Editor's Letter: A Changing Country

By June Carolyn Erlick

I was hesitant to do an issue on Chile when I had other topics broader and richer in content. Although in a way Chile seems like an obvious choice because of the DRCLAS Regional office there, I felt there were other priorities in terms of substance.

But on the invitation from the regional office, I prepared to go to Chile, where I had not visited since the dark days of the dictatorship in 1977. ReVista, you may have noticed, emphasizes the work of visual artists who capture the spirit of the people and places we write about. So I called my friend Susan Meiselas, who edited a moving book of Chilean photography,Chile from Within (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990). It was Susan who set my memory in motion, and Susan who connected me with many of the excellent photographers featured in this issue.

After our conversation, I realized how much Chile had already been a part of my mental landscape, from the creative Chilean exiles whom I met in Panamá in 1975 on a Tica Bus trip to the entreprenurial Chileans I met during my years in Berlin (West) who introduced me to the concept of Pan-Latino through their imaginative restaurants with Argentine steak and Mexican tacos, along with the Chilean pastel de choclo.

Arriving in Chile I expected to find a polarized nation, divided between those who insisted on remembering the past and those who insisted on forgeting it.

What surprised me was how polarized the nation was around the issue of identity. It was almost as if there were two Chiles, a modern, multicultural, prosperous and culturally avant garde country inserted into the larger region and world-and a conservative, inequitable country resistant to immigration and change. The truth, it seemed to me, was somewhere in between. But almost noone seemed to be in the middle.

I feared Chile would be boring and mired in its past-instead, I found a country of people eager to debate about their future. With its annual per capita income of $5,000, Chile is considered almost a developed nation by UN standards. The mall culture and the local Starbucks sometimes made me forget I was in Latin America, but the thoughtful conversations always made me remember that I was in the middle of a changing country. Chile, I found, is a country with a newfound responsibility to its region and to the world. A nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Chile opposed the United States on the issue of Iraq, and yet is prepared to sign a free trade agreement.

The more I heard, the more I was intrigued. I stood looking at the cordillera among the Chilean stars in wine country one December night with my friend Marcela Renteria from the DRCLAS Regional Office. I had just returned from visiting a civil society project which turned vacant lots into landscaped public space. As I was explaining to her what I had seen that day, I realized that among the seemingly polarized voices of the citizens, of the photographers, of the intellectuals and all the other Chileans I had met, they shared these mountains and stars, this "little Chile."

This ReVista shares with its readers many aspects of this changing country. After my trip, I realized, there were no certain answers about this changing country. But one thing was certain for me: I want to go back.