Monday, July 13, 2009

Chilean Youth: Social Responsibility and Civic and Political Political Participation

In the past three weeks I have been engaged in a number of conversations with colleagues at the Universidades de Talca, Concepción, La Serena, and Tarapacá regarding social responsibility and community-based learning and research (CBLR). It has been a surprise to be invited to give faculty workshops on this issue at Talca and Concepción, since my Fulbright talks have been about "Religion and Politics in the United States."

As noted in my blog of 1 July I was in Talca to give workshops on CBLR and during my stay I was invited to talk to about forty engineering students at the Coquimbo campus, which is located in a very high agricultural zone very similar to the areas between Modesto and Fresno. In particular there is a high production of table grapes, citrus, and vegetables. Many of these students will go into jobs related to the agribusiness in the area.

I asked my hosts who work in the area of social responsibility at the university if I could conduct the time as a huge focus group related to values formation and social responsibility. After my visit I read important statistics from the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile regarding youth voting:

La progresiva baja en las cifras de jóvenes inscritos en los Registros Electorales, es claramente visible en la base de datos que se manejan en las oficinas del Servicio Electoral (Servel), donde se aprecia que las personas que se ubican en el rango de edad entre los 18 y los 34 años pasaron de 2.305.275 inscritos en el año 2000 a un total de 1.213.521 en 2008.

Un aspecto relevante de estos datos es que al contrastar estos números con las estimaciones del Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas (INE) sobre población según sexo y edad, estas cifras reflejan que a comienzos de la década el 55,3% de los jóvenes en edad de votar estaban inscritos, mientras que en el presente año sólo el 27,2% de dicho segmento etáreo ha realizado este trámite.

Esta tendencia a la baja sólo se vio levemente revertida en 2005, cuando por primera vez en 16 años se anotó un crecimiento en la inscripción de jóvenes de 33.761 respecto al año anterior.

El último censo poblacional realizado en nuestro país en 2002, estableció que 10.444.605 chilenos tienen más de 18 años, lo que significa que hay cerca de dos millones 400 mil ciudadanos que no se han inscrito en los registros electorales, pese a reunir los requisitos para votar.

De éstos, según las cifras del Servicio Electoral, casi dos millones tienen menos de 29 años, de lo cual se desprende que sólo el 62% de los mayores de 18 años está inscrito y, peor aún, los menores de 30 años representan apenas el 7,6%.

De esta manera, muy lejos queda la época del plebiscito de 1988 cuando cerca del 95% de las personas aptas para votar estaban inscritas. Hoy día, si se observa sólo el caso de los más jóvenes, las estimaciones señalan que de cada 100 chilenos entre 18 y 24 años, sólo siete ejercen su derecho a voto.

This trend is incredibly disturbing after twenty years of democracy.

I started the discussion with the engineering students with a basic question: "I know that you are all engaged in community projects, but what do you personally bring to the people you are serving? What are your values? Where do they come from?"After an initial period of silence, a male student responded that his values come from his family. But he had some difficulty saying specifically what those values are. Other students started to add to the family values: respect, honor, tradition, the mother. I was not surprised by this focus on the family because all of my interviewees have said that the family is the most important of their lives, especially parental influences.

The conversation turned to the school as a place where values are formed, particularly the idea of obeying authority. It was quite clear that the authority of a teacher is quite strong and in relation to parents is the next most important figure in these students' lives. At school these students learned the value of solidarity among classmates and identity from the school. This bore out the sentiment of many of my interviewees that the "colegio" was a place of learning to be social. In Chile students enter a colegio in the first grade and very often stay in the same school through the end of high school. This is particularly true for private and Catholic schools which also inculcate a particular kind of spirit ranging from liberal to conservative Catholic to liberal free thinking a la Masonic philosophy.

The most interesting part of the discussion came from values of "la calle": street values coming from one's barrio or neighborhood. These students did not mean street as one would in the U.S. Calle is more like the families in one's neighborhood and particularly the childhood friends that form the values of friendship, honor, confidence, and getting along.

Lastly there was a discussion of religion and voluntary associations. I was struck by the actual lack of knowledge the students had of how these two areas of life form values. One student mentioned the Ten Commandments and I asked her if she knew how they developed. She did not, so I interjected a brief decription of how Moses was in the desert and that the commandments were developed to organize the people and keep them together as a people. Either the students in this public university did not want to talk about religion for fear of offending anyone or being labeled religious or they had little reflection to share or both.

When I finally asked if there were any specific values that were Chilean, the only answers that emerged were patroitism such as from Arturo Prat and the value for democracy. Like religion there was not much developed. All in all I could sense from this limited group a perception of value formation that was more from private life and less from public life except for school. Family, school, and the street were the places that these students learned values of obedience, respect, friendship, solidarity, and loyalty seemed to be the most conscious values.

