Little Memories of a Year Past
Not long ago my family welcomed me back to Minnesota after another five months in Santiago, Chile. As I unpacked, I piled the souvenirs on my desk. They needed to be sorted out, and a desk is basically a station to sort things out.
In Spanish, souvenirs are called recuerditos or little memories. I prefer the Spanish word because, for me, “souvenir” conjures images of Chinese-produced plastic featuring meaningless iconography at best or offensive stereotypes at worst. Plus, the items spread out before me actually do carry memories of the people and experiences most dear to me during this past year.
A sense that something important had yet to be recognized compelled me to physically arrange these recuerditos. I can only call it an impromptu altar to the existence of the last twelve months. Writing is usually my way to make sense of things, so this was out of character.
Now that I’ve photographed my amateur art project, I present my *artist statement.* Warning: the non-stop symbol generator that is my brain insists on turning each object, no matter how little, into the synecdoche for a memory, no matter how big.
Like Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential platform, we’ll start at the center, slide left, and end up on the right.
Pancho, my host brother for four months and friend for what I imagine will be a long time, gave me this black-and-white owl patch. Though he may just like the look of it, I think it represents how Pancho stitches together academia and anarchism as a sociology student. The owl symbolizes wisdom and the color scheme goes with the typical Chilean protest outfit — black jeans, black sweatshirt, black fanny pack. Like my study abroad experience, Pancho’s patch is meant to be sown into something bigger, be it a tee shirt, backpack or quilt. Similarly, my life in Santiago must be integrated into the fabric of my life in Minnesota and New York. I cannot simply frame it, nail it to the wall and say, “Look! I lived in Chile once,” because that would be caging the memory. Pancho’s owl will have a perch in my wardrobe and my mind for the years to come.
The turtle necklace was Giare’s, and now it’s mine. Giare is a political science student and the type of person who yells at newspapers like soccer fans yell at TVs. She was the other person who grew closest to me during the last nine months. Yes, we both “came out of our shell” together, but I don’t think the turtle represents much more than the fact that Giare likes turtles. The meaningful part is that she had kept this necklace for over a decade yet gave it to me to remember her by. Until that moment, I had not carried physical objects of such emotional weight with me, so all I could offer Giare in return was my beloved spork, which she now uses to eat both lettuce and lentils on camping trips. I guess I should always be prepared to give back as much as I receive, both giftwise and emotionally.
The Pachabeats Desert Party wristband is a recuerdito of a place, a night and a feeling. The place was an anonymous patch of the Atacama desert. The night was the clearest of my life, astronomically speaking, but one of the fuzziest in terms of memory. The feeling was sublime as I danced and stargazed in the arms of friends. The morning after, however, I began investigating the links between San Pedro de Atacama’s clandestine desert parties and horrible drug tourism industry.
Olga and I met on my last day in Chile as she was visiting my host mother. The elderly woman was so taken with me, a Spanish-speaking gringo, that she swung by again that night to drop off a Chilean flag keychain as a going-away present. If recuerditos are objectified cultural capital, such keychains are pocket change. Though a sweet gesture, it is the quintessential souvenir in the negative sense: a useless, depersonalized product hastily bought out of a sense of obligation that only exists because we keep buying each other useless, depersonalized products. To be fair, it also symbolizes how quick Chileans were to treat me, a Spanish-speaking gringo with blue eyes and blond hair, with the kind of kindness you do not forget.
When my friend Naty, a history teacher in Santiago, asked me for something from the Atacama desert, I brought back a block of salt back thinking of her. It is now resting on my desk in Minnesota not because I forgot about it during the following two meet-ups but because by the third our relationship had soured for reasons unrelated to my forgetfulness. I look at that salt and remember those other reasons.
Beneath all these souvenirs lie Delta boarding passes, Valparaíso bus tickets and a tree’s-worth of receipts. There are records of bus tokens, empanadas de pino and the other little purchases that got me through the day, as well receipts for special events like the folkloric ballet and a skyscraper’s observatory. Who paid for these recuerditos? Well, technically me and my friends, but my family and my university underwrote most of the expenses for a year of study in Chile, and that is one of my many privileges.
The watercolor bookmarks were painted for me by my close friend Valentina, a professional painter who befriends stray dogs just to prove she can. Like Pancho’s patch, the bookmarks are something I can use each day, but Valentina also used them to mark a Jorge Teillier poem called “Bajo el cielo nacido tras la lluvia.” It describes happiness as essentially brief, like finger drawings in a fogged-up window:
“Eso fue la felicidad:
dibujar en la escarcha figuras sin sentido
sabiendo que no durarían nada,”
The poem brought us to tears together. It was too real. Literally, Valentina and I had spent the bus ride home from a weekend in Valparaíso laughing as we drew each other’s name in the fogged-up backseat window, and figuratively, that’s all we had ever been doing. We met in March, said goodbye in July, and are learning to recognize the beauty in brevity.
