The Other Football

Growing up, my large size pretty much determined that I would play American football.  I did so through middle and high school, except for two seasons during which I received no small amount of grief from coaches, other players and even some parents (a challenge on par with facing a stronger, more skilled player across the line of scrimmage).  Our son Shane played through college, and I helped coach his brother Davis’s team for a couple of years.  Living in Latin America introduced our family to futból: the boys played for two years in Mexico, largely oblivious the first year and catching on, both athletically and linguistically, the second.

Juan_Ig_futbolcroppedJuan Ignacio Brito

 

My own experience on the cancha is limited, the physical dimensions that worked in myfavor for football acting as liabilities for futból (although I should note that my dean and friend at the Universidad de los Andes [UANDES], Juan Ignacio Brito, is not limited by his 6’8” frame).  Other than a few friendly pick-up games with colleagues, my only experience prior to Chile was in Cuzco, Peru (elevation 11,200 ft.) when I was still in my 20s.  Other than vague recollections of my abilities and oxygen levels being inadequate, my only vividmemory occurred while playing arquero (goalie): the ball, kicked hard from ten feet away, struck me squarely on the nose causing me to stagger back several steps and fall, to the hearty amusement of my fellow players.  Fortunately, the kicker was about half my size—had it been Brito my nose would likely resemble an unskilled boxer’s.

Cris_futbolcroppedCristóbal Benavides

My presence at UANDES and close friendship with Cristóbal Benavides, the organizer of faculty/admin futból games, offered me multiple helpings of humble pie.  My lower-body coordination and ball control—if it could even be called that—remained as pitiful as 28 years prior.  My shortness of breath was worse than in Cuzco, even though the Chileans played at around 9,000 feet lower elevation.  Why, then, search ten stores in Greater Santiago to find size 13 botas, toe the line between severe and utter humiliation, and experience lasting pain in leg muscles I didn’t know existed?  For the experience and camaraderieFutból revealed competitive traits in my temperate hosts, Juan Ignacio and Cristóbal, and initiated my friendships with two other communication faculty, Juanjo Guerrero and Francisco Tagle.  I’ve enjoyed the fellowship of team sports since childhood, and on the cancha it intensifies through the collective orientation that originally attracted me to Latin culture.  The experience also deepened my appreciation for ice hockey players I’ve known who took up skating as adolescents or even adults—one has to love the game itself, the companionship and/or other facets of the sport to derive enjoyment and remain optimistic as more experienced players whiz around, controlling the puck, or in this case the pelota.

The Copa de Américas tournament, in which national teams face off, also combined fun with insight into Latin American culture.  Sports news in Chile during the first half of 2016 was dominated by coverage of the player selection process for the national team, analysis of its struggles early in the tournament, and a crescendo of excitement as “La Roja” advanced, then defeated archrival Argentina in the championship game, decided by final penalty kicks, as had happened the year before.  (I described a prior meeting between the teams in my “March 24, 2016” blog.)

Our Chilean family, the Benavides, and other dear friends, the von der Forsts, hosted Carol and me in their homes to watch the single-elimination games during the final rounds of the Copa.  The atmosphere for each game was akin to the Super Bowl with media build-up, empty streets and what I’ll call “stressed festivity.”  In our group, the tension was heightened through a close connection to the team: Lila Salah’s (von der Forst’s) father, Arturo Salah, is president of Chile’s Professional Soccer Association.  He attended the Copa games in various U.S. cities and appeared on screen as medals were awarded to the victors.  The Chilean fans’ celebrations were vigorous, especially for a society not known for expressing exuberance.  But this was futból after all….

unico_argentino“I’m the only Argentine who can raise a cup”

During the games, my friends and colleagues mentioned above commented in real time through a group on WhatsApp.  The memes that circulated were quite clever and entertaining, often at the referees’ or opponents’ expense.  My limited knowledge of the players, team politics and informal Chilean Spanish put me at a disadvantage, but my digital contributions were less awkward—as well as less painful for me, and probably others—than those on the cancha.  On the morning following games the WhatsApp group, which includes another friend and colleague, Ricardo Leiva, met at a restaurant for breakfast and post-game discussion.  My colleagues’ experience, not only as players but also journalists and media experts, added an analytical angle that likely differentiated our conversation somewhat from millions of others that occurred along the length of a vibrant nation basking in the warmth of victory.

