by Josh Elder, President and Founder, Reading With Pictures, December 11, 2013
It began with a single email. I thought at first that it had to be some kind of elaborate scam. Why would the US embassy in Chile want to enlist me as a comics ambassador? I didn’t even know what a comics ambassador was, much less think I would be qualified for it. But Marco Castillo, the embassy’s IRC Director, assured me that they had the right guy. And who was I to argue with credentials like that?
Four months later, my plane touched down in Santiago. The embassy had taken care of everything. I knew where I was going to be, who I was going to meet and what the goals were for my visit. I was there to meet with teachers, inspire young people and spread American culture through comic books. Heady responsibilities, but I was up to the task. Right after, I slept about 12 hours to overcome my jet lag.
Monday, November 4 was my first official day “on the job,” and it started early. I met with Marco in the hotel lobby and he escorted me over to the embassy where I met several of his colleagues and got a complete briefing on the week ahead. We then took to the streets of Santiago – where I learned that traffic jams are called “tacos” for reasons that no one quite understands – for my first event at the National Library.
Librarian Daniela Correa gave me a tour before my presentation to librarians and academics. The building itself was a grand structure. I’d encountered few to equal it in all my travels. The museum installations added immensely to the experience, endowing the structure with a sense of its own history while still keeping it vibrant and relevant in the here and now.
The event itself was a hit, mostly thanks to my two highly skilled translators who managed to make most of my jokes despite the language/culture divide. Afterwards, I was gifted with an absolutely beautiful set of art books, the first of many such gifts I would receive from my gracious hosts at every stop along my journey.
The remainder of my day was spent at the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano. I gave my presentation to another group of educators and librarians thanks to the wonders of simultaneous translation. I then participated in a massive open online course on comics that Marco was running for a group of students. I shared my experiences in the comic industry and my thoughts on Superman, Batman and the rest of their costumed comrades. I know I learned a great deal about the native Chilean comics industry, and I like to think I taught them a thing or two in the process.
Day two (Tuesday) began with an early morning flight to Concepcion and a presentation at the Universidad San Sebastian for teachers and students of English-teaching programs. It was a terrific and energetic session. I was impressed not only with the English language abilities of the students I interacted with, but also their passion for finding new ways to both teach and learn.
I next made my way to the Binational Center where I presented a comic creating workshop to the teenage students in the ACCESS program. Their language skills were so flawless that I felt like I was back in the States. They were a fun group that asked insightful and absurd questions in equal measure. We went off on so many odd tangents that I never finished my slideshow, though we were all having so much fun that I don’t think anyone even noticed.
Day three (Wednesday) began with a presentation to the English-teaching program at the Universidad de Concepcion. It was a smaller group than what I’d encountered at USS, but no less passionate. In fact, I encountered several educators-in-training who were interested in contributing to the Reading With Pictures website and got into a lengthy discussion about Iron Man with a fellow comic book fanboy. I learned more about the history of comics in Chile, how they were making a major resurgence and everybody knows Condorito.
I ended the day with a presentation to educators from across the region who came to the Ministry of Education (some driving 2-3 hours in one direction) to hear my lecture and learn new techniques to help them reach their students. I was amazed at their dedication and passion. Afterward, I had the pleasure of talking comics, journalism and documentary storytelling with a young Fulbright Scholar and then breaking bread with Marco’s family who provided excellent company and a delightful home-cooked meal.
Day four (Thursday) saw my return to Santiago. At the embassy, I sat down with Marco for an interview that was broadcast live across the globe. I was expecting to give a presentation, but Marco made sure the interview ran smoothly. It was a success by all accounts, and was certainly the first time I’ve ever been retweeted by a U S consulate.
I ended the day with a visit to Universidad Central where I gave my lecture to a group of students going to night school in order to better themselves. They were exhausted after a hard day’s work – a full night of classes still ahead of them – but I received more insightful questions per capita at that lecture than anywhere else. I was given yet another token of appreciation – a mug with a built-in stirring spoon – that I have come to believe is the pinnacle of coffee serving technology and the new standard by which I will compare all coffee mugs I encounter from this point forward.
Day five (Friday) saw us leave Santiago for Valparaiso, a gorgeous city built into the hills and mountainsides that reminded me of the towns of central/northern California near where I call home. Our morning event for librarians at the BNC Valparaiso proved to be a bust – the only one of the entire trip – so I was whisked away up winding mountain passes to an elementary/grammar school built with US funds in the 1960s and staffed by some incredibly dedicated teachers and some of the brightest and most attentive young people I’ve ever met.
I didn’t have long, so we talked about comics, and I drew them a terrible picture of Batman on the dry erase board. But it was only later when I was being interviewed by a student reporter for the school magazine (which looked far better than the student newspaper at my high school) that I realized how impressive this place truly was. With few resources save for determination and an earnest desire to learn – and to make learning fun – this school had accomplished great things. They were justifiably proud of their accomplishments, and I was honored to be there – even if I did get a little motion sick going up those looping mountain roads.
My final event was back at the BNC where I met the Valapraiso branch of the ACCESS program. They were a bright, fun bunch. We talked about how stories worked and then put those theories into practice by making three-panel comic strips. The students took to this task with gusto, producing some genuinely hilarious works – some of which I now have thanks to the generosity of my students who asked only for an autograph in return. A small price to pay for the early work of eventual comic maestros.
We ended the session with a group photo. Everyone did superhero poses, and it was absolutely awesome. That night I said goodbye to Marco, thanking him for being the best tour guide and concierge I could have ever hoped for. Not to mention setting all this up in the first place!
The next day (Saturday), I had some time to myself before my plane left back to the States. As I wandered the streets of Santiago, I marveled at my good fortune. I had been brought to this beautiful country filled with warm and wonderful people in order to spread the message the message of comics in the classroom. It was one of the most validating experiences of my entire life, and a dream come true.
I vowed then and there that this wouldn’t be a one-time event. Reading With Pictures would launch a Comics Ambassador program to empower individuals the world over to bring comics into their local classrooms and libraries. And while I don’t know when I’ll return to Chile, I’ve already been offered the chance to travel to Russia and spread the word there.
I can only hope that it’s half the experience that I had in Chile.