Australia gave me what Chile didn’t, but nothing will ever fill the emptiness left from not being able to live where I grew up. 

It was Saturday 19 October – Friday 18 October in Chile. We headed to Maroubra, Anthony’s favourite beach. I don’t like Maroubra that much, because I fear the fury of the waves could drag me around, drown me and hide my body in foreign waters forever. I prefer the quiet waters of little bays, like Clovelly, where I can swim without such worries. 

While sunbathing, thinking that soon Anthony and I were going to plan our move to Chile, I received a WhatsApp message from my high school friend. ‘Don’t bother moving back’ she said, ‘things are getting tough’. I didn’t take that too well, ‘I’m still going to try. If it doesn’t work out for us, we’ll just come right back’ I said a bit annoyed, thinking she shouldn’t bring me down like that.

Minutes later, I looked at my Facebook feed and saw a breaking news announcement that Piñera had decreed a state of emergency in Chile’s capital in response to growing protests against Metro fare increases, which had started with mass fare evasion actions by high school students. I wanted to get ahead of my friend so that she understood that I didn’t need her warnings, that I am also informed, despite not being there. I told her, ‘a state of emergency has been decreed, I hope it doesn’t get worse’.

The days that followed were blurry. I spent interminable weeks stuck to a screen watching events escalate from seeming single-issue protest to full-blown political crisis, sharing the videos of cop and army violence coming up on my feed and sent to me by school mates and former neighbours that I hadn’t talked to in years. Many days I spent listening to El Derecho de Vivir en Paz and El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido so that I could join in the collective choir organised by social media users at the start of every curfew.

I didn’t feel like swimming four times a week as I used to; in fact, I stopped swimming altogether. My only priorities were to compile information to guard the truth from the sensationalist and pro-government Chilean media and engage in some kind of international activism. Pyjamas were my daily outfit and showers were scarce. I wasn’t sleeping enough, I was clumsy; dirty dishes and clothes were forming mountains around our apartment. I was like a zombie whose only activity was to share censurable content on Facebook and plan, with other Chileans in Sydney, ways to support the protests. 

Anthony was worried. One day he literally grabbed my hand and took me to Clovelly. My steps were slow, my mind was in Chile and didn’t have the energy to control my movements. There, taken by the hand, Anthony encouraged me to enter the water. The sun was almost touching the horizon and the wind was cooling down. I reflected, in a moment of lucidity, that the cold water could take me out of this state of bewilderment in which I was trapped.

I jumped in the water and its coolness awoke my limbs, and for a moment, I enjoyed the swim. Suddenly, however, my extremities went back to their previous state and I feared something in the water was after me. I got that feeling we get when we think there is something or someone behind us. I tried to ignore that sensation and kept swimming, but images of bodies being thrown into the water from helicopters were getting into my mind. And in those brief moments of subaquatic vision, while breaststroking and freestyling, the rocks underwater lined up in front of my eyes looking like bodies tied onto train rails and stuck to the marine floor by their weight. I swam as quickly as I could, to move away from those static and hurting bodies which were nothing but images in my mind. It was as if the depth of the water had sunk me into the depths of my existence, where the collective ancestral memory of the fear and pain of many people was manifesting as my own. 

I never thought that others’ traumas could manifest so graphically in me when I didn’t even live through the dictatorship. I imagine how intense such trauma must be for the primary victims of such a wicked episode in our history, an episode that seemed to be happening all over again.  

That day, more than ever, I felt that Chile was calling me. I wanted to be part of that cathartic moment and liberate the rage stored and passed onto me through generations of suffering. That rage from seeing my dad, a metal worker, wake up at five am and get back home at nine pm six days a week, all just for a miserable wage. That rage for having lost relatives to cancer and medical negligence because they didn’t have enough money to access quality health services. That rage surging from the pit of my stomach when remembering the poverty of Renca, my barrio, and its corrupt former mayor; when remembering the state violence, the discrimination against minorities, the overcrowded living, and the depression and anxiety that spread through my family and the rest of the country like a virus. I wanted to be there to protest against the things that pushed me out of my country in the first place.

Collage by Estefanía Fontealba

Estefanía Fontealba was born in Santiago de Chile and moved to Melbourne in 2009 with her family and now lives in Sydney. She holds an Honours degree in Literature from Monash University. Estefanía is passionate about swimming, anticapitalism and feminism which are topics she usually explores in her poetry and non-fiction writing. She writes in Spanish and English and loves DIY culture, especially making zines for friends and occasionally for a wider audience. A recent zine is available from Sticky Institute or by request through her Instagram: @nia_fontealba