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Looking Back—But Mostly Ahead

Jul 21, 2011 by Layli Amerson in Latin America

(Students in the main courtyard of Universidad Alberto Hurtado.)

It was 10 pm, and I had arranged my window seat for my flight out of Santiago as best I could, though my enormous backpack insisted on hogging my legroom. I turned to the norteamericano beside me.

“So were you here on vacation?”

No, he told me, he was on a business trip, which required him to spend more time in planes than actually on the ground. I told him I had been staying in Santiago since May.

“Oh yeah? You’ve got to see the south. Santiago’s just like any other big city.”

I nodded. I wasn’t in much position to argue. Santiago is the only big city I’ve ever lived in, and I assume the busyness and pollution inhere in nearly all metropolises. Yet my time here was anything but common.

With Katie, I’ve had the singular opportunity to build something from the ground up: the English Pedagogy Department’s Writing Center. It started as a hopeful seed in our heads that we tried to transplant to the rest of the department, which required a series of reality checks. Recruit 10 mentors? Try three. Our own workspace? Use the Teachers’ Lounge. Get funding? Depends on the department budget.

At times, we didn’t know where to start. How do you introduce a person to the vast field of writing center scholarship (yes, it’s a field), or even to the mere idea of a writing center, without overwhelming him or her?

We tackled those questions as we presented our proposal to the teachers, met with students interested in mentoring to discuss articles, and wrote a syllabus for the preparation class the three mentors-in-training will begin in a few weeks. I wanted to stay connected to the project after returning home, so I cooked up a blog, “Pioneer Mentors,” in which the mentors-in-training will write weekly journal entries. Check in soon for the first entries!

While I’m super excited to power ahead, I remind myself to take it one step at a time. We’ve set out in a rowboat—it’s not yet a steamship (though this Valparaíso oarsman might argue otherwise).

There are projects—and then there are people. I’m going to deeply miss the friends I’ve made, who have been so welcoming. I can’t resist showing off a few of these wonderful people…

Cristobal and Dayana, who we met through conversation groups, taught us so much about Chilean culture.

Professor Emeritus Eliana Ortega supported us from day one.

Professors Lety Banks and Loreto Aliaga Salas advocated for the Writing Center project. At left, they talk with Katie at the despedida for the interns.

The other day I was sitting in my little purple room in Wisconsin, listening to Bishop Allen’s “Like Castanets,” when I had a small epiphany. This song, which I had heard the band play at Mount Holyoke in 2010, is about the cities of Valparaíso and Santiago!

This city is silver in the moon
And mountains heaped with sugar spoons
The click and clatter of my feet
On lonely crooked cobbled streets…

I feel the strain of climbing along the labyrinthine streets of Valparaíso.

I'm following the coffee trail
And drink it black and by the bail
The pesos turn to paper cups…

I see the commuters streaming through the city sipping Nescafé cappuccinos.

Across the Mapocho
Santa Lucia
Barrio Bellavista
San Cristobal
Across the Mapocho
La Moneda
La Casa Neruda

I smiled, picturing all these places in Santiago:
The Río Mapocho running its dusty track,
Cerro Santa Lucia with its hummingbirds and steep stairs,
Barrio Bellavista with pubs and lapis lazuli sellers,
Cerro San Cristobal with la Virgen guarding the peak,
La Moneda, the presidential palace, with carabineros patrolling,
Neruda’s house tucked into a corner, the poet’s hideaway.

Chile, todavía estás conmigo—¿cachai?

"I wanted to give my child an education; all I gave him was debt."

Jul 08, 2011 by Layli Amerson in Latin America

Nature can be found even in the hectic center of Santiago on Cerro Santa Lucia, the park where I encountered a flock of colibrís (hummingbirds) who obliged me by "posing."

The past few weeks have brought me countless adventures. Most have been delightful; some have been sobering (I advise that you never leave your wallet in an outer zip). I’m reminded repeatedly that although I’m accustomed to some aspects of my daily life—I no longer tip over standing on the Metro—much of Chilean culture and history and of Santiaguino life remains beyond my ken.

I can’t write without discussing the student movement here, with its ubiquitous proclamations graffitied on walls and blazoned on banners. “EDUCACIÓN GRATUITA, PÚBLICA, Y DE CALIDAD” sums it up: education must become free, public, and high quality. Today, there persists a messy system of education, a leftover of Pinochet’s neoliberal policies, in which businesses can run semi-private schools and receive government funding with negligible accountability. The accompanying inequality between fully public, semi-private, and private schools contributes to the stratified society. Other problems abound, including the exorbitant interest that banks charge on student loans.

The students proclaim that education should not continue to be a business one day longer, and to underscore their demands there have been enormous marches, strikes, and tomas. In solidarity with public education, the Universidad Alberto Hurtado students went on paro (strike) for a week, suspending classes. If you were to drive around Santiago, you would see schools with piles of chairs and desks blocking their gates: these institutions are in toma, with students occupying the grounds and barring anyone else from entry.

