Rodrigo Mayorga is a historian, Social Studies teacher, and anthropologist. He works as a high school teacher and university professor, and is the author of Writing to Chile from School. Historical awareness and School Research among Centenarios (1910-2010) (co-written with secondary students), co-editor of the collection, History of Education in Chile (1810-2010), and author of the fiction books, Tales of a Chilean in New York City 1, 2, and 3 (with the pseudonym Roberto Romero). He is also director of the citizen organization, Momento Constituyente, which, through citizenship, seeks to contribute to the public debate and the processes of collective construction that Chile is experiencing today.
You did an interview with us a year and a half ago while you were working on your dissertation research. You just graduated with your PhD from TC, so I imagine a lot of things have changed.
Right, I was living in Chile at the time — I started my fieldwork in 2017 and finished it in 2018. I decided to stay in Chile to do the write up and analysis. My wife was also a PhD student at TC in the Social Studies program, but she was a year below me so she was doing her fieldwork in Chile in 2018. When I did that interview, I was just coming back to NYC for a conference and I was in the middle of the analysis part of my dissertation. I only returned to NYC in February 2020 to defend my dissertation. I mean, I’m pretty sure I was one of the last students who had the in person defense at TC. My wife defended a month later from here.
During this time, you also established your NGO?
Yeah, so this has been a crazy year everywhere but I would say particularly so in Chile. We had this massive social unrest and protests last October, it was called the Estallido Social Chileno, it translates to Chilean social explosion. It’s an explosion, a social revolt, and it started from a really simple thing – an increase on the price of the subway fare in Santiago by 30 pesos which is really small, it’s the equivalent to 4 cents. The increase was contested especially by high school students. They began to jump the turnstiles and enter the subway cars as a way of protesting these increases, and then the government responded with a lot of repression, they put militarized police in the subway stations, and even closed some stations. People started getting really angry – workers and people who were just trying to use the subway. The government thought the people were going to blame the students, and some people did, but most of them were supportive because of the low stagnant wages and this increase in fare was symbolic of so many other things. So you had an increase of violence and conflict in those days of October leading up to October 18, when the whole subway system in Santiago was closed by the government because of the protests. When people tried to go home after work or school, they had to walk for hours and hours to get there. People started getting together to protest, and some people even went and burned down some subway stations. Then the government responded with the military and imposed curfews to curb social unrest. It was the first military curfew for social unrest reasons in Chile since the end of the dictatorship. And then you had these increasing conflicts between protesters and the government, with a lot of police and military violence and human rights violations, people who lost their eyes, etc. Then a week later, because of the way in which the government handled things, we ended up with somewhere between 1.2 to 2 million people in the streets of Santiago, which is the biggest protest ever in the history of the country, and Santiago is a city of like 8 million people, so it was close to 25% of its population.
There was a lot of popular support for these movements?
Completely, for the protests that were addressing different things like the issues with the health system, the educational system, the pensions system, and at the end it went all the way up to the constitutional order. We have a constitution that was written during the time of the Pinochet dictatorship, and part of the process of transition to democracy was the referendum of 1988, which decided that Pinochet would go out and we would have democratic elected officials again. Part of this process was having to accept these rules and this constitution as a way of continuing because it was the constitution, created in 1980, which defined the possibility of going back to democracy. So I think there was a little trap there, like the constitution trying to give an opening but at the same time closing down the possibility of itself being replaced by another one.
We’ve lived under that constitution for the last 30 years, and it has had a lot of reforms in terms several authoritarian aspects that you had in the constitution at the beginning, but not a lot of reforms in terms of the social model or the system that this constitution promotes, which is mainly a neoliberal system based on a state that has a reduced area of action. It’s a system that privileges private suppliers of different services, like education and health care. And so what these protests opened was space for the discussion about whether this is the constitution we want, and whether the constitution or the system’s model is the problem. The issue is that the constitution promotes this model, and then actually hinders the possibility of changing it. And also it’s not a constitution that has ever been ratified by the citizenship. The one time this did happen was during the dictatorship in a referendum with no voter registry, and I repeat, during a dictatorship. You have to be scared of voting against the guy with a gun.