I too left thank-you gifts with my host families, teachers and friends in Chile. Likewise, I brought souvenirs back to my family, teachers and friends in Minnesota. To the left of the poetry book wait a few of those surprises guarded by brown bags and paper maché.
“When you must leave the guitar, remember to bring the songs.” That’s what I wrote over winter break when I left Ramírez (a.k.a. my host family’s guitar) and my other friends in Santiago. Now that I’ve left for good, or at least for a couple of years, the idea of bringing songs, knowledge and memories in lieu of guitars, places and people still rings true. Except guitars do fit on airplanes sometimes. Mere hours before my departure flight, my host mother gave me Ramírez as a recuerdito, and I renamed it Tía after her. Each time I pick up Tía to write a song, I’ll also be picking up her memory.
The three black-and-white photographs are portraits of murdered teachers. In 1973 Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship “disappeared” these Communist colleagues as they walked home from work. A fellow pedagogy student Milen brought me to their annual memorial service, and that’s where I found these photos. I also found a community reconstructing the collective memory of trauma and resistance. The children of the teachers recited poems, the mayor of the community inaugurated a plaque and, as a nice surprise, my favorite Chilean musician Manuel García played a few tunes, including the bittersweet and all-too apropos “El Viejo Comunista.”
I found that most marches in Santiago were also exercises in collective memory of the struggle against the dictatorship. For example, the faded flyer that reads, “Combative youth, the best homage is the fight!” also features a photo of two youth killed by the police in 1980. Covering that photo is a police-brand candy wrapper, an artifact from a society where the FBI’s counterpart resorts to winning the trust of the youth with sweets rather than stopping the violent repression in the streets. The United States is also boiling with these contradictions.
Below the business cards representing new connections are my three Chilean identity cards. They quite literally represent the new identities I adopted in my new families and universities. It’s not like I contracted schizophrenia from the airline food en route to Santiago, but I did struggle to express my English-language personality in a second language. My sense of humor, for example, hinges on wordplay, and only able to ad lib Spanish-language puns becoming of a Chilean nine-year-old, I had to resort to physical comedy. In many ways, the new setting encouraged me to try new things — poetry, androgyny, sushi — and play with my identity.
The burnt page is a keepsake from a campus protest in support of free higher education. In an effort to barricade the University of Chile from the “fascist” police, my peers grabbed tires, trash and free books piled outside the library as fuel for the street fire. This is ironic not only because burning books is a classic fascist move but also because this particular page of the burnt book seems to be cataloging school supplies, including books. Once the tank’s chemical water had extinguished the flames, I saw a professor pick up the smoldering paper, curse the culprits and throw it back down into the gutter. To me, this relic represents the just goals of a student movement supported by the majority of Chilean society, the questionable tactics of a radical faction and the brutal repression on the part of the police.
Behind the burnt page is torn-up travel brochure promoting the surfing, skiing and sandboarding that the Chilean countryside (and foreign-owned tourist services) have to offer. I placed it out of sight because none of these activities were part of my experience and that’s okay. One might think that a full year would provide plenty of time to hit all the tourist destinations, but my longer-than-average stay actually made me less likely to do so. Any weekend spent on the beach or in the mountains would have meant opting out of university parties, political forums, friends’ concerts, family dinners and other fulfilling events. Living in Santiago and having relationships with the people there, my Saturdays were never a choice between a tourist trap and the hotel room. My traveling will never be the same.
I sport the University of Chile soccer team’s flag because the mascot is an owl and Pancho gave it to me, but I would never hang the Chilean national flag in my room. Not only would that be an annoyingly stereotypical post-study abroad thing to do, but it would misplace my nostalgia: I have little affection and less admiration for Chile as a government or patria. I love the pueblo, namely Pancho, Mirtha, Giare, Pedro, Valentina and other Chilean people who let me into their life. President Bachelet, the founding fathers and any other face of the neoliberal state have nothing to do with that bond. If I could, I would fashion the owl patch, turtle necklace, Pachabeats Desert Party wristband, Chilean flag keychain, block of salt, tree’s-worth of receipts, watercolor bookmarks, Jorge Teillier poem, thank-you gifts, host family’s guitar, portraits of murdered teachers, faded flyer, police-brand candy wrapper, identity cards, burnt page and torn-up travel brochure into a new flag because that’d be a flag that represents me.
These recuerditos make the farewells seem too final. The reality is I’m communicating with most of these people on a weekly basis. Still, the act of exchanging gifts with those closest to me helped bring closure to our time together. Similarly, tokens of a place or an event can physically symbolize the lasting impact of a brief experience.
Though these little memories are certainly unique, traveling and studying abroad does not take place in an alternate universe where each moment is somehow more special than those at home. The coming year in New York will yield just as many recuerditos as the past year in Santiago, as long as I continue drawing in fogged-up windows.
Read more on travel, education and history at The Dandruff Report.