part 2

“It’s going to take us three hours to get into the city at this rate,” Matias groaned, tapping the steering wheel in agitation. Even at noon, the road from Los Andes, the small city cradled into the mountains where they lived, to Santiago was choked with micros[1] and Peugeot vans and pick-up trucks.

Paloma sat in the backseat quietly, trying to hide a smile. Secretly she wouldn’t have minded if it took them three days, as long as she could sit this close to him.  There were seven of them crammed into Matias’ truck, and one of Paloma’s legs had begun to go numb. Matias was the leader of the group—he was the one who had practically convinced their entire high school to go on strike in late May around the time all the college students had first refused to attend classes. Paloma had never been one for activism, being generally too shy and soft-spoken, but this issue was one that hit particularly close to home. Nearly every high school in the country was private, and even the ones that weren’t still required an expensive uniform. Paloma lived with her parents, two younger brothers, grandparents, aunt and uncle and the money coming in was never steady or definite. Paloma’s father worked a low-paying government job in Santiago, a two-hour commute by bus each day, but it was not enough to support the family. After the current president had been elected, her father’s salary had been slashed and so her mother and aunt had started working long hours selling avocados, tomatoes and olives in the feria[2].  They had enough to afford high school for her and her brothers, but Paloma knew that university would be out of the question. If there was anything she could do for the chance to go to keep studying without putting so much pressure on her mother, she would do it.

“We should have just flown. We’d have been there twenty minutes ago,” said Valentina, a loud-mouthed, longhaired girl who was currently sitting in the passenger’s seat with her feet up on the dash. Paloma rolled her eyes in the backseat. It was technically possible to fly from Los Andes to Santiago, but you had to take a private plane and the flight took about fifteen minutes. It was typical for Valentina to present something so blatantly excessive and outrageous as a legitimate option. Paloma watched her for a moment. She always looked impeccable, with the right makeup and the right clothes and the right cell phone, her hair always falling perfectly to her waist and gleaming in the sun. Paloma always seemed to find herself in the backseat, just out of reach, while girls like Valentina never seemed to have a problem getting exactly what they wanted.  Valentina was not the kind of girl that actually needed the education reform to pass— God knows she could afford the tuition—but being on strike was way too cool to pass up.

“Are you crazy?” Matias asked, looking at Valentina with disbelief. Valentina shrugged, and Paloma smiled to herself, glad she and Matias agreed.

She rolled down the window to let in some cool July air, squirming slightly against the closeness of the four other students in the backseat. Despite their entire school being on strike, only a handful of people had been dedicated enough to make the journey into Santiago for the protest that day. While in any other situation Paloma would not have been part of that handful, Matias was the game changer. She looked out the window at the jagged mountains poking up into the blue sky and wondered with heart-wrenching agony if he even remembered her name.

It was past three o’clock by the time Matias pulled off the highway at the Santiago exit, and it took another forty-five minutes to find parking. By that point Paloma was so stiff she wasn’t even sure she’d be able to stand when they got out of the car. Others in the backseat had fallen asleep, but Paloma’s stomach was fizzy with excitement. She’d never done anything remotely like this, nothing that required standing up, declaring something so publicly and openly. She wasn’t even exactly sure what one did at a protest. Chant? March around?  It didn’t really matter what they did specifically, Paloma just couldn’t wait to be in it, in the middle of everything going on, doing something.

The only parking spot they could find was almost ten blocks away from the Plaza de Armas, and the foot traffic heading toward the center of the city was nearly as bad as the traffic on the highway from Los Andes. Staying together in the group was nearly impossible, but they tried to hold onto each other so they wouldn’t lose themselves in the crowd.

Paloma was slightly behind the rest of them, keeping her eye on Matias’ shaggy black hair in front of her. Valentina walked beside him, chattering away noisily about the president and the CONFECH and sounding irritatingly informed and eloquent. Paloma groaned inwardly. How was she supposed to have a chance against someone like Valentina? As they reached a street where they needed to turn, Matias twisted around to look at her.

“Here, hold onto my backpack. Don’t want you to get lost, Paloma,” he said with a smile.

The fizziness she had felt before seemed to spread out of her stomach and into her entire body as she reached a hand out to grasp one of the straps on Matias’ backpack.

She mumbled thanks under her breath, blushing. Valentina looked annoyed and attempted to continue the conversation where she had left off. “Anyway, as I was saying…”

But Paloma was too giddy to hear the rest. She held on tight to Matias’ backpack as they waded gradually forward in the crowd, listening to the hum of the people all around her, moving together in a tight mass, with the same intent, toward the same destination.

“I can see it! The plaza’s right up ahead!” Matias shouted a little while later. The closest entrance to them, the street that passed between the Correo Nacional and the Catedral de Santiago[3] had been barricaded by the police and was for the time being impassable. Matias had led them around the corner behind the cathedral in order to access the plaza by the southwest corner, which didn’t seem to be blocked.

The seven of them huddled together in the corner, surrounded by thousands of other university and high school students, who still seemed to be fairly unorganized. The official protest wasn’t supposed to start until five thirty, and it was only four o’clock. Sofia Vallejo and Emiliano Contreras would be making an announcement as to the nature of the demonstration, which was rumored to be a little different than a standard march or sit-in.

“Look! There she is! It’s Sofia Vallejo!” Valentina cried, pointing toward the steps of the cathedral. Valentina, at a lofty 5’8” and wearing expensive boots with a considerable heel seemed to be able to see perfectly. Paloma, on the other hand, at 5’3” in sneakers, could see nothing. She tried standing up on her toes to catch a glimpse, but it was useless. There were too many people in front of her, taller people, blocking her view. She swore under her breath, exasperated that she had come all this way and gotten so close only to yet again be just out of reach due to something that was largely out of her control.

Matias turned to look at her as she was attempting to jump up for a split-second view of Sofia Vallejo. He laughed at her kindly, his brown eyes soft.

“Here, get up on my shoulders,” he offered. “Just because you’re short doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to be a part of this.”

Paloma was so surprised it took her a few moments to regain motor function when Matias bent down in front of her so she could get up on his shoulders. With Valentina looking on in disgust and indignation, Paloma placed her hand on Matias’ head and swung her legs over his shoulders, gripping tightly as he stood upright. Suddenly she was thrust up into the air, higher than almost anyone in the crowd except for a few others on someone’s shoulders. Everything looked different from up here, from this perspective. She could see everything, the whole plaza and everyone in it. Paloma had been to Santiago numerous times, but it felt different now somehow.  There seemed to be some sort of enchantment hanging over the city, as if swarms of butterflies filling the air or rose petals falling from the sky like fat pink snowflakes wouldn’t have been at all out of the ordinary. From up here Paloma felt like she could wrap her arms around the entire crowd, like everything was in her grasp. And there she was—Sofia Vallejo, standing next to Emiliano Contreras up on the steps of the cathedral, looking radiant and determined. From up here Paloma felt like she could be standing right next to her, like if she wanted to she could become the next president of the CONFECH, or whatever she wanted. She felt her eyes sting with tears, felt adrenaline pumping up through her legs, felt her chest constrict with loss of breath, felt the power of the space all around her. She never wanted to come down.

“How’s the view from up there?” Matias asked, craning his neck up to look at her, holding tightly to her legs.

“I can see everything!” Paloma replied, grinning through damp eyes. “It’s so beautiful it makes you dizzy.”

[1] buses

[2] non-permanent outdoor markets that sell food, clothing, etc.

[3] Cathedral of Santiago


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