Seeing and Being Seen: In Chile, No Plan-B

Because the Chilean government restricts access to birth control, unexpected pregnancies are common among young women. In the first installment of her new travel series, Emily Guerin sneaks packets of the morning-after pill through the airport with the intent of distributing them in Chile.

I spent the majority of last year in Chile, living and traveling in places where I saw many young mothers on a daily basis. Fashionable, skinny women with dark eyeliner and tight jeans sat on park benches together in downtown Santiago while their toddlers played in the grass. Girls who should have been in high school pushed their daughters in grocery carts through the stores. Olive-skinned women in string bikinis lounged in the sand at the beach like I did with my friends, except every so often one would rise up on her elbows to scream at a small child splashing in the water. Young women my age rested their heads against dirty bus windows, their hands clasped over their pregnant bellies. They had neighbors babysit their kids while they went out to bars. They balanced bowls of cherries on their stomachs and spit the pits into their hands.

The desire to know their stories consumed me, mostly because, in the United States, I didn’t know many young pregnant women. Was the baby’s father the guy with the ponytail and Iron Maiden shirt, his arm loosely draped around the mother’s shoulder? Did they live together or did she still stay in her childhood bedroom, the only new addition the cradle in the corner? How did she react when she found out? I had never asked anyone these questions before. I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Boston and attended a private high school and college where pregnancy was something that was discussed abstractly in health or sociology classes. It was something outside the realm of my personal experience, something unfortunate that happened to “other women.” Even if I got pregnant, I could opt out of motherhood — abortion, birth control, and the morning-after pill are all easily accessible to me. But even imagining myself pregnant makes me shudder.

When I thought about the young mothers I saw, it was usually in the context of what they were giving up by having their babies. Or rather, what I would be giving up if it happened to me. I imagined setting aside the list of things I wanted to do — spend a few months rock climbing, work in Latin America for a few years, be a foreign correspondent — and resigning myself to at least a decade of domesticity and servitude to my newborn. The women my age who unexpectedly became pregnant must also have plans and goals they would be forced to abandon once they were taking care of a baby. Perhaps living in Ecuador or climbing in Wyoming were not on their lists, but I imagined there must be something similar that they cared about.

While the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy — an unwanted baby — frightened me, I was strangely fascinated by the condition. On the rare occasions that I saw a young pregnant woman in my college town, I couldn’t help but stare or sneak glances when she wasn’t looking. I encountered young mothers so infrequently that I forgot how much they intrigued me until I saw another one months later. But in Chile I ran into young pregnant women and mothers daily, and so I thought about them all the time.

At first, I just wanted to know more about them, but after a while, I began searching for a way to explain what seemed to me an abundance of young mothers. I learned that abortion is illegal in Chile. The conservative congress had recently banned the free distribution of the morning-after pill at public clinics and was trying to outlaw the IUD (intrauterine device), one of the most popular forms of birth control among Chilean women. The failure of the state to offer women alternatives to motherhood seemed to explain why I saw so many young mothers, and it infuriated me. How could the government restrict access to popular forms of birth control and the morning-after pill, knowing that poor women would suffer more than anyone else? Did they not realize, or worse, did they just not care?

On my second trip to Chile to research my thesis, I brought as many packets of the morning-after pill, or Plan-B, as I could get my hands on (I enlisted friends to pick up free pills from the college health center). Before leaving the United States, I translated the morning-after pill instructions into Spanish and made copies. I trimmed the packaging on the pills so that they would be unidentifiable and stuffed them into a vitamin bottle so that customs officials would not notice them. Once I had cleared immigration and settled into my research routine, I began to look for women to give the pills to. I assumed it would be easy to find someone.

The first candidate was María, a friend of a friend who had a two-year-old daughter named Valentina, or Vale. María was just a few years older than me and lived with her boyfriend Sebastián, Vale’s father, in a duplex in Puerto Varas, a touristy town that hugged the edge of a lake in southern Chile. Vale was born just after Sebastián and María had graduated from college, where both had studied business management and tourism. While Sebastián had gone on to work a ski center, María stayed at home with Vale and baked alfajores, chocolate-coated sandwich cookies filled with layer of caramel. She wrapped each cookie in paper, sealed it with a sticker that said Alfajores Valentí in curly red writing — she had named her company after her daughter — and sold the cookies at markets around Puerto Varas.

According to my friend, Pedro, who introduced us, all María cared about was Vale and her alfajores. I couldn’t believe this. Weren’t there things she would rather be doing than staying at home, melting chocolate and minding Vale all day? What about her degree in tourism?

“María was never that interested in school,” Pedro told me.

Didn’t she want to work outside the home, or travel, or party with her friends?

