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“I can feel the joy of the group”: a conversation with a veteran journalist on the largest march in Chile

Alfonso Otaegui18 November 2019

Massive demonstrations in Chile

Since the 18th of October, Chile has been in continuous turmoil. Protests that initially began as a response to a rise in metro fares in Santiago escalated into a national crisis, laying bare the tensions that had hitherto been contained in Chilean society. The surface calm that dominated the so-called “paradise of Latin America” was proven to be very fragile.

At the moment of writing, and since the 18th of October, there have been daily marches and demonstrations, with barricades and looting but also brutal repressions and curfews. Protester demands include pay rises for workers, education reform, changes to pensions and investment in the state health system among others. In recent weeks, these grievances have crystallised into an overriding demand: a new constitution to replace the one sanctioned by the government of dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980.

Fig 1: Plaza Italia: the biggest march in Chile. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Fig. 2: Valeria (left), her friend holding a Chilean flag (centre), the Mapuche flag (right)

Having lived here since January 2018, and in neighbouring Argentina almost all my life, I, like many, was utterly bewildered at the scale of the outbreak. Chile isn’t a country famous for protests and mass demonstrations. During the first days of the protest, I received a WhatsApp message from Valeria, a former student in the smartphone workshops for older adults that I taught as a volunteer during my fieldwork. The message was a photo of her celebrating her 81st birthday by participating in one of the ‘largest marches in Chile’ with a friend. This was a march to Italia Square, renamed by the protesters “Dignity Square” (a change that even appeared on Google Maps for a brief amount of time). Curious about her perspective on the mobilisation of protesters and the current situation in the country, I asked her to meet. Valeria had to flee the country as soon as the coup happened in 1973 because her name was included on a list of left-leaning journalists affiliated to a political party that was in the opposition, meaning she could be searched by the police at any time. After living in the UK for 20 years, she returned to Chile in the early 1990s.

Valeria agreed to meet me and I made my way to her apartment, near the Plaza de Armas (Santiago’s main square). As I arrived to meet Valeria near her home, I noticed several stores were closed – too many for a Saturday afternoon – most of them secured with metal curtains.

“It looks like a post-war zone,” says Valeria, welcoming me in her apartment on the 13th floor. She tells me that a few weeks before, she was left without a functional lift for a whole weekend. When taking the stairs on her way out of the building she fell over, which caused her head wounds that needed stitches.

“It was a huge blow, but I did not break any bones!” –she says with relief, almost cheerful.

As she makes me tea, I observe the souvenirs adorning her living room: black and white photos of her childhood in Valdivia, photos from her years in Santiago, an old map of South America, a windmill with the Mapuche flag in a plant pot, a piece of macramé with the figure of a winged dragon (a souvenir of her exile years in Wales), and on a glass coffee table some tea boxes, porcelain cups, a half-read book and a TV remote control.

Conversing with a veteran journalist about the news

Valeria inherited this apartment from her family, and receives monthly compensation granted to former political refugees. The allowance is more or less equivalent to the lowest state pension in the country and is not enough to live on, as is the case for so many other older adults in Chile. Valeria manages to make ends meet because she does not pay rent and has a small inheritance from her parents which she manages very carefully.

Valeria brings me tea. On the table, at arm’s length, she has her smartphone. As a journalist, she is fascinated by what the device offers when it comes to information and communication. Valeria was always the one sharing videos, memes, information about free events and the occasional political opinion in the WhatsApp group chat of former students of the workshop. The members of the group chat had always had subtle differences of opinion on political issues, but in recent weeks those differences became frictions, reflecting the polarised nature of the current discourse in Chile, which is visible on all of the most popular social networks in the country. A participant decided to leave the group and the frequency of messages declined (Valeria’s in particular). Although her opinions may not be representative of the Chilean older adult population, they are shared by quite a few people.

“Fake news is the order of the day” warns the veteran journalist as she digs up news items distributed among her numerous WhatsApp groups. Valeria does not trust local TV news, preferring to receive information from trusted journalist contacts through Whatsapp, making the assumption that they wouldn’t pass on a news item without verifying the information in it first.

