Chilean Chronicles, Part 49: We Have a Community

Francesca Lessa after her lecture about amnesty laws and legal impunity at the University Alberto Hurtado

Francesca Lessa after her lecture about amnesty laws and legal impunity at the University Alberto Hurtado

In one of my favorite scenes of one of my favorite shows, Detective Bunk Moreland confronts Omar Little, about, among other things, how young children have started to glorify the shotgun-toting rippper and runner.

His trademark cigar in between his index and middle fingers, his right hand pointing at the seated vigilante, Bunk declares about the area where they both grew up several years apart, “Rough as that neighborhood could, we had us a community.”

Bunk’s words came to me early this afternoon as I sat next to Macarena Rodriguez in the front row of a lecture by Francesca Lessa at the University of Alberto Hurtado about legal impunity in Latin America.

(Start watching around 3:00 to see the build up to Bunk’s statement.)

Maca, whom we had met with her husband Miguel in Chicago, picked us up at the airport when we landed in Santiago on July 12.

Our friend and Maca’s colleague Hugo Rojas sat next to Francesca at the table.

Outside of the room was an exhibit of long maps of Chile that showed the concentration camps, the Caravan of Death, and the women, militants and communists who were disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Hugo had shown me the display on Monday that two Geography professors at the university had created after drawing on data from a national report about torture and a list of disappeared people.

I had brought the students from my data journalism class to see and critique it on Tuesday.

I had given Hugo, a true gourmand, the white chocolate Dunreith had selected for him this morning on our way to the university.

He undid the staple at the top of the brown paper bag.

His eyes lit with reverence as he saw the contents.

“Es sagrado,” he said as he placed the bag in one of his coat pockets.

This is sacred.

Francesca delivered a riveting presentation about the global investigation into amnesty laws and national efforts to negate or undo them. (Some of the most successful were in Latin America.)

After the lecture I saw Dunreith, who introduced me to Ignacio, Hugo’s ayundatia, or teaching assistant. Dunreith’s been tutoring him in English to prepare him for the trip he’s taking at the end of the month to Chicago.

Ignacio, who is lean and bearded and has a hoop-shaped earring in his left ear, told us about the beauty of Uruguay, about the mural in Chicago that he wants to visit and the neighborhood in Santiago he wants to show us.

I hugged him, kissed Dunreith nand walked back to join the journalism department’s celebration of the nation’s impending Independence Day on September 18.

My colleagues were not waiting for the day to arrive to start enjoying themselves.

I grabbed a hot empanada and started talking with Literature Department Chair Rodrigo Rojas about the two years he lived in apartheid-era Pretoria, South Africa as a teenager in the mid-80s.

I thanked Arly and Jorge from Gloo, the online, digitally-oriented publication, for the special September 11 coverage they had sent me that the students had done.

Unofficial, but self-appointed guide Alejandra Matus, her face glowing with pleasure at the shared company of her colleagues and friends, made sure that I was all set to join the Independence Day party she and her husand Alberto are hosting at their home on Saturday.

I spoke with Rafael, a bearded professor with wild black hair who was exiled in France and teaches courses on interviewing and humor, about wanting to connect with presidential candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami.

He’s a cousin and a friend, Rafael said. Whenever you want.

I chatted with Andrea Insunza, one of the nation’s top investigative reporters and the co-author of a biography about presumptive presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet. The granddaughter of the former head of Chile’s Communist Party, Insunza has a chapter in a new book in which 17 people who grew up during the dictatorship relate their experiences.

Andrea wrote about traveling in 1986 to the then-Soviet Union to see her grandfather, only to learn shortly after arriving that he had been living in Chile clandestinely since 1983.

The party wound down. I started to help Ingrid, one of the department’s administrative assistants, clean up the plates and utensils and half-eaten empanadas

She told me to stop.

I’m used to it, she said.

I’m used to it, too, I answered, citing my years of marriage and my training in our childhoold home at Griggs Terrace in Brookline.

I explained the system of middle management that Mom and Dad design involved rotating the position of General on a weekly basis.

The General had powers of delegation, but not enforcement, powers for tasks like setting and clearing the table, cleaning the dishes and washing the laundry.

Any work the other two did not do fell to the general.

In theory, we all got experience in leadership.

In practice, it meant that the general ended up doing all the work each week.

That was a good system, Ingrid said.

We laughed.

Dunreith returned from tutoring Ignacio and I went to teach my class.

The students listened via Skype to friend and Tribune colleague Alex Richards and applauded when they saw absent classmate Hernan Araya’s name listed in an email distributed to the listserv for the organization where Alex used to work and where he cut his teeth in data analysis.

I referred repeatedly to Alex’s presentation as the students presented about the projects, the first about data, on which they’ve worked for several weeks.

Before they left for the vacation, I reviewed all of the work we have done and the skills they have begun to acquire since we met in early August.

The last step after finishing a project, I said, is to celebrate.

The students applauded before filing out of the room.

Two months ago today, we landed in Chile, turning a long-held dream into a reality.

In just eight short weeks we’ve not only been the recipient of extraordinary hospitality, we’ve seen and heard and visited people and places that had previously seemed utterly unattainable.

This has been a remarkable gift.

But what is even more meaningful, perhaps, is how the people’s generosity has allowed us weave a web of connection that’s flowed from our relationships in Chicago and Massachusetts and Washington.

As the inimitable Bunk would say, we have a community.

Santiago is not our home.

But, sooner than I had anticipated, it’s starting to feel that way.


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