“Maybe,” Pedro admitted, “but look at Vale. She’s precious! Is it better for María to have her independence even if it means that Vale would have never been born?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. I didn’t see the situation that way, so I kept quiet.

When I looked at Vale I saw a pretty little girl with big grey eyes and curly hair who imitated funny faces and offered me raisins instead of eating them herself. But I also saw a tiresome, needy child who demanded the attention of her young parents, especially her mother. I didn’t see why the decision had to be between María and Sebastián’s independence and Vale’s existence. Why couldn’t Vale just have been born a few years later? Because María didn’t have access to an abortion or the morning-after pill, I answered myself. This was where I came in.

But instead of asking María if she wanted a pill packet, I hesitated. It felt paternalistic to be an American woman handing out birth control to Chilean women. If they had asked for it would have felt okay, but just giving it away seemed presumptuous. I didn’t want María to think I thought she was irresponsible, or that I was judging her.

I also was afraid that in giving her the pills, it would be obvious that I thought having Vale was a mistake. I realized that I didn’t know for sure that María thought the same way I did. She seemed content to wear her flowery apron, listen to the radio, and bake cookies while Vale played with toys on the kitchen floor. Instead of feeling strangled by her situation, she seemed to embrace it.

María had not become pregnant for lack of information or access to birth control. Although she was not rich, she certainly did not live in poverty and buying condoms or an IUD would not have been out of the question. So what happened?

Pedro offered an explanation that, in his mind, applied to many young women like María: she was just careless. Rather than attributing her pregnancy to contraceptive inaccessibility, misuse, or failure, my friend thought she hadn’t used birth control at all. He knew many women that didn’t, even though they knew it might result in a baby. In fact, nearly half of Chileans don’t use birth control on a regular basis. Only 60% of upper class and 30% of lower class Chileans claim to use protection during sex consistently. I assumed the low figure for the poor was due to cost and/or lack of education, but why did so many upper-class women forgo birth control if they knew what could happen?

Women in Chile have come a long way since their mothers’ generation, frequently attending college and working outside the home. But I wondered if they were still expected, or wanted, to wind up as full-time mothers and wives in spite of their education and preparation for other occupations. Perhaps they thought that if they would become mothers eventually, it didn’t really matter when it happened, especially if there wasn’t something else they would rather do. This resigned attitude towards pregnancy — if it happens, it happens — would undoubtedly contribute to mis- or non-use of birth control. Until I learned why so many young women had babies, I decided to withhold the pills. So they stayed disguised as vitamins, and for a few weeks I forgot about them all together and focused on my research.

I decided to conduct a few interviews in Neltume, an isolated forestry town tucked in the foothills of the Andes. I knew I was nearing the end of the long bus ride as the roads deteriorated from smooth to bumpy and finally to dirt. I asked the driver to let me out at the Fuentes Hostel, but when I stepped off the bus into a light mist, I didn’t know which of the small huddled houses was the right one.

I asked the only person in sight, a pretty woman who stopped pruning her rose bushes and pointed her gardening shears at the house down the road. I knocked on the door and waited. The house was larger than the others on the street, though only one story. Smoke drifted out of the chimney and a cat peered out from beneath a raspberry bush. A muddy truck was parked in the driveway. The door opened, and a large, cheery woman welcomed me into the house. She ran a pensión, an everything-included hostel frequented mostly by teachers and forestry workers. The living room of the house was spacious and had a polished tile floor. A wood stove glowed from the dark corner, and a small dog curled up on a ratty pillow behind it. The woman at the door served me tea while I sat in front of the wood stove and chatted with her daughter Xaviera, who was large and soft like her mother.

That night I stayed up late with the two women in the kitchen, drinking black tea underneath the flickering fluorescent light. They had stoked the wood stove they used to cook, and the room felt stuffy and warm. Xaviera sat on the counter by an open window, occasionally reclining into the dark night to exhale smoke. We had been discussing Santiago, the city where Xaviera had lived before she returned to Neltume to have her baby, now sleeping in one of the bedrooms. There was no mention of the baby’s father, so I assumed he still lived in the city.

“God, I loved Santiago,” she said, staring into her cup of instant coffee.

I imagined that she was recalling the nights spent in colorful, grimy bars, the endless throbbing avenues full of people and cars, and the sweaty dark discotecas. She had been working as a nanny with no intention of returning to Neltume when she got pregnant.

Imagínate, me living alone in Santiago with a baby? No way,” she exclaimed. “Neltume is a good place to raise a baby.”

But was it a good place for her, I wondered? She was about my age, 23, and living in the isolated town she grew up in, population two thousand. Neltume was a place where everyone knew everything, where outsiders like myself received long second-glances. Was Xaviera suffocating here, or did she enjoy the homecoming? Was I just imposing myself on her?

