picture that captures the feeling when we won:

That's all for now, folks. More to come after the week of Fiesta Patria, or the Homeland Celebrations!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Out-There

The past few weeks in Chile have been a blur. They were among some of the most difficult emotionally because the homesickness and loneliness have begun to set in. Along with the homework. At the moments when it gets toughest, I start to remember.

I remember my God, my constant Rock, who is ever present no matter where I am. I remember that He is doing incredible work in my life by taking me to a place where I am stripped of all comfort, of all sources of pride. I remember all the people I love and miss so much, and how supportive they have been throughout the whole process of coming abroad. If you are reading this, you are probably one of those people, so thank you! I remember that before I know it, I will be home for Christmas and I´ll be able to hug you tight and exchange stories about the past months. It will be like no time has passed at all. I remember how blessed I am to have so many people who are such an important part of my life and who hold an irrevocable place in who I am.

And then I remember why I came here in the first place. I remember that I am an adventurer at heart. Many travelers are wanderers, or people who want to go everywhere and put roots down nowhere. Adventurers are different. We always long to see what is over the next horizon, but we also crave belonging, creating the experience of home every place we go. Bits and pieces of our hearts lie in every place we have ever been. My heart is a constant coexistence of missing and longing, and I have to consciously let go of what I have known and what I will know to be fully present in today, here, now.

I remember why this is the experience of which I have dreamed, far before I could actualize the urge to explore into a plan. I remember being the little girl who picked up fruit while riding in the cart at the grocery store, reading the label indicating where it was grown, and inundating my parents with questions about that country. I wanted to know it all, the religion and imports and exports and foodstuffs and population demographics and geography and economy and language. I remember that Christmas when they bought me at atlas and a globe to sate my curiosity, and I would spend hours tracing my finger across the latitude lines and imagining life in each country and planning top secret spy missions all around the world. I remember hearing Spanish speakers in public and imagining initiating a conversation with them, back when all I knew was the elementary school Spanish of counting and colors. I remember when I wasn't even old enough to drive, and I sat down to plan a road trip to California for the summer after high school graduation. I had it all figured out- I was going to leave everything I knew to go live and work somewhere, anywhere near a coast so I could learn how to surf and experience something new and different. I remember accepting a job several thousand miles away from home in Philly, where I didn't know a soul, in a neighborhood that was the opposite of the small town life that was my reality, when I was barely old enough to be a legal adult.

And that is why I am here. I am here, where I get to experience a new culture and speak Spanish and run at the beach at sunset and try surfing just because and take classes and have an internship. I am here, because once I catch a scent of an opportunity, a challenge, an adventure in the works, the out-there, I cannot do anything but brashly pretend I am not afraid and charge full-speed ahead into the great unknown.