When I first studied here in Santiago, it was after three months of living in El Salvador. I witnessed poverty in El Salvador first hand. I volunteered for an NGO and we traveled to dirt poor communities to teach organic farming practices. I also experienced urban poverty in San Salvador, because the city is more heterogenous: the poor live right next to the middle class (the rich live in gated communities on the outskirts of the city). However, when I arrived to Santiago, I thought: this looks like a nice part of a city in the US. Where is all the poverty and inequality that I’ve heard so much about? Is this really Latin America?
That is why I became obsessed with going to a población. I didn’t feel as if my experience would be complete without seeing how, in my mind, the real people lived. I wasn’t content to stay in my little gringa-exchange student bubble in Santiago Centro/Ñuñoa/Providencia/Las Condes.
I understand the word población (in the Chilean context, in general it just means population) to mean a very poor neighborhood, usually located in the periphery of the city. That is the most general definition. Depending on the context (my students hate it when I say that!), it can also mean a very poor neighborhood that is very dangerous to enter if you don’t live there, because some of it’s habitants are drug traffickers and belong to gangs. They protect the people who live there, but will probably assault any outsiders. Some examples of these “dangerous” poblaciones include: La Legua Emergencia (San Joaquin), La Victoria (PAC) and La Pincoya (Huechuraba), among many. Poblaciones are also known as being bastions of resistance against the dictatorship, especially right after the 1973 coup d’etat.
So I told my Chilean friends I wanted to see a población, and was suprised by their reaction. They told me they wouldn’t bring me. So I said I’d find another way to go. It’s not like I had any idea where to look, but in my naiive mind, I could just walk right in, see what it was like, talk to the people, maybe do some volunteer work. Then my friends got very serious and made me promise I’d never go to a población. You won’t come out alive, they told me.
They successfully scared me and so I had to be content with not going to a población, but told myself that my bi-weekly volunteer sessions at a high school in the lower-middle class suburb of Maipu was enough to quench my thirst for real people.
Do I still want to visit a población? The guy I’m dating (I really need to think of a better nickname for him…suggestions?) showed me some videos on YouTube about crime in the poblaciones. I think he was hoping that would fulfill my desire to go there without actually having to set foot there. It didn’t exactly work. Yes, I saw the guns, I heard the bullets and realized that it’s a very dangerous place. So I don’t think I want to go to the poblaciones exactly. I realize that perhaps this isn’t the best way to get to know how real people live. What I do want to do is get to know other parts of Santiago. I feel like I know Providencia like the back of my hand. I can get almost anywhere in Las Condes without getting lost. I know the main part of El Centro. Me ubico in Ñuñoa north of Avenida Grecia. Outside of these places? Nada.
I was talking to a student the other day about Chilean sterotypes and we started talking about social class. I said that Chile seems so first world to me, yet I always hear people complaining about how Chile is so underdeveloped and it makes me want to say, “Have you ever been to Ethiopia?” (But then I realize that I have never been to Ethiopia…) Then my student said, “If you only stay in Santiago Centro, Providencia and Las Condes you could think that Chile was part of the first world. But if you go other places, you realize it isn’t.”
SO TRUE. I want to go those other places. I want to conocer. On Saturday a friend’s boyfriend took her and I to Peñalolén. I was super excited because I’d never been there before. I couldn’t believe that I’d lived in this city for 11 months and never been to Peñalolén! I fully admit that I’m a ñoña (nerd). I have a thirst for knowledge. So now I just need to quench it.
So I’m open for suggestions. What parts of the city should I conocer? I don’t want to just set out on my own, because I might end up in a dangerous place. But if you have suggestions of places you’ve been that are outside of my comfort zone, let me know. And if you want to come with me on my conocer-ing mission, all the better.