Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My anonymous belly button hero

First of all, happy new year! I hope 2008 has started off wonderfully for all of you. I´ll post about my New Year´s Eve adventures in Valparaíso (think eleven people, one bathroom) soon.

My new year in Santiago began with bottles and pyrotechnics. No, not champagne and no, not fireworks. These trappings were of a purely projectile variety. But I´m getting ahead of myself.

When I arrived at the okupa for my first photography class of 2008, I was told that we were going to take photos at a protest and needed to hurry in order to make it on time. Figuring that balancing myself on the back of my teacher´s bike was not the safest way to go--especially since I had an inkling that there would be fleeing involved--I took the Metro with another student, M.

We resurfaced in Plaza Italia, known as "el ombligo de Chile" (Chile´s belly button). If I had to make an uninformed speculation about the origin of this monicker, I would guess that it has to do both with the fact that the central area of the plaza is circular (and does indeed look like a belly button from above) and the fact that Plaza Italia has been a nerve center for citizen mobililzation over the decades. Traditionally, this is where people have congregated to demonstrate, protest and celebrate. In 1988, this was one of the places where people celebrated victory in the plebiscite that dictated the eventual removal of Pinochet from power.

Last week, it was one of the places across the country where protestors gathered to demonstrate against the killing of a young Mapuche (a Chilean indigenous group) man in southern Chile. The man, 22-year-old student Matías Catrileo, had been fatally shot by police while taking part in what an indigenous rights group called a "symbolic act of land recovery" on a private farm.

When M. and I arrived in Chile´s belly button, large numbers of people were gathered around a group of Mapuches performing a ceremony. We weren´t allowed to take pictures of the ceremony itself, which partially consisted of clearing tracks of space in different directions and performing a rite involving branches.

It was after the ceremony ended when things started sailing through the air. Police officers in riot gear had arranged themselves in a line blocking the entire Alameda, Santiago´s principal thoroughfare. They were greeted with chants from the crowd: "¡Los pacos fascistas son los terroristas!" ("The fascist cops are the terrorists!"). M. and I--and a Santiago Times writer whom we happened to bump into--bopped around snapping photos of a scene that was about to explode.

I must have been too focused on getting my shutter speed right to notice that the first spark had gone off. I have no idea how the confrontation started, but before I knew it, the phalanx of police officers was advancing and M. was throwing out an arm to keep me from crossing the street. It turned out that he had rescued me from being sliced by the shards of a shattering Molotov cocktail, which would have done more than bounce benignly off my jeans if I had continued advancing.

We had reached the street demonstration point of no return. Before I knew it, a giant police van with its underside caught on fire (how´s that for under-car lighting?) was lumbering up to the plaza while a water-spewing guanaco was approaching from another angle. Many of the protestors began dispersing hurriedly, but M. and I tried to linger as long as we could in order to get some good shots.

Next, inevitably, came the tear gas. The first whiff felt like a frustrated sneeze intensified: the burning eyes, tingling nose and face-wide sting. Then, it started to feel quite a bit worse. It was hard to keep my eyes open, which made it hard to see what was happening in my increasingly frenzied surroundings. The gas was spreading and the guanaco was heading straight for us, which meant that we found ourselves caught in a stream of running people. Having narrowly escaped flying glass and having so far been spared the wrath of the riot hose, I had the feeling that it was time for my luck to run out.

It did. I tripped, fell and smacked my head against the back wheel of a passing bicycle. The cyclist looked back said something it was impossible for me to hear. Then, whisked off by the rapid human current, he was gone. Disoriented and splayed out on the sidewalk as I was, I was not nearly as mobile.

My subsequent efforts to get back on my feet were thwarted by people running to safety. I had resigned myself to waiting it out in the fetal position when a stranger grabbed me by the arm and hauled me to my feet. He then dragged me out of the crowd, where my friends found me and we ran.

We stayed awhile longer, dodging through the plaza with our cameras like covert agents. I even took a picture of myself--which I am most decidedly NOT posting on the internet--in order to immortalize my puffy eyes and the swelling bump on my forehead.

Luckily, M. has a lot more protest smarts than I do. On numerous occasions, a shout from him saved me from getting blasted by a hose or beamed by flying objects. For me, it was much too easy to become oblivious to my surroundings while staring into the LCD screen of my camera.

I was able to thank M. in person, but I never saw my other savior again. So, let this serve as a public thank you to the anonymous hero who plucked me out of Chile´s belly button and set be back on my staggering feet. More of a symbolic thank you, I suppose, because I´m guessing he doesn´t read my blog.


Claire said...

Leigh Leigh! I'm glad you're ok. Miss you!

Mamacita Chilena said...

Glad you made it out alive! I've been tear gassed at a protest before too and it did NOT feel good.

I haven't watched Chilean news in forever now that we got cable (I can watch world news FINALLY!) so I had no idea any of that was even going on...and I am just two metro stops away from the umbligo in Santiago. It's amazing how oblivious we can be sometimes...

btw, you mentioned that the streets are like death traps for cyclists-I wrote about that before too http://ohquepasa.blogspot.com/2007/09/bike-riding-suicide-pacts.html

Have a good one :)

Noel said...

Yikes. Should I ship down your Rollerblade protective gear?? You could set a new fashion trend at street protests!
Thank you, good samaritans...

Juan K Peña said...

Good to know you are ok. I would have missed reading more entries! haha! Seriously, I'm glad you are fine... Take care!