Katie and I went to one of the marches to observe. I was astounded by the incredible size of the crowd—a veritable sea of faces and signs streaming down la Alameda, the main autopista.

I unintentionally experienced the dangers of protesting in a country accustomed to police crackdowns when I tried to get to UAH in the final hour of a march. UAH is located in the center of the city, very close to where the marches end, so my usual Metro exit was closed. Tentatively taking the exit across la Alameda, I was greeted by a guanaco, a water cannon. I found myself huddled with a group of students and onlookers behind a newsstand to avoid the powerful jet of water. I looked toward the university and saw a mist wafting in front of the sign “Universidad Alberto Hurtado”: tear gas. I started walking the opposite direction, and then found myself consumed by a crowd of running students—and in a second, I was running too. An hour later I arrived to class, shaken, with a new respect for the risks of solidarity.

On a completely different note, I have never seen a city as photogenic as the port city Valparaíso—or, as Chileans call it, Valpo. I spent a weekend there with Katie, and we both got soaked in a Saturday storm. Luckily we were able to dry off a bit in Pablo Neruda’s house, from which I watched waves break in the distance, beyond the hills of bright houses.

I have also had the pleasure of getting to know some fellow Bahá’ís here, and of visiting the grounds of the future House of Worship, the Temple of Light. The construction site sits on the ankles of the Andes; I visited with a Spanish-French-English interpreter and a family, freshly arrived from several years in Maine. Sitting on the scrubby grass, looking over Santiago to the mountains across from us, I imagined that I could see through the immense ancient stone to the ocean. After all, in Santiago, anything is possible. What a wonderful and terrifying prospect.

Museum of the Memory

Jun 17, 2011 by Layli Amerson in Latin America

(The beachside market in Cartagena with statue of San Pedro, patron saint of fishermen.)

From the outside, El Museo de la Memoria looks like an enormous hovering prism. This museum, like Villa Grimaldi, dedicates itself to preserving the memory of those whose rights the dictatorship abused.

In a sleek, high-ceilinged hall of el museo, I watched Pinochet’s coup on a monitor. It was 1973, and I hunkering down with a group of reporters in a hotel room, filming the bombardment of the presidential palace. Then I was listening through thick radio static to Salvador Allende’s final address. Years later, I was mourning the murder of a reporter along with his weeping family.

Why does this matter? I think now I have a better answer than I did at Villa Grimaldi. It matters because although this part of Chile’s history is over, it’s not dead. The legacy of pain, fear, and oppression still walks and breathes in the memories of the people in our midst and in the national mentality.

When we arrived at the final floor of the museum, I stepped out onto the balcony. The day was sunny and summery, and I drank in the view of the city. It’s hard to believe, Katie and I agreed, that much of the wounded history in the museum happened right here, and not so long ago.

Outside my forays into Chile’s past, I’ve been busy at the university, talking with students and helping teachers. I’ve given two presentations so far and led several breakout groups. I can thank SAW for preparing me for this role! In a presentation I gave on prewriting, I went over some strategies.

As a lover of metaphors, I tried to find one to express how fundamental prewriting is to the writing process. I came up with this:

To further emphasize this point, I had two volunteers perform a skit, a dialogue between a feckless travel agent who has failed to prepare any plans for his client’s trip (the writer who didn’t prewrite), and a traveler (the reader). It got some laughs, so I consider it a success!

I have been learning far more than I have been teaching. Looking through the eyes of the students, the United States is a peculiar place. Much of their impression of the United States comes from entertainment media—thank you, MTV—and they envision our nation brimming with families eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, sweet sixteen bashes, cheerleaders dating football jocks, wild frat parties, high-speed police chases, and bank robberies. It’s amusing, but then how much does the average estadounidense know about Chilean culture?

Last week I hit a milestone: 20 years old, although I’ve been feeling older (many of the students pegged me at twenty-five). Chileans don’t throw big parties for birthdays; instead they have a special family dinner and cake. I must publicly thank Isabel, my madre chilena, for that layered chocolate raspberry cake, above. ¡La torta más deliciosa del mundo! Apparently here they make cake using really thin layers, panqueques. I already know I’ll miss it!

I’ll finish with Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Nobel Prize-winning poet and politician, internationally acclaimed but especially beloved in his homeland, Chile. We visited the second of his three houses in Isla Negra, on the Pacific coast. Neruda is buried with his last wife Matilde here.

His house is filled with the oddest collections: exotic insects, colored glass, busty ship figureheads, ships in bottles, fantastic seashells… String instruments never played, a sailboat never taken to sea. Neruda preferred to get dizzy the safe way, by drinking with his friends on his beached boat.

