Soldiers stop me twice as I walk the few blocks of military housing. When the first soldier asks me where I am from and where I am going, the question is so unexpected that I’m not sure what to respond, my brain scrambling from English to Spanish as fast as it can. “I live here in Tacna… but I’m walking to a meeting downtown?..” He lets me through.
I greet the second soldier and the interaction repeats itself. “Be careful out there,” he calls after me, a phrase that rings strangely in my ears. There’s something off about the way he says it but I can’t put my finger on it. They aren’t menacing or angry and I’m not scared, just puzzled and a little unsettled. I have often cut through this neighborhood and never received more than a “buenos días”. Then again, the streets between the Chilean consulate and the military zone usually show little-to-no signs of life. But something has changed: now there are tents and groups of young adults gathered in circles. There are families with children playing in the street. There is litter everywhere, caused by a large number of people forced to live and sleep on the sidewalk and wait for news that is torturously slow. These travelers are Venezuelan, waiting for news of their migration process to Chile.
As I walk away from the second soldier, I suddenly understand the awkward nature of our conversation: while I was simply answering a question on my way to work, the soldier had mistaken me for a Venezuelan migrant with no reason to be in this area. How could I not be? I look different from many Peruvians with my blonde hair and foreign fashion, and I’m walking through a zone overrun by foreigners. Last month I was confused for a Chilena, now I’m a Venezolana, where will I be from next? I chuckle and shake my head, reveling in the fact that after so much time spent living in this country I still stick out like a sore thumb.
The next thought that comes hits me like a ton of bricks: In this moment, I’m more focused on how my nationality is perceived than I am for the well-being of the throngs of people I just passed by. I suddenly understand that what I heard in the voice of the soldier was suspicion and it shakes me out of my comfortable, easy existence here in Tacna, Peru. With a knot in my stomach I am reminded that the experiences of others in this border town are often vastly different than my own.
I have become accustomed and even desensitized to the Venezuelan migration. How many times have I looked out the window of a bus or gone running in my neighborhood and witnessed migrants rolling their suitcases down the Pan-American highway as they walk to the border? How many times have I seen someone selling candy or chocolate, raising funds so as to continue on their journey? These snapshots of migrants moving through the bustling streets of Tacna have transformed from a rare occurrence to a part of everyday life.
When the crisis began, Tacna welcomed the arriving Venezuelans with open arms. But now, as the number of migrants continues to grow we begin to close ourselves off, whether it be with feelings of animosity or by ignoring their presence altogether.
As I walked by the crowds earlier, I did not think to slow down, didn’t think to share the left-over lunch stored at the bottom of my bag. I had been only half-observing the faces around me, my mind on the meeting I had to get to and the lengthy to-do list for the weekend. I did exactly the opposite of what I’ve been lecturing to my students; I didn’t take the time to interact with the migrant situation that is happening in my own streets, to hear the voices of “the other side”. Here I am, a Jesuit Volunteer focused on social justice who completely missed a chance to live out some of my goals: be a witness, interact with others, and empathize.
This is not a blog post about guilt or my failure as a Jesuit Volunteer. However, this experience serves as a profound reminder for me to take things slow, to stop a moment and witness what is going on around me, and to interact with a stranger or two. Just as my Peruvian friends and neighbors have cared for this quirky gringa and made her feel right at home, I hope I can share a small part of the warmth and care that I have received from others.
Through this experience I acknowledge that I may not and cannot always be my best self. I may not always lead with an open and giving heart. But I do know I will go out tomorrow and try again. I will stop for a chat with someone. Maybe it will only be a smile. Maybe I’ll share my lunch. Maybe I will only buy a candy bar for one sol. I’ll make mistakes but I’ll try again tomorrow, and the next day. I hope that these newcomers may too come to find a home in mi querida Tacna, Peru.
Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com