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Barrio Lastarria, Santiago de Chile

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28 May 2024

A Nostalgia of Hope

BEN GORDON 

The morning is quiet in Santiago, though the colourful and kind avenidas are a reminder of their liveliness – in stark contrast with the many empty, tight and grey side streets, which squeeze a certain tension into the body. A sense of vertigo overwhelms me as I walk through these streets: I am both nervous, even fearful of this totally unknown place, yet there is also an exhilaration, a perverse joy in arriving somewhere and knowing that not a single person, out of more than 8 million, knows of your existence. At every corner I find myself smiling at the simplest of things, from the most banal to the beautiful, everything is a shock, a revelation.

 

The city and the people slowly begin to wake up, and the organised chaos of a metropolis reveals itself. The sound of old women pitching their sales in the streets is for now the lead part in an orchestra of sounds: cars and motorbikes, the shutters slamming open to welcome another day of shoppers, the conversations of people sitting having coffee or rushing towards their offices, the stray dogs and birds staking their claim to leftover food. This cacophony of noise, of which the list could go on forever, is the backdrop to hectic movement all around. Everyone is in motion, heading somewhere, yet their pace feels oddly relaxed. This restless movement is simultaneously seamless. It does not make one fret, as it perhaps would in London or New York, instead, it envelopes you into its humble rhythm, calmingly sweeping you along to your destination, which for me is a café, perched on the corner of Plaza Baquedano.

 

I order an espresso, which comes as an americano, and begin to look in more detail at the people passing me by. My initial thoughts are that there is a sensitivity on people’s faces which reveal themselves more explicitly than in other countries I have visited. The vendors on the street and the homeless people lying by the walls are not dehumanised as they would be in the streets of London, rather they form part of the picture of the city. They speak and are spoken to with respect and dignity. There seems to be more time for the fellow human, even during the madness of rush hour – people mean to get someplace but not with a disregard for those around them. I sit in the café for an hour longer before I pay and walk over towards the park nearby. As I walk, and the movement of my legs winds the cogs of my thoughts, I re-evaluate slightly what I had sensed before as simply a ‘friendliness’. Yes, there is a general amiability in the air, but there is more to it: it seems to be underscored by a sentimentality, a profoundly emotional state of being. From the music playing in the streets to the conversations of workers and people sharing their morning over a coffee, the kindness is not some sort of ‘happy-go-lucky’ ideal where everyone is kind for kindness’ sake. Rather, there appears to be a sort of meeting point between sentimentality and contentedness. This tenderness beneath all action is at once tragic and joyful, blurring the lines between the two. I begin to wonder where it comes from.

 

Two or three days later now, I find myself in a barrio full of street art, posters and people, where a peaceful demonstration is taking place. Much like the people and music I saw upon my arrival, this march is tranquil but emotionally charged. I gather quickly that it is centred around Salvador Allende, the former socialist president who offered an alternative vision for the country and is now an emblematic, almost mythical figure of hope and change. The people move quietly through the streets, singing, softly, the songs of Victor Jara, Nicolas Parra and other folk heroes. Odes to freedom and peace. The unison in the movement of the group is assertive and powerful, yet also welcoming and warm. I walk with them for some minutes, allowing myself to be swept along, both physically and mentally.

There is a collective feeling that I can’t quite pin down. It is only after stepping out of the march that I am able to locate what I think it is – the people are reminiscing over a time when there was hope. Or rather, there is a nostalgia of hope. The march sets in motion some more thoughts on the people I am seeing. I remember the little that I have learned about the brutal Pinochet dictatorship when thousands of people were murdered, imprisoned and ‘disappeared’ (captured and tortured in secret, rarely to be seen again) for standing against the government or not supporting it. Allende took his own life on the day of the coup, rejecting the option to escape the country and leave his people behind. Jara was detained and found with over 40 bullet wounds in him some days later. With such impossible, emotive thoughts running around my mind, I can’t help but think of the ephemeral nature of my urban surroundings. 50 years ago, this city was under siege, for 17 years it was under vicious oppressive rule. Now the city lives freely, though trying to contend with this brutal past in order to form an unknown future. Above the people, the posters and the rooftops, the snow-capped mountains of the Andes stand, their permanence a constant reminder of the fragility of the city.

