Race, The World, Social Justice

These Chilean student protests are totally rewriting history

Where the student protests go from here depends very much on these voices.

I had been living in Santiago, Chile for fewer than 24 hours when I saw my first student protest. Shouts echoed through the Gabriela Mistral Center’s library where I was reading up about Chilean dictatorship-era protest art, and researchers and librarians alike gathered at the library windows.

A few floors below us, on the central Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, hundreds of students marched together. Surrounded by accompanying police in riot gear, the students held banners, balloons, and blow horns as they demonstrated for educational reform.

The Chilean student movement began in 2006 and peaked again in 2011 when current President Michelle Bachelet was elected to her first term. During her campaign, Bachelet had promised to reform the Chilean constitution, written during Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime, but students were disappointed by her inaction and began protests to motivate educational reform.

Student demands have varied from year to year, but their spirit remains the same: students want to see democracy in their education.

Since Chilean education is the second most expensive in the world (following only the United States) and the first most burdensome (families pay 75 percent of costs—significantly more than the 40 percent paid by US families), students are asking their government to reform financial aid so that quality education is accessible to all.

Students have united on various fronts, protesting for free quality education for all. Some of these students have come together in organized collectives like the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (Federation of Students of the University of Chile or FECH), others in democratically-organized protests and marches, and still others in student presses or art groups.

As one might expect of any student protest, these arts groups—and individual students—have taken to decorating the exteriors of their universities with banners and more than the occasional bit of graffiti.

Here’s a look at seven pieces of street art that I spotted around the Chilean capital this past winter, and what they mean for the student protest movement:

1. Lo que el pueblo necesita, es educación gratuita

What the People Need is Free Education

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This banner, hanging just outside the entrance to the University of Chile’s main campus, shows two snarling and sharp-toothed politicians fighting as a mass of people cry out: “What the people need is free education.”

The banner emphasizes two truths that protesting students have faced in their protests. First, politicians do not always listen—either because students are young or because politicians are caught up in their own interests. And second, that students must join together in order to be heard—as seen by the organized student groups and marches where hundreds, if not thousands, of students have come together to be heard.

2. Menos represión más educación

Less Repression, More Education

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Showing a raised fist that seems to represent the political power of education, this poster declares that repression must end for true education to begin, and hints that education might overturn oppression.

Plastered to the walls of the University of Chile, this poster is one among many designed by university students during the series of student strikes this past winter. This drawing deals in another double-meaning by stating “Less repression, more education”; it might refer to the student demand that the Chilean government focus more on education or that the Chilean government offer more financial aid so that physically more students might attend univeristy.

Either way, Chilean students are asking their government to reconsider the repressive history of their country’s constitution and pursue more democratic styles of education and reform.

3. No más subcontrato ni represión academica

No More Subcontracting or Academic Repression

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Outside the Alberto Hurtado University in downtown Santiago, building walls are almost completely covered in educational reform graffiti. Here, students call for the end of university subcontracting—the process by which universities hire staff such as custodians, cooks, and others from external businesses.

Subcontracting, students argue, turns universities into businesses dedicated to reaping a profit off of staff labor instead of educational institutes focused on supporting students. Though some universities have overturned the practice of subcontracting, the University of Chile ended subcontracting just this past August 3rd, its still a common means of running universities across Chile.

4. Profesores y estudiantes unidos en la lucha

Professors and Students United in the Fight

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Though students have been in the spotlight during the educational reform protests, their professors have often joined them in demonstrations.

The Chilean government is currently debating where to increase educational funding and one of the possibilities is teacher salaries. By augmenting teacher salaries, the government hopes to place more value on educational professions and attracting more competitive and qualified professors.

In this graffiti, students from the Alberto Hurtado University call for students and professors to stand together so that both might benefit from better quality education.

5. Contra todo tipo de opresión, feminismo y revolución

Against All Types of Oppression, Feminism and Revolution

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As university students do, Chilean students have engaged with broader themes of revolution during their protests for educational reform. Much of the street art across Santiago calls for revolution, progressive protest, and political change.

In this spirit of this liberal social demonstrating, Chilean students have been sure to engage with themes of feminism—and broad ideas of feminism at that, considering the oppression and exclusion of all kinds of minorities.

On a brainstorm sheet inside the front doors of the University of Chile, where students could list ideas that they thought were missing from the student protests, I found the word “feminism” repeated. Chilean students have been sure to critique machismo and misogyny in education, and are working to make universities and schools safer and more welcoming spaces for other minorities—including lower economic class students who would benefit from and be able to attend university with financial aid.

6. ¡Concientizate, el enemigo es otro!

Pay Attention, the Enemy is Another!

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Surrounded by dozens of other posters demanding free education, this banner calls into question the motives of Chilean politicians.

This painting depicts a politician or businessman playing puppeteer with a police officer dressed in the traditional green uniform and riot gear. Though many students have criticised the police for breaking up student protests or resorting to violence too quickly, this banner argues that police are not the enemy, but rather people with money or power who control police actions.

7. Various Posters at the University of Chile

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Whatever becomes of the student protests, one thing is certain: all of the energy and creativity behind those demonstrations isn’t going anywhere.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of posters, banners, and bits of graffiti have added up to show the demands and desires of Chilean students. Like students who’ve come together in marches, strikes, and political organizations, the street art in Santiago is becoming something, too.

Where the student protests go from here depends very much on these voices.

  • Cecilia Nowell

    Cecilia Nowell is a freelance journalist and recent graduate of Wellesley College. She writes about politics and art, and gets excited about graphic novels, mythology, and art therapy. In her free time, she runs a cat blog, drinks too much tea, and enjoys hiking.