“Did you want to have the baby?” I asked, taking a risk. I hadn’t yet asked anyone if their babies were planned or not, and I worried it was too personal a question. Xaviera didn’t seem to think so.

“Definitely not,” she responded immediately, and then she looked at the wall behind which her daughter slept. “But she’s a blessing from God.”

Later that night, I lay beneath heavy blankets and wrote in my journal. Explosions and laughter from the television traveled easily through the thin plywood walls, and I heard Xaviera cooing to her baby in the moments when the noises briefly stopped. It occurred to me that Xaviera might not think that the pregnancy had ruined her life. She seemed to love Santiago, but perhaps she did not see herself ending up in the city for good; maybe she didn’t have definite goals or plans that she abandoned by becoming a mother unexpectedly. I put my pen down and thought of Xaviera’s daughter skidding across the floor in her white rolling chair, playing bumper cars with the couch and dining room table. Xaviera had run out of the kitchen when the little girl crashed into the door and held her, murmuring softly. A baby could have given her a sense of purpose she might have been lacking beforehand, when she was an anonymous resident of Santiago, population seven million.

I thought about giving the pills to Xaviera, but again I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact, I didn’t feel comfortable giving them to any of the women I met that summer. I didn’t know what I would say to María; and I was terrified the conversation might ruin my relationship with Leslie and her family, whose house I stayed at later in my trip. I thought Xaviera might be offended and didn’t know Camila, a friend’s sister, well enough. On my last day in Chile, I still had them in my toiletry kit, but I was determined to rid myself of them before I left the country. So I traveled to Valparaíso to visit an American woman I went to college with who now lived there with her Chilean boyfriend.

On the bus from Santiago I rested my head against the tinted window. Endless vineyards sprawled out from the highway, abruptly ending where the low scrubby mountains rose out of the fields. We sped past roadside restaurants advertising Chilean favorites like empenadas and pastel de choclo, men riding bicycles in the shoulder, and countless metal shacks that grew like weeds along the highway. The bus groaned and slowed as we approached the hill leading into to Valparaíso. I hadn’t been back to the city since studying abroad there almost eight months earlier, and I felt a nervous excitement as the bus passed places I remembered—the decrepit green trolley cars, the crowded new supermarket, the shit-spattered statue of another one of Chile’s celebrated war heroes.

Sarah met me outside the bus station, and I recognized her right away, despite having met her only once. She was tall even by American standards, with curly light brown hair, and stood out against the mass of shorter, dark-haired Chileans who moved briskly along the sidewalk. We walked together to an outdoor market to buy vegetables for dinner. I hadn’t spent time with an American all summer, and I was surprised by how easy it was to relate to her. We were pleased by the same small things: the oil drums filled with spices, the wheelbarrows overflowing with cilantro and parsley, the glassy eyes of the fish packed whole in ice. We both loved wandering the city’s hills, dodging the taxis that sped down the hills like tumbling boulders, and riding the many funiculars that rumbled up rusting tracks, rattling the grimy windows that tourists pressed up against anyway to look at the view. It was so validating to be with someone who understood, without further explanation, what was so odd about the chorrillana, a pile of greasy French fries topped with hot dog, egg, and onions. I loved that I could understand her jokes and dry sense of humor, so similar to my own.

Over dinner in Sarah’s small cabin that she rented with her boyfriend, I asked her if she would take the pills and distribute them to her female friends. I was surprised by how easy it was to ask her, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I had much more in common with her than the Chilean women I met that summer. It was more than our shared college experience, socioeconomic background, and interest in Latin America that let me understand Sarah. Rather, our beliefs, expectations, and personalities were rooted in the same shared experience of being a certain type of American woman.

I was confident that eventually I could overcome the gap that separated me from the Chilean women I met, but it had been naive to think I could do it right away, or that I could learn enough about their situations through researching pregnancy rates and reproductive rights legislation. Pregnancy was a completely different process for Chilean women than for upper-middle class American women. Because here it nearly always resulted in a baby, I could not approach it with the same lightness that I used with my friends at home.

After I gave the vitamin bottle with the pills to Sarah, she turned it over in her hand, rattling it absentmindedly.

“You know,” she said. “I don’t really have any close girlfriends here. I don’t know how easy it will be to give these out.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m giving them to you because I couldn’t find anyone else.”

But I wasn’t worried. All I cared about was that the pills stayed in Chile with someone who would have more time to puzzle out the unspoken barrier that separated Sarah and I from the women we met, or find a Chilean woman who somehow had been able to break through on her own.

Emily Guerin works as an environmental educator and newbie journalist in Maine, where she actively works to disprove the stigma that all people from Massachusetts are "Massholes." When she leaves New England, she gravitates toward Latin America or the American West.