So essentially, we had a month of huge unrest in between October and November. In November, the representatives (the Senate and the Congress) decided to make a modification to the current constitution that allowed for a new process to be opened, for us to decide if we want to continue with this constitution or if we want to actually write a new one. So I was finishing my dissertation write up, and all of this was going on.
I think one of the things I’ve learned at TC is this combination of critical thinking about the societal issues that we are seeing and experiencing, while at the same time finding a way to do something, to act in the world, and not just stay in the theoretical realm. You have to think through like, Okay, so with these tools, with this knowledge, and with these ways of seeing that Education & Anthropology and Political Anthropology gives me, What can I do to actually have an impact on what’s going on?
So as I was thinking about what was going on, it became more obvious of how this whole process has made us so aware of how much we don’t know about how the system works. I don’t even mean the deep and complicated parts of the system, I mean What is Article Four of the constitution? Who can vote and who cannot vote? Can you amend the law? What’s the process? So I started learning myself all these things I didn’t know, and then I tried to explain them to other people. This actually sparked when a friend of mine called me during those days and she was like, “I’m really worried about this discussion, I know this is the right position, but I don’t know why.” And I said, “Okay, let me explain to you why, if we have less people in Congress, we will have a system that will be less representative.” And then I tried to explain the system, how it works, etc. I started thinking, well, I’m actually a teacher, I can do something like a PowerPoint, some slides, and I’ll put it on Instagram.
I started very simply in the early stages because I had a dissertation to write, and the posts went viral. Later, a couple people came to me and offered to help with the designs and graphics of the posts because that’s definitely not one of my skills. And then when people, normally self-organized groups of neighbors that met in squares and plazas, started having these discussions about the Constitution and the possible changes, a couple of them called me and said, “Hey, I saw you on Instagram, would you mind coming and joining us for a while to explain some of these issues?” Then that kind of went viral, and then I started giving talks to unions and groups of older people who would get together. It was supposed to be something I was going to do in the meantime while I was finishing my dissertation. We had the referendum in April, I finished my dissertation in February, and in March I started getting a lot of requests to do talks. So I started thinking, Okay, maybe this is something that people really want to know, this is something really important. This is something I couldn’t do by myself because I had to go out of the city, go out into the country, and to a lot of different locations. We had the referendum in a month, and then COVID happened. One of the impacts of COVID in Chile was they had to postpone the referendum from April to October 25, 2020.
That was yesterday, how was that?
Since we had a little more time and I was done with the dissertations, I started thinking of ways to create a system so I could call more people to help me out with this. Things were still fuzzy organizationally, but I put a call out on social media asking for people who were interested in helping in this kind of civic educational project to reach out. The objective was for people to vote and actually know what they were voting for. This is not like any election — this is not a situation where you can vote and then say, “Oh, I didn’t know, I voted for this candidate and I was lied to, but I’ll wait four years and vote again, it’s the rules of the game.” This referendum is actually voting for the rules of the game. So if you vote for something you don’t believe in because you were lied to, or you were afraid because of what the catastrophizing and fear mongering people are doing, it’s not like you’re going to say, “Okay, these are the rules of the game, now I have to live under this constitutional order.” That’s actually the reason why constitutional orders can crumble and eventually fall, because they don’t have legitimacy among the people.
So I had a great response from a lot of people who wanted to do something. We got together, we made groups, and we wanted to create more materials for educating people about this referendum coming up. That’s how this NGO, Momento Constituyente, was born. Since then, we’ve been working as an organization with committees, teams and a coordination board – we’re working in different ways, but it is always towards the same goal of using political education to contribute to a process that is more democratic, inclusive, and legitimate for the citizens who are constructing it as they go. Now, the challenge is how can we actually convey the idea that this is not something that, going back to the training in anthropology at TC, this is not a process that exists outside of us. We don’t come in, and participate, and then leave — we are actually creating these processes as we go, and what we do through our social practices is what is finally producing the results of the process, and those results are going to have huge material consequences in the everyday dimensions of our lives. The responsibility is huge, and because of that, it’s important to actually be aware of that responsibility, and then to acquire all the tools to do it the best possible way.
Do you face any pushback from people for doing this popular education? Or is it welcomed across the board?
