There is a joke I sometimes tell people about my home when I meet them. It goes that on the Oregon Coast, we only have two seasons: the rainy season, and August. My mom doesn’t like this joke, says that it paints Oregon’s nuanced climate in b/w, so I feel compelled to add a punchline-of-a-punchline, cause you’re right, mom: sometimes it rains in August too.
Awkward icebreakers aside, Oregon’s weather IS one of its most mentionable traits. Despite the chronic vitamin D deficiency and seasonal affective disorder I share with a mass of folks living in the Pacific Northwest, I am proud to be from a land of tumultuous weather changes.
The transition to Santiago’s climate has been less jolting than I anticipated. Many days it is overcast, most of these days are due to smog. A smoggy day—or week, or month, or semester —can feel cloudy, and for this Oregonian, sometimes that makes Santiago’s smog problem feel a little like a homecoming. This isn’t the whole truth, of course: obviously smoggy and overcast days are different. Yet I wake up in the morning in denial, jogging under a hazed-out sky.
Santiago is nestled up into the Andes, and one of my favorite features of this city is the way it slaps urban infrastructure against the towering snow-peaked range. The mountains seem to call the city’s bluff, making meaning out of mundane or ugly development: even Coca-Cola ads seem poignant with the Andes behind them.
But the mountains are a good litmus test for smog, which often cloaks la Cordillera in an off-yellow haze. As air contamination in Santiago gets worse in the winter months, I find myself looking to the mountains less, lowering my aperture and focusing on the clear urban environment instead of the hazy contaminated distance. Turns out I’d rather not think about the particulate matter in every breath I take.
We deal with insidious presences all the time. Sexism is one that has come up a lot during this election season. Much criticism against Hillary has been blatantly sexist. In my first month here, a guy on the street asked me if I was voting for Hillary or Trump. I simplified, told him I favored Hillary, and he replied, flirting, “yeah, Hillary’s fine, but I REALLY like Monica Lewinsky.” & of course this is the smog exposed by the mountains and I am comfy raging against it, when I look up.
Yet the close-range sexism is harder to parse. Post-high school, I found myself thinking back on leadership dynamics and competition, wondering what role, if any, small-town sexism had played in my coming-of-age. I step gingerly through articles that criticize Hillary, wondering how my own implicit associations impact my reaction. Are there systemic reasons it’s so easy to dislike Hillary that don’t apply to, say, Obama?
So it’s discomfiting and I can’t always tell if I’m acting under clouds or smog. And of course sometimes it’s both.
Is the term “lying bitch” misogynistic as hell? Absolutely.
But Hondurans living in the fallout of the 2009 coup might have good reason to call her worse.
I long for a world in which I can righteously rage against Hillary’s foreign policy decisions without adding momentum to chauvinistic movements. This smog surrounds us, and I can can work myself into a frenzy wondering to what extent my life is affected by sexist patterns.
But wait: this struggle to unearth signs of systemic oppression is a privilege and a luxury.
This smog is not always subtle.
This morning I woke up early to bus to Renca, a peripheral barrio of Santiago, to interview 5th graders for a semester-long project on environmental issues in the city. When I say peripheral, I mean that Renca is poor, the barrio with the third-highest poverty levels in a city that creates high poverty levels damn well. It’s a world far-removed from my suburban house in Ñuñoa, which is flanked by high-rise apartments, a Shell gas station, McDonald’s, and a four-story mall.
Traveling by bus westward to Renca is watching the world become smoggier by increments as we leave the Centro. Like most cities, environmental problems are worse in Santiago’s poorer neighborhoods. I’ve been studying this all semester, but it’s still a shock when we exit the highway and suddenly I can scarcely see houses two blocks ahead. The smog is a thick yellow mist hanging in the alleyways and streets, and people walk and ride bikes with scarves pulled up over their faces. Here, you cannot forget the smog by ignoring the mountains. You can hardly see the mountains at all.
In the wake of huge tragedy, it often seems like humanity is mired in smog. In Orlando last Saturday, 49 people—largely young queer people of color—were murdered. The next day, we talk about whether terrorism or gun control or homophobia or islamophobia has played a role in this horror’s unfolding. Most folks only look up to see these systems when they’re slapped against tragedy. The rest of the time we ignore the problems, avoiding the cognitive dissonance associated with rooting out our own prejudices. These problems are as easy to ignore as they are hard to solve, and so we lower our f-stops.
But as the mainstream media coverage of Orlando gives way to what some have called grief porn reporting, my queer friends continue to reel. This is more than personal connection to tragedy: it is the daily lived experience of fear for those in the LGBTQ community taken to its bloody extreme.
Muslims who lived through 9/11 aftermath in the states do not discuss whether islamophobia is real. Trans women of color do not discuss whether there might be intersectional forces of discrimination acting on their identities. Torture victims during Chile’s military dictatorship do not discuss whether torture is an ethical political tool. When you are close, parsing sources of oppression is not a challenge. It is different from the sneaky suspicion that your dislike for Hillary Clinton could be amplified by your own sexism: it is reality in black and white. You minimize casualties. You treat the symptoms. You hold your loved ones after an attack.
This morning, a cheeky 10 year old asked me if I’d come to her neighborhood because I wanted to, or because somebody forced me to. I told her I was here by choice—in her neighborhood and in Chile. She got a well-deserved laugh from her friends when she added, “it kinda seems like there are better countries to go.”
These kids were scary-sharp but not yet cynical; they did not call me out on white-savior impulses or misplaced idealism when I told them I wanted to understand problems better so I could be “part of the solution.” What a phrase, that one—it masks arrogance as humility so well.
Study abroad often feels like a kind of consumption of others’ lives and experiences, & especially today I feel this acutely—I want to dive into all of the kinds of smog and fight for the rights of people who live within, and yet I do not live there or understand what it is like to, much less have any clue how to solve these problems.
It’s all I can do, then, to listen, whether it’s to a smart-ass fifth grader in a dusty school or a friend telling me what it’s like to go back to their homophobic hometown for break.
Cause see—Renca isn’t the periphery: it’s the center. And it’s time that we on the fringes listen to scarf-masked multitudes when they tell us, over and over and over again, that they cannot breathe.