The Fire Rages On

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This blog entry was written towards the end of my stay in Chile, when a fire broke out in Valparaíso. I explore themes of religion, privilege, and identity. To me, there is a marked difference between my first blog entry upon arriving in Chile and this one – hopefully an indication of my personal transformation throughout the journey.

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I was a bit nervous to go to my first Vía de la Crucis, a procession of the cross on Good Friday, since I have little experience with the Catholic faith. I had no idea what “stations of the cross” meant, how I was expected to behave, or what prayers would be offered, if any. The second we stepped onto the beach, we were engulfed by a crowd of hundreds of people. My host mother handed me a candle to hold and immediately a man’s voice resounded from a loudspeaker. He began to recite the Lord’s Prayer and quotes from the pope as we walked from station to station, recounting the suffering of Christ as he was crucified. Vía-goers started chanting as we walked, with the spray of the ocean at our backs. The candle-lights melded with the lights from the hills and the stars to create a sea of lights against the night sky. At the end of the vía, the priests said a prayer for Valparaíso, for those affected by the incendio.

A week ago today, a fire began to rage in Valparaíso, which took the authorities days to control. When the fire started, we could barely make out a thin stream of smoke in the sky. Soon afterward, ash began to rain down on our heads as we headed for cover. Now, accounts of the damage include 10,000 residents evacuated, 2,000 homes destroyed, and nearly 20 deceased. Some residents consider the fire to be worse than the numerous earthquakes the city has been subject to in the past. Although the international students have wanted to help with the relief effort, the mayor of Valparaíso has now closed the city to all individuals who are not trained professionals.

To me, the fire has made salient the concepts of colonialism and the “colonial student” that we have discussed in my study abroad seminar. We, as international students, experience new cultures in the same way that “commodities are coveted, purchased and owned.” In true capitalist form, we literally pay for the opportunity to experience a different culture, albeit with a very distinct perceptive lens. We hop off air-conditioned buses and are guided en masse to a tourist site to view the way in which the “natives” live. Anthony Ogden argues in his piece “The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student,” that “the whole globe is a stage on which the post-modern student can revel, moving at will from scene to scene.” Although I certainly would not be considered wealthy by United States standards, I have the freedom – not earned, but purchased – to go wherever I so choose around Chile, while my host family is not financially able to do so. I have the option to go to a bar for drinks while a fire rages on in a city that is not my own, a fire that will ultimately leave over two thousand people homeless. I am privileged to experience all that my host country has to offer, and I have even more privilege to do so as a white, U.S. citizen from a middle-class family.

Obviously, an asymmetrical relationship does exist between myself – indeed, all my gringo companions – and our Chilean hosts. But how, I wonder, can this unequal system be dismantled, or at least be made to redress the problems within this exchange? I believe that the solution lies, in part, in ceasing to see ourselves as customers with a sense of entitlement to the experiences or “goods” we have bought, but rather as fellow learners. If we can make our objective not only to pursue experiences that lead to personal growth, but also to share meaningful experiences with members of our host communities, if we can manage to step off the air-conditioned tour-bus and into the unknown, only then can we hope to gain truly transformative experiences. Standing on the beach, grasping my candle in a swarm of countless other candles and stars, I saw a glint of what stepping off the colonial veranda looks like. Enveloped in that sea of light, I felt hope for Valparaíso and its recovery from the fire. I also felt hopeful for the rest of my stay in Chile. My goal for the semester is that I will continue to step outside my comfort zone in order to grow personally and that I can share experiences with my host community in an effort to erode the dichotomy between student and host, between colonist and native.

Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Jennifer Tubbs is a senior in the SFS studying Regional and Comparative Studies with a focus on human rights in Latin America at Georgetown University. During spring 2014, Jennifer studied abroad in Valparaíso, Chile at La Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. She is very interested in the rights of indigenous populations in Latin America and thoroughly enjoyed hiking, swimming, and biking throughout the Andean region. 

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