Walking down the little side street looking for the store, I definitely questioned if I was in the right place. It seemed to be purely residential with colorful walls and detailed windows. The street was light from the midday sun though too thin for the sunlight to directly hit. Nooks and crannies of a city can present surprising finds. Just when I was about to turn around, LOM Ediciones appeared to my right.

With unruly graying hair and round glasses, he was what you expect in a small, niche bookstore and publishing house. His warmth was welcoming and created an atmosphere that took me back to walking into a professor’s office. We both knew I was there for something but conversation outside my purpose naturally fell into place. Being in Chile during an oddly actively week of small earthquakes and the fact I had just unknowingly walked through one (“fue media fuerte!”) was where our chat started.

I came for a memoir on the Lutheran Pastor Helmut Frenz called Mi vida chilena, to learn more about his fight for justice and peace during the violent, oppressive Chilean dictatorship and thus more about the history of the church I am now a part of. LOM looks to publish books which have a “critical world view,” having the conviction that “knowledge and cultural access is the source of liberation and books are a democratic instrument to our society.” Just scanning the walls as I sat across from him I saw they were lined with such critical perspectives on Chilean history, poetry, philosophy, political science and the like.

As I finished paying for the book he inquired, “where are you from?”

I get this question all the time. I was grateful he took ten minutes to get to know me a bit before he asked.

“The United States. But sometimes I want to say Canada.” I think I said this because I was comfortable. Perhaps it was my assumption he would be very aware of the role the US played in establishing and supporting the Chilean dictatorship. Or maybe I read the morning news and was once again embarrassed about US politics.

“Really, why do you say that? We love the United States here.”

As I tried to explain, he interrupted me. He out and said things many others say much more ambiguously.

He commented how important the US is for Chile, economically of course but also culturally. But then he went on to say that since we’re light skinned, have light eyes (not totally true which complicates his answer but anyway) and speak English we are generally welcomed with open arms. Even though Bolivians, Dominicans, Peruvians, etc. speak their same language they encounter more rejection or find themselves battling destructive stereotypes.

Once again I was trying to swallow the fact that they still admire us even though our country supported a dictatorship which caused more than 38,000 cases of forced disappearances, torture and murder in addition to deep seeded fear.

To further add fuel to the fire, I was sitting there reflecting on how I often wish I was less blonde and blued eyed and spoke Spanish like a native. He didn’t know that part of it but was basically telling me how dumb that is.

This blunt and kind stranger just unpacked my immense privilege as casually as he asked me if I wanted a bookmark.

I wish I could reject and contradict everything he said but that would be ignorant and shallow. We both know how twisted the relationship is. He lives it. I live it, too, yet even after all I learned in Mexico, I am still confronting the bitter truth, the injustice bound up with my privilege.

Feeling guilty is useless. There is no way to change my nationality, skin color and native language. So I’m trying to channel these thoughts and realities into something more productive. I will be here for two more years. So now what? What does accompaniment look like for me, given my privilege and the moment we are living in? How can I leverage my privilege to help lift others up?  What is my role as a representative or the US and the ELCA in Chile as a whole?

Here’s my start:

  • Teach my native language English, a language seen as very important to achieve upward mobility here, to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it and to people who will use it to share their important perspectives, knowledge, and wisdom
  • Tell the girls who fawn over my blues eyes that their eyes are incredibly beautiful (they ARE. They just never see themselves reflected on billboards, on TV or otherwise)
  • Learn more about what role the US has played in Latin American history and specifically Chilean history
  • Learn more about what role the US is playing now
  • Given my privilege and voice, be intentional and thoughtful about how I am in each space

There will be more questions and, I hope, more responses. I look forward to more conversations about this. Privilege, race, migration, history, language, and gender are things I think about daily. I’m weary about forming too many conclusions since I very much am still finding my footing here in Chile. I do however anticipate this journey to continue to be challenging and rewarding, and sometimes with blessings of honest chats from a stranger in the bookstore.