Two Months In: Volunteering with Valpo’s Artsy Underground

Grant Meckley is a student at Messiah College and an ISA Featured Blogger. Grant is currently studying abroad with ISA in Vaparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile.

Valpo from the Shore
Valpo from the shore

For 20 years I have lived in the same place. I have spent maybe 4 months away from the familiar central Pennsylvania sights I know so well. There was a week at summer camp here and there, but never could I construe that I would be a resident of any other place outside the Keystone State. However, three weeks into this great adventure , I endured an hour or so of bureaucratic red tape to receive my Chilean identification card.

It is an orange rectangular piece of plastic; it could be any driver’s license or a student ID card. However, for me it was my emancipation. Granted, at this point, my official Chilean resident status is temporary (I’ll be home for Christmas, ma); however, this is my first extended stay away from home.

Chilean ID Card

My roommate Timothy and I discussed what is different between simply traveling abroad for a week or two and living abroad. A short stay in a foreign country is nothing short of whirlwind tour of the superficial highlights. When you live in a foreign country you see the cracks in the idealized postcard preconceptions. You see the strengths and weaknesses of a culture, and you begin to empathize with its citizens. This empathy is a desire to integrate and become involved in the community. Initially, I feared I would never find a niche in Chile.

I ascribe my first great breakthrough in Chilean assimilation to volunteering. I took a risk getting a membership on a website called that specializes in volun-tourism. This site typically pairs travelers who exchange their time and talent for room and board offered by workaway host; however, I obviously already have housing so I was just looking for volunteer opportunities. I was able to connect with Natalie and Guillermo of the Cerro Cordillera neighborhood of Valparaíso. Natalie arranged we meet for the first time in an ice cream parlor on the iconic Plaza Sotomayor in the heart of Valpo. She told me in her Chilean Spanish that I could help out with a community garden and recycling center. This was exciting news for me as we rode up the ascensor (elevator) that overlooks the port. She showed me her cozy home clinging precariously to the sides of the hill.

Natalie's House
Natalie’s house

She showed me the “Junta de Vecinos,” a rattletrap building which housed the neighborhood council. Natalie explained to me that she was the president of the junta, and that they were financing the garden and recycling center. She gestured to the fenced-in vacant lot, the future site of the community orchard. “This could work,” I said nodding.

This could be a garden someday
This could be a garden

Since our initial meet-up, progress on the garden and recycling center has been slow but steady. In August we had a benefit concert at the Lord Cochrane Museum to build awareness about the recycling project. I helped set up chairs and got to meet the pianist, Ingrid. There was a set list with several sing-alongs in Spanish. Natalie projected the words on a screen with slides using the obligatory “bottles and cans” backdrop theme. Natalie told me after the show that the junta was going to hire an artist to build sculptures out of recycled plastic bottles.

One of Maria’s earlier works

The next week I met Maria, the Chilean-American artist that used recycled materials to make artwork. She explained her artistic medium was out of necessity. “When I attended art school at Católica Chile,” she said, “I had no money for art supplies, so I used trash.” Maria set me to work punching holes in bottles and making plastic shingles. These would be used to build a roof over the recycling center.

Maria and her craft
Maria and her craft

On our lunch break, Maria’s boyfriend Simon joined us for empanadas and completos (Chilean hotdogs). Simon explained he was a muralist, responsible for some of the more famous works adorning the walls of the city. He had a gig in the local area painting a truck, so after working a bit more, Maria and I checked on Simon’s progress.

Simon painting
Simon Painting

To my surprise, my Chilean culture professor showed up to watch. I couldn’t believe he bumped elbows with artsy underground graffiti artists in Valpo. The world was smaller than I thought. It was a great afternoon as we chatted and watched Simon’s painting come to life. Valparaiso is much different from Viña del Mar (where my host family lives). Viña is clean and well organized, but Valpo is gritty and real. I think I am more of a Porteño (someone from Valpo) than a man of Viña, but I am fortunate to have experienced both worlds.

Simon's finished product
Simon’s finished work

3 thoughts

  1. Hello,

    I am interested in studying in Chile in the Valp/Vina area and I was wondering if you could answer some of my questions:
    1. How are the crime rates in both areas?
    2. Which area is better to study far I understand Valparasio is more artsy and Vina del Mar is beachy.. how exactly do they differ?
    3. Which school is the better choice Unversidad de Vina de Mar or PUC Valparasio (Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso)?
    4. For the homestay how was it different in Vina del Mar and Valparasio?
    5. As far as the Spanish goes how was the experience?
    Overall tell me about your experience with the areas..

  2. Hello Brianna,

    You seem to understand the idea that Chile is a land of contrasts and disparities (i.e. beach towns and port cities). That’s the most important thing to know. I’ll try to address your questions:

    1. Chileans often reference the level of “desconfianza” (distrust) in their society pointing out ubiquitous barbed wire fences, locked doors, and other security measures. I’m not making a political statement when I say there’s a large gap between rich and poor Chileans possibly by virtue that there’s a few very wealthy Chileans. That being said, the prevalence of crime is dictated by an area’s affluence. Cerro Cordillera is crime-ridden as the streets of Compton just as the high rises of Vina are insulated from riff-raff as like Park Avenue. Use common sense, look confident, know where you’re going and you’ll be fine. Petty theft is comparable to other large cities.

    2. I’m not sure how much sway you’ll have in deciding where your housing will be. I had a narrow set of preferences for my host family so I was placed in Vina with my roommate. That being said, the world is your oyster: study where you want to, hang out where you want to, explore where you want to.

    3. It all depends on what you’re studying. I can speak for PUCV that is caters mostly to the humanities while Adolfo Ibanez in Vina is mostly business. I am a science major but went to Chile mostly to improve my Spanish and pick up a minor. Fair to say you will learn the most practical skills outside of class. Academics in Chile were much easier than classes stateside.

    4.My Vina family was thoroughly modern, perhaps more “American” than my own family. There is a huge variety of Chilean host families. From hippie-types to eccentric millionaires. Hybrid marxists to Pinochetistas…. From music lovers to futbol fanatics… you never know what you’ll get but finding out and getting to know them is half the fun.

    5. A semester long program will give you decent command of Chilean Spanish. This is a dialect distinct from Argentine Spanish, Peninsular Spanish, or Caribbean Spanish. The idioms are simultaneously infuriating and amusing. The Chilean way of speaking is melodic but lightning fast. As with any second language, if you are out-going, hard-working, and unafraid of making mistakes, there’s no limit to what you can learn. Pick up a book of Chilenismos, you won’t regret it.

    Did any of that help?

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