I think it has been very welcome in a way because there’s a lot of polarization — I don’t like that word because I think it’s used all the time, and actually, some of the results we had yesterday show that it’s not so much polarization of the people but rather polarization of the discourse. And a lot of this is about social media and prominent discourses around fear and terror. One of the stances we decided early on was to say, Momento Constituyente is a political organization, but it is not a party organization, so we are not going to take an organizational stance towards the referendum, we’re not going to say we are for approving or rejecting this. Any one of us is free to express our stance as citizens. As a director, I’m not going to avoid speaking about my opinion and remain publicly neutral on the issues we’re discussing.
But the main thing about what we do is we want the people to understand exactly what’s going on, exactly what the possibilities are, and exactly what the implications of the different options are. That when they say, “I approve,” they need to know that what is going to happen, if that option wins, is that the process is going to be open for the following two years. This first vote does not decide the end result of the process because we still have to have the conversation, the convention, and eventually the final votes. So when someone comes to you and tells you, “Okay, if you approve right now, you are ending the Pinochet constitution,” that’s not true. It’s also true that if you reject, you’re closing down the process, and the Constitution will continue — there’s no other institutionalized pathway in the constitution right now that will allow you to actually end this constitution. So essentially, we try to emphasize that this is not a competition, this is a social and democratic conversation and a social and democratic conflict. And we try to reestablish the concept of conflict not as something that’s evil or bad, but rather is a way of relating to each other. There’s an issue we have to resolve, and conflict is part of how we resolve our issues, so it’s actually incredibly productive.
One of the things I’ve had in terms of backlash with the work in this NGO is with families of students in schools. I’ve had to do a lot of talks in schools, and a lot of them have been in private upper class schools in the more affluent areas. They call me and are like, “We really like this, it’s important. Our kids need to know, our teachers need to know, we are looking for someone who can teach us.” Some of these schools set up a kind of debate situation where they bring someone who goes for the approve option, and someone who goes for the reject option, so they will give the audience their arguments. And when they do that, and they know my personal politics and ask me to argue for the approve side, I reject the offer because that’s not what we’re doing in Momento Constituyente. We’re trying to just show people the possibilities they have, and so they can freely decide if this is the option they want, because again, both options are legitimate ones. The one thing that I really want is that the person who rejects actually does it for the right reasons for them, and not just because someone told them that if they don’t reject the Constitution ends the next day and we’ll be in this constitutional void for two years, which is false. The Approve won in a landslide yesterday and the current constitution is still working today and it will be working for the next two years unless we have a revolution or we have a coup d’etat or something like that. But those extreme situations can happen any time, so it’s entirely unrelated to this vote and this political moment. So in my work with the NGO, these are the main points of conflict because I won’t argue a side.
You’re in a situation to be a moderator, if anything.
Right, well, I would be the one asking the hard questions. The really hard questions are actually for the reject position because they’ve been the ones who use these discourses of terror more widely. I’ve been called to talk in upper class schools, even universities – the private ones – and the fear they have about me bringing my opinions into the talks is really high. They keep saying, “This needs to be objective, this needs to be neutral” and of course I’m a person with my own position, if someone asks me I’m going to say it, but the focus is on people being able to understand how to exercise their democratic and political rights. I have a couple of schools where some parents, when my talk was announced, went into my Twitter and they found that I retweeted something saying that President Bachelet was really good, and they started calling the administrators and the principal because I was this crazed leftist activist who was going to indoctrinate their kids. And if they won’t want me there, I won’t go obviously, but generally those parents keep their kids home from school the day I give the talks. And up to this point, the talks have gone very well and there haven’t been any problems after the fact.
Confronting something that existentially threatens your worldview is so uncomfortable, you know, so they want to protect themselves as much as they can.
Right, and the hard thing is that the thing you have to confront is democracy, and that the poor have the same right as the elites do to decide, and this goes along with other prejudices like race and class, because elites think that the other (poor/non-white) people don’t know anything, and if they decide then the country will have major problems, so the elites think they have to decide because they’re the ones with the knowledge.
Between rich elites on one hand, and leftist elite vanguards on the other, every political party wants a vanguard that knows better than the masses they are designing for, and I think Momento Constituyente is trying to deconstruct that on both sides with this project.
