Back then America was like heaven
The micro is an interesting theatre for Chilean performance, there a passenger sees unfold more of what it means to enact Chilean-ness than any other place in the country. Vendors hop on at stops to momentarily hawk their goods; they talk quickly, loudly, and do not care who is listening, they are looking for people to buy their products as the Chileans struggling to be self-made. If older people, pregnant women, or disabled people board it is customary for another passenger to vacate their seat for the groups designated of needing it most, yet at the same time we see this display of Chilean grace it is juxtaposed with the bus driver treating these new passengers like all the other ones; as soon as they board he (yes, always a he, if there is a woman participating in the operation of a micro it is take money and never driving) starts speeding away unconcerned if they can handle the sudden acceleration. In the same moment some groups are exalted they are simultaneously equalized.
There is little talk on the micro, in fact interpersonal interaction is somewhat sparse. The bus driver will occasionally ask a new passenger where they want to go, but beyond that they tend not to converse; questions about stops go unanswered (sometimes they will respond if you ask before paying) and if there is a question about whether or not you received the correct change it is handled in a deft and silent manner contingent on whether or not the bus driver thinks he has shortchanged you. Similarly, the passengers are silent; people face forward, listen to music, or, when seating is limited, pile into the aisle and stare out the windows. Female passengers may get stared at by the male ones, but beyond that the connection between passengers is that they are all Chileans going ––to school, to work, shopping, or out––, participating in the act of actualizing life as a Chilean.
A final note of importance regarding the micros is that the majority of the music played is American music. Occasionally one hears the latest pop song making the rounds in Chile (at the time of writing this that song is Daddy Yankee’s “Limbo”, the artist a Puerto Rican) but ostensibly Chilean music is scarce. American music is, in a sense, Chilean; ask any younger Chilean what artists they like and the list is filled with acts from the United States. The same music that fills the clubs also enlivens the buses, it is more personally entwined with quotidian Chilean-ness that the traditional songs that one may hear on festival days or out in the country far from the city.
American shows are as frequent on the airwaves as Chilean ones, those targeted at children and young adults being particularly popular. One such program is the Simpsons, whose airing begins with a curious omission; at least in my experience watching the show on Chilean TV the infamous intro is not where the program begins ––the panorama of the town and its inhabitants–– rather the first seen we are treated to is the zoomed in living room, the space where, before each episode, the family is arranged in some running couch gag. It doesn’t take long to contemplate why; although the Simpsons has been exported for Chilean consumption there are obviously certain aspects that Fox (the company that owns the rights to the Simpsons) believes are too hard to swallow. Despite a Chilean youth’s ability to comprehend the humour of the program the network does not want to confront them with a display of Americanness so foreign to Chileans that it is alienating; there are context clues within the show that clearly suggest it is not based in Chile, but such things remain subtleties rather than a continuous barrage of reminders. It seems that Chileans come to occupy a place where they feel transitional, where what they want is to latch on to some Americanness and claim it as their own, but perhaps that cannot start with too ostentatious an alienation; Chilean youth must first be worked into a position of want, of craving of American music, clothes, and lifestyles before a more complete America is dangled in front of them.
I suppose it is at this point in the travel narrative where I am supposed to engage in some self-reflection, where I push my own experiences of maligning the US out of the way like the low hanging vines that one of our movie stars brush aside when entering one of those exotic native temples. It is here where I need to internalize the words a Chilean woman said to me, that back when she was young America was like heaven to the Chileans, and that it still is a paradise they are trying to reach. Students aspire to work there, get rich there, see the home of the music and movie stars that they adore. It is here where I realize that I took my country for granted and should have appreciated it more. Only I would do all this, if the US standard were truly one to aspire to. Americanness has been exported to Chile, it is one of the most hotly consumed commodities. But it is also consistently sold to US citizens as well, the idea that we should not take our Americanness for granted and rather appreciate the greatness we have. We do have some laudable aspects of life; our peanut butter is cheaper and more varied, our utilities come at a lower cost, and we have a presence more powerful than Chileans feel their country has. While there are certainly ways in which parts of America are handling life more justly (for instance a better focus on the extension of human rights to all, of acknowledging pre-marital sex, reproductive rights) it is not a perfect standard toward which I would advocate one strive.
But for now, here in Chile, America, the land up north, is still heaven.