Winds of Change in Latin America and Chile


If only every sandwich came with a view like this.

August 22, 2018

According to Santiago natives, or Santiaguinos, the blooming trees that line the city streets and the brilliant orange-yellow poppies (*all non-native species introduced to Chile for their ornamental beauty) dotting the hillsides do not announce the arrival of spring, so much as the approach of winter’s end.

Whether winter or spring, it was perfect weather yesterday for hiking Cerro Pochoco, an approximately 800 meter/2600 foot ascent at the northeast end of Santiago. We struggled to maintain our footing on the loose shale path and stick to the the main trail, which often split into smaller paths with little indication as to which was the official route. But we eventually arrived at the top and our efforts were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Andes to the East and a significantly less beautiful, but still impressive, view of smog-draped Santiago to the West. And a sandwich. There’s nothing like a good multi-hour uphill hike to remind you of your human frailty and that you should probably be doing more cardio on the regular!

II Regional Meeting of Ministers of Education in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Most of my work in July was devoted to helping coordinate the Second Workshop on Indigenous Knowledge in Latin America, which took place on July 24-25 as part of the II Regional Meeting of Ministers of Education in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The purpose of the workshop was formulate a proposal for the region’s Ministers of Education with recommendations and an action plan for the incorporation of indigenous knowledge and linguistic into educational policies in Latin America within the framework of Education 2030. Participants included experts on indigenous education from six Latin American countries and representatives from the Ministries of Education from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Panama and Argentina, as well as UNESCO staff.

My work involved finalizing the list of participants and schedule, designing the workshop methodology, creating presentations on intercultural education, aiding with logistics during the event itself, participating in the workshop discussion, and helping draft and translate the final proposal.

Interacting with the indigenous education experts and MOE officials and learning about their work in the area was a unique and informative experience. One of the overarching themes that emerged was the need to break down the idea that intercultural education should be limited only to indigenous peoples, lower levels of education, and the subject areas of language and culture. In reality, intercultural education holds value for all learners at all educational levels across varied disciplines. Practically speaking, this presents a whole host of logistical complications in terms of teacher training and curriculum development, but also great possibilities of enrichment for various areas of learning such as ecology, agriculture, architecture, art, music, and cosmology, among others.

Despite only sleeping twelve hours in four days, attending the meeting in Cochabamba was worth every sleep-deprived moment. Some highlights include:

  • Getting to know indigenous researchers and government officials who are working hard to transform educational policy to be inclusive, intercultural, and representative of the rich cultural and linguistic diversity within them.
  • Meeting and sharing meals with a number of Ministers of Education from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Participating in a traditional Quichua ritual to bless the workshop’s proceedings and getting to represent the “youth/new generation.” (I’m still considered young by some, phew!)
  • Attending a dinner buffet with an incredible array of delicious foods, traditional dance performances, and live music from the various regions of Bolivia.
  • Meeting Pedro Cabascango, an indigenous researcher from Ecuador, and finding out that he is close friends with an indigenous leader who I worked with in Ecuador back in 2011. Turns out, Pedro also served as the National Director of Intercultural Bilingual Education in Ecuador for four years – a program that I had written a paper on last year for a class at GW – what a small world!
  • And of course, hearing the proposal produced by the workshop finally read in front of the Ministers of Education. You can read the full proposal here, which focuses on four main areas of action:
    • Recognition and revalorization of indigenous knowledge
    • Incorporation of indigenous knowledge into State policy at all levels of education
    • Advancement of gender equality and inclusion of female indigenous knowledge
    • Strengthening of State policies regarding the revitalization of indigenous languages


The reading of the Proposal for the II Meeting of Ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean with the results of the Second Workshop on Indigenous Knowledge in Latin America.

My last night in Cochabamba, I split a few beers with one of the chief investigators and authors of the UNESCO study “Indigenous Knowledge and Education Policies in Latin America” (that will be published later this year) to celebrate the end of the workshop. As we kicked back in the mostly empty hotel bar, I expressed my hope that something concrete would come of the proposal made to the Ministers that day. My companion shrugged and examined the bubbles rising in a steady stream from the bottom of his glass.

