Chilean student protests fueled by creativity and passion
When 13-year-old Fabian Arancibia Vidal performed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in Valparaiso, Chile, he had no idea that 3,000 Santiago students would be utilizing this same dance as a form of protest four months later.
Since May 2011, Chilean students in high schools and colleges have been protesting in a collective effort to demand free education. Many students have boycotted their classes in favor of gaining visibility through nonviolent demonstrations. These unconventional methods include Michael Jackson flash mobs, mass public displays of affection and superheroes on the front lawns of parliament.
Although they are met with tear gas and water cannons from Santiago police, Chilean students continue their protesting agenda.
I learned about the layout of the education system last winter in my University of Maryland study abroad course, “Chilean Literature, Democracy and Social Change.” In three weeks of experiential learning, I participated in community service with Vidal and became educated on the transition of a dictatorship to a democracy. I also visited La Moneda Palace, which houses the president of the Republic of Chile. On the very lawn I visited, college students used La Moneda’s front yard as a stage for public political agency; a mass of zombies dancing toward a less financially oppressive education system.
Nationally, there are three types of schooling available: private, which students families must pay for out of their own pocket; subsidized, in which a more modest fee is paid to the government and public, which is the only current method of free education for young adults. Private high schools garner the highest college admission rates while subsidized and public schools have significantly lower acceptance rates for university entrance.
Lina Morales, a native from Santiago and UMD M.A. candidate in Latin American literature, says she wholeheartedly agrees with the student protests and believes young people in college have a unique power to mobilize effectively.
“The government was able to realize that they are not dealing with submissive people from a dictatorship anymore,” Morales said. “The students protesting didn’t live in the past dictatorship; they don’t feel like they have to be submissive. They have rights.”
In July 2011, hundreds of students gathered in front of Santiago’s political square and offered a rebellion to social conservatism by bringing their significant other to the protest and kissing them repeatedly, publicly, and in a mass of hundreds of other couples. Another protest involved several hundred young adults dressed up in super(wo)man costumes, alternating swaying hips to “Everybody dance now” and shouting pro-reform slogans.
Vivianne Salgado, my winter term instructor, a native from Santiago and a UMD doctoral candidate in Spanish literature, comments, “In addition to being a visual manifestation of the horrors of the current ‘for profit’ educational system, the Thriller dance shows the extent to which students are capable of joining forces and coordinating mass actions.”
This thematic montage of protests over the last couple of months is reminiscent of “Thriller’s” decomposing costumes aligned with perceived negative governmental practices, the necessity for a superhero to correct the current situation of bureaucratic financial inconsistencies and a desire to “kiss” expensive education goodbye.
Though the students demonstrations are peaceful, they are met by police on the main streets of Santiago with tear gas and water cannons. Vidal, enrolled in eighth grade, said he doesn’t understand why Chilean students are being met with these forceful methods because “what they do is march peacefully and [they] don’t destroy the public property.”
Civil engineering student Mathias Gelb has not participated in the protests but assesses the political situation as an individual who has experienced both Chilean and American education systems. In fall 2010, he studied abroad at UMD, taking a semester off from his private school studies at Universidad Catolica.
Many of his cousins that cannot afford private school have been affected by the lack of unilateral quality in middle and high school education in public and government subsidized schools.
“In the case of many of my family members, the low quality of public education plus the high prices of higher education has led them to not be able to opt to pursue their studies further,” Gelb said.
Due to the glass ceiling that the Chilean education system currently projects, only a certain number of students of a higher socioeconomic status can break the barrier. Salgado sees the protests as more than a right to free education, but a testament to a clashing of the classes.
“I was one of those kids who could not afford college in Chile,” Salgado said. “It’s not that I lacked the motivation or the intelligence to pursue higher education. The Chilean educational system discriminated, and continues to do so, against young people in my situation. Things don’t have to be this way. And, in fact, they shouldn’t.”