By Nona Fernández Silanes
Waking up means opening your eyes. Leaving sleep behind and facing reality, the current context, the place we find ourselves in, and recognising ourselves in it. What follows could be the start of a new day. The light that comes through the window, the smell of fresh toast, the hint of coffee, the signs of a possible future. If Chile woke up then we have to assume that we opened our eyes together. That on the 18th October the light came into our brains and that in there, in the explosion of neurones all our subjectivity, our memory, our experiences, created an image that made us mobilise ourselves.
But what will that image be?
Maybe the long queues in doctor’s waiting rooms. Maybe the miserable pensions that our grandparents get, or the depressing state of our public education. Maybe the ridiculous concentration of privilege for a tiny minority, and the way that minority is constantly doing all it can to avoid paying its taxes. Or the way that they steal from us when they take out water, our forests, our ocean, our minerals, establishing universities, schools, clinics and malls that leave us in penury and debt for life. Or perhaps it was the corruption scandals and the embezzlement among the army and the police. Or the pathetic attempts to incriminate the Mapuche people. Or the murder of Camilo Catrillanca. Or the militarisation of Wallmapu, the Mapuche regions. Or the shameful way that our immigrants are treated. Or the uselessness of our timid abortion law that demands three causes, and the conscientious objection clause allowed by the government which conservative doctors can cower behind. Or the Constitution established by the dictatorship that still rules over us today. Or the mayors, members of parliament and senators who used to work for Pinochet. Or our pseudo democracy. Or perhaps it was all of the above, mixed up into one big nightmare, that made us wake up out of our lethargy, abandon the pills and go out to face a new day together.
What our eyes have seen since then has been untranslatable. Instances that our hypothalamus has never stored before. Huge protests, witty slogans, street poetry, creativity overflowing on the walls of buildings. The public places have filled with neighbours banging their cooking pots and chatting. There have been neighbourhood meetings, debates in cultural centres, universities and parks. Everyone is talking as though we’d all been choked before; we’re saying what we’re never said or never dared to say. We’re ready to meet, to work together, and we understand that we can play a role in society beyond the four walls of our home. So we collaborate in different ways, we’re useful, we’re concerned about others and others are concerned about us. We’re not alone, we’re not alone. We can feel the energy of others, and we let ourselves be moved and protected by it. That’s how we stay awake, with our eyes wide open, despites the shocks and the exhaustion.
More than a month of uprising and the body feels it. The luminous moments that flowed into our memories have mingled with other less happy moments, and bring our spirits down. Since the very first day when the government declared war on us our cell-phones have been recording and sharing the most horrific images that our eyes have seen in recent years. Mediated through screens, but also live, we’ve seen sexual violence, beatings, abuse, torture, harassment, home raids, and rubber bullets shot into our bodies. Nobody can say that they didn’t see it, because it’s all caught on camera. Our demands and our protests aren’t forgiven. Our slogans and our cooking pots aren’t forgiven. To date about 6000 people have been detained. 2800 people have been injured. There are 22 deaths, of which 5 are the direct responsibility of the state. They’ve shot at faces and there are 235 cases of ocular trauma resulting in the loss of an eye. We woke up together, we left our lethargy behind, and because we live in the present, they want to blind us.
In ancient Egypt healers used the patient’s eye to diagnose their health. They believed that the eyes were the windows into the person’s soul, and that the iris, with its colouring, lines and any damage, would provide the necessary information to form an emotional, psychological and physical profile of the patient. Over time this approach was perfected into a pseudo-science called iridology. Diagnosis through the iris, in which the eye is used as a map for studying the health and the inside of bodies and minds. The eye as a navigational chart to investigate an individual’s physical, mental and emotional body. An X-ray which the Egyptians believed summed up a person’s life, memory and soul.
But what happens when the eye is no longer there? What happens when the pressure of a bullet travelling at an incredible speed rips through the eye’s membrane and tears the eye apart? What happens when this little globe of nerves and muscles is smashed? What happens when its diaphragm, its retina, its sclera, its fovea, and its optic nerve are destroyed? What is the window that closes? What connection is lost?
Sebastián Piñera denies the human rights abuses alleged by Amnesty International. We can see, on the TV screen, that his eyes are intact, but it’s obvious that the neurological process that translates light into imagery, into meaning, isn’t working. His eyes are absolutely blind.
His government touts a peace deal while its agents are shooting us.
His government offers a constitutional process in the middle of the shooting.
At this very moment somebody is being hurt and nobody is being made to take responsibility for it. Is it possible to sit down and debate a future about impunity? Is it possible to discuss a legal framework over the empty eye sockets of our comrades? Is it possible to ignore every aggression that we have suffered. We’ve done that in the past, and our bodies, our minds and our memories are heavy with that load. Will we do it again? Or perhaps the eyes that we opened when we woke up cannot look backwards?
TV screens hypnotise unsuspecting retinas with images of looting and arson, injecting a discourse of criminal violence to justify the aggressions that we are made to suffer. They blame us. Again, they tell us that it’s our fault. They caricature us as criminals. Drug traffickers. They condemn the violence, as though they weren’t the ones practicing decades of systematic brutality. And then they punish us. They beat us in the name of public order and civic peace. As they did yesterday. As they always do. They’re unable to accept their responsibility, just as they’re unable to see the demands of the people expressed over years and years in the street, and to develop the public policies that we need in order to put an end to such overwhelming frustration.
As I write this I can hear the pots and pans being banged on the street in the name of Gustavo Gatica, the 21-year old who was sprayed with bullets that tore into his body and his eyes. After days of treatment the doctors came to the irrefutable conclusion: he’d be blind for life.
Waking up means opening ones eyes. To banish lethargy, to see the truth and our surroundings, to recognise ourselves in it. What comes next could be the beginning of a new and wonderful day. But in the worst cases waking up means opening one’s eyes in the middle of a long and dark night, accepting the condemnation of insomnia. Staring at the ceiling and waiting for our worst nightmares that will haunt us because we didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, because we didn’t give them the space they needed, because, once again, we abandoned them.
Oedipus, the King of Thebes, took out his eyes when he learnt who he really was and what he had done. With his face bleeding he declared that those eyes he held hanging from his hands had never served him. Through those empty eye sockets that he bore for the rest of this life, for those pair of orifices that shut him forever into darkness, all those who had lost their sight, could see again.
Santiago, Chile. 26th November 2019. 46th day of the uprising.