“Policy is very slow to change. Everyone says the rights things but whether they actually come to pass is another story entirely.”

Despite the beer, it was a sobering moment. He was right. In the end, a proposal is just that – a proposal. The real work is hard, slow, and does not come in the form of neatly printed bullet-pointed sentences. It involves real students, teachers, families, community leaders, and government workers who get up every day and try to carve out a place of dignity and respect for their cultures, their perspectives, and their languages, against all odds. Our work these last few months was just one piece of a large, complex process of change in Latin America which indigenous peoples must play a central role.

Top: The Ministers of Bolivia and Suriname and the Director of UNESCO Santiago.

Bottom Left: Atilio Pizarro gives an opening presentation on interculturality.

Bottom Right: Pedro Cabascango of Ecuador performing a Quichua ritual to bless the workshop proceedings with materials representing the four elements and individuals representing Mother Earth, the leaders, the elders, and the youth.

Outside the Office

The last couple months have provided plenty of opportunities to continue exploring and enjoying life in Santiago and a side trip to Argentina. In addition to the activities that Melquin mentioned in his last post, a few fun, memorable experiences include:

  • Enjoying barbecues, fondues, and board game nights in the homes of some of the lovely people who work in the UNESCO Santiago office.
  • Enjoying a private trumpet performance accompanied by a chorus of local dogs in the Valle del Maipo with some of the great friends I have made these last few months.
  • Watching the World Cup in a large bar filled to the brim with French people living in Santiago and the ensuing excitement when the French team took home the Cup.
  • Celebrating the Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) de Perú by eating some incredible Peruvian food and listening to live bands, including Uchpa, a Peruvian blues/rock band that sings in Quechua, the most widely spoken indigenous language in South America.
  • Attending bachata classes at Tierra Dura and dancing salsa until 5am at Orixas, one of the largest salsotecas in Santiago, which is a perfectly respectable time to be out and about for Santiaguinos on a weekend.
  • Wine-tasting at the Concha y Toro vineyard, the largest exporter of Chilean wines, and visiting their immense original winecellars. Chances are at some point you have consumed a bottle of wine produced by this company.
  • Getting to show my mom around Santiago, including exploring Santiago’s very own Koreatown, and taking a whirlwind trip with her to Argentina.
  • Admiring the eclectic architecture of Buenos Aires and watching an unchoreographed Argentine tango demonstration in Barrio San Telmo where the dance was born.
  • Marveling at the sublime beauty of Iguazu Falls and its vibrant wildlife, including Black-Horned Capuchin monkeys, Coatis (adorable cousins of the North American racoon), Toco Toucans, Plush-Crested Jays, the endangered Black-fronted Piping-Guan, and a host of other gorgeous avians.

Top Left: Feeling pure joy at Iguazu Falls.

Top Right: The local French community celebrates the World Cup victory in Plaza de Italia.

Middle Right: Enjoying sunshine, music, and Peruvian food paradise at the Fiestas Patrias de Perú at the Estadio Nacional.

Bottom Left: Plaza Lavalle in Buenos Aires.

Bottom Right: Enjoying the waterfalls at Iguazu with my mom.

A Changing Chile – Issues of Gender Identity, Sexism, and Reproductive Rights

While Chile has traditionally been known as a socially conservative country, recent years have seen greater representation and attention given to various aspects of gender issues in popular culture, political protests, and congressional votes.

In terms of culture, one of my most thought-provoking experiences in Santiago was attending Los Arrepentidos (“The Repentant”) at the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral (GAM), a play based on the real recorded conversations between two men who underwent two transitions between genders during their lives, featuring two of Chile’s most celebrated actors, Rodrigo Pérez y Alfredo Castro. The play addresses and poses questions of identity, the complex and unexpected reasons behind transitioning, processes of self-realization and the reclaiming of previous selves, love and isolation, and the connection between the physical body and gender, among others. Originally written by a Swiss playwright, this new Spanish translation and Chilean interpretation hit the stage in May as the Chilean Congress began was reviewing a debating a new Gender Identity Law, which called for the affirmation of the right of adults and children to formally register changes of name and gender without any requirements of surgeries or judicial orders. In June, the law passed in the Casa de Diputados (comparable to the U.S. House of Representatives) and is today, as this blog is being published, being discussed in the Senado (yes, the Senate – our political structure is quite similar in this way). That being said, the acceptance of transgender people in Chilean society as well as the rigorous enforcement of transgender rights are still nascent and remain tenuous. If you are interested in learning more about the topic, I encourage you to watch Una Mujer Fantástica (“A Fantastic Woman”), a 2017 Chilean film that tells a story of love and loss of a transgender Chilean woman that won an Oscar for the Best Foreign Film earlier this year.