I was told by my colleagues in Talca that these students are mostly first generation university students who work very hard and have great hope for the future. Their goal is to get a good job in the local area. This is the group that has low motivation to engage in politics. It would have been great to start a conversation on politics, particularly in this period of the presidential campaign. My guess is that the majority will vote for Sebastian Piñera, the candidate of the conservative coalition, because of his private industry focus and his campaign for change after twenty years of the Concertación. This is a new generation that has no memory of the dictatorship and enters a world where the promises of the past period of change have been largely realized. The questions I need to ask are:
  • What are your values and what do you have to contribute to your country?
  • What do you see as your future in five to ten years and what do you think will be your commitments?
  • What sustains you as a person and as a Chilean to contribute to a better nation?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Arica: A city without a mall!

People watching in Arica on a bright Monday afternoon... Over my many visits to Chile I have been struck, most particularly in Santiago, by the de facto segregation of neighborhoods. One can sit at an outdoor cafe in Lastarria, Bellavista, or in Providencia and see a kind of educated, upper middle class crowd walk by. The Plaza de Armas has largely a workingclass crowd that pass by on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. What struck me in Arica was the diversity of people walking through the city's main paseo 21 de Mayo in the middle of the day going to the banks, service centers, stores, restaurants, and cafes. Young and old, mestizos and indigenous, tourists, soldiers, businesspeople, students-- all moving through the paseo as citizens of this border city. And what really amazed me was how many people stopped to greet and hug friends and colleagues, as if Ariqueños were one great family.

Maybe something is to be said about this outpost city that has an eternal springtime climate in which conviviality and informality are part of the environment. Or maybe this all happens because Arica does not have a mall and people actually still live in the streets and crossroads of the citizenry. Everybody convenes in the paseos that connect the government offices, the cathedral, businesses, restaurants, plazas, and the street vendors that connect all the people in an ongoing interaction of an open air city. This is the South America of my romantic images of a past before Parque Arauco or Mall La Dehesa-- and all other such malls in Santiago, La Serena, Concepción, Talca, and all the other Chilean cities that have traded their central, open air plazas de armas for the enclosed air-conditioned malls with parking and private security forces.

Arica was magical with its citizenry cast in a daily drama of ordinary lives that become extraordinary in the hugging, strolling, eating ice cream, having coffee, flirting, kissing, smoking, begging, talking on the cellphone, being plugged into one's ipod, and all the small unnoticed acts that are part of a shared public life. So everyday, so dependable. Yes, Chilean magical realism.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

So, there's separation of church and state in Chile?

This evening in Arica's central plaza the Chilean Armed Forces celebrated a Catholic Mass in front of the Catedral de San Marcos as a religious ritual for the soldiers to spiritually prepare for taking their annual oath of honor. Here is Arica this oath and the religious ritual are partically poignant because of the Battle of Arica fought on June 7, 1880, between forces of Chile and Peru. This battle coupled with the Battle of Iquique staged on May 21, 1879, were critical in securing Chile's northern border and providing Chile vast areas of mineral and ocean resources. The Chilean Navy and subsequently the Armed Forces attributed the success of the of Battle of Iquique to the protection provided by the Virgen del Carmen, even though there were many deaths including that of the naval commander Arturo Prat, Chile's most honored hero. With his inspirational death hundreds of young Chileans joined the war effort.

As I witnessed this Mass I was struck by the ritualistic and less spiritual aspects of the whole liturgy, partcicularly the almost total lack of participation of the hundreds of young military present. While the behavior was most respectful and solemn, the personal interest of the soldiers and cadets was very distant from the liturgical music, scriptures, and homily of Bishop Hector Vargas of Arica. Yet at the conclusion of the Mass they belted out the Hymn of the Armed Forces-- their voices probably could be heard throughout Arica!

The military and Catholic Church become very united through the intensity of the devotion to the Virgen del Carmen. Where do Protestants, other religious, and non-believers fit into this integration of Catholic devotion and military tradition? Or is the Virgen del Carmen simply a kind of mascot or talisman? Certainly she is a kind of supra-nationalist figure providing a "mistica" for Chilean national identity. In Spanish "mistica" signifies more than mystique-- more like a mystical realism connected to martyrdom such as Arturo Prat signifies. This has a transformative effect that means more than a national hero. Given the Catholic context of Chilean history Arturo Prat becomes a national civil saint-- particularly since Chile did not even generate official church saints until the 2000s with Alberto Hurtado and Teresa de las Andes.

I was quite tempted to disturb a couple of the soldiers and ask: so are there any Protestants here? how do they prepare to take their oath? Is the Catholic culture so strong that no one dare question this tradition of the Virgen del Carmen as protector?