The Other Football

Mountain Adventures

I’ve had an affinity for the mountains since growing up in New Jersey…yes, New Jersey.  My father’s ideal summer vacation to load my sister Wendy, our dog Buck and me in the ‘71 Plymouth Duster and drive to Wyoming, at a top speed of 60 m.p.h., to backpack in the wilderness for a week or so.  In the mid 1970s we took up skiing and didn’t have to travel as far—except for the spring break when we rode the Greyhound bus out to Breckenridge, Colorado and back…yes, the bus.

I met my wife Carol at the University of Colorado/Boulder, and our family continues to enjoy the Rockies together in summer and winter.  Honestly, access to the Andes was among my motivations for applying for a Fulbright grant in Chile.  Our adventures here gave me an opportunity to reflect on mountain activities’ significance in my life and how they, and I, have changed over four decades.

Valcon_VillarricaOur first experiences involved hiking and fishing in Southern Chile.  We made day hikes in the Villarrica region not only to see gorgeous terrain, but also to prepare for a week’s visit to Torres del Paine National Park, three days’ drive south (see my “Two Argentine Fathers” post).  As it was summer vacation season, we had plenty of company.  We dubbed our first outing “The Trail of 200 Holas” to reflect the prodigious foot traffic we encountered and Latin Americans’ friendly propensity to greet others.  Our walking sticks, rigid hiking boots and daypacks rendered us as foreign as did our physiognomies, especially compared to some casual locals who appeared more likely to be stopping at the store for milk and bread than up 600 meters of elevation on a nine-kilometer trail.  (This was reminiscent of my experience nearly three decades earlier of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with three Peruvian friends who dubbed me “Boy Scout” for my [relative] obsession with planning, food, water supplies and proper equipment.)

TdePaineIn Torres del Paine we met our dear friends the Peys to hike, fish and hang out.  We used our one clear day during the week to hike a leg of the famed Paine Circuit, or “W” – the section to the mirador directly below the iconic towers.  It was a steady uphill slog of about 8.5 kilometers, the final pitch of which constituted “a knee-popping scramble up boulders” as our Lonely Planet guidebook so encouragingly reported (I’d had knee surgery seven months prior).  Unfortunately, one of our party fell ill and had to turn back at Campamento Chileno, a privately-owned refugio offering camp sites, toilets, showers, food and drink.  I had seen shelters and park facilities on prior hikes, but nothing like this.  Given the scarcity of flat terrain, tents were pitched very close to one another, and a muscular bouncer of sorts checked campers’ payment receipts.  Following our slog to and from the worth-every-step mirador, the refugio was very welcoming with its chairs and cold drinks—if rather jarring for the sheer number of people there.  This might have been accurately dubbed The Trail of 400 Holas, and its international hikers presented interesting contrasts in look and approach: hyper-fit extreme sports types who literally ran up and down the crowded, rocky trail; hipsters who closely resembled the photos and manikins in Santiago’s many outdoor shops; ‘me-firsters’ who refused to yield in narrow areas of the trail; anarchist/guerrilla-looking types; and some plain folk enjoying their gorgeous country.  This was our first experience hiking a world-renowned trail in high season – it offered lots of visual and ideational stimuli to reflect on.

FisherbrosWe also spent five days fly fishing in a remote area that’s largely off the grid.  Our son Shane and his close friend Mark joined us.  Shane is an accomplished fly fisherman—his greatest accomplishment to date, in my view, has been to join his love for fishing with his major in biology to complete an undergraduate thesis that involved six weeks of field work comparing trout populations in two rivers in Colorado and Wyoming.  Fly fishing is an art as well as science for Shane.  For me it’s a great reason to spend time with him in the mountains, as it was with my father and sister.  Although I’m largely a hack with barebones knowledge, equipment and talent, fly fishing in Chile presented a stimulating cultural overlay as logistics, access, transportation, etc. had to be negotiated in Spanish.  Not surprisingly, the locals’ lifestyles and outlooks in the South were also quite distinct from what we encountered in the Santiago metropolitan region.  As in other rural areas we visited, some locals were resisting infrastructure developments such as hydroelectric dams, paved roads and bridges.