 

***

 

It has been some months now, since these first reactions to arriving in Santiago. Time has gently flowed into the late, and often unbearably hot, summer months. As I arrive in the city once more, after a break in studying, I find myself examining the details around me with those same curious eyes – eyes which after initial days became accustomed to their surroundings, adapting almost inconceivably fast to a new reality. Though attempting to conjure up some form of newfound marvel, I am aware that the feeling of awe which overwhelmed me upon arrival will be impossible to reproduce. I will not collide at that vertiginous meeting point between fear and joy, I will not be as totally conscious of my surroundings. Instead, I walk around the city, past some of the same points which months ago had captured me, and feel a new, calmer, sensation – I feel at home. With this more relaxed approach, I find myself once more near the central square of Plaza Baquedano – known commonly as Plaza Italia. In contrast with my first perception of the square, what I see is not the epicentre of gentle urban mobility, but rather one of protest and resistance. The missing statue of General Baquedano, removed by the government before it could be toppled, is a visceral reminder of the ‘estallido’ – a period of mass demonstration across the country in 2019, in response to growing inequality and rising costs of living. Dozens of people died, thousands were left injured, and any relationship with police and the state was decimated. The square is now referred to by many as Plaza de la Dignidad - Plaza of Dignity.

 

Our perceptions and understandings inevitably change, often without us noticing, as time pushes firmly down its hazy path. Daniel Szalay develops this rather poignantly, in All that Man Is, where he describes time as the one constant in our world: “Everything else embodies, in its own impermanence, the one thing that never ends”. This relates not only to physical decay but to our perceptions, perspectives and ideas.

 

Aside from trying to learn what I can of the deeply complex history of this country, the fervent energy of the city today is something I quickly became aware of and have grown to love. Moulding my perception, opening my mind to new ideas. Murals across the city demanding change. Demonstrations, exhibitions, initiatives actively resisting. The streets alive with a youthful vitality. Lurking beneath this liveliness, however, remain the residues of a violent past. Democracy is only 34 years old, just above the average age of the people in this country, and Pinochet’s ultra-neoliberal economic and political systems have left clear blotches in the embroidery of Chilean life. Individualism and inequality are widespread, challenging what I had seen as a general warmth between people upon my arrival (and perhaps partly explaining why some Chilean friends describe their country as the ‘England of South America’…).

 

Those magical opening days have slipped from the feeble clutches of the present into the firm grip of a distant past, leaving me with new understanding, perhaps less wonder, and more to learn. Although what we see around us inherently changes, evolving gradually or rapidly depending on the context, some things stick with us, for a while at least. Lingering somewhere in the stifling heat, perhaps even accentuated by it, I continue to feel the weight of a collective feeling which moved me in a protest in early August last year. Perhaps in a sort of over-excited frenzy, I had linked this sentiment too narrowly to Chile. Because come to think of it, it is present all around. I can see it in the glazed eyes of older friends back home. I can hear it in the longing stories of my parents. Resting firmly in the air and my mind is this nostalgia of hope. In a contemporary context devoid of that elusive feeling, a dreamlike yearning for a hopeful past washes over those who once experienced it. Even for younger people, like us students, a nostalgia for some unknown hopeful moment feels present, at a time where aspirations for a better future seem abstract, intangible. The sun starts to drop swiftly from the horizon as the early evening buzz of a Friday night hums its manic melody. Beyond ideas of hope, histories of violence and my own personal experience, I am inevitably drawn once more beyond the city, towards the Andes in the distance. No longer snow-capped, distinct in almost imperceptible ways. Time’s persistence stirring slowly on.

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