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Farther from Home than Ever

November 15, 2016

Lilah Drafts-Johnson ’18

I was studying the downfall of democracy in Chilean politics when I checked the polls for the first time on Election Night. Trump had a lead, but most of the states that had submitted their results were the usual red-leaning states, so I wasn't too worried.

Two hours later, on the cusp of midnight, my language-exchange partner texted me saying, "Lilah, are you awake? Tell me this isn't true," followed by the link to the New York Times prediction article, which had the chances of Trump winning hovering around 85%. I checked the electoral map again, saw California still hadn't voted, and assured her there wasn't a chance.

At 1am, I called my roommate back at Oberlin in a panic. We talked briefly, tried to console each other, and then I picked up another call from my sister, whose first question to me was, "So... how do I move to Chile?" The entire night continued like this -- my phone beeping steadily to alert me to heated exchanges in my program's group chat over Trump vs Clinton, friends from the US checking in on me, or Chilean compañeros de clase wondering what on earth was going on.

The next morning, I headed to the university on the bus. Despite the early 7am commute, I still heard murmurs of "la elección anoche," "el Trump," "la Hillary," and "los pobrecitos estadounidenses." A man I walked past shoved a free newspaper into my hands, and when I turned it over I was greeted with the iconic image of Trump with his mouth open, a finger stabbing in the air.

Some other US students and I had a big exam on Chilean politics from the years 1952-1982, which are known for the rise of the first-ever socialist to be elected president Salvador Allende and the golpe de estado that led to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. I arrived at the Starbucks where we had arranged to meet and study before the test (yes, Starbucks, we'll reflect on globalization later) and was instructed to throw my Trump newspaper in a pile at the end of the table - we censored ourselves from talking about the election until after the test. I was becoming increasingly irritated by the inspirational playlist Starbucks had picked for that morning -- songs like "A Change is Gonna Come," "Fight Song," and "Lean on Me." I even asked a barista if they could change it, and they told me that they were specifically instructed to play this playlist today -- they were trying to inject some hope for the flocks of gringos that so often gather in the Starbucks of Santiago. After the test, we went to our program's office to watch Hillary's concession speech and talk through the election. A lot of us were crying, and I fought off a wave of nausea that hit me as Clinton said the words, "Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States."

It was painfully ironic to be studying for a test on the importance of democracy in Chile as I questioned the legitimacy of our own election. Just like us, 9/11 marks an important day in history for Chileans -- on that day in 1973 there was a military coup (which, it's important to note, was backed by the US government) that resulted in the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Thousands of people who opposed the dictatorship or were seen as political enemies were disappeared/killed/tortured by this regime, which ended when Pinochet was voted out in the 1988 Plebiscite. In my time here, talking about the dictatorship is often a taboo subject as many people still struggle with the memories of the regime. Today, Chile's foreign policy is marked by their commitment to the sanctity of democracy, and I thought about that as I watched Clinton's and Obama's speeches that emphasized the importance of a peaceful transition of power.

It has been really hard being out of the country during this time. Based on my interactions, most Chileans knew of Trump but only knew of him as a joke, something to laugh at but never take seriously. The first question I would get when people found out I'm from the US was, "Who will win, Trump or Clinton?" and I've spent most of my time in Chile assuring people that Trump had no chance. Now, the question is, "How did Trump win?" and I don't know how to answer; to explain 227 years of prejudice, frustration with an ineffective political system, or the fear and hate that Trump has inspired in many of his supporters is difficult for me in English, let alone in Spanish. A lot of my Chilean friends make jokes about the elections, and I struggle to remain calm in those moments. They don't understand why it's affected me so profoundly, and it's important that I explain why I am so nervous for my country's future. Most people don't know about his stance on immigration, birth control, climate change, abortions, or Muslims. They don't realize that he is on trial for sexual assault in December. The uncertainty is what scares me the most -- I truly don't know what will happen. I hope that our government will be okay, that Trump isn't as bad as he's appeared and that our system of checks and balances will hold strong. Still, the ball of anxiety that appeared in my stomach last Tuesday remains firmly in place.

After the election, one of my friends in Chile told me that although he would love to come to the US, he is afraid to: "I am Latino. I look Latino and I speak Spanish. It will be obvious and people will hate me." After the immense hospitality and kindness that Chile and its people have shown me, it is heartbreaking to have to assure my friends here that they will be safe if they visit me in the US. Bigotry has been alive and working in our country before last Tuesday, but I worry that this election has allowed it to manifest itself even more. I feel guilt, shame, anger, and a growing sense of responsibility to be the perfect extranjera and prove our stereotype wrong, but right now it feels like an insurmountable task.

Right now, my heart goes out to my friends at Oberlin who are feeling lost and confused about the elections, especially to my class of Cole Scholars who spent the summer campaigning. I miss Oberlin more than ever and have worried about my classmates, especially after the events on campus this past week. You can say a lot of things about us Obies, but you have to admit this -- we care. And in a world full of apathy, caring means a lot. There is so much work to do; there always has and there always will be. Keep listening, working, and caring, because today the world needs it more than ever.

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