In case you haven’t heard, students in Chile have been protesting that country’s unequal education system for months, claiming the right to free education for all.
Predictably, authorities have reacted with violence. Five policemen were apparently fired after the killing of 16-year-old Manuel Gutierrez. Some have referred to the protests as the “Chilean winter.”
But the figure who is attracting the most attention from both the media and the masses is 23-year-old Camila Vallejo, the second woman elected leader of the University of Chile’s student union in that organization’s 105-year history.
Vallejo is a staunch and well-spoken critic of Chile’s economically divided education system. She is also really, really beautiful.
Many have noted the latter characteristic, in particular.
Bolivian vice-president Álvaro García Linera referred to Vallejo as a “young and beautiful leader,” according to a recent Guardian article. “We are all in love with her,” Linera said.
It is unclear whether he is referring to Vallejo’s blue eyes, slim figure and adherence to a dominant Anglo standard of beauty, or if he means her politics. Maybe he means both.
The Guardian ran a recent article comparing Vallejo’s popularity to that of Zapatista revolutionary Subcomandate Marcos, noting that “this time, there is no ski mask, no pipe and no gun, just a silver nose ring.”
Comparing the nose ring — a piece of jewelry — to the Zapatista mask is an insult. Marcos and many others — men and women — in the Zapatista movement wear the mask precisely in order to decentralize the movement’s power and celebrity. Marcos is a beloved figure among Mexican campesinos and throughout the world, but it is not his face that people love; his face is that of all Zapatistas.
But Vallejo has found a political use for her celebrity, as she explains in the Guardian article:
You have to recognise that beauty can be a hook. It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas. A movement as historical as this cannot be summarised in such superficial terms.
Vallejo, apparently responding to a reporter’s question, attempts to refocus attention on the movement’s ideas, not on her looks, rightly
telling the reporter that she is more than just a pretty face; she may hook crowds with her beauty, but she inspires them with her ideas.
The more profound terms of the movement, by the way, relate to Chile’s deeply divided education system. According to the BBC, 45 percent of secondary school students in Chile attend public schools, 50 percent attend privately-run voucher schools with some government subsidies, and 5 percent attend elite private schools.
Students have called for the state to guarantee the right to education for all, creating “a new national system of free, democratic, quality public education, organized and funded by the state at all levels – i.e., from the cradle on, providing continuous education.”
Here is how Vallejo explained it in the Guardian article:
We do not want to improve the actual system; we want a profound change – to stop seeing education as a consumer good, to see education as a right where the state provides a guarantee. Why do we need education? To make profits. To make a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute.
The protests have included the use of cacerolazos, marches involving pots and pans that have traditionally been used as a method of protest by women in Latin America — but which apparently have not been seen in Chile since the days of the U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet.
While the students are the focal point, the protests have involved the Chilean labor movement and other groups who are promoting a wider critique of the status quo. The protests have led to a drop in the approval rating for Chile’s billionaire president Sebastián Piñera, with only 26 percent now supporting him. One of the criticisms surrounding Chile’s system is its similarity to that of the United States. The BBC quoted a former government minister, Jose Joaquin Brunner, criticizing the free market approach to education:
The model here is like the United States, with the markets left to run slightly wild, pervading every aspect of life, including education and health. The end result is that people feel a deep sense of unease.
There are many issues raised by the prominence of Vallejo as a spokeswoman for this multifaceted movement. No single political leader, no matter how beautiful, can embody the diverse backgrounds and issues of such a sweeping social movement. While youth may be at the forefront, older generations may reject Vallejo as the face of a more comprehensive movement. The fixation on her looks raises questions about what it takes for women to attain prominence as activists. But apart from the occasional bizarre Youtube sensation, people appear to be taking Vallejo seriously. While the media — and I’ll include myself here — have noted her appearance, they also seem to have ended up being captivated by the message. Perhaps that is because it is a sound message — one that may resonate far beyond Chile.