Chilean Chronicles, Part 82: Marjorie Agosin’s wisdom, SIGAChile.cl and Dan Middleton

Felix Orellano speaks at the opening of SIGAChile.cl Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.

Felix Orellano speaks at the opening of SIGAChile.cl Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.

In one of her many wise comments, made during a conversation we had about 15 years ago, poet, human rights activist, and dear friend Marjorie Agosin made the point not to assume that there are too many stories.

By that I understood her to mean not that she was diminishing any single person’s individual experience.

Rather she was saying that there is a finite number of universal stories with which readers can relate their own personal experience.

You see what Majorie’s talking about in The Wire, David Simon’s epic five-season take on the American City.

In his final speech before he is murdered, D’Angelo Barksdale explains his understanding of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby in terms that show the story of white decadent wealth in the 1920s has resonated with him across decades, culture and class:

If what Marjorie says is true for stories, I believe it’s also true for people.

Over time, I’ve come to find more and more that certain people’s hair or expression or coloring or walk remind me of others I’ve known before.

That certainly happened to me yesterday morning, when I attending the launch of SIGAChile.cl at the University of Diego Portales.

It’s an innovative new web site that’s the product of a private-public-university collaboration that seeks both to give people with disabilities information about access in public spaces like restaurants and to provide them with the opportunity to share reviews of what they learn from going to those places.

What my mother would call the mucky mucks were there.

People like Minister of Social Development Bruno Baranda and Maria Ximena Rivas, the head of the country’s agency for people with disabilities.

Cecilia Garcia Huidobro, dean of the communication school at our university, was there spoke, as was a high-ranking people from Google Chile.

All talked about the power of the site, which was developed by the digital team of colleagues and friend Arly Faundes and Jorge Gonzalez, with extensive help from students like Katherinee Aburto.

All said that it could play a role in reducing the inequality and isolation faced by so many Chileans with disabilities-a number that one of the speakers placed at 2 million people.

They also talked about the culture change that it can help engender-a shift in which people with disabilities are more fully accepted.

Under this change, people will comply with the law not because they fear punishment, but because they understand that people with disabilities may require some accommodation, but have both equal rights and talents to contribute.

This was the point Felix Orellano made.

He’s a Chilean wheelchair user who had lived outside the country for a couple of years-a period during which he got used to having easier access to public places than what he experienced upon his return.

During his presentation Felix said he didn’t want his disability to be considered a good or bad thing, something that hindered or helped him.

He wants it just to be a fact.

His comments made sense to me.

And what struck me the most about Felix was how closely he resembled Dan Middleton.

Dan’s one of the people outside of my family who’s meant the most to me in the 30 years since we first met as freshmen in Rinconada dorm at Stanford.

During our college years we spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours laughing and joking and talking about all manner of subjects.

Starting sophomore year, a number of friends and I developed an informal rotation of helping him get to bed.

The initial goal was to help him defray his medical expenses,

Eventually, though, it became a coveted activity we all wanted to do because it meant we got to spend more time with him.

We’ve kept up in the more than quarter century since we’ve graduated, continuing our decades long dialogues and politics and sports and literature and women and family-you know, the stuff of life.

I’ve not seen Dan in person since 1997-we Skype with some regularity-and I still have the image of what he looks like clearly in my mind precisely because we spent so much time together.

Now I want to be clear about a key point.

I understand that it is an oft-stated stereotype that members of a majority tell members of a minority group that they look similar to other people in that same group.

So when I talk about Felix and Dan it’s not because they are both wheelchair users.

I’m talking about Feliix’s lean build and broad shoulders and how he sat back in the chair.

About the right part in his longish brown hair and dark coloring.

About his limp fingers that he extended when I offered my hand and how he used his wrists to move his chair.

All of these reminded me so intensely of Dan that for just a moment I felt as if I was seeing him in Felipe.

The presentations and congratulatory video and lofty words ended.

I approached Felix to ask him his last name.

He was wearing a tiny earring in his left ear.

He spoke Spanish, of course.

His voice was not as deep as Dan’s mellifluous tones, his frame was not at tall as Dan’s 76 inches.

But, because of his resemblance to Dan, I still felt like I knew him better than I actually did.

I left the launch impressed by the work Arly and her team had put into the project, excited about the possibilities to spread the site to other countries and intrigued by the multi-faceted collaboration for a public good.

Yet I also felt grateful for the reminder of Marjorie’s wisdom and the opportunity to feel physically close again to Dan for a little while.

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