“How do you feel when people say you are as influential as Lady Gaga?” a Spanish-language TV reporter asked Vallejo on Wednesday at a news media briefing
in Washington, where she traveled
to meet with college students and receive a human rights award. Vallejo, blushing and briefly flustered, quickly returned to her critique of neo-liberal economic policies and social inequality.
She rose to sudden fame last year as the telegenic symbol of a movement on Chilean college campuses that began as a protest against expensive tuition costs. It soon widened into a crusade against the broader free-market and privatization policies that were forced on Chile during Pinochet’s 17-year rule and are being strongly embraced by a conservative civilian administration that took office in 2010.
Months of demonstrations drew both Internet-era publicity and Pinochet-era repression. Exuberant young crowds banging metal pots or dancing in choreographed moonwalks were chased down by police vehicles and sprayed with gas and water. Vallejo, a youth leader of Chile’s Communist Party and president of the University of Chile student federation, was compared with Che Guevara.
When she arrived in Washington this week, between visits to campuses in New York and Boston, she was swarmed by students at American University, where some have been trying to form a similar movement against what they call oppressive debts for college loans.
“I’m not easily star-struck, and she was very approachable, but somehow I felt too intimidated to ask her a question,” said Mike Wang, 19, a junior and student activist who helped organize the campus discussion Tuesday with Vallejo and a fellow Chilean student leader, Noam Titelman. “It was like meeting a big celebrity.”
On Wednesday evening, at a packed gala in the majestic Carnegie Institution for Science on 16th Street NW, Vallejo mingled with hundreds of admirers who had gathered at the ceremony for the 36th annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards (recipients have included Pete Seeger and a migrant shelter in Mexico). Onstage, wearing faded jeans and scuffed boots, Vallejo laughed nervously as she read her acceptance speech in halting English, stumbling over words such as “sovereignty.”
“We must recover from the terrible consequences of Pinochet if we want a true democracy,” she declared, describing how college privatization has created a gulf between wealthy and poor students. “In our country, there is no justice, even if we don’t have a dictator anymore.”