I arrived in Santiago in December of 2019, some two months after the start of mass protests that have rocked the nation’s largest cities. The unexpected burst of anger and violence has left much of the country bitter and uncertain about its identity and future.
Unlike other photographers whose main interest has been crowds of protesters, I have photographed the cumulative effects of the events: the diversity of graphic expressions, damage, makeshift repairs, and the armoring of doors and windows of commercial establishments with steel plates and plywood in the urban centers of the 11 cities and towns that I visited.
The downtowns I documented were chaotic and in disarray. I saw a cathedral’s front covered with tin. Sealed department stores welcomed people to shop by entering though tiny openings surrounded by signs saying “abierto”. Empty pedestals and defaced statues were pervasive.
Monuments such as the statue in Concepción of Pedro de Valdivia, the first royal governor of Chile, have been toppled and are waiting to be repaired or discarded, while many others have been almost completely graffitied over. The protesters are selective, however; statues honoring a voluntary fireman in Valparaíso and Santiago have been spared.
What did this all add up to, I asked myself? I confess to my inability to give a coherent explanation of everything I’ve witnessed, but I do know that these painful, confusing and sometimes witty expressions show the people’s spirit as it responds to unfolding events.
Issues such as great inequality of income, poor pensions, the cost of education, and male domination have brought together a large number of people, with 3.7 million in a nation of 19 million having participated in the protests as of the end of 2019. As expected, the graffiti expresses anger at the wealthy and the police, and indignation over the privatization of water and the treatment of the Mapuche Indians. But I also found graffiti supporting veganism, feminism or the wholesale rejection of current political and religious leaders.
The symbols are Chilean as well as American and British, and the writing on the walls is not only in Spanish, but often in English and Mapuche. A common tag is A. C. A. B., standing for “All Cops Are Bastards,” an expression often associated with anarchists and punk rockers that originated in England almost a century ago. Chilean carabineros are portrayed as pigs. A gigantic image of Rich Uncle Pennybags, the 1936 mascot of the game Monopoly modeled after JP Morgan, is portrayed in a destroyed metro station throwing pennies at the crowd below.
Graffiti condemns the patriarchy for its violence and for shedding blood. The word “feminism” is written on the belly of General Baquedano’s horse on his statue in Plaza Italia in Santiago. Demands for the right to have an abortion are often added to texts against the police, against the AFP (Chilean pension funds) and against President Sebastián Piñera.
Interestingly, rarely written on the walls are the names of former president Salvador Allende and dictator Augusto Pinochet. The name of the nation’s most revered poet, Pablo Neruda, is absent. I was surprised by the lack of anti-American and anti-imperialist slogans, such as the familiar Yankee Go Home. Nowhere to be seen are national icons such as huasos (Chilean cowboys), condors, the Andes and the copihue, Chile’s national flower; these symbols, I was told, have lost meaning for the protesters, having been co-opted by the right wing.
The most disturbing and pervasive of all the street images, and the one that I can’t get out of my mind, is the image of a bloody eye socket. Its ubiquity is a reminder of the more than 220 demonstrators who have lost an eye to rubber bullets shot by the police. Few statues and monuments in downtown Santiago and Valparaíso have been spared, and even statues of lions and dogs have red paint streaming from their eyes.
I looked for the “new and modern republic of Chile” of President Piñera and found it in thousands of new high-rise apartment buildings, in the large, fully stocked supermarkets and shopping malls, in the late-model cars, well-maintained highways, and first-rate facilities.
Yet there is widespread anger, sorrow and distrust from people who have had a taste of a better life and see themselves largely excluded. Critics of Chile’s single-minded pursuit of wealth ($hile) see little to rejoice about in the “Chilean dream”, their view lists the wrongs of capitalism: its ruthless exploitation of natural resources is destroying nature, and the system’s demands are causing Chileans stress and depression.
Who will right the wrongs when the only leaders mentioned with respect are dead? Piñera’s popularity is at just 6%. The once-powerful Catholic church, after years of covering up sexual abuses, is seen as a force for evil.
On 26 April, the country will vote on whether to create a new constitution. It is largely assumed that the answer will be yes.
Change may come at a very slow pace, and more violence is likely. I heard people say: “This is not over.” A few added, “Things are going to get ugly.”