Study Abroad, Valparaíso– STEP Reflection

This semester, I studied abroad in Valparaíso, Chile. I stayed with a host family with whom I became very close, made Chilean friends, learned about Chilean politics and social movements, and had the opportunity to take engaging classes about Chilean history and culture alongside Chilean students.

I come from a bi-cultural family, my mother being a Chilean and my father American. When I was growing up, we visited my mamá’s family in Chile a lot, she spoke to us in Spanish, and showed us Chilean music and games and rhymes and recipes. Because my mamá shared her culture with me and my sister since we were very young, I always felt very acutely that I was partially Chilean. Before I left to study abroad in Chile for the semester, many people would ask me why I had chosen Chile if I was already familiar with Chile and had visited before. It’s true that my study abroad experience was quite different from the typical one, where students immerse themselves in a completely foreign culture, many times not being able to speak the local language fluently or even at all. But that doesn’t mean that this experience wasn’t just as important in my life as study abroad is to any other person.

Living in Chile for five months in a city where I had no previous connections has made me into a person who is very confident about my Chilean identity. I feel that living there for a time as an adult was crucial to be able to fully mature the connection I’ve always felt to my Chilean heritage. This connection will always be thanks first and foremost to my mamá, who worked hard despite the many challenges immigrants face to retain and pass on their heritage and language. However, throughout this semester abroad, I feel that I have developed my own relationship to Chile and to Chileans that I feel very comfortable with. This growth feels perhaps most important to me on a personal level, but I believe that this development has had reverberations that go beyond the personal, into the intellectual, the academic and the professional.

When I first arrived in Chile this semester, I was able to spend time with my family who live in the South of Chile. I helped make porotos granados with my abuelita, played dominos with my abuelito, and learned how to drive manual transmission with my aunt. It was my first time visiting my Chilean family without my mamá, but I felt warm and at home, and I felt like I was really just another member of the family. A few weeks later, I arrived in Valparaíso to start my semester at Pontífica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. My host mother was a woman who, like me, is very interested in leftist social and political issues. We talked for hours on that first day about the very thing that most Americans swear is taboo at the dinner table—politics! The rest of my time in Valparaíso, I sought out conversations like these, and this led me to make many friends who are interested in the same types of questions that I am—where do exploitation and oppression stem from, and what can we do collectively to put an end to these injustices?

During my time in Chile, I learned about my host mother, Myriam’s, work with families looking for the bodies of their “disappeared” family members during the time of the Pinochet dictatorship. I helped out at the soup kitchen Myriam founded with her late husband for low-income university students. While I was here, the students at my university and universities across the country went on strike against sexism and sexual assault in academia, and male-centered curricula. I was able to attend the assemblies where the students debated and planned actions for and during the strike. I joined a small weekend class led by a revolutionary Mapuche women who taught us the Mapuzungún language and about Mapuche herbal medicine, and my classmates and I often discussed the systemic violence taking place against the Mapuche people by the state and foreign industry in the south of Chile. My classes at PUCV were all about Chilean history, politics, and culture, and I felt very lucky to be able to learn about these subjects alongside Chilean students.

My class on “Mapuche Worldview,” taught by a revolutionary Mapuche woman at a local community center in Valparaíso

Apart from the opportunities I had to grow on a political and intellectual level, I also had the opportunity to make Chilean friends through music. I play violin, and was able to find a band to play with during my time here called Javiera y Lavanda. The band plays singer-songwriter music in a full-band format (guitars, voice, bass, and percussion). It was fun for me to participate in writing my own violin parts for the band, especially because the songs all had a very Latino feel to them, reminiscent of Latino pop-rock songs I used to listen to when I was little.

Recording session with Javiera y Lavanda, the rock band I played with in Valparaíso

During my time here, I was able to meet and have conversations with many people from the Mapuche nation. Through my discussions with them about the current conflict between the Mapuche people and the Chilean state, I have become very interested in the role that the Mapuche language of Mapuzungun plays in this conflict. Next year, I plan to pursue my academic interests in the politics of Mapuzungun and Mapuche liberatory nationhood as my senior thesis in Linguistics and Comparative Cultural studies.

This semester has also been transformative to me on a more personal level. While here, I was able to perfect my Spanish, and as I’ve mentioned before, I have grown much more confident in my own Chilean identity. I do not have definitive plans for after graduation yet, but living in Chile for a few years to study or teach seems like a very likely path to take after I finish undergrad. Having made many Chilean friends during my time here, plus having my Chilean family living here and always willing to receive me, would help with this transition for me. As my time in Chile comes to an end (for now!) I feel very lucky to be feeling so sad. The sadness I’m feeling upon leaving means that there’s a piece of me, a piece that is proudly Chilean, that will remain in Chile when I’m gone.