It is common for visitors and study abroad students in Chile to base their interpretations of Chilean society and culture on a very limited area of Santiago. In the past, the Syracuse University Abroad staff frequently heard students describe Chile as “modern” and “similar to the U.S.” — an assessment representative of only a small fraction of the country and its population. At the same time, students sometimes struggled to contextualize their coursework and connect their topics of study to local reality. In response, the SU Santiago center staff designed a set of activities that seek to strengthen the critical and analytical skills with which students interpret their daily surroundings abroad. These are extracurricular activities that enhance and complement students’ academic experiences in a “multifunctional” way that can be adapted to courses from different areas of study, while at the same time helping students “lift the layers” of their host culture in order to develop a deeper and more critical understanding of their surroundings.
Each semester, the SU Santiago staff select at least six points in the city that have the potential to demonstrate—and at the same time, to hide—indicators or clues about Chile’s society, economy, history, politics, and arts. The goal is to train each student’s eye to discover details that are hard to see, and in doing so, help them unveil realities that have been re-signified over the course of time, through the modernization of the city; sometimes even intentionally, in an attempt to hide or alter their meaning. To fully understand this set of activities it is necessary to simultaneously teach students about the tensions that are still ongoing and very much present in Chilean society, including: the real scope and meaning of the transition to democracy, the implications of an unfinished reconciliation process after the dictatorship that affected the country during the late 20th century, the unspoken racial tensions that mark Chilean society, and the effects of the urban transformation that has rapidly changed the city, among many others that function as cultural keys to be deciphered.
For example, for one activity students visit a public square that contains several monuments of presidents from the second half of the 20th century, the country’s most sensitive and controversial historical period. The group observes the apparent–and desired–process of peace and reconciliation represented in the commemoration of this time period. However, subsequently, students are encouraged to observe how the monuments are displayed and located within the context of the square’s overall design, to touch the materials that support the monuments, to listen to what Chilean passersby often comment while the group is conducting its analysis and, especially, to relate what they are seeing with topics they have studied in their classes. They discover, for example, that some of the monuments are solidly and properly constructed, that some are intrinsically related to the buildings and symbols of power that surround the square, and that one of them–perhaps the best known figure in Chilean history–is not a real monument at all: it is, in fact, a ventilation duct, and is built with light, flimsy materials. Through this activity, students come to understand how the recent past remains unresolved and that the supposed peace and reconciliation that the square attempts to demonstrate is only a thin layer of apparent calm.