With Lety, Loreto, and Katie, I went into a tourist shop called Casa del Arte blooming with little crafts and souvenirs. I found a few gifts, including a panpipe (zampoña) lapel pin. The owner/cashier asked me where I was from and whether I liked Isla Negra, and then he said he would give me a book, which he signed. It turned out to be an anthology of poetry in tribute to Neruda. Alfred Asís, I discovered, is both the owner of the shop and a poet. The back cover reads: “El espíritu de Pablo está presente en cada rincón del mundo”—Pablo’s spirit is present in every corner of the world. 

Living with the Santiaguinos

Jun 06, 2011 by Layli Amerson in Latin America

(Figurines from “Cerámica Policromada” exhibit at GAM, Centro Gabriela Mistral)

I have always found big cities overwhelming because they ambush the senses from every direction. The scent of sugared almonds mixes with the stench of the sewer. Advertisements compete with street signs. Two stray dogs bark at each other, separated by the traffic speeding between their respective sidewalks. Men in business suits walk past a shirtless beggar prone on the ground. Snatches of conversation grab at passing ears, fusing with the tinny reggaeton clanking out from someone’s portable speakers. Buffeted by all of these new experiences and faces and places, it’s tough to choose what to write about. So I’ll jump between a few of the gems of my stay thus far in this entry.

Las Condes is an upscale comuna with shopping malls, high-rise apartment buildings, and family homes. I live on a relatively quiet street with my host mother, Isabel. This is my workspace:


 And my window:

On the days when I don’t have much to do at the university, I can usually count on the temperature rising by midday and the sun shining. I like to make the short walk from my house to the plaza near Isabel’s church (below).

The plaza is very popular with nannies and moms, who bring their guaguas and young children to play on the equipment, and with dog owners, who bring their perritos to romp around the fenced park off leash. After choosing a bench in the middle, I’ll read my book and observe the other visitors. I pulled out my camera around sunset the other day for this:


Of course, Santiago, city of six million, is not all plazas and quiet streets. The Universidad Alberto Hurtado is in El Centro, the center of the city. I walk this street every workday after emerging from the Metro (this photo doesn't show the usual bustle as I took it on a weekend morning):

The Metro I could write about endlessly, because the speechless intimacy it demands from its thousands of passengers strikes me as so strange. Again, I’m from a small town, so I’m used to everyone driving a personal car, not pushing into a packed train car underground and whooshing through black tunnels. I admit that I’m proud that I’ve figured out (mostly) how to navigate Line 1!

Speaking of unfamiliar experiences, there was the demonstration that Katie and I went to (read her entry on it!). Here are some of the photos I took on our expedition:



The following weekend Katie and I went on another sort of cultural field trip, this time to Villa Grimaldi, a mansion turned torture center under Pinochet’s regime turned memorial garden. Claudia, Katie’s madre chilena, asked an astute question: Why would the university choose to take a herd of foreigners to this place? I haven’t come up with a good answer. To remember what happened before we were born? To honor the victims? To contemplate human rights? I’m not sure. Here you can see part of the rose garden, which has memorial signs with names among the flowers:

Beyond exploring Santiago, the most important part of my time here is the opportunity to talk with the university students. Their college life is entirely dissimilar from ours at Mount Holyoke. They all commute to the university. They have classes nearly all day and little freedom for electives. They don’t have the luxury of discussing theory and literature in the way we do. Their professors teach at two or three universities to make a living. There are a host of problems with education that resulted in a huelga, a student strike and demonstration downtown, on Wednesday. Yet there is a lot of hope for reform. I was delighted when one student stuck around after his compañeros left my Monday conversation group to talk with me more. He has fluctuated between career aspirations, from social work to psychology to teaching, because he loves everything. The desire he expressed to work with the struggling schools impressed me, as did his humility in wishing to serve his people. I think I will cherish most the enthusiasm and generous hearts of students like him after I’m back in los Estados Unidos. 

Farewell, Wisconsin; Hola, Santiago: Layli Amerson '13

May 17, 2011 by Layli Amerson in Latin America

I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and my family currently lives nearby in the small city of Verona. An English major and studio art minor, I have always loved creative writing and painting, and right now my studies focus on poetry. Starting this May, I will be interning, along with Hilary Pollan ’12 and Katie Bussiere ’13, at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile. We will work in a variety of capacities with the English pedagogy department at this small Jesuit university, including offering conversation workshops and one-on-one tutoring, attending classes as native speakers, and helping them plan a new writing center (especially exciting because Katie and I work for the SAW Program at Mount Holyoke). Last summer around this time, you could have found me interning at a children’s museum under construction, building muscles by filing the rough patches off (“deburring”) an enormous metal climbing structure, learning how to use a power sander, painting a rooftop chicken coop, and breaking old windows to salvage the frames. ¡Estoy emocionada por una aventura sin herramientas eléctricas este verano! I’m excited for an adventure without power tools this summer!