Valeria is careful not to draw any parallels between different eras, and on more than one occasion she emphasises that she did not experience the Pinochet dictatorship (having had to leave the country as soon as it started), but the conversation alternates between old memories and the events of the past few days. She remembers a ‘guanacazo’ (a hit from the water cannon, nicknamed ‘guanaco’) she suffered almost fifty years ago –at that time the water cannon was filled with dirty water from the Mapocho river– and recalls in particular the care received from her companions, the feeling of the group being close by.

At present, Valeria also experiences the feeling of being cared for, being protected during the marches. “These boys at all times surrounded us to protect us from the [tear gas] bombs with their bottles of water, they guided us –because you are blinded by the pain– to protected areas.”

Indeed, when the police shoots tear gas into the crowds, many protesters raise their hands offering their companions bottles filled with water and baking soda, a solution that counteracts the burning sensation caused by teargas.

What astonished Valeria about this year’s protests however, is the the diversity of demands coupled with almost non-existent party identification – in the 70s, she recalls, political parties and trade unions were the ones who called the marches:

“(…) and us, university students would join them. The flags were the official ones and there was also some uniformity in the photographs. During the marches, you would hear the political slogans and shouts of the political parties. The one that was chanted by everyone was ‘the one who does not jump is a ‘momio’ and now I have heard it with the variant of ‘paco’ [derogatory for ‘police officer’]. The scarves and shirts you would see were in the official colours and patterns of the political parties, and young party members used to parade in together en masse.”

Parallels between the 1970s and now: different eras, similar feelings 

The dynamics of the current marches have taken Valeria by surprise in a positive sense – now more than ever, there is a sense of joy in among all the protesting. “These young people carry our flags with a big difference: they incorporate a wonderful playful touch. We were so serious, so formal….” Valeria explains that she had never seen choreographies or dances at a march before, and couldn’t imagine something like this occuring at previous protests. This is a development that fascinates her.

The conversation swings back into the past like a pendulum. “I saw the airplanes from here,” says Valeria, pointing to the balcony. She was living in that same apartment during the coup of 73, in which the army bombed the Palacio de la Moneda, the seat of the president. Several friends called her to warn her that she had been put on a list and should stay inside. Valeria, however, devised a simple strategy to be able to walk freely through the city, despite having been declared as being ‘on the run’. She put on one of her most most elegant dresses, her best hat, golden bracelets and earrings, and carried a designer bag. “I looked like a Christmas tree!“– she says and bursts out laughing. Funnily enough, no checkpoint asked her for any documents – such an elegant woman did not fit the visual image of a dangerous citizen. “I know my country very well…”– she says, raising one eyebrow in a sardonic tone, halfway between cynicism and resignation. Maybe the strategy would still work today.

Despite parallels between anecdotes about the 1970s protests and the current day ones, we both agree that those times and these times are very different, although I can sense that Valeria is experiencing similar feelings as she did back then. It is difficult to understand what they are. The answer would come a couple of days later.

Fig 3. Gas lacrimógeno. Campus San Joaquín. Photo by Alfonso Otaegui (CC BY).

After talking for more than four hours, we said goodbye. Days later, a demonstration broke out at the San Joaquin Campus of the Catholic University where I work. The police responded to demonstrators by  shooting rubber bullets and tear gas. I captured the moment and sent Valeria pictures of it through Whatsapp. One image in particular caught her eye – an image of a statue of Christ with his arms open, surrounded by tear gas smoke. Valeria replies:

“The defenseless, peaceful Christ wrapped in the gases is like an allegory. Powerful figure. My heart goes out to the students who are fighting for their parents and grandparents, and hold up their ideals as their only shield. Unequal physical struggle. The strength of these children lies in their solidarity and in their ideals of justice. They are rara avis (rare birds) among individualism and selfishness. In all the marches I have been, I feel the joy of the group.”

‘If you are old, you invented the Internet’: A tribute to a senior geek

Marilia Duque E S22 October 2019

I felt insecure about accepting an offer of website hosting from Dudu Balochini, who suggested we host the two websites we had developed together on his server at no cost. I asked him: “But what if you die?”. I was referring to my access to the servers, but he thought it was about his age since he was almost twenty years older them me (I’m 42). He then challenged me: “What if you die?” And that was how we laughed together and moved on. The first site we published together answered a need from the Center of Ageing Studies located at UNIFESP Medical School. Their researchers monitor the elderly population of a neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, and their studies include investigating the impact of physical activity on ageing. One of the interventions they made was to map out opportunities within walking distance for older people to exercise. This mapping was manually adapted to the address of each patient – a herculean task. But an informal survey showed that 70% of program-assisted seniors have smartphones. I had this information in mind when I met Dudu for a coffee. “Do you think we could make these activities accessible through Google Maps based on people’s location?”, I asked him. And he just said “I already know how to do that. I need two hours”. Twenty-four hours later, he produced the site we called Get Up and Go: nearby activities for the 60+. “I used the Store Location feature in WordPress, but it took me a while because it was blocked for developers from Brazil”, he apologised as though I thought he was late.