Portillo_GroupMore recently Shane returned with his girlfriend Remy, this time to visit Santiago and to ski.  Skiing in the Andes had been on my bucket list since Carol and I first visited Chile in 1988, a poor snow year.  The experience was worth the long wait.  There are several ski areas within a 90-minute drive of our apartment in Santiago, and the mountains had received a significant snowfall in early June.  Most striking for me were the lack of trees, the areas being above the tree line, and hearing Spanish and Portuguese spoken on the slopes and in the lodges (Brazilians are fond of skiing in Chile and Argentina).  We also rode more surface lifts—requiring one to ski uphill—than we’re accustomed to: steep poma lifts at Valle Nevado and high speed va et vient (to Ruta60_Portilloand fro) lifts at Portillo.  Remy took a particular shine to these lifts (young legs!).  The views were spectacular: from a variety of vantage points in Valle Nevado one can see downtown Santiago, and a (chair, not surface!) lift at Portillo passes right over switchbacks on Ruta 60 – a major truck transportation route between Chile and Argentina.

 

Thanks for reading.  In the words of John Muir, to whom we collectively owe a huge debt of gratitude, “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

Mountain Adventures

Surfing the 421

Our principal means of moving around Santiago has been public transportation, supplemented by taxis, Uber and rides from friends.  As in most major cities, abundant private vehicles in circulation create traffic jams at peak hours (“tacos” by the local parlance), and smog.  Santiaguinos’ heavy reliance on their clean and efficient metro system was illustrated on June 9 when a broken water main closed a section of the central line.  Carol and I were en route to a friend’s book presentation and joined thousands who avoided or exited gridlocked buses, walking through the downtown area, the locals facing the disruption in their usual tolerant and unflustered manner.

My commute from our apartment to the Universidad de los Andes combines a mile of

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Route 421 stop at Manquehue metro station

walking with a 15-minute bus ride–uphill in the morning and down in the evening.  The bus has shown me a broader cross-section of Santiago than I typically encounter in our upper-middle-class neighborhood or the small, private university.  In January and February, during Chile’s summer break, my fellow riders on route 421 were almost exclusively domestic, service and manual laborers who work at the hospitals, businesses and homes in the largely residential area surrounding the university.  Many of the workers appear to be immigrants, mostly from Peru, others from Haiti and elsewhere.  Chile’s economic stability has produced a dynamic that is familiar to the U.S.: immigrants earning steady wages to support their families in both host and home countries.  Since the beginning of the school year in March, university and high school students have created a larger, more diverse group of riders.

Even with this mix I’ve been the poster-boy of diversity on the 421, so far as I can tell.  I am one of few riders who board the bus in the affluent neighborhoods located beyond the terminus of the metro line, and I look and dress more like the folks whizzing past in their cars, than those on the bus appreciating a few more moments of free time—off their feet if they were fortunate enough to score a seat—before arriving to their workplace.  (As another reminder of differences with the folks driving their cars, some of the women bring along suitcases because they spend midweek nights in the maids’ quarters of homes where they work.)  On the rare occasions when I’ve spoken with fellow passengers—in respect for their “down time,” not for lack of interest—any possibility of my being local shatters.  The not-infrequent look from fellow passengers, especially women, which seems to ask “what the heck are you doing here?” has become familiar during my three full years of working and living in Latin America over the past three decades.  I still haven’t mastered a look that replies, “I love this place.”

A foothill to the impressive cordillera defines my commute.  The 421 drones steadily up, at times never shifting out of its lowest gear.  Some drivers take full advantage of gravity on the way back down (I’d like to see the bus system’s budget for brake maintenance and parts).  Because I usually stand once the seats fill, in respect for others’ more-tired feet, Bus_421_croppedI’ve surfed the 421 on its downhill run.  The fast turns and hard braking emulate a surfboard in rough conditions, requiring a broad stance, bent knees and active front to back as well as left to right adjustments to maintain equilibrium, and to avoid flattening a fellow passenger in a wipeout that would certainly elicit more than a quizzical facial expression….

In truth, such a fall would be impossible during the peak of evening rush hour (~5:30-6:30) as riders pack the 421 on their way toward other metropolitan areas via the metro and/or connecting bus routes. The cheek and jowl riders—or more commonly midriff and jowl in my case—exhibit an admirable flexibility and patience that I hope to acquire some day; I become impatient after waiting more than 20 minutes for a bus.  As I’m usually among the first to exit (on larger buses signaled by pressing a button rather than shouting “¡Bajan!” to the driver) I try to position myself near a rear door on particularly crowded rides.  More often than not a group that’s been waiting to board eagerly rushes the door, increasing the kinetic energy from packed bodies.  The big American gets launched out at the last moment with the sensation, but none of the grace, of a human cannonball at the circus, as others scramble to squeeze inside the closing doors.