Completely. I mean, essentially, you have to since it’s a democratic project. So at the end, as long as you are within the realms of democracy and human rights, we can speak and we can have legitimate differences. And if you say to me, I want a neoliberal state, I might disagree with you, but that’s a democratic issue. We have to sit down and solve this issue, and that’s what we’re trying to do. The thing that we cannot do is that you say, I want a neoliberal state because it’s the right one, because that’s not true – that’s not politics. The same thing is true in reverse – if I go and say that I really want a benefactor state because it’s the only way of doing this, that’s not politics either. All this is about decisions not about revealing truths. But this is all within the limits of democracy and human rights – like if you say to me that Pinochet was right, that executing communists was okay, then we cannot speak to each other, that’s the line. Or if you think that democracy is not something that all people should participate in because only a particular group of people knows best, then we cannot talk because we’re not disagreeing within a democratic sphere, we’re disagreeing in fundamental terms.
And then when we put those things on the table, this is why for some people this is so uncomfortable because they have to realize that they are not Democrats, they are not democratic people, they essentially want something that’s different. And that’s really uncomfortable to realize about yourself. At the same time, I think a lot of people on the right who have been called fascists and non-democratic and stuff think about it and come down decidedly on the side of democracy and begin updating their ideas and ways of approaching these issues.
And we have a situation here, where there’s a red and blue side of politics with their extreme positions, and people who are moderates or in the center are trying to have a conversation between the sides, they’re called amarillos. We’re seen as kind of amarillos because we want people to know about the democratic system and process, but no one is doing that. Everyone working on political issues is working towards promoting their position on the referendum. There’s a lot of people doing this, and especially for the approve position, which is the one I support, I was like, okay, there’s some other people doing that. But no one is worrying about the legitimacy of the process. And if the approve side wins, and if we have a new constitution, as a historian, I know that the main thing that’s going to matter by the end of the process is the democratic legitimacy of it. It doesn’t matter if the constitution that we end up having isn’t exactly the one I would like, but if it’s not a legitimate one, then it will crumble within months and we will keep going in this endless cycle of unrest.
I think the hard thing about that is because you’re trying to get a government with the new constitution, that’s going to require a lot of active and sustained participation. A lot of times you vote once, and then the government handles the rest of it. This is different because, by voting for this referendum, that is committing yourself to this engaged practice for the next however many years, which is a whole different way of understanding yourself as a political subject.
Exactly, and that reality is reflected in my dissertation work. I did my work on student activism and citizenship education, and I was trying to understand how the last decade of student protests had changed the landscape of citizenship education in Chile, both the formal and informal one. That’s a big thing, trying to understand civic engagement and political engagement, not like a two-sided coin with the vote on one side and the protests on the other, but more like a continuum. I was trying to understand how in Chile we’ve had for the last 30 years a political system that essentially tells us that we can vote and that’s the only thing we can do. So you can go and vote and then the government will handle it from there. But then when you come back things are exactly the same. Then why would you vote? Civic disengagement, in electoral terms, makes a lot of sense when we see it like this. If you’re playing a game, and the game is rigged against you in the sense that the rules don’t allow you to do a lot of things and you know how the game will play out, you either get bored and you stop playing, which is the electoral disengagement we’ve seen in the voters, or you’re going to kick the game and throw away the board and be done with it, and this is mostly what happens when you’re protesting, you’re essentially saying, “I’m done with this thing and I want something different, I’m going to demand that.” Both behaviors are historically and sociologically understandable, and no one can say they don’t make sense.
At the same time, we have to understand that we cannot play the game like this in the long term, we cannot keep kicking the board or disengaging because then that’s not a democratic way of living. So then, I think, as you were saying, one of the other things that the protests showed us, and one of the things that the last year showed us with the social unrest is actually this continuum, and all the other places that we can actually do a lot of work to create new spaces of participation. And that doesn’t mean to say that voting or the social protests are not legitimate, they are very legitimate ways of participating, they just are not sustainable if they are the only ones.
They’re necessary, but neither of them is sufficient to do anything.
