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Scraping the Surface

When I started returning to Chile to visit in the early 1980s from my completely gringo environment in Maryland, a dear aunt with whom I could barely speak in Spanish asked me if I wanted to come back and live here. I told her "no." I didn’t want to live in a country with soldiers pointing their weapons at me on the streets or where I couldn’t speak my mind. She looked at me a bit perplexed and said: “That is precisely why you should live here.” Then she peeled a brittle, yellowing paper off her bedroom wall and gave it to me. It was the famous poem “First they came for the communists …” attributed to Bertolt Brecht, which since then has glared at me from my own bedroom or office walls.

My aunt wasn’t wishing me a suicidal future. This was a country under dictatorship, and there was work to be done. So here I was a few years later, writing reports in English for the Chilean Human Rights Commission to send abroad, and later reporting on Chile for foreign and local media. I recovered my Spanish and just a few Chilean habits, and here I stayed.

With the military back in its barracks, you could say this is a dull country compared to those days. But this thin strip of land trapped between deserts and ice, mountains and ocean, is full of contradictions. Not only the most blatant economic ones, but also moral, cultural and social ones that are beginning to clash with the newer generations. Just have to scrape the surface a bit … .