Who would have thought Chile would be a country I could fall in love with? It’s full of rich culture and passion, beautiful, welcoming people, and is home to famous landmarks including Patagonia and Easter Island. Located on the western coast of South America, it extends along 3,700 miles of the Pacific Ocean, and the Andes and other Chilean mountains. It’s a Spanish-speaking country integrated with the indigenous Mapuche natives who lived there long before the country was discovered by the Spaniards in the 1800s. Together, they created a stunning country, famous for its cuisine including asado, pastel de choclo, empanadas, and chorrillanas; the cultural dance Cuecawhich is popular during the Fiestas Patrias; and hundreds of locations to travel and explore—from the Northern Atacama Desserts to down south on Penguin Island.
Chile is a place I can now call home.
On Aug. 20, 2019, I remember walking out of the airport in Santiago with the group of students I flew in with from the U.S., all of us with mixed emotions and collectively realizing that this would be our new home for the next four months. Little did I know this was going to be the trip that changed my life.
We boarded the bus filled with a few other students who came in before the rest and drove to our university for orientation. Jorge Molina Zuñiga, USAC Santiago’s Resident Director, welcomed us and introduced us to our new campus and homes. I was lucky to be paired with a genuinely caring and fun host family I adored and have remained in contact with.
The next day was the official tour welcoming us to the capital city of Santiago. I instantly felt the bustling lifestyle I would become accustomed to. One of the first things I noticed was the street art on almost every wall throughout the city. I later learned of its political history involving protesting the rights of the Chilean people and the influence the art had on its people. I had no idea what to anticipate in the next four months.
Why Study Abroad?
My experience studying abroad was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself. It allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone. It was a time for me to learn to make my own decisions and to stand in my own power—a concept I continue to practice today.
From an early age I knew I wanted to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. I chose Chile to be different from other students who went to popular countries like Spain. The program also offered a journalism course that interested me and would count towards my primary communication major. I was able to learn about the deeply rooted culture of machismo or toxic masculinity in Chile and other Latin American countries and create a cause to bring an end to this problem through proper education. After studying abroad, the 19 credits of Spanish I took allowed me to declare Spanish as my secondary major.
Chile was one of those countries I’d never heard anything about. I followed my heart, trusting that I knew what was best for me, and officially made my decision. I wanted to explore a new country for personal growth and healing, and then come back home to tell others about my time there, all while practicing my Spanish-speaking skills. This was my once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I wanted to make the most out of it. Not only did I share my experience with family and friends when I returned home, but I realized this trip made me become more self-aware. I grew closer to a different country with similar culture to my own Hispanic background and open-minded and accepting of their differences.
Studying abroad allowed me a fresh start to rediscover myself away from family and friends, while simultaneously exploring a brand-new world. I had to adjust to my new life, but I knew with every new chapter in my life there was nothing I couldn’t handle. Everything that happened in my life had prepared me for this semester abroad. Whether it was learning to take public transportation and walk everywhere or having to adjust to hearing and speaking Spanish 90% of the day.
Since I was raised outside of Boston, I knew how to switch to the fast-paced urban lifestyle to survive. Having a Dominican mother, I had no culture shock with the language or lifestyle as much as my non-Hispanic peers did. Going in with this confidence about myself made it easier for me to discover new passions and hobbies, such as dancing salsa or going on walks in nature.
I will never forget the nice and genuine people I met on this trip. The best decision I made was living with a host family that helped in this transition into my new life. We grew close in a short amount of time and knowing they would always have my back was comforting, especially being in a foreign country. My host family treated me like their own, that Latin American love I knew and cherished, which made me realize we are all one in the same, no matter what country we come from. I was given an unforgettable experience of what it means to have a home outside of home. Whether it was sitting at the table to eat endless bread with tea and talk about our day or tell stories, going on walks around the neighborhood to enjoy the moment, or going to concerts of local artists to sing and dance, they always made sure to make me feel welcome.