Surfing the 421

Teaching and Research: Initial Experiences

It’s time to focus this blog on professional topics.  Fulbright U.S. Scholar programs in different countries have varying expectations for teaching and/or research.  In Chile, grantees must do both.  Therefore, I submitted a sample course syllabus as well as a research plan with my application materials.  I will follow up this post with an update in July when my work here is completed.

Teaching.  Although I’ve taught in Latin America before—five months in Cuzco, Peru as an English instructor and two years as full-time faculty at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico—I’ve had to adapte to the Chilean classroom.  My host institution, the Universidad de los Andes (UANDES), invited me to teach an intensive Ph.D. course in mid January.  The program directors and I had discussed topics during a prior visit to Santiago in October when we settled on “Popular Culture and Rock ‘n Roll.”  A majority of the eight students enrolled are college-level communication instructors, which as I learned in Mexico can be intimidating, yet that prior experience yielded some enduring friendships and I hope for the same outcome in Chile.  Preparing the course required research and advanced planning because I wanted to assign relevant readings in Spanish, and the students would have to prepare readings during December: the program is designed such that they took three straight weeks of intensive courses in January.  (Another set of intensive courses will be offered in June.)

Fcom_Uandes-tree_cropped
Autumn at College of Communication, UANDES

Prior to the first class meeting I assigned a response paper to a rock and roll film, to get the students thinking about the course topic in advance, and to help orient me (interestingly, three wrote on Almost Famous and two on High Fidelity, chosen from a list of more than 30 possible films).  By the time my course started, the students had already bonded during two weeks of coursework; like their undergraduate counterparts, they will take the same classes together throughout their degree program.  The students were participatory, and very patient with my accented Spanish, which I deliver at a considerably slower pace than they speak.  Chileans also use a lot of distinctive slang for which neither my knowledge of informal Mexican Spanish or perusing a “Chilenismos” dictionary and phrasebook adequately prepared me.  An interesting outcome resulted: although most of the theories and examples I used in class were U.S. or British, the students prepared their final papers on Latin American popular music in regional contexts.  Nearly all of their topics include elements of hybridity or influence from other cultures, a common characteristic of popular music.

My undergraduate course began in early April because the students, in their fifth and final year, were doing off-campus internships during the first month of classes.  This provided me additional time to adapt the course I had originally proposed to something fitting the needs and interests of the students more closely.  As the U.S. is geographically distant, and many Chileans feel only tenuous cultural connections with its Hispanic/Latino population, I modified the course plan to focus more narrowly on the population and the media that reach it.  As revised, the course begins with basics of international communication, focuses on the U.S. Hispanic/Latino population and media, then concludes with international elements of popular culture and rock ‘n roll.  The students have been energetic and engaged thus far—I’ll try to maintain that environment through the end of June.

Edificio_central_UANDES_moonset_3-10-16_cropped
Edificio Central at dusk, UANDES

Research. I proposed to conduct both collaborative and individual research in Chile.  UANDES and the Harris Institute in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech have teamed up with Universidad Panamericana in Guadalajara, Mexico to conduct a comparative study of how young adults use, and feel about, their smartphones.  Last year each site conducted focus groups and surveys; this year we are analyzing the quantitative and qualitative data we collected, making cross-national comparisons, presenting the research, and preparing it for publication.  I was also invited by my friend and host Dr. Cristobal Benavides to join a study of how and why “millennials” in Santiago access audiovisual content on different screens: computers, tablets and mobile phones.  We revised the original draft, translated it to English and submitted for presentation at an academic conference.  Such cross-lingual work, my participation on several dissertation committees at Texas Tech, and my writing in English has created a sort of linguistic limbo that my bilingual readers will recognize (readers of Spanish may find this profile informative).  It has also deepened my admiration for the many scholars worldwide who work and publish in non-native languages—largely English.  This has long been an area of interest, and my next book project will focus on language difference in electronic media.

So it’s hardly surprising that my individual research concerns language, examining how electronic media professionals understand the parameters and impacts of language difference (a challenge we “Fulbrighters” in Chile face daily).  I am gathering trade journal material and conducting interviews with local professionals to learn more about how language difference plays out in Chile’s media.  Please check back here for an update in late July.

