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These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad. Our contributors: Daniel Bergerson, Gretchen A. Brown, Elena Neuzil, Ben Palmer and Emily Walz.

Reading Neruda's Seashells

“Pablo Neruda collecting seashells in Varadero, Cuba.” Photo: Mario Carreño, 1942.

For someone who could not swim, Pablo Neruda sure loved the sea.

The anchors, boats and fish statues dotting the yard outside his Isla Negra home-turned-museum made that obvious to me even before I reached the front door. The interior decoration, however, took the obsession up a notch: The Chilean poet and diplomat had decked out his seaside abode with creaky floorboards, low ceilings and long hallways meant to resemble a ship. Even now, Neruda and his third wife Matilde Urrutia are buried on a bluff above the beach overlooking the Atlantic.

The Nobel Prize-winning writer famously said, “A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who doesn't play has lost forever the child who lived in him and who he will miss terribly.” Maybe Neruda wrote these words to justify his own collections of mermaid figureheads and ships in bottles, which brought him a boyish glee normally associated with toy trucks and comic books well into his adult life. (He died at Isla Negra in 1973 — mere days after the U.S.-backed military coup against his comrade President Salvador Allende.)

“Portrait of Pablo Neruda.” Illustration: Martha Aguirre, 2015.

Though Neruda’s fondness for all things aquatic may seem like just the trivial quirk of a creative mind, the final exhibit of the Isla Negra museum suggests that there may be more to the story.

An all-white room with only one display case, the exhibit features what looks like the masterpieces of an ancient potter. A single quotation from Neruda’s memoir, I Confess I Have Lived, explains to visitors why the tour concludes with these dignified objects. It reads, “En realidad lo mejor que coleccioné en mi vida fueron mis caracoles.” In reality the best that I collected in my life were my seashells.

I blink at the words engraved on the wall. Seriously? Seashells?

Sure, scallops are pretty, but considering Neruda had many other passions — literature, travel, communism — and notable achievements (the International Peace Prize being chief among them), why would his collection of seashells top the list?

Pressing my nose up against the glass and squinting to see each shape in all its sophistication, I began to understand: Each seashell is like an emblem of one of Neruda’s works.

I recognized Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (a bouquet of tulip-shaped shells), Residence on Earth (a narwhal-shaped shell, at once surreal and sharply political) and the epic General Song (a giant conch). His entire bibliography stood behind that glass.

 “Seashell exhibit at Isla Negra”. Photo: Fundación Pablo Neruda, 2015.

Each minute I lingered in that all-white room, I drew another connection between seashells and poems.

Seashells are the creations of seemingly pathetic, forgettable creatures (a.k.a. sea snails and clams) who somehow craft impossibly perfect artifacts that serve as a testament of their short time on this earth. Lacking those beautiful, durable exoskeletons, humans write poems to attain immortality by proxy, setting pen to paper because our lives fade sooner than the ink.

Plus, seashells arise from the genetic material of individual mollusks, but each intricate pattern is also forged under the weight of an entire ocean, blasted by sand and salt invisible to its fleshy creator. Likewise, every poem has an author, but it is also written by the conventions of genre, influenced by the joys and injustices of contemporary society.

Lastly, seashells are built to suit the maker’s own vulnerable body, but crabs and other sea critters seek refuge inside abandoned shells that happen to fit just right, finding armor in others’ handiwork. Similarly, readers discover that particular poems resonate with them, and they memorize the words to keep that message close to their heart, like a beachgoer fashioning a necklace out of a special seashell.

“The Isla Negra house.” Photo: © Sergio Larrain/Magnum Photos, 1957.

As the next batch of tourists filed into the exhibit, I sensed that I had outstayed my welcome and perhaps overextended my metaphor. Eyeing the exit, I weaved my way through the Neruda pilgrims and stepped out of the Isla Negra house. A few feet from the door sat his grave. It is home to nothing but two lovers, a few flowers and a black stone — not even an epigraph. A sparsely decorated resting place for such a decorated poet.

I bowed and cocked my head at the same time. Did Neruda see his poetry as the exoskeleton that would outlast his own skin? The byproduct of a grounded soul pushing up against the weight of the world? The shell that others would make their personal amulet? Or did he just think seashells looked nice?

I wandered down to the beach and held a conch to my ear. It gathered a shoreline full of noise — the crashing of waves and the squawking of seagulls — and packed it all into one tight, flawless form that roared with the force of a thousand oceans despite being held by only three fingers.

If you pick up a Pablo Neruda poem, I think you’ll know what I mean.

Attack of the Loanwords

"University seminar on education." Photo: Roberto Villaseca, 2015.

As a professor welcomed us to Chile for the third time that day, I opened my red, spiral-bound notebook and flipped through last semester’s notes on pedagogy and U.S. education policy, finding the first blank page half-way through. I copied the title of his PowerPoint presentation —“La inequidad educativa y segmentación del sistema escolar” (educational inequality and segregation of the school system)— before jotting down translations of the Chilean edulingo I would use for the year to come. The basics included...

Estudiante. Student.

Liceo. High school.

Voucher. Voucher.

 

Easy enough. I caught on to voucher, a term used to describe the system of school funding meant to turn education into a competitive market subsidized by the government, right away because it had already been written in the first half of my notebook a hundred times. Meanwhile, the professor was carrying on at a famously fast Chilean pace, so I scribbled along, continuing my list of key Spanish words related to education...

 

Prueba. Test.

Puntaje. Score.

Ranking. Ranking.

 

Strange. Some Chilean terms regarding education policy are loanwords, that is, phrases adopted from English without translation into Spanish. What's that I hear? Could it be the sound of imperialist influence?

 

"Class rankings in a Santiago middle school." Photo: Daniel Bergerson, 2015.

 

Admittedly, the mere presence of an English loanword like voucher does not prove that the thing itself originates in the United States. For example, though un piercing is a loanword, people all over the world have been sticking jewelry in their belly button for centuries. On the other hand, if something sounds like neocolonialism, looks like neocolonialism and feels like neocolonialism, then we should probably at least consider the chance that it is a tiny bit neocolonial.

To do that, history students like me turn to recorded history...

In the 1970s, Milton Friedman and other economists at the University of Chicago climbed down from the ivory tower to test out neoliberalism, an ultraconservative theory calling for all-out privatization, deregulation and cuts in social spending. The Chicago Boys were handed a golden opportunity in 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet led a U.S.-backed military overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected Socialist government. Part and parcel of the neoliberal project fashioned by the dictator and his oh-so-helpful American advisors was a system of school vouchers, meaning that almost anyone could open a school (business), set their own admission criteria (price) and compete for students (clients). Fast forward forty years and the educational vouchers have given rise to stratification and Chile is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

In this way, a club of Chicago economists injected Chile with an ideology that eventually became the CIA-approved dictator’s education policy. In this way, vouchers became vouchers. (Uncle Sam, your test came back positive: It’s a bad case of neocolonialism.)

It seems just as kindergarten is evidence of German educator Friedrich Fröbel’s influence on every American who attended that developmentally-crucial half-day snot conference at age five, the Spanish word voucher is a clue as to who Chilean youth can blame for turning education, formerly known as a social right, into a commodity bought and sold on the free market.

 

"U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger shaking hands with Chilean dictator Pinochet." Photo: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile, 1976.

 

Come to think of it, however, there are few spaces in Chile free of imported English.

 

When Chilean students get out from school, where English instruction is usually mandatory, they might use un gift card to go shopping for shorts, blazers or crop tops. On the ride home they could listen to el jazz, rock or hip-hop (unless, of course, they prefer comedy, be it stand-up or sketch). While their parents are still at el business, having un meeting with el manager to discuss el marketing, some teens kill zombies on their PlayStation while others simply have un chat on WhatsApp or (Facebook) Messenger, using abbreviations like OMG and LOL to save time. To plan the rest of their evening, Chileans can log onto Google to search for el trailer of the latest film starring Leonardo DiCaprio if they don’t already have plans to go to el club and sip tequila sunrise among the VIPs. Later that night, they might pick up fast food (and perhaps la diabetes) before stumbling through the front door and collapsing in el living (room).

 

For an English-speaker like me, picking up Spanish is sometimes as simple as ABC, literally.

 

"Conversations in Spanish are littered with English." Photo: Roberto Villaseca, 2015.

 

All personal advantages aside, the pervasiveness of English loanwords raises troubling questions.

 

Are vouchers as American as the shopping mall? Is the idea of a school ranking the hidden track to each U.S. pop record that tops the charts overseas? Does the multiple choice test (which, to be fair, is also referred to as elección multiple) stand among Netflix and Tinder as behavior-changing technology exported by the States?

 

In short, are consumer culture and neoliberal education reform a package deal?

 

 

Sure —my spiral-bound notebook also contains plenty of Spanish edspeak without exact English translations (e.g. aula, toma, convivencia). True —America itself is a salad bowl of words from French, Spanish and Latin (e.g. restaurant, rodeo, alter ego). Yes —the Spanish language is also heavily influenced by Latin, Arabic and Basque, but none of those languages can call itself the language of a current superpower.

 

The fact remains: The litany of English loanwords in Spanish (e.g. gángster, eslogan, béstseller) is a red flag warning of U.S. hegemony and cultural imperialism.

 

Like the Union Jack before it, the Star-Spangled Banner has reached every nook and cranny of this earth, be it through an embassy, military base or television screen. For better or for worse, so have American words. More powerful than any piece of fabric that we call a flag, words are the figurative fabric of American society, carrying ideas about culture, technology and power wherever they wander.

 

I’m not Chilean, and it’s not my place to judge whether or not English loanwords belong in Chile. But as a citizen of the United States, I do want to make this point about U.S. symbols abroad.

 

We do not always fly the right flag.

 

"Confederate brand used to sell clothes in Buenos Aires mall." Photo: Daniel Bergerson, 2015.

 

~

 

Since this post focused on English loanwords in Spanish, I want to add that Chile’s brand of Spanish is also known for its unique idioms. Here is a translated list of my favorites.

 

Many are creative.

 

peinar la muñeca = to comb the doll (to be crazy)

estár arriba de la pelota = to be on top of the soccer ball (to be tipsy)

ponerse las manitos del gato = to put kitten paws to your face (to do your makeup)

 

Others a bit mean.

 

pinta mono = painted monkey (attention seeker)

bailar con la fea = to dance with the ugly (to get the short end of the stick)

ser un cero a la izquierda = to be a zero to the left (to be useless)

 

And some are just odd.

 

hacer perro muerto = to do the dead dog (to dine and dash)

quedarse con cuello = to be left with neck (to have something not work out as planned)

rayar la papa = to scratch the potato (to talk repeatedly about something)

 

For more phrases unique to Chile, download the Chilenismos app on your iPhone, BlackBerry or Galaxy.

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