Exactly. Even if they were relatively sufficient, you’re wasting a lot of productive energy that could go into these other options between voting and protesting. When people think about what happened this last year in Chile, people tend to think about the protests and of course the protests were huge and really important. I was there, I know that most of what has happened since was because of the power of that action. But, at the same time, people forget a lot of other actions that have been also huge like, for example, all the cabildos which are self-organized groups of people who started getting together to discuss what’s the Chile they want. This wasn’t a small or concentrated phenomenon, it was widespread throughout the whole country — literally thousands and thousands of people were getting together just to say, “Okay, while we protest, or even if we don’t protest, this is something we need to discuss.” It’s like when we focus only on the people who are protesting because they have no food during the COVID-19 pandemic, we forget the thousands of Ollas Comunes, or soup kitchens, where people in poor communities get together and bring something that they have, and they make a large meal for the community. Ollas Comunes are way more local and informal than soup kitchens in the U.S. because here, it’s literally just a common pot and essentially it is a collective way of solving the issue of hunger and instability. There are a lot of these popular organizations, and these local ways of organizing, that are not the ones that you see on the news. All you see on the news is big protests, violence, buildings being burned.
This is something that professor Varenne would love, actually. He used to say, “Before you start to do things, just try to see what’s actually happening first, what’s actually going on, and don’t try to decide where to go to see things, try to find out where things are happening then go there.” It’s a big question about a way of seeing, and that’s something we try to do in this NGO. We’re not importing new ideas, we’re looking at initiatives already in place and in motion and we’re trying to see how we can support them.
We worked to help make a board game that you can play that will help you learn about the different parts of the constitution. We work a lot with social media, but you know, there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to the internet here. So, what can we do? This other organization came to us with their idea for it but didn’t have the content expertise for it, so we collaborated on that project. There’s a whole popular distribution process, so when people start playing, they are learning that they don’t know a lot of things, which is actually what we want. We want people to understand that none of us know any of these things. Like, I’m supposed to be the guy who did his PhD abroad, wrote his dissertation on citizenship education, etc., and the one thing I’ve learned last year is how much I did not know. Anyone who comes out stating how they’re an expert and they know everything about this process, you shouldn’t listen to them – the one thing we can do is to show everyone we all are under informed, but that there are ways of learning and it’s more productive and more effective if we learn those things together. So we have this master/apprentice situation in the NGO where we teach volunteers how to do around and facilitate discussions, and then they teach others how to do the talks, and it moves from the local sphere outward and amplifies the effects.
Thinking of the Bolsonaro election in Brazil, are there still pockets of supporters for more conservative, military-backed approaches in Chile? Or does the democratic transition seem complete?
So we had the referendum yesterday and 80% wanted to go towards a new constitution and keep the process open, and 20% wanted to close it down. Throughout the whole country, there were five districts in which the reject option was widely supported. It was the three richest districts in Santiago, one in the north of Chile, and the one of Antarctica, which is like 30 people and there are a lot of military there. I think that shows you a little of the support that the Pinochet legacy still has in Chile. But the referendum of 1988 in which we decided to go back to democracy was like 55% to 45%, so even at that point 45% of the voters were okay with the dictatorship. For a lot of people, they had money and they supported the dictatorship’s policies, and they were afraid of a fall into poverty and communism, the Cold War was still going on, etc. An important change now, however, is that the military power seems to be subjected to the government. We have a lot of issues with human rights violations, but we don’t have any political leader that has any direct link with the military, like high-ranking generals. We don’t have a Bolsonaro or a Chavez, we don’t have a political leader that part of their political capital is about “I was in the army, I know how they do things” — There’s no one like that here. The most alt-right leader we have here is a guy who is a politician, he supported Pinochet when he was very young, and he was part of the party that still supports the legacy of Pinochet. He retired from that party because he felt the party was not being respectful enough of this legacy. He has taken the stance of defending the military who are imprisoned for human rights violations, but he’s not military like Bolsonaro or Chavez. I don’t think that’s something we should worry about, but we never know.
A lot of people are worried now, because we approved the congressional constitutional convention, we are going to have this year and a half of actually discussing, electing the people discussing the articles, and eventually voting for what we want. A lot of people, of course, are worried, especially rich people who are looking at Venezuela because they don’t know any other cases. But I always emphasize that, one, we have a lot of checks and balances right now in the constitution that make it constitutionally impossible for that to happen. The convention does not have sovereignty, they cannot affect other powers of the state. The only work they can do is just write a proposal for the new constitution that will not have any power until we voted in favor of it in 2022. The second thing is people are scared, saying “What if they do? What if they just stop and say, ‘We are the sovereign power because we are the constitutional convention.’” I keep saying that if that happens, then the problem is not about who has the right according to the legal text, it is going to be a problem of political forces and especially of violence. In this sense, it’s very difficult to do here the same that in a Venezuela led by Chavez, who had the army supporting him. If 155 people wake up one day and say, “We have sovereignty, and now we decide,” the only way in which this could actually have a real material effect is if those people have the power to back up that claim. That power is not based in our Constitution, it’s extrajudicial, so if you’re going to put yourself outside of the law, you need to have the power and the force to back that claim up.
