Chilean Chronicles, Part 58: Dreams Made Real Here in Chile

You know that switch that gets flipped every four years right after Labor Day?

It’s the one in which presidential election campaigns go into overdrive as the voting public turns from the unofficial end of summer to start to turn its attention to the question of who they are going to choose to be their leader.

Apparently the switch has a Chilean cousin, and it just got flipped today.

Hot on the heels of Fiestas Patrias, the weeklong celebration of Chilean Independence, and less than two weeks after the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Pinochet coup, election fever has started to run hot here in Chile.

Before this past weekend, you could see billboard signs of a smiling, blond, bespectacled Michelle Bachelet in the same smile either by herself of with other members of her Nueva Mayoria, or New Majority, slate.

Overnight, they’ve multiplied faster than any rabbits I’ve ever seen or heard of.

Michelle signs are literally everywhere.

On the side of roads.

In Parque Forestal.

Next to shops.

The Bachelet materials are the most prominent, but far from the only, sign that the sprint to the November 17 elections have begun in earnest.

And the impending elections are far from the only thing that was on today.

As the television in the Manuel Montt Metro station reminded us, today also marked 40 years since the death of fabled Chilean poet, senator, diplomat and self-described “thinger” Pablo Neruda.

Don Pablo’s body was exhumed this spring to discover whether accusations leveled by his former driver Manuel Arayas that he had been poisoned had any merit.

For folk singer Charo Cofre, who along with her husband Hugo Arevalo lived with Neruda for two months in Paris, the answer was simple: he died of a broken heart.

The poet’s death came just 12 days after Pinochet came to power and his forces ransacked La Chascona, Neruda’s home in the Bellavista neighborhood that borders our community of Providencia.

Neruda left for Isla Negra, his first home and the place where he spent the most time, with his wife Matilde Urrutia.

He never returned.

Although devastated by Allende’s overthrow and weakened by advanced prostate cancer, Neruda did muster enough strength to inform the armed forces who were searching Isla Negra: “Look around–there’s only one thing of danger for you here–poetry.”

Dunreith bought me a book of Neruda’s poetry for our anniversary.

I read several gems this morning before breakfast.

One source of particular delight came from The Book of Questions, a collection of 316 questions that he wrote shortly before his death and that was published posthumously.

Here is the English translation of what I read in Spanish:

When does the butterfly read
what flies written on its wings?

So it can understand its itinerary,
which letters does the bee know?

And with which numbers does the ant
subtract its dead soldiers?

What are cyclones called
when they stand still?

The campus at the University of Diego Portales was from still this morning when Dunreith and I arrived, but it didn’t stay that way for long.

As soon as classes were let out, the din of journalism and literature students returned and energized from their week’s vacation filled the air and rose up to the office we share on the sixth floor.

I was there for most of the day grading my students’ work.

They had passed in their first major assignment, a 1000-word story, the data they analyzed, the analysis itself, a visual element, and the text of the interviews they conducted.

I also had the students do an assessment of how the process went for them, of what they did well and could improve, and what I had done well and could do better.

This is my first time teaching a Data Journalism course at the university level, and definitely my first class of any sort in Spanish, so I didn’t know what to expect.

My uncertainty had been heightened by having received just one paper until 10 minutes before the final deadline.

The students’ work impressed and left me feeling that they had indeed understood the essence of what I had been trying to convey.

To be sure, some students didn’t hand in all of the required elements.

Many of the stories were heavy on data recitation and light on actual people affected by the issues the students were covering.

The graphics in many cases were quite basic.

But they took on issues that matter like child sexual abuse and voting rates and literacy and teenage pregnancy and the distribution of public money.

They carried out analyses and generated findings.

They reported based on those findings.

And they said something in their pieces.

In so doing, they started to change their orientation of what reporting is from simply asking people on different sides of an issue, “What do you think?” to going to those same people and asking, “Why do the day say this?”

It’s a powerful shift, and, even as we’re communicating across language and culture and generation and, often, Facebook, it’s starting to happen.

That feels good.

So, too, did the feeling of recognition and warmth that you feel when you return to a familiar place in which you’ve started to build an emotional home, to forge relationships of some substance, to commit yourself and your heart.

I had that this morning when we greeted the security guards, when a tanned, relaxed head of the IT Department told me everything was fine for him until a professor asked him to do a Skype call on September 26-that’s the date when Center for Public Integrity Data Editor David Donald is speaking to my students-and when a Spanish exchange student with Italian parents stopped by to see if we could grab a coffee next week.

His request, the signs touting Bachelet’s candidacy, the anniversary of Neruda’s death and the great poet’s questions are not only the trifles that Dickens said make up the sum of life.

Each in their own way remind Dunreith and me that we are in a distant land where we have chosen to spend a significant chunk of time.

They tell us that life in each country has its own rhythm and flow.

They show again that there is something meaningful and real and true that can be communicated through the inevitably imperfect tools of words.

When I dreamed for years of what it would be like to be here, I didn’t have a precise image in my head.

Today, when elections are gaining steam and I read the words of a beloved poet who died exactly four decades ago and I see that something central of what I wanted to teach has stuck with my charges, that picture becomes much clearer.

It’s here.

Now.

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