Reflections on Continuity and Change

Thank you for visiting this blog of reflections on my professional and personal experiences during my U.S. Fulbright Scholar grant in Santiago, Chile for the first six months of 2016.  I should emphasize that the views stated here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the Fulbright organization (in the U.S. or Chile), Texas Tech, my home university, or Universidad de los Andes (UANDES), my host institution.  I would also like to express my gratitude to the various representatives of those same organizations whose efforts and diligence has made my presence in Chile possible.

Since my wife Carol’s and my arrival in Chile on New Year’s Day, I’ve been considering changes and continuities since our first sustained visit to South America in 1988, also for six months. We were fortunate to teach English at the Instituto Cultural Peruano-Norteamericano (ICPNA) in Cuzco, Peru, a school supported by the U.S. Information Agency—no minor political detail during that period of Marxist rebellion in Peru (the reader may wish to read about the Shining Path and Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement groups). My affinity for Latin America, its people and its (colonial) languages deepened quickly during that visit, and has since been sustained through contacts with numerous Spanish and Portuguese speakers in the region, in Iberia, and in the United States.  The following are thoughts on continuity and change in three salient areas.

Media and Communication – This category should come as little surprise given my academic interests.  Our classrooms in the ICPNA looked out on the mountains that ring Cuzco, including a hillside that supported a large parabolic telecommunications antenna.  I recall pondering the content that was transmitted and received through that dish, including the phone calls that connected us to friends and family in the U.S. International callers to our apartment’s phone often expressed surprise that they could dial directly without operator assistance.  Shorter-term visitors in Cuzco often lined up at a government telecomm office to call abroad from a small booth.  What a tremendous change has occurred.  Today, mobile phones are nearly universal in Chile with 91% of the population using them regularly, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. As voice, text and data plans are comparatively expensive here, Wi-Fi is pervasive as are WhatsApp, Skype and similar internet-based communication tools.  Visitors frequently purchase international plans for their mobile phone; Carol and I brought along two iPhone 4s that we’ve put Chilean chips in.  (One of the research projects I’ll be developing with UANDES colleagues concerns how and why young adults in Chile, Mexico and Texas use mobile phones as they do—more on that in a future post.)  In closing this section, I should note that my interactions with Peruvians nearly three decades ago had significant influence over my academic specialization in U.S. Hispanic/Latino, and international, media. I observed that many expectations Peruvians had of me were based on their exposure to U.S. film and television, and that many of my own expectations of Cuzqueños also derived from media representations.  International communication is an engaging field to work in, especially as many societies across the globe become more diverse.

Transportation – The contrasts in travel between our 1988 trip and now have as much to do with changes in our age and income as advances in transportation.  The first time Carol and I visited Chile was after we had finished teaching, before we returned to the U.S.  We took a three-week trip through southern Peru, the length of Bolivia, across Argentina and along the northern half of Chile, by train and bus.  The Chilean segment took us from Santiago to Arica, on the Peruvian border—2,039 kilometers in approximately 30 hours by bus. We saw expanses of desert and arid mountains, and ate too much junk food as we were ill-prepared compared to our fellow passengers (food envy ensued, as I recall).  Earlier this month we traveled the southern third of the same route in a rental car, zipping along well engineered and carefully maintained highways alongside many Chilean and Argentine families on their summer vacations. There’s a certain social and linguistic isolation that accompanies travelling by car, but also more flexibility to make unscheduled detours, or perhaps linger over a meal to converse with a waitperson or fellow restaurant patron.  My next entry regarding Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi will show the value of taking time to linger while travelling.

Commerce and Consumption – The following observations are preliminary and may require later honing.  During our first few days in Santiago we stayed in a hotel near the centro.  Walking around the centro reminded us of similar excursions in Cuzco and other cities—indeed, contemporary downtown commercial centers look much like they did three decades ago (although the electronic products had completely transformed since the 1980s and ‘90s due to the Digital Revolution).  Small kiosks separated by relatively narrow and dimly-lit passageways continue to offer a rather limited variety of products and services.  In contrast, we also visited the Costanera Center, a large multilevel mall with food court, cinema and a disquieting number of U.S.- and Europe-based retailers. It seemed that half of Santiago’s population was at Costanera the day after New Year’s.  Not surprisingly, a limited cross-section of Santiago’s population was on hand, one that looked quite different than the folks in the centro, as would be the case in many societies.  A brief visit to a new (and apparently controversial) mall in Castro, Chiloé suggested an intriguing middle ground—many mall features familiar to the reader were present, but largely Chilean and Latin American retailers and brands were on offer. These initial observations got me thinking about how economic and cultural dimensions of globalization interact, the benefits Chile has derived from economic stability established by the military dictatorship of the 1970s and ‘80s, and related topics I hope to explore in future posts.


Reflections on Continuity and Change