I take this all with a grain of salt. But I also realize the importance of safety. I stick out here. At the city government office this morning, the young security guard gave me a heavily accented “goodbye” as I left. Two hours later, as I walked home from buying an empanada for lunch, I passed a woman who practically shouted at me “Ud. parece norteamericana!” [You look Northamerican!] I just laughed. It’s not like she asked me if I was. Though maybe it was a veiled question. But we both kept walking.
I am deeply curious of what people think of me. Not everyone here looks like they’re from the altiplano, but they don’t look like me. I’m not sure if this makes me safer or more at risk. Probably a bit of both. Sure, I clearly am not from here, and this may expose me to some risk. But because I’m so easily recognizable, it doesn’t take people more than 2 or 3 sightings to realize I’m here for a while. I’m not lost or just passing through. I’m that gringa that was at the supermarket last week.
So, I’m starting to feel slightly better about this place. Not better enough to go out and about wandering the city after dark. There are some blocks on which I don’t feel comfortable doing that at 2pm. But I do think that a lot of the places in the world that are deemed “dangerous” are stigmatized for poverty, lack of resources, lack of regimentation, and possibly a few overblown cases of violence (see Goldstein 2004). I mean, a gunman (maybe 2?) opened fire in a heavily secured military building in Washington, DC today, killing at least 13 people.
Granted, the stigma of Alto Hospicio did not appear out of thin air. In 1999 several young girls between ages 13 and 16 were kidnapped, raped, and killed. Some speculate their organs were harvested for the black market. But the worst of the story is that the police (both local and national) refused to put resources into investigating, assuming and assuring the parents that their daughters had run off to be prostitutes or drug mules. Because that’s what young, poor girls do. When one girl escaped, they were forced to admit their drastic mistake. The documentary Santas Prostitutas by Veronica Quense explores the events.
This event, over ten years ago, still casts a shadow on Alto Hospicio. And in some ways this was part of the decision to do research here. As one colleague put it, “I’m very excited by the idea of showing a different side of one of Chile’s most infamous cities.” When I told one local woman about my project, she responded, “Que buena iniciativa ojala pueda capturar las cosas positivas de la ciudad y la cultura y no como los hacen los medios de comunicación especialmente la televisión que ensucian mostrando solo las cosas malas que aquí suceden me gustara leer su estudio sera interesante.” [What a great project. Hopefully it will capture the positive aspects of the city and the culture, unlike what the media does, especially television that tarnishes, showing only the bad things that happen here] Let’s hope I find those positive aspects and show them to a wider audience.