CD Palestino vs Santiago Wanderers
Estadio Municipal La Cisterna, Santiago de Chile (x)

“Porque de Oriente nos llega la luz.”

That’s the motto of Club Deportivo Palestino, a first-division soccer team based in Santiago de Chile — a Spanish translation of ex oriente, lux. As a rule, I happen to agree.

I was one of few women in sight on the Andes side of Estadio Municipal de La Cisterna, a stark 12,000-seater in the sprawling south end of greater Santiago. I was also one of few adults, as every schoolboy in the neighborhood was bumbling about with a hot dog in one hand and a Palestinian flag in the other. It was sparse, maybe a thousand people, but it was lively. One of the tamer pairs of father and son sat next to me, giving me those occasional encouraging nods that every female soccer fan recognizes as having been assigned her bodyguards for the day.

Not that I’d need them here. I’d come to this match between Palestino and Santiago Wanderers (who, incidentally, wandered all the way from Valparaíso) on my last day in the city because it was the only one on. Everyone else’s attention was focused on the superclásico, the enormous rivalry between Universidad de Chile and Colo-Colo, that was set for the day after. The furor was such that on my way to La Cisterna I was confused by crowds of drummers and smoke-bomb throwers and generally harmless merrymakers in Universidad de Chile’s unmistakable red-and-blue that were blocking the normal route to the stadium. It was just the local supporters’ group. Meanwhile, the Palestino regulars sauntered quietly through the back door with an attitude more of a family dinner than a South American soccer game.

Though they’ve won the league twice since going professional in 1952, they are not the most successful of clubs these days. They are, however, one of the most storied. The club was founded in 1920 by a group of Palestinian immigrants to Chile, and has remained connected to the Palestinian- and Arab-Chilean communities ever since. Their red, green, and black jerseys, sponsored by the Bank of Palestine, cover the stands and the field alike every week while chants in Spanish join songs in Arabic to fill out the ambiance. It’s a joyful atmosphere, and since Spanish and Arabic joining together in song is a rather liturgical association for me, I felt right at home despite the ethnic, linguistic, and gendered barriers that I might have expected.

I’m used to the “free Palestine” placards all over Argentine universities alongside every other political banner known to man, but it was new for me to see the Palestinian diaspora in an entirely personal rather than explicitly political context. I was reminded of the Catalan chants in Camp Nou and the Spanish chants back in RFK — it was a community space, a gathering place, with politics read in from the outside more often than not.

Because of the large Palestinian community in Chile, the club has been largely uncontroversial until recently. In January, they were fined a bit over a thousand dollars for featuring a map of Palestine as the number 1 on their jersey, since it reflected the historical boundaries of Palestine before the creation of Israel. The federation banned the shirts after complaints by Chilean Jewish groups under the leadership of Ñublense owner Patrick Kiblisky, who appealed to the rule against “any form of political, religious, sexual, ethnic, social or racial discrimination” in the league. The club paid the fine, amended the shirt, and shrugged, stating: “For us, free Palestine will always be historical Palestine, nothing less.”

And though I was only there for one match, and don’t know Chile well enough to truly speak to the situation at hand, I couldn’t help but be surprised when I read that news upon returning from the stadium. One of the things I enjoyed most about the match was its carefreeness, a total lack of tension that I’d never really seen around Palestinian identity before. My only other experiences of Palestinian expression are protests in New York and London and occasional email missives from Orthodox brewers half a world away, so being in an atmosphere where that culture went uncontested, where that experience went unquestioned, was a novelty and a relief.

In any event, they lost the match, but they didn’t go down without a fight. I was especially enamored of pinkclad goalkeeper Darío Melo and fierce midfielder Diego Torres, whose respective antics made the 2-0 loss tolerable. The popsicle-fisted boy who handed me a flag and shouted TINO-TINO-TINO! PA-LE-STI-NO-DE-CHI-LE! in my face for a solid thirty minutes was my true Man of the Match.

It was good to be there, seven thousand Chilean pesos later (that’s only twelve bucks), being a part of that beloved ritual again. I’ve never been kidding about soccer being a very holy thing to me, for many reasons, but not least because of the way it brings people together in this cherished communal repetition of ours. For all my academic pretenses on the subject, I try never to lose that joy that made me love the sport in the first place. That sense of belonging anywhere you go, of knowing exactly where you are and what to do, of instant brotherhood, and yet of perennial surprise.

I rediscovered all that in Chile, maybe because it was spring break and I finally had something other than thesis deadlines to think about — that is, I had nothing to think about at all. Earlier that week I’d gone to a bar with no name off Calle Merced in the heart of downtown Santiago to catch Chile against Bolivia, an international friendly that lived up to its name. I started the evening quiet in the corner, the only woman other than the waitresses and thus entirely on guard, and ended up (through slurred shenanigans still somewhat mysterious to me) in the middle of a small but packed crowd of old locals who gifted me the appellation nuestra suerte norteamericana! as Chile were awarded a late penalty to tie the score. I stuck out so much, and cared so little, because I never get tired of this.

And by this, of course, I don’t mean the instant befriending of Chilean strangers — though I enjoy that, too. I mean the ritual of soccer. You always know you are in for 90 minutes of 22 guys chasing a ball to score some goals. There are rules and we just push against them. It is an endless variation on a theme.

The bar will fill every week, mostly with the same people who order the same things. There are only so many ways to ask for a porrón of Quilmes. They will have slightly different conversations, and build different relationships, but the mechanics will go untouched. I know, right now, that this entire country is gesticulating in unison as this game plays. But we do it individually, if simultaneously, in reactions that became reflexes years ago. We will do this in a different order every week, but we will do it. We will thrive our whole lives in this controlled chaos: alcohol and seats, energy and the rehearsed timing of applause and shouts. This silly, chosen love of ours will carry different decoration but the heart will go unchanged.

When I look down at the pitch these days it’s more often than not wearing Barça blaugrana. I remember when it was DC United black-and-red and when Arsenal’s Highbury felt like home. Every dirt patch feels like John Adams Elementary School on some level. Slowly, but surely, those red devils over at Independiente de Avellaneda are becoming a familiar sight. But this one Saturday, it was red and green and black. I was there, and it was mine, for ninety minutes at a time.

This thing amazes me and I love it so much.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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