28 June 2009 Mr. Manriquez Goes to Washington
During my first step off of the airplane in rainy Baltimore on Thursday morning, I was confronted by a Southwest Airlines man standing behind a wheelchair in the exit corridor. He said something to me that in the moment was inaudible to my unpopped eardrums.
“Wha..?” I said, probably louder than I meant to.
“Chileno!?!” he asked louder.
WHAT??? How could he possibly know tha…? Ah. My hat, I remembered, and was satisfied. One step into the abyss and I was already right about something—that my hat made me a target for amigos de Chile. This was a very good sign.
The hat on my head was a gaudy red-white-and-blue gimmick of touristy nationalism that I bought for a dollar at an outdoor market in Santiago during the winter of 2005. One of the generic scraps with the word CHILE on it that I incessantly purchased for that one person (read: those several people) I was happy to completely forget about while adventuring in the world without them; but for whom protocol demanded gifting something anyway in the sad Rousseauian paradox that defined the feckless Boom Years—the appearance of all virtues without the possession of any. 1750. First Discourse on the Arts & Sciences—a tasteful tribute to the former being ignored or outright rejected in my CHILE hat’s aesthetic design.
The hat was built tough—and not Ford Tough either, thank god. It was built to last from thick, soft canvas in both of mis patrias’ colors—rojo, blanco, y azul—arranged like the Wheel of Fortune when viewed from above, and with CHILE across the front in white lettering that emerges from just above the bill to ensnare from great distances the attention of any compañero (and everyone else) in my vicinity on a clear day, which it wasn’t last Thursday morning when I arrived in Baltimore and my fellow Chileno told me that he was de Valparaíso on the coast, before confirming what I’d all but assumed about him by the fact that he looked like a man of my father’s generation. Exiliado. Exiled.
The man asked me about my family back home in Chile, and told me about his. Things are good there, we agreed. Or at least, mejor que aquí. Better than here.
Later, as I waited at the baggage claim for the two suitcases I’d scrambled to pack my remaining material existence into only hours before, I considered this treacherous dynamic. Chilenos now enjoy a higher quality of life than gringos, a hard reconfirmation that I had been duped all along.
In the United States, I was told, promised, that mine were oportunidades unavailable to children condemned to remain in the world into which I was born; that my father’s mutilation under la dictadura was my good fortune, because en los estados unidos, it didn’t matter that I lived in a bored, bigoted, soulsucking McNightmare of overconsumption; and later, overdevelopment…I could work hard and get good grades and attend a great universidad—better than any in all of América Latina—and then perhaps return to Chile and fight for the universal right to human dignity that injusticia denied mi gente, mi sangre, in the epic persecution of the South American poor. This was the dream that made life tolerable, I remembered…the American Dream, a merciless farce.
My luggage never arrived at the baggage claim. It was likely still in St. Louis, said the woman at the baggage desk, and so I would have to wait a day, until Friday, before boarding the Metro at Greenbelt Station with another one-way ticket into our nation’s brothel, marching to Capitol Hill, and pounding on the door of my Congressman’s office.