(The Catedral de San Marcos has a very interesting history. It was designed in 1876 by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame and the building was actually engineered of steel and tin and shipped to Arica, which at the time was part of Peru.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Thinking About Public Space, Religion, and Chilean Civil Society

The theme of my doctoral seminar today was "The Concept of Faith-Based in the U.S." After discussing the history of the subject and distinctions between progressive and conservative interpretations of faith-based, I initiated a discussion on some comparisons between Chile and the U.S. Robert Wuthnow has noted that U.S. religious congregations offer public space a variety of civic and social activities in communities throughout the country. The "religious campus" of church, auditorium, gym, classrooms, parking spaces, etc., facilitates the multiple uses of space for a variety of groups and associations-- everything from AA meetings to Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings. The seminar participants could not cite civil uses of religious spaces in Chile. Furthermore they said that religious spaces are considered "private property" by the religious institutions, thereby limiting the capacity for religion to provide intermediary public spaces between the values of religious groups and civil society associations.

This strong spatial seperation of religion from civil society comes from a long history of church construction, particularly by the Catholic Church's model of a church without a parochial school and other meeting spaces, gyms, parking, etc. Almost all Catholic schools are operated by religious orders or associations that function as private schools and located away from parish churches. Furthermore Catholic education serves as a private school system with strong affiliation to the religious orders that operate them and often not connected to the life of dioceses and parishes. My seminar participants believed that Protestant congregations operate with the same distinctions.

What does this mean for "faith-based" in Chile? I have the impression that the very idea that there can be independent faith-based associations in civil society is a difficult thing to imagine when there are no contextual time and spaces that actually organize the concept of faith-based as an intermediary public process that connects religious values, ideology, and practices with more secular civil associations or even government that organize and maybe even deliver social services, community organizing, education, programs, etc., in a faith-based intermediary sphere between religion and the world of politics, economy, government, the media, etc.

At present there is very little ecumenical or inter-faith practical work being done in Chile. During the military dictatorship Catholics and many liberal Protestants joined together in the "Vicaria de la Solidaridad" which provided a primary space of resistance to the dictatorship and delivered many social goods to the participants. Since 1989 this kind of faith-based activity has largely ceased since the survival aspect of Solidaridad diminished. My interviews to date among Protestant leaders has provided me evidence that cooperation in civil society among Catholics and Evangelicals-Pentecostals is practically non-existent. Thus "faith-based" in Chile is really about Catholic-based, Evangelical-based, or Pentecostal-based services and organizations that come directly from the sponsoring religious entity and does not provide an intermediary context bring about pluralistic faith-based activities.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

At the Universidad de Talca

The past two days I have giving workshops on Community-Based Learning and Research at the Universidad de Talca. This university has been at the forefront of a new movement called "Responsibilidad Social" and requires all of its students to do a semester of community service projects. Today I met with a group of forty engineering students involved in such community service in Curico near Talca. It was quite a dynamic discussion as I led them through a series of questions regarding where they get their values. There was much discussion about the family as a primary source of values. Other sources were schools, religion, and "la calle"-- meaning their friends in the neighborhood and less a U.S. context of "the street" as I thought the students first meant.

As an outsider I was able to push them about Chilean values, both positive and negative. As I started the question I picked up a vibe that this was a very difficult exercise for them to think about because they had never been asked the question. It was easier to talk about negative aspects of Chilean culture, particularly racism against Peruvians and classism than positive aspects. I actually intervened and gave my positive impressions of Chilean values, such as solidaridad particularly during social crises of earthquakes, fires a and floods, the family, respect for law, and orderliness.

I was asked about why community service is so important to me and I responded that for me as a sociologist and professor I want to know "the other" and have experience with "the other" and help others do the same, particularly my students. This means that for a person with great social capital I want them to encounter the other who could be poor, marginalized, or of another culture or race. And for "the other" to experience the person with great social capital. I also said that this kind of experience really helps in the way we do critical thinking.

My two hours with these students was quite a workout. I left exhausted but exhilirated that I had a chance to have a conversation with forty Chilean young men and women. It was a profound conversation that I will not forget. As I think about youth in the U.S. these Chileans have great hope for themselves but they are quite negative and critical of their own culture, whereas American youth often have a very high opinion of their culture and values and could use a dose of Chilean realism. Yet I wanted these Chileans to see the good around them. In the end I said that I hope to contribute to the idea of "the unexamined life is not worth living"-- that the best we can hope for are students who leave the university as people who are self-critical and conscious of who they are and what they can and cannot bring to their worlds. With that there was a pause of silence. For me one of those spiritual moments when teaching really matters.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chilifornia is a way for people in the United States to think about Chile in ways similar to California: geography, agriculture, social innovation, political experimentation, earthquakes, fires, floods, ocean, desert, mountains, and so many other ways to compare the two. And as California has often served as the vanguard state of the United States, so Chile is often the vanguard nation of Latin America.

The short essays of this blog will address random issues and experiences that I have experienced in my many visits and stays in Chile. Presently I in Santiago, Chile, as a Fulbright Fellow teaching a doctoral seminar on "Religion, Culture, and Politics in Contemporary United States" at the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados of the Universidad de Chile. As well, I am director of Georgetown University's Community-Based Learning Summer Program at Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago. "Chilifornia" is the name of my present research focused on why Chile has created a distinctive political culture to sustain democracy over the next generations-- Chilifornia: Chile, Vanguard Nation of Latin America.