Fear is something I think about a lot in Santiago. It's impossible not to: This is a city where people bar up their windows, clutch their bags in front of them on them on the bus, and walk briskly at night. In fact, I recently read an article in a Chilean newspaper about a study that had shown that Santiago, despite statistically being one of the safest cities in South America, is among the cities whose residents are most convinced of the presence of a high incidence of crime--and are most afraid of becoming victims of it.
Compounding the intensity of this constant current of controlled terror is the fact that Santiago is also a city where the collective imagination associates danger of almost legendary proportions with certain parts of town. Just mentioning certain neighborhoods provokes winces; the idea of actually going there is absolutely unthinkable for many.
This is nothing new. In the nineteenth century, historian and Santiago governor Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna--who gave the order to transform downtown's Cerro Santa Lucía into the lush park it is today--wrote of the existence of two Santiagos: the "ciudad culta" ("cultured city") and the "ciudad bárbara" ("barbaric city"). The ciudad culta comprised the historical center of the city--then home to the aristocracy--and gave way to the realm of the masses several blocks further south.
The years have passed, and Santiago has changed. New divisions have supplanted old ones, but the concept of a standoff between two diametrically opposed urban worlds is as present as it ever was. Today, santiaguinos speak of "Plaza Italia pa'rriba" and "Plaza Italia pa'bajo"--uphill (east) and downhill (west) from Plaza Italia, respectively, with "uphill" referring to both topography and socioeconomic status. Coincidentally, Plaza Italia straddles the intersection of the Alameda thoroughfare and a major street named nothing other than Vicuña Mackenna.
This is, of course, a major simplification of a complex geographic and social reality. There's plenty of poverty--and wealth, for that matter--to be found both east and west of this imaginary but extremely symbolic boundary. Nevertheless, the Plaza Italia dichotomy demonstrates that street names aren't the only survivors of centuries past.
Earlier tonight, I found myself walking briskly through border territory. I was heading home (alone) from Ñuñoa, an eastern district of the city, where I'd met some friends for a beer. I'd disembarked from my first bus--which had just crossed Vicuña Mackenna and continued westbound--and was squinting down the street in search of my second. I wasn't near Plaza Italia, but further south--precisely in the area where Governor Vicuña Mackenna had laid his invisible border.
More specifically, I was on Avenida Matta, a street I usually find charming. Sure, it's a little downtrodden, but it's lined with colorful old buildings that house a host of small businesses, including many furniture workshops. Still, the street has a reputation for being sketchy at night. I hadn't anticipated any problems, though, having thought that I would only have to wait briefly at a relatively major intersection before my next bus pulled up.
Wrong. Turns out that Avenida Matta is undergoing some major repaving, rendering a number of bus stops inaccessible. I was going to have to walk.
As I hurried down the sidewalk, I definitely picked up on a dodgy vibe that made me hurry even more. At one point, I noticed that there was a man walking a half-block behind me. Although I did glance over my shoulder a few times, I didn't think much of it; after all, men have to walk down the street sometimes, too. Still, I pulled out my pepper spray keychain and gripped it at the ready--just in case.
At some point, the man passed me and I forgot about him. Shortly thereafter, though, I passed him, which is when it all went down. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me across the sidewalk toward a row of buildings--and away from the streetlights. He was muttering something I didn't understand and brandishing an object I couldn't identify. Little did he know, however, that I was brandishing an object of my own: my pepper spray.
I aimed in his general direction--the best I was able to do while being dragged around in a state of shock--and let him have it. The cloud I sprayed in his direction was not as dramatic as the toxic blast I was expecting, but it was enough to make him release me, double over and drop whatever he'd been holding.
I have no idea whether he was incapacitated or merely stunned; I was already well on my way to a lit-up storefront I spotted down the block. I was too shaken up to scream--or even to run. By the time I reached the shop--a hot dog diner--I was short of breath and becoming aware that my fingers were covered in something that stung. Luckily, the pepper spray hadn't had any other effects on me.
I'm pretty sure the two women working the diner thought I was on drugs. I don't blame them; I would probably jump to the same conclusion if some wide-eyed, panting girl stumbled into my hot dog shack late at night, asked where the closest bus stop was and then asked for "something wet" to wash the chemicals off her hand. When they glanced at each other nervously, I figured I'd better explain.
Once I did, they were extremely accommodating. They gave me paper towels and a glass of water to soak my fingers in. We talked about the weather and my would-be assailant. They asked me where I'd bought my pepper spray. When I felt that my hand had been sufficiently cleansed, I tried to show my gratitude by buying a can of orange pop I didn't particularly want.
After scanning the street for possible perils, I stepped back out onto the sidewalk and flagged down the first bus I saw.
As I rolled homeward, I marveled at how strangely good I felt. I'm well aware that one is not supposed to feel good after nearly falling victim to robbery--or something worse. Over the course of the bus ride, I came to the conclusion that I felt the way I did because I hadn't been a victim; on the contrary, I'd acted quickly and confidently in a genuinely frightening situation. Whether or not I'd been smart is a different story: What would have happened if the guy's mystery object had been a gun? Regardless, I felt empowered.
But should I have? Should I really congratulate myself on responding to violence with violence--self defense, but violence all the same? I don't think there was anything wrong with what I did: I believe personal self defense is perfectly valid when appropriately applied. The problem was that I considered the experience a battle and was getting some kind of perverse satisfaction out of having won.
This, I realized, is what the ciudad bárbara really is. Not a place on a map, but a nebulous other we create for ourselves and decide to fear--and fight. Of course, this particular other grabbed me on the street and--I think--threatened me with some kind of weapon. I don't think it was too terribly irrational of me to have been afraid. The problem begins when this fear becomes generalized and grows into something an individual--or, even worse, an entire society--thrives on. When what fuels us as we stomp down the pavement every day is the frighteningly delicious assumption that every anonymous face that passes belongs to a potential adversary to whom we could have fallen victim but didn't.
That, in the end, is truly barbaric.
For the record, this is the first time someone has ever tried to attack me in Santiago. I feel quite safe here most of the time. But thanks for the pepper spray, Mom.
Oh, and check out what Vicki has to say about fear. And, if you speak Spanish, read Néstor García Canclini's Imaginarios urbanos. I'm pretty sure I borrow some ideas from it here.
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