Is the mission of Momento Constituyente specific to Chile, or are there any international aspirations to the project?
For the moment, it’s just in Chile. We’re just a really small organization, we work with volunteers, we’re just going into the process of writing up all our legal documents and stuff like that. But we’re really focused on the Chilean case, because this vote happened, but it’s only the first step. We were trying to focus our efforts on the different phases because democracy is an everyday action, it needs to manifest daily and our job is to bring that engagement and participation to the forefront. But of course, we’ll be looking out for international connections that align to our goals and approach.
That is exciting! This next year and a half has so much potential.
Yeah, it’s actually been really fun. It’s great to see the connections between different things that you usually don’t see connected in academia. Usually it’s different schools with different approaches and they don’t connect or align to other disciplines or programs, but at Teachers College’s Anthropology program, there was so much space to think about different, unconventional connections between things, and that’s why the department attracts people who think like this. And that’s one of the things I loved the most about my time at TC, my peers. I didn’t have to convince anyone that these connections were important. We’re kind of in the middle, because we haven’t committed our entire lives to theory, nor to practice, so a lot of traditional academic and engaged spaces aren’t made for our kinds of applied anthropological practice. But now in this work, I got to actually see what these tools allow me to do, and how they allow me to teach others about the same tools, and as we do the work we’re able to see the effect. We are actually helping our country. It makes me proud. And makes the risk I took to go get my PhD from TC more than worth it.
The timing is especially remarkable. You were writing up your dissertation on youth political engagement when the protests started and all of this began to unfold.
Absolutely, it’s the epilogue of my dissertation. It was really fortuitous because it tied it all together. Maybe if we had looked closer at these dynamics before this all began, we could have possibly modified the ways in which things unfolded. Now that we know, it’s our responsibility to act in a way that actually allows us to build the country we want.
Are you doing anything outside of your work with this organization?
Well the work at the NGO is volunteer work, so I’m teaching outside of my work at Momento Constituyente. I teach both at a high school and the university. This year, we started a new mandatory class on citizenship education that is starting to be implemented in Chile. So I’ve been teaching that class, and also history. I’m also teaching at the Catholic University in Santiago. I teach classes on the history of education, citizenship and democracy, and in the next term I’m scheduled to teach a class on public history. Those are my main jobs, and I’m also a fictional author so I’ve kept writing. I would say I have a series that’s called Relatos de un Chileano en Nueva York. It was a blog that I started when I came back, it’s fiction but it’s based on my experience in that crazy world of New York and grad school. It got a lot of followers and then that became a book. I published the first two volumes already, and I’m publishing the third one this Christmas. So… yeah, I keep busy.
That’s amazing. You found a really unique way to bring your PhD in alignment with your career and political goals, which I think a lot of PhD students struggle to even imagine as a possibility.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the things you will struggle with the most during your PhD. I think this program attracts people who want to connect theory and practice. In a way, that’s why you ended up in a place like this. It’s easy to get wrapped up in thinking of the job market and how to frame your research to get published, and of course you need to think about those things. But also, you need to remember that some things are still out of your sight. As humans, we have to take into account the sediments of the past and the world in which we live, but we also have the possibility of producing new things. Part of producing something new is that it’s really hard to think about it beforehand, it’s like thinking about a new color before it is made. If you had asked me even in that last interview about what I was going to be doing later, I would say something like an NGO was completely out of my sight, because I could not imagine in which way that would help me to do what I was trying to do. And it’s not that the NGO allowed me to do what I was trying to do, but it is what I was trying to do that led to this. We’re human beings, we’re impatient and anxious, and sometimes we just want things to be clear. And sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not, and that doesn’t mean they are not working out.
Interview conducted by: Lizz Melville