Teaching and Research: Initial Experiences

March 24, 2016

Arg_crucifix_cropped

 

Thursday March 24, 2016 was a meaningful day for Argentina, one that revealed how elements of a nation’s past, present and future may coincide in illuminating fashion. Carol and I were in Buenos Aires during Semana Santa (Holy Week) so I could share research about the U.S. Hispanic/Latino population and media with students, faculty and media industry professionals at the Universidad Austral.  Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) initiates a long weekend that is imbued with religious significance for Catholics.  Political, economic and cultural matters also surfaced on this Jueves Santo.

The 24th of March is Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (Truth and Justice Memorial Day) in Argentina, marking the coup d’etat in 1976, which installed a military dictatorship responsible for “disappearing” an estimated 11,000 to 30,000 people and forcing thousands of others into exile.  Victims of the military government’s “ideological war” were mostly young and middle class; few had direct ties to leftist militant groups that—like their counterparts on the right—had engaged in violence, kidnapping and other malevolent acts earlier in the decade. Contemporary Argentines’ concerns for human rights in the wake of such brutality were manifest in the presence of many human rights organizations at a memorial gathering at Plaza de Mayo, the site which commanded overwhelming television coverage among multiple 40th anniversary remembrances.  Key participants in the memorial were surviving members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo who had courageously protested by walking around the plaza, in plain view of the presidential palace, with signs and photos of their disappeared children.

Arg_Dia_Memoria_sign_cropped
Government sign in Buenos Aires: Together We Say ‘Never Again’

The mothers and their white scarves became symbols of the struggle against violence and repression across Latin America and the globe; they received particular attention when Argentina hosted soccer’s World Cup tournament in 1978.  The ideological divisions behind so much turmoil and suffering in the 1960s through ‘80s remain conspicuous in Argentina, Chile and other nations of the region.

Those divisions were plain to see in coverage and discussion of U.S. President Barak Obama’s brief Argentine visit following his historic trip to Cuba.  Critics condemned the U.S. government’s tacit support for the overthrow of a civilian government, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s alleged counsel that the military dictatorship complete its dirty work quickly (prior to President Jimmy Carter’s pursuit of a human-rights-based foreign policy agenda beginning in 1977). On the other hand, Argentines who support President Mauricio Macri’s aggressive economic reforms welcome his focal shift toward Europe and North America and away from leftist Latin American governments and other U.S. rivals such as China and Russia, which prior administrations pursued. In response to objections over a U.S. president’s visit coinciding with the Día de la Memoria, notably those by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a torture victim who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his human rights work, President Obama and his family spent most of the day in the mountain resort town of Bariloche. His activities on the 23rd included discussions with President Macri about cooperating to support economic development and curb drug trafficking, climate change and terrorism; an open discussion with Argentine youth; and a state dinner which famously included a quick tango dance.  Before departing for Bariloche, Pres. Obama joined Pres. Macri in visiting the Parque de Memoria to pay tribute to the dictatorship’s victims.  Mr. Obama also announced that the U.S. government would declassify additional records related to the coup and human rights abuses in order to assist Argentina’s discovery and healing processes (4,700 such documents were released in 2002).

The third big event on Jueves Santo was the Argentine national fútbol (soccer) team’s World Cup qualifying match against Chile. Its timing, broadcast at 8:30, may have facilitated the peaceful conclusion of memorial marches and rallies, at which forewarned violence did not materialize.  The importance of fútbol in Latin America is difficult to overstate. Television sports channels transmit and discuss little else, at least while the professional leagues and national teams are playing.  National pride is at stake, as during the Olympic Games in the U.S.  This is especially true of rival nations with long histories of contention, if not full-scale war, like Argentina and Chile. Carol’s and my stronger allegiance is to the latter, given the location of my Fulbright grant and a broader friend base, but we bear no animosity toward Argentina’s team, which is exciting to watch (I will undoubtedly be rebuked for this statement).  We arrived at the bar we’d been eyeing, “LocosXFútbol”—read “X” as “for”—just as not-so-loco-looking fans from the prior match, Ecuador vs. Paraguay, were leaving.  We neutrally-clad, middle-aged Americans stood out amid a younger sea of robin egg blue and white vertical stripes. The atmosphere became tense when Chile scored first and early, then relaxed considerably after tying and go-ahead goals by the Argentine side.  Pains of the past, irritants of the present and uncertainties about the future were forgotten during three hours of athletic and cultural bliss.

