Protesters in Chile taunt masked policemen in the streets.
[caps]J[/caps]ust before protesters starting throwing rocks at the police, I realized that I didn’t look like a journalist.
The other reporters I could pick out of the crowd wore day-glow sleeves with “PRENSA” printed down the side and their press passes dangled from cords around their necks. They had bigger cameras, professional microphones, and their publications’ emblems all but tattooed on their foreheads.
I was wearing the T-shirt and jeans I wear every day and the same bright red backpack I’ve had for the past three years. The only thing remotely professional about my appearance was the camera in my hands and the laminated press pass peeking out of my pocket. I looked at best like a tourist, at worst like any other protester in the seething crowd. They were students. I was a student. The fact that I was carrying a camera wouldn’t make a good case for my innocence.
A crescendo of clicks differentiated itself from those of the photographers’ shutters, but I couldn’t immediately place the sound. One of the easily identifiable photojournalists pushed passed me, unbuckling the gas mask hanging from his belt.
Why don’t I have one of those? I remember asking myself.
Then I realized that the clicking I heard was the sound of stones bouncing off the riot shields protecting the police line. A siren erupted, the police trucks fired their water cannons, and the air became toxic and heavy – imagine pepper spray blasted from a firefighting hose. Time to run.
The intersection cleared of rioters, but the invisible gas cloud lingered, making the faces of those like myself who lacked the foresight to invest in a gas mask wet with tears and snot. This was the march for the Central Workers Union’s (CUT) national strike that brought roughly 12,000 people to Santiago’s streets on April 16, and I was there reporting it with an incomplete journalism degree and a theoretical grasp on the Spanish language.
Much of what I know, what I was discovering, was grounded only in theory.
For the past three years I had studied electronic media at the University of Oregon, where I’d spent a lot of time in lecture halls being told what makes professional journalism. I had come to Santiago three months earlier eager to apply what I had learned. But a lot of conventions get thrown out the window when you’re facing a hundred “Carabineros,” as the police are called in Chile, clad in full army-green riot gear and lined up in front of several armored trucks with pepper spray dripping from their cannons.
Up to this point my transition from attending journalism school at the University of Oregon had been plodding. I had started off working for The Santiago Times – an online English-language newspaper – translating interviews from Chilean sources for Chile’s English-speaking community. Anxious as I was to get out into the field, I realized the work was to help me with my Spanish skills. The reasons for this became all too apparent when, after I had made some progress with the language, I started interviewing Chileans for the articles I was writing on a daily basis.
As a journalist in Chile I’ve had more than my share of difficult conversations in Spanish, such asconducting 15-minute phone interviews just to extract a yes or no answer. Sometimes public relations representatives will try to use your linguistic ineptitude to dismiss your questions (“Do you have the faculty for the Spanish language to understand that I can’t get you an interview until next week?”). And sometimes the Spanish you’re speaking is not even recognized as Spanish altogether: “What is your position with Carmen Pharmacies?” I asked my subject in Spanish. “I don’t speak English,” he responded in English.
A tank shoots toxic tear gas into the air to break up a riot in Chile. Photo courtesy Simon Boas.
Naturally I struggled with living on the other side of the world and a myriad of cultural disparities, but language was the filter through which I experienced all other difficulties. And all these obstacles coalesced into a sharp blast of uncertainty on the day of the CUT strike.
When the protestors started throwing rocks I thought of my only previous interaction with the Carabineros. I had asked one for directions in my first weeks in Santiago – a particularly miserable exchange, as I remember it. In Chile a large part of the population isn’t used to hearing their language spoken with a foreign accent. That is not to say that they are impatient or rude, just that communication is often slow, clumsy, and humiliating for the native English-speaker. I had tried to ask an officer for directions to a particular street that I knew was in the neighborhood. The officer said he had never heard of it. After several minutes of halting discussion – which included the officer radioing his companions to see if they had heard of the street – he suddenly understood and corrected my pronunciation by repeating the street’s name back to me exactly as I thought I had said it in the first place.
As I watched the police line advance I had a sudden premonition of how much more difficult it would be to make my Spanish intelligible while being arrested in the middle of a riot.
But reporting in Chile humbled more than just my command of the language. The truth was that I simply was not prepared.
Adding to my apprehension during the protest were the numerous warnings on the United States Embassy website that “persons violating Chilean laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned,” as well as the rumors I’ve heard from other Americans that an arrest with a tourist visa spells instant deportation. Growing up in Portland, Oregon I’d never been to a protest that had the potential to turn violent, and therefore had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t feel safer when a seasoned photojournalist told me that in Chile police sometimes specifically target reporters during riots to keep media cameras away.
For the past three years I’d been learning skills that apply to reporting in the United States, but that don’t necessarily hold for the rest of the world. There are too many small details unique to every place, like sucking lemons to help curb the effects of the pepper spray, staying upwind from rioters to avoid being gassed, and not expecting police protection. The world is too large to fit into one set of rules for the journalist, no less than anyone else.
Nor did my formal education prepare me for the “real” world. Going from the life of a university student to working as a professional is like moving from one part of the world to another. I did both at the same time, and in both sectors much got lost in translation. I had arrived with a theoretical knowledge of Spanish, of Chile, of the world outside my bubble of the Pacific Northwest and the university. But I wasn’t aware that I had been working with mere theories. I wasn’t expecting to get tear-gassed, for one. Some things you just can’t prepare for.
If I’ve gained anything it’s an awareness of the need to maintain a degree of flexibility. The best I can hope for is to remain open and adapt what I do know to the requirements of my current position. Or, more accurately, learn how to keep my sights level while allowing the situation to call the shots.
My experience at the CUT strike was by no means isolated. People in Chile – and in other parts of the world – do this every day. They grow up with it. But how do you translate that for the green North American journalism intern?
After the workers’ strike I told several friends about my first taste of tear gas. The North American response: “Holy shit.” The Chilean response: “Welcome to Chile.”