los arrepentidos

Chilean actors Rodrigo Pérez y Alfredo Castro in Los Arrepentidos.

In my first post, I mentioned the feminist protests happening across Chile against sexism in higher education, which began in the south with Universidad Austral. In mid-July, Santiago’s Universidad de Chile saw the end of a 74-day occupation of the law school that was sparked by the revelation that a law professor Carlos Carmona who had been formally accused of making numerous unwanted sexual comments and advances towards a student worker continued to teach and be employed by the university. The professor in question was suspended for 3 months and is not currently listed as giving classes the coming year, but the university administration still maintains that he will be given the option to return to teaching in the future. The students have vowed not to allow this happen, so the protests at this particular institution may return.

While it is still unclear how or whether Chilean universities plan to substantively respond to the demands of students for institutional policies that formally investigate and punish campus sexual harassment and assault, gender parity among professors, and training on how to eliminate sexism in education, protesters can point to at least one indirect victory. The Minister of Education, Gerardo Varela, a former businessman with no professional background or technical knowledge in the field of education who famously described female students’ experiences of sexism and sexual harassment on university campuses as “small humiliations,” was dismissed from his post in early August. A combination of similarly uninformed, controversial remarks and a general lack of understanding of educational issues led to his dismissal, and it seems he will not be missed. The new Minister of Education, Marcela Cubillos, who has some background in education issues, would do well to note the failure of her predecessor to give an adequate response to the feminist movement for reform in higher education and the consequences of inaction for all involved.

Just as student-led protests were dying down on college campuses, women once again took to the streets of Santiago on July 25 in a march for reproductive rights, donning bright green neckerchiefs. Until last year, Chilean law prohibited abortion in all circumstances but in late 2017, a new law was approved, permitting abortion in only three cases: that of 1) rape, 2) nonviable pregnancies, 3) pregnancies that puts the mother’s life at risk. Now, reproductive rights activists are demanding “legal, free, and safe” access to abortion. Tragically, the peaceful march was interrupted by masked individuals who stabbed three women before fleeing the scene. The three women were rushed to the hospital where they received treatment and all survived the attacks. Notably, President Sebastiàn Piñera did not immediately make an official or personal statement to condemn the violence, revealing his administration’s gross reluctance to support the feminist movement, although several individuals within his government made personal statements denouncing the stabbings.


Right: A local friend looking fierce and ready for some peaceful protest.

The green neckerchief has become a symbol of the abortion rights movement in the region, beginning with its use as such in Argentina. While in Argentina, I realized belatedly that I had unwittingly scheduled my exit flight from Buenos Aires on the morning of the vote regarding the legalization of abortion in Argentina, missing my chance to be there for the historic vote. When I returned home to Santiago, I asked my roommate about the result of the vote and she told me regretfully that the Senate had rejected legalization of abortion rights with 31 Senators in favor and 38 against. She explained that Chile, which often looks to Argentina as the leader of progressive social reform in the region, is unlikely to achieve a better result with a vote at this stage. But then she smiled and said cheerfully, “The vote was pretty close!” The struggle for reproductive rights in Chile continues and with greater energy than ever.

Left: Argentina’s Congreso Nacional draped in green during the week leading up to the vote.

Middle: Poster calling for a march for reproductive rights in Chile in support of the vote in Argentina.

Wrapping Up

It has been a great three months in Santiago, and I look forward to spending a few more here in the UNESCO office as well as hiking and dancing my way through the rest of the country once my work here ends. Thanks for reading! 

Rebecca. Meet Fellows 18

Rebecca is a master’s candidate in International Education.

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