The Biehl Fellowship: Santiago, Chile

By Pierce Myers

Contributing Writer

Miércoles, 18 Junio 2014, Chile goes up two goals to none against Spain, essentially securing passage to the Round of 16. With World Cup Fervor, fireworks erupt across the city. My flatmate Carlos hangs out the thirteenth floor of the residential tower, frantically waving a Chilean flag (moments ago his cape) that has been duct-taped to a ten foot piece of white PVC pipe. The austere, blank facades of the other thirty-year-old towers, all erected in the Reagan era, have become porous all of a sudden, ruptured by human excitement. Everyone seems to have congregated at their windows. Chants and shouts echo between the nearby towers; new synapses fire across the previously empty space. “Not since Allende was elected,” an old man tells me later that evening, “have I been so happy!”

As the final whistle blows, ending the match 2-0, I exit the flat, entering into the central shaft of the residential tower. The excitement has outpaced the two decrepit elevators and so humans hustles down the stairs in droves (as many as twenty flights) to get to the street. We fall in line with the flowing mass down onto the pavement. Approaching the central plaza, I stop momentarily to document the destruction of a large bus stop veranda. In an excited frenzy, the throng of humans has sent a vanguard up onto the top of this cantilevered metal roof to attempt to break it off. With each coordinated bounce, the metal sags a few centimeters more. I film from a safe distance. “Put your camera away man! Come on, we’re almost there.”

The next morning I am watching Tele 13, a major news channel. Three hundred buses were put out of service after the victory over Spain, fifty of which have sustained irreparable damage. What force would compel people to destroy public infrastructure? Over the summer of research, made possible by the Biehl Fellowship, I attempted to approach questions of urban design with an anthropological field methodology. I sought to produce understandings about the relationship between marginal populations and their transportation, analyzing how people construct understandings of quality of movement in Santiago. I discovered that Chile’s new suite of progressive environmental policies has drastically reduced their carbon emissions and that they are taking real steps towards a healthy ecological relationship with the land. I also found that the poor disproportionately bear the burden of these new measures. They resent the fact that they are packed like sardines onto giant buses while simultaneously being demonized for evading the exorbitant fares of the ‘new and improved’ system. At minimum wage, bus fares take as much as 30% of one’s income.

However, people are clever and tend to come up with ingenious solutions to collective problems. Bus drivers, who are now paid a fixed wage, have become complicit with fare evasion because it does not concern their well-being. The design of United States, in a non-English-speaking country the new bus system erased the social relationship between drivers and riders in an attempt to regulate the efficiency of the various facets of the transit experience. It has instead eroded collective trust in the public service, and the system has become the central symbolic relational space between the public and the government. Public transit infrastructure becomes a key material stage upon which the relationship between the people and the government is acted out. Therefore it’s no wonder that people would take the first available opportunity to get up on top of the giant bus stop roof and attempt to break it off.The Biehl International Research Fellowship is a self-directed social science research fellowship conducted outside of the of the student’s choice. Projects should facilitate substantial contact with the society to be studied and should be focused in one area, or a few closely-related locales. Upon their return in the Advent Semester, each recipient will be required to write a research paper under faculty supervision and to present a public talk on his or her study.

Application Deadline: March 2, 2015

Eligibility: Rising juniors, rising seniors

Majors: Social Sciences majors (Anthropology, Asian Studies, Economics, Environment & Sustainability, History, International & Global Studies, and Political Science)

Stipend: Up to $4000

Duration of Internship: 6-10 weeks