The second site is part of my delivery for the applied side of the ASSA Project – Anthropology of Smartphones, Smart Ageing and mHealth. With an ethnographic approach, I observed how WhatsApp was used for health purposes in Sao Paulo. I mapped the best practices and organised them into a set of protocols for communication within hospitals and clinics. I also developed a second set of protocols addressing nutritionists (obesity and being underweight are both health issues among older people in Brazil). Both materials are open-access and should be available for download. That is why I needed a website to publish them. This time, Dudu didn’t develop the website for me. “You’re going to become a SeniorGeek”, he told me. SeniorGeek is an initiative for digital inclusion of seniors created by him. At presentation events addressing older people, Dudu tried to demystify technological themes like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Chatbots. He believed older people should know about those things or they would be cut off from conversation with children and grandchildren and, moreover, with society. Dudu also believed he could enable seniors to become digital entrepreneurs through courses that teach how to build a website, or an e-commerce or a blog. This is how I became his student. By myself, with the autonomy he wanted all seniors to achieve, I developed and published my WhatsApp manuals at http://www.saudeeenvelhecimento.com.br. In my field site, entrepreneurship gains strength among older people as a means of reintegration into the labor market. This is a consequence of the desire of many to remain productive but it is also their way to respond to corporate ageism. Dudu himself used to say he lived in a limbo: too old for the market, but not a “legal” senior yet.

Dudu was also a public figure. He was often in the media, giving interviews about the relevance of digital inclusion for seniors. At 58, he used to say, “If you are old, you invented the Internet. The problem is that people accommodated and forgot about it”. And he has a point. We just have to remember that Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, creators of the TCP / IP protocol that enabled the Internet, are now aged 81 and 76 years old. However, ethnography showed me that this detachment from technology was also linked to retirement, when access to technology and needs in daily life change (Selwyn, 2004). Even so, Dudu’s speeches were inspiring and older people felt more confident because of him. Dudu died one week after I left my field site. An abrupt heart attack. On the one hand, he has achieved the death my informants desire the most: a death without illness or disease. I have written before about how my informants do not fear death. On the contrary, they see death as natural and even desire it when they think of the prospect of a future lived with physical, mental or financial limitations. On the other hand, it was an early death. Dudu was gone when he began to experience the purpose of life. I say experience because, among my informants, there is a feeling that the meaning of life is not something that can be explained by past achievements or by spiritual convictions. Therefore, they abandon philosophical reflections on the subject to focus on the present: they live today with purpose, filling daily life with pleasurable activities and, if possible, positively impacting the lives of those around them. Dudu brought these two accomplishments together in an intense agenda of events and courses.

And it was precisely the technology Dudu was so enthusiastic about that mediated his farewell. The news of his death spread via WhatsApp and was shared from group to group, giving rise to dozens of messages. Information about his funeral was also shared throughout the night, as well as information about the seventh day mass. For this last meeting, friends used WhatsApp again to prepare a last tribute. They have the idea to reproduce the “uniform” worn by Dudu, a black T-shirt, with the SeniorGeek logo. And during the days leading up to the mass, they spoke about how this production was made feasible all through their smartphones, as Dudu would like. The mobilisation was properly registered. And the pictures dominated social media again, now accompanied by the text “We are all senior geeks”. Dudu’s original WhatsApp group for his SeniorGeek initiatives was deactivated. A new one named “Senior Geek Connected” was created instead. It’s still a place where older people can find information about technology and new learning opportunities, keeping Dudu’s original idea alive. For him, above all, SeniorGeek was a manifesto against the invisibility of older people, something he believed only technology could solve.

 

 

 

 

Selwyn, N. (2004). The information aged: A qualitative study of older adults’ use of information and communications technology, Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 369–384