Back to SummaryAna Portillo - Student Advisor Profile
When I first decided to study abroad in Chile, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Having spent the majority of my childhood growing up in Mexico, I assumed that living in Chile would be no different from my prior experiences in Latin America. I was expecting to reacquire the high tolerance for spicy food that I had lost since coming to Stanford, to gain weight from eating tortillas with every meal, and even to be catcalled by locals on my way to school. I quickly discovered that would not be the case. In fact, Chile was different from anything I had ever encountered before.
Like most of my peers, I barely knew anything about Chile before embarking on my study abroad adventure. In order to acclimate us with the context of modern Chilean society prior to our arrival, Professor Jaksic (the director of the program) required that we read A Nation of Enemies. As I read the book during my twelve-hour flight, I was shocked to learn that Chile had endured a brief stint with a Marxist president followed by a grueling 16 years under a military dictatorship. I walked off the plane extremely curious and determined to find out more about Chile’s rich and unique past.
The classes I took while studying abroad gave me an in-depth understanding of the politics and other facets of Chilean history and culture. As an economics major at Stanford, I was accustomed to enduring extremely boring lectures on abstract frameworks in classrooms with 200 to 300 other students. By contrast, in Chile, the small class sizes fostered an interactive learning environment where professors would tailor class topics according to students’ interests. In my Chilean Economy class, Professor Muñoz spent an entire session explaining the effects of the recession on the domestic economy, as per our request. It was an unparalleled opportunity to be able to discuss the current state of affairs with a prominent government consultant. I no longer thought of going to class as a chore.
I took advantage of my time in Chile by exploring classes that I would not have taken otherwise. I remember immediately wanting to walk out of the first class of “Politics and Culture in Chile” after reading that we would be spending an entire unit on poetry. I dreaded poetry—the unrelatable and archaic subject that we had overanalyzed for an entire month my sophomore year of high school. However, I decided to give it a chance and stay in the class. Looking back, I do not regret my decision at all. In Chile, poetry came to life.
I became particularly interested in Pablo Neruda, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and one of Chile’s greatest national heroes. Neruda’s name first came up when we were studying the various art movements Chile underwent in the 20th century. In addition to learning about his personal life, we also listened to presentations about his work not only as a poet, but also as a politician and ambassador. As I acquired a deeper understanding of his motivations, my interest in his poetry spiked. Through conversations with other Chileans and our own investigations outside of class, the entire group became fascinated with Pablo Neruda. We were all thrilled when we found out that we were taking a weekend trip to Isla Negra to visit one of his three houses, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Bing. Touring the house was uniquely interesting because we were able to make connections between the elements of his poetry that we had covered in class and the physical sources of his inspiration. I will never forget my fellow classmate’s rendition of Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion” during lunch later that day.
My curiosity for Neruda’s work did not end there. I actually went to visit his house in Valparaíso the next day, in an effort to get to know the man behind the national hero. Later, when we traveled to the top of Machu Picchu, a group of us filmed our own rendition of “The Heights of Machu Picchu,” attempting to recreate the poet’s emotions as he wrote the famous piece. We even visited Jorge Luis Borges’ institution in Buenos Aires, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Bing, to learn about Neruda’s influences. As a result, poetry was no longer a subject that I studied in a purely academic setting. The poetry was alive in the lapping waves of the coast of Isla Negra, in the barren fields of the world’s driest desert, and in the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains. My study abroad adventure provided many experiences outside the classroom that complemented academic learning in ways and settings that only South America could provide.
Of all the wonderful aspects of my time abroad, the relationships I developed with the Chilean people were some of the most rewarding—specifically, the relationship that flourished between my host mother (Mané) and me had a profound impact on my life.
Every night, as soon as Mané heard the chimes from the door opening, she would turn off her television and welcome me home. She always had dinner early, but no matter how late I came home, she would always have food waiting and sit with me for an hour while I ate. As a result, our conversations were nearly endless and spanned a great variety of topics, from academics to fun. Mané and I discussed the Chilean history and economics that we were covering in my classes. It was fascinating to hear her personal experience with the Pinochet era and her opinions on the Bachelet administration and on Chile’s future role in the world. Before traveling, she always gave me suggestions of places to visit, monuments to photograph, and things to try. My new mom was extremely wise, caring and open-minded. I remember telling her about my late night outings with the group and our adventures in some of Santiago’s premiere nightlife spots. We laughed together when I told her that a fellow student’s host brother took us to a well-known gay nightclub, El Principe. She congratulated me for getting the VIP status at Santiago’s most selective nightclub as “American reality TV stars.” She encouraged me to discover specific places like La Piojera (“The Fleahole,” an old, lower class restaurant and bar in Santiago renowned as a symbol of the revolutionary Chilean culture) and many other features, such as the various regions. As a result, Mané and I developed a relationship unlike any other in my life—she became my second mom, my mentor, and most importantly, my friend. We still keep each other updated on the latest developments in our lives.
Even though it has been over a year since I left Chile, the word Santiago is still a part of my daily vocabulary. The three months I spent in South America allowed me to grow personally, academically and professionally in a way that would not have been possible had I remained in the Stanford bubble. As a result, I welcome the opportunity to share my stories with anyone who is considering studying abroad.