On Monday and Friday mornings, I get up before dawn to shower, get dressed and make the more than hour-long trek to an 8 A.M. English class. It's not as bad as it seems. I actually love being out on Santiago's nearly empty streets while the air is still crisp and the daylight is dim.
This morning, however, a faulty alarm prevented me from taking my early-morning stroll. Almost mercifully, my cell phone disobeyed previous orders and didn't blare "Reveille" at 5:15. By the time I woke up naturally, all hopes of arriving to class on time were long gone. After 15 minutes of panic, I learned my student was actually happy to have the day off. Even better, the unexpected cancellation meant I could fry some eggs, pop in Office Space and, of course, update my blog.
On those mornings when I actually leave home on time to make it to class, the few bleary-eyed people I share the sidewalks with include uniform-clad children on their way to school. My urban wanderings have revealed that when these kids aren't in class, some of them are resourcefully converting the streets into soccer fields, tennis courts and other types of athletic facilities. Given that neighborhood sports were a huge part of my childhood, I get nostalgic watching these kids run amok on the asphalt.
Did I say kids? I meant boys. Because the children I've seen launching soccer balls into makeshift goals have been overwhelmingly male. If Santiago's girls are playing pickup games, they're doing it somewhere I can't see them.
Maybe this is why many of my fellow volunteers in Canela were shocked when I charged out onto the field (actually, into the municipal gym) when news of a scrimmage got around. They seemed even more surprised when I actually ran after the ball and kicked it. When I did a header, a collective gasp issued from the stands. I may as well have cleated someone in the face.
To clarify: I am not good at soccer. I have a nasty scar on my left ankle--a souvenir from two surgeries to correct a middle school soccer injury--that implies athletic prowess far surpassing my mediocre skills. Still, based on the glowing praise I received after each Canela scrimmage, you would have thought I was Maradona.
Fully aware that I was still bad at soccer but unable to convince my friends of this fact, I was left wondering where all the adulation had come from. The absence of girls from neighborhood pichangas (pickup soccer games) almost immediately came to mind. Could it be everyone was so shocked to see a girl on the field that they mistook gumption for actual skills?
I was not the only woman to play soccer in Canela and certainly not the only female to play sports in Chile. One of the other female volunteers who regularly joined in the scrimmages was in Canela running a soccer camp for kids. She also plays intramural basketball. When I took a judo class at the University of Chile a few years ago, two other female students participated; at an engineering campus renowned for its skewed male-to-female ratio, that's not all bad. However, the fact that all three of us got 7s (the Chilean equivalent of an A) after spending a semester getting our asses kicked implied the professor thought of us in much the same way as my fellow Canela volunteers would later think of me: The simple fact that we were female and there was enough to make us good.
Hey, I figure if I have to endure suggestive whistles every time I leave my house, I have the right to benefit from machismo every once in awhile.
So, it seems that sporty women--although they exist--are not the norm here in Chile. As someone who grew up believing it was strange for a girl not to play sports, I find it discouraging that Chilean girls aren't hitting the field in hordes. As trite as it sounds, I don't think I would be nearly as confident or sociable today if it hadn't been for the years I spent as a Lynnhurst Park Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasel (we couldn't agree on a team name, so we combined them all). It's enough to make me want to organize an all-girl pichanga. Anyone down?