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2nd-Year Communication Students at Universidad Austral, Buenos Aires
March 24, 2016

Two Argentine Fathers

Being in Chile during the summer vacation period provided an opportunity for Carol and me to achieve a long-term goal of visiting Patagonia.  We traveled by car in order to appreciate landscape variations, meet a variety of people and experience the unexpected episodes that often accompany road trips.  Our first day of car travel in Argentine Patagonia was bracketed by two fathers interacting admirably with their daughters. Observing these men reminded me that strong family commitment is a vital social adhesive shared across Latin cultures.

Bariloche_cropped
View from Cerro Otto, Bariloche

At breakfast in Bariloche, Carol and I independently noted a father’s focused interaction with his daughter, who appeared to be five or six years old.  It seemed that every bit of the man’s energy and attention were dedicated to their discussion of dinosaurs.  He possessed the calm, deep voice of a respected personality during the Golden Age of Radio, and a demeanor that, if more commonly practiced, would make society a gentler place.  Later in the day, as curvy mountain roads became straight, lonely stretches, I reflected on that fully-engaged father, the power of interpersonal communication, and my own efforts to balance bread-winning and career development with fatherhood and being a tolerable spouse.  Sometimes we students of mediated communication give short shrift to the face-to-face variety, a tendency that is exacerbated by rapid developments in communication technology.  I could not imagine any form of communication being more beneficial or enjoyable for that little girl than her father sitting directly in front of her, dedicating his full attention to their conversation.  This led to some reflexive inquiry as I tried to recollect similar scenarios with my own two sons.  Although they enjoyed halcyon upbringings, much of our time together was punctuated by intervening contextual elements such as sports, music, homework, Boy Scout activities and video games.  (Here I imagine some readers nodding in recognition.) If and when our grandchildren arrive, I have prior experience as well as an Argentine archetype to help guide me.

We met the second father at the end of the day, through an unfortunate situation that resulted in our becoming friends.  Upon our arrival in Sarmiento,* a small city in South Central Argentina, Carol and I struggled a bit to find our hotel—part of the problem was linguistic: when asking for directions we failed to replace the double L sound, pronounced ‘yuh’ in most of Latin America, with ‘sh,’ the Argentine custom.  (We were off the GPS grid, navigating via large scale road maps and directions from locals, part of the aforementioned openness to unexpected developments.)  Once we got the pronunciation and landmarks sorted out, we arrived to our hotel.  The proprietor’s face dropped as I asked to check in—Pablo didn’t have record of a reservation, or a room available.  I opened the email message I had received confirming the reservation; it had been sent nearly two months prior by a former employee who failed to record it in the hotel’s reservation system.  Normally other options would be available, but it was Saturday night on a weekend when Sarmiento was hosting a regional Festival de Doma y Folklore (rodeo). As Pablo called other hotels, hosterías and even family friends, Carol’s and my prospects darkened.  Our interaction transpired under the observant eye of Pablo’s daughter Agostina, age 11.  Her presence probably inhibited a negative turn in Pablo’s and my communication as the unwelcome likelihood of the norteamericanos spending the night in their compact rental car increased (I’m 6’4” tall). Clearly, with Agostina present Pablo had more to lose than a night’s sleep if he admitted defeat and kicked us to the curb.

A resolution came in the form of a double mattress that Pablo and his wife prepared in a storeroom while we ate dinner.  Carol and I were grateful for the bed, and the empathy that had provided it.  In the morning, as he served us breakfast, Pablo explained that he had learned something important from the previous night’s experience: the longer I had remained calm, the less likely it became that our problem would escalate to a blowout.  (My storming out of the hotel would have resolved Pablo’s dilemma, but not ours).  I responded that I too had gained new awareness, and appreciated the positive behavior he had exhibited in front of Agostina. Our exchange reminded me that through mindful interpersonal communication humans can sometimes resolve problems that become more intractable when confronted collectively, or when presented and addressed through mediated communication. Conflict outcomes could improve if individuals imagined a sweet, curious 11-year old observing their demeanor in stressful situations.

* Named for the seventh president of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), who was also a political activist, intellectual and writer.

1st Postscript

This connection between effective parenting and thoughtful communication was reinforced by friends who we met at our destination in southern Chile, Torres del Paine National Park.  Over the years Jon, from a family of four boys, had shared amusing anecdotes about being father to three girls – learning to play with Barbie dolls, developing a sense for feminine fashion, managing boyfriends, etcetera.  Observing both parents interact so tenderly with their 16-year-old daughter was inspirational, and revealed subtle qualities of Jon’s and Sue’s characters that nearly four decades of friendship hadn’t shown before.