I was most nervous about how I would adapt to being one of the only people of color (POC) in the group of students, and in a country full of white passing Hispanics. I will never forget our Resident Director telling us at orientation that he was considered moreno, or dark skinned in Chile, but when in the U.S., he would be white passing. As time went on, I started to notice the stares I would get on the train and walking around outside, being I was medium-toned and getting tanned by the bright spring sun. I learned to embrace the looks, as it seemed no one really bothered me as much as my white, American, blue-eyed, gringo friends from USAC. I came to learn that darker skinned people in Chile were usually from other surrounding countries, such as Brazil or the Caribbean islands, which is where others assumed I came from.
In my hometown back near Boston, I was used to many of my white American peers being ignorant to learning and embracing other cultures outside of their own. Meeting my new peers from the U.S. and South America made me realize how closed-minded people can be when they don’t travel to other countries to learn new things. However, the students in my USAC cohort were so down to Earth and so easy to talk to and get along with. We went on field trips to the coast of Chile in Valparaiso, spent the weekend on the beaches and walked around the artistic and colorful neighborhoods. We went hiking up Cerro San Cristóbal and Valle de Ocoa to enjoy the breathtaking view from the top. I was lucky enough to take a trip to Machu Picchu in Peru, too. It was easy to find someone to go on an adventure with, no matter how big or small it was. I came to realize that we are all living life as it was meant to be, and how important it is to be present and remain humble because we are all human beings, learning and experiencing life together.
I also realized how much I love sharing my stories and writing about them, as I am doing now. I was constantly researching and writing for my classes on issues important to Chilean history or reading stories by Pablo Neruda. A lot of classes allowed us to go to museums like Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, where we learned about the military coup in the country; or Museo Violeta Parra, a singer-songwriter, composer and much more where we got to see all her work through visual and digital art forms. Transferring these same skills into my daily life has benefitted my passion for storytelling through acting, producing and writing—whether these stories are based on true experiences or not. Looking back now I am thankful to be given the opportunity to learn the history of others and to be able to pass it down to others.
History in the Making
Life is full of twists and turns and studying abroad is no exception. We were halfway into the semester, and I’d been having the time of my life: Waking up Monday through Thursday to take the train to class and taking three-day weekends to explore the endless city. One day in mid-October, there was news of a protest for the rise in metro fairs happening at the metro stations. Little did we know this was only the tip of the iceberg of built-up anger and oppression the Chileans have dealt with throughout the years. I did not realize the severity of this issue until my friends, and I unintentionally got off at a bus stop in the middle of a protest and experienced it first-hand.
The protest escalated into a lockdown and forced toque de queda, or curfew, on the entire city from 7 p.m. – 6 a.m. Things started to feel scary, but this was real life. This trip had been so perfect for me that I’d almost forgotten what I was experiencing was not reality for many of the people around me. So, I paid attention to these peaceful protests and to the people and understood their pain as my own. Their fight was passionate and united, yet they were treated so poorly by their government. It made me think about how the battle of the oppressed people against power, and the fight for equal rights, is happening all around the world.
This experience made me realize how important it is to appreciate the little things in life. Being in a new country away from everything and everyone I ever knew was one of the hardest things I had done. I cried my eyes out at the airport leaving my parents in Boston, going to meet with strangers who would later become close friends. I would’ve never thought any of these people would be an important part of this chapter in my life. Stepping out of my comfort zone and speaking up for myself showed me that I can get anything I want if I try. This was my time to shine and grow. I had to learn to adjust to my surroundings, and for a fresh start to live life for myself.
My life in Chile was simple: Learning to live in the moment with my new friends and host family, going on unforgettable adventures, and being more open-minded that created the confidence to become the woman I know I can be. Thinking back to the little girl dreaming of being in a different country in her future, this was meant to be. This experience showed me that you can get what you want out of life if you truly believe in yourself, no matter what.