Wong Op-Ed (Harvard '21, SIP Chile '19): Deconstructing Activism: Reading Between the (Metro) Lines

November 10, 2019
By Evelyn Wong

Evelyn Wong ’21, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Neuroscience and Romance Languages and Literature concentrator in Quincy House.

“Yapo’ señora, nosotros aguantamos los palos para que a ustedes les alcance para el pan. Pase por abajo nomás señora, nosotros la cuidamos, por hoy el Metro es gratis.”

(“We’ll bear the [beating of the] sticks so you can afford bread. Please pass through, ma’am, we will take care of you, for today the Metro is free.”)

These words, spoken by a high school student to an elderly lady amidst ongoing protests in Santiago, Chile, sear like an invisible flame against my chest — half my mind in Lavietes Pavilion, half in Estación Los Heroes, and all my heart straddling that bittersweet border between privilege and marginality I call home.

Perhaps this moment stands out so much to me because of the fondness with which I remembered Estación Los Heroes during my time in Chile. Afforded the privilege to work with under-resourced children with cancer, I frequently found myself at this Metro intersection where two worlds met: The comunas of the “haves” neatly spaced along one line, and the other world — the “have-nots-and-a-half”— sprawled across the rest.

In the past two weeks, I’ve watched as Chile, whose beauties and imperfections that became dear to me during my time there, ruptured into a heightened struggle against socioeconomic inequality and political corruption. What started as groups of students jumping turnstile gates through the Santiago subway system in response to Metro fare hikes has escalated to so much more than 30 pesos. These demonstrations reflect 30 years of increasing social unrest, due to disparate income levels and privatization of basic needs such as water, inadequate public healthcare, education, and pension systems, and social injustices against BGLTQ and indigenous populations.

In response to clashes between student protesters and police that ended in the destruction of several Metro stations, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera’s government decreed a state of emergency, resorting to military patrolling, tear gas, and a curfew to reestablish control. Despite over 2,500 detainments, 1,400 injuries and 18 deaths reported due to violence, the government has framed media reports as a means of criminalizing protesters, justifying military presence against what Piñera considers “a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without limits.” In a country where military dictatorship has left a fresh scar on its residents’ collective psyche, the recent actions taken by the right-wing Chilean government have reawakened repression unseen since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet despite this violence, Chilean youth continue to shout louder.

Though I don’t know the name of the high school student whose words have further galvanized an enormous student-led movement for greater socioeconomic justice, I recognize the tremendous courage and class consciousness that makes his words so electrifying — and what it means for us to hear these words from such a young individual.

There’s a lot to learn from these student protesters who refuse to succumb to propaganda tactics and government repression, amplifying the wave of national disobedience despite constant reminders of an excruciating past. Chilean students are taking the initiative to challenge the dysfunctional neoliberal model as well as cycles of intergenerational poverty.

And our global colleagues need to be heard.

As members of an institution which prides itself in seeking truth and affecting global change, we as Harvard students endeavor to make the world our palette for universal impact. Whether it’s conducting research, advocating for human rights, constructing schools and houses, or spearheading economic development, we strive to build our resumes with the flashiest experiences. However, when we return to Cambridge, where stress manifests itself in problem sets rather than protection of basic rights, we re-engulf ourselves in the Harvard bubble, largely disconnected from what’s going on in these communities around the world which we so passionately yearn to improve and support.

But our retreat into our elite academic institutions doesn’t stop the rest of the world from living these agonizing realities on a daily basis. This conversation needs to continue. While we cannot participate in these demonstrations or effect concrete institutional change from Cambridge, we can let these students know that their voices are heard across seas and encourage them to keep shouting. While part of this involves maintaining awareness of what’s reported — and by extension, what’s left out — in international media, a huge part of our support means recognizing our own privileges and appreciating our freedom to speak out against injustice.

As I warm up for basketball practice or fight for rebounds beneath polished orange halos in Lavietes Pavilion, the high schooler’s words keep me grounded in faith and humility knowing that many of our generational counterparts in Chile — and around the world — are fighting tirelessly for basic necessities, for a just and equitable society, for dignity and universal human rights.

For those who plan on applying for an internship or job abroad, know that your connection to their local community shouldn’t end when your work-related responsibilities do. Families and friendships forged during your stay may last far beyond a few months, just as a Metro ride can transcend far beyond a single fare — so be prepared to make these experiences lifelong.

Source: The Harvard Crimson