2nd Postscript

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The author with Pablo

Carol and I passed through Sarmiento again on our return journey north, spent the night in a guest room in Pablo’s hotel, and reinforced what we hope will become an enduring relationship.

 

 

 

Two Argentine Fathers

Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi

As mentioned in my prior post, contact with a variety of Latin Americans has sustained my attraction to the region following an academic introduction through my undergraduate studies. Although various cultural, linguistic and interpretive barriers may arise in intercultural encounters, interactions can be very gratifying when meaningful connections are made. Carol and I were fortunate to share such an experience with a couple residing in Vicuña, located in Chile’s beautiful Valle de Elqui.

Don and Doña are courtesy titles applied to mature adults, people who have earned the respect of others in their community. Doña Silvia “Mitzi” Díaz Cortés was born into a prominent Valle de Elqui family whose business interests included exporting chinchilla pelts. She and her husband Don Alberto Varas Vivanco live in the ample family home built in 1875, and offer lodging in several rooms. Other rooms comprise a small museum providing glimpses into the region’s past, from an upper class perspective. (Other historical sites in the area emphasize the life and work of Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, and represent lifestyles of Elqui’s more humble inhabitants.)

We met Don Alberto when he served us breakfast to assist Doña Mitzi. He pitches in as needed, but she handles the museum and accommodation business. Such balance was reflected in other aspects of their relationship, such as Mitzi learning basics of aviation and engineering in order to discuss Alberto’s work and interests with him, and Alberto following Mitzi’s school lessons to be able to do the same. Due to conflicting work schedules, the couple organized their time together creatively; Don Alberto emphasized love and mutual respect as key to the couple’s enduring relationship. Although such long-distance relationships are a dynamic often associated with 21st century lifestyles, they predate recent social developments. Here are a few other topics that arose in our conversations, including my subsequent reflections on them.

  • Don Alberto is essentially self-educated, having begun working at ten years old on the docks of San Antonio, Chile. He steadily assumed greater responsibilities on the docks before switching to railroad work that improved his mechanical knowledge, and repairing/maintaining projection equipment, which taught him optics and electronics. Service in the military reserves introduced Don Alberto to aviation. He took every course possible—such as aerodynamics, meteorology, instrument flight—became a flight instructor in the Chilean Air Force, and later served as an on-call pilot for corporate executives and government officials. His background recalled my own male predecessors who were mechanically oriented, worked in multiple professions and were largely self-taught (save my father, an astrophysicist). It also reminded me of media professors’ frequent admonitions to our students to ‘learn how to learn’ in order to improve one’s odds for long-term success in volatile communication industries.
  • As Carol and I admired some beautiful pottery placed around the house, Doña Mitzi explained its origin. She created it in a workshop that she had developed while completing an unchallenging teaching assignment. In a situation where others might have simply reduced their productivity, Doña Mitzi honed a skill through a gratifying creative outlet. Don Alberto told us a related story about learning the basics of chemical engineering while working in management at a mining company. Although some fellow managers resisted studying outside their areas of expertise, he insisted they do so because the knowledge was integral to the mine’s productivity and safe operation. These brief examples underscore the importance of actively considering one’s personal and professional circumstances, and of being adaptable to change.
  • Don Alberto also emphasized that teachers should be more than content experts, they must awaken an interest in learning among their students. This is an idea that academics pay ample lip service, but which requires more sustained attention. Tools to enhance learning have never been more powerful or broadly accessible than they are today, but have teachers’ abilities to spark and maintain our students’ interest and motivation kept pace? I fear not. Awakening inspiration in students is a primary responsibility of teachers, but one shared by all of society, and especially so among parents.
    At the risk of reinforcing a cliché, I acknowledge that interacting with Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi caused me to reflect on the orientations and contributions of a generation prior to theirs, that of my grandparents, the one Tom Brokaw famously dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” Their self-sufficiency and persistence in facing difficult challenges are traits I have long admired—and feared are in short supply among my own generation and those that have followed. As our lives become more complicated, and the gadgets that guide them more complex, we can benefit from following the examples of Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi who have achieved happiness through the thoughtful pursuit of balanced productivity, and who exude kindness and sincere interest in others.

Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi
Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi
Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi