Billowing clouds of tear gas encircled the school as Professor Deborah Robiglio continued her lecture despite the chaos of students boycotting for better education last year in Chile.
Robiglio, a non-credit ESL professor at GCC shared her perspective as a teacher in Chile during her lecture “Teaching with Tear Gas,” on March 20.
“It was surreal,” Robiglio said. “They would offer to bring me lemons to offset the symptoms of the tear gas.”
But Robiglio was expected to continue teaching.
“This was something that was very common and would happen almost every two weeks,” she said.
Deep-red and curly-haired Robiglio spoke passionately, her petite frame gathered in a dark gray cardigan bunched at her elbows. Lively hand gestures suggested her enthusiasm for the subject as they shaped and carved imaginary vases in the air.
“I know that by the end of this presentation you’ll be able to walk away with something,” she said.
Robiglio shared her experience first-hand with a detailed and inciteful slideshow of mass boycotting, interviews of students and professors alike, and the government’s military attitude toward Chilean educational reform.
She was sent to Chile last year as part of the Fulbright program, which creates relationships through the international exchange of students and professors sharing ideas, study, research and exercising their skills abroad.
“The circumstances that have given rise to the student movement in Chile have been around for 40 years,” she said.
Chile, under President Salvador Allende (1964-1973), was home to free education, K-12 and college as well. However, free education in Chile came to its demise when military dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) attacked and overthrew Allende, who allegedly committed suicide.
When Pinochet abolished free education in universities, students were forced to take out expensive loans with high interest rates to pay for a college education. He created 35 private, non-accredited universities all under his regime’s strict supervision.
Any citizens who seemed to resist Pinochet in any way would be questioned or tortured or would even disappear — never to be found again.
In 1975, Pinochet sent thousands of citizens, who he accused of being anti-government, to the national stadium for questioning and torture. He was finally forced out of office in 1990. Under Pinochet’s rule, more than 5,000 Chileans were killed or disappeared and 30,000 were tortured. He died in 2006; however, the effects of his dictatorship continue to haunt Chilean society.
“The number one goal for every Chilean is to have free university education,” Robiglio said.
Posters and graffiti promoting education reform dot the walls of the city of Valparaiso, reading, “Education is a right, not a business,” or “The rebellion is justified for a free education.”
According to Robiglio, for the most part, the student movement, a powerfully massive and organized group of radicals is quite peaceful.
“We have a saying in Spanish,” said Hector Lopez, faculty member at La Universidad Pedagógica de Chile, “If the baby does not cry, he will not eat.”
Halfway through class, students would change their clothes and become “encapuchados,” or the hooded ones. That’s when things would get heated.
Students threw molotov cocktails, barricaded themselves within their classrooms, and sometimes slept, ate and bathed in the school for more than a month.Intimidation through government military tanks counteracted student anarchy through the use of teargas and high-pressure water.
In 2011, UMCE students went on strike for 11 months, protesting for change while refusing to attend school.
“Depending on the number of strikes [a students partakes in],” said Robiglio. “ the government would say ‘You know what? You have to give them failing grades and you teachers are going to teach for free in the summer.’”
Tensions are still thick between students and teachers, as staff members believe strikes and protests are a waste of time.
Currently, the students continue to protest.
“Academic work has been devolved,” said Robiglio. “It’s not healthy for the system and it’s not conducive to a harmonious environment.”