Amid the national and global chaos, Hugo Ortega’s new book of poetry Amantes de cartón (Cardboard Lovers) is a quiet yet powerful exploration of love, memory, and patriotism in the 21st century. 

On the 18th October 2019 – students in Santiago, Chile, jumped over the metro ticket barriers in protest of a 30-peso hike in fare prices. No one expected how this would be the beginning of the Chilean ‘revolution’ – a movement that would irreversibly change the fabric of society.

Although the majority that day protested peacefully, a few caused destruction across the city. Metro stations were burned, buses set on fire, traffic lights and benches pulled down. President Sebastian Piñera, head of the conservative party Renovación Nacional (National Renewal), grossly misunderstood the mood of the nation, and that night declared a state of emergency. He referred to the protesters, supported by the majority of Chileans, as ‘delinquents’, and was photographed celebrating at a highly expensive pizza parlour.  In the evening, the capital erupted into chaos. 

The military were released into the streets, with a curfew imposed in Santiago and the regions. What followed were hundreds of human rights abuses committed by the armed forces as well as the Carabineros de Chile, Chile’s national police force. Instead of calming the situation, this served only to incense a population that already felt let down and forgotten by their government. 

The planned fare increase was just the tip of the iceberg for the wealth of grievances felt by the people of Chile. Despite the country’s global reputation for being one of the most developed countries in Latin America, Chile’s society is one of the most unequal. 

It is within this turbulent backdrop that the poems of Amantes de cartón take place. Although the book is a collection of love poetry, it is impossible to ignore the ‘estallido social’ effect on Ortega’s poetry – an untranslatable phrase which roughly amounts to ‘civil unrest.’ Native to Santiago, the poet has in this past year witnessed his city undergo drastic, permanent change. 

This is evident in the first poem of the collection, El ojo de Santiago (The Eye of Santiago). Ortega describes the city’s ‘gaze’ as indifferent and contaminated, alluding to the sense of the Chilean pueblo having been ignored by a neoliberal capitalist system. This system finds its best physical expression in the neighbourhood of Santiago dubbed ‘Sanhattan’, a shiny, reflective, Western-style metropolis.

The image of the ‘eye’ is something Hugo Ortega uses throughout the collection and has its own political significance in Chile. During the unrest, the police and military used rubber bullets to shoot at protesters, many of whom were shot in the eye and lost their sight. This became a symbol of the struggle of the Chilean people and appeared in graffiti and posters across the city. 

Un país de cartón, (A cardboard country), the second poem, introduces the extended metaphor of both nation and individual being made of cardboard. A flimsy, bland, and featureless material, cardboard reflects the poet’s feelings about his city and country. La Moneda, for example, the presidential palace, is described as ‘una gran caja de cartón’ (a huge cardboard box) – the system of governance it represents seeming false and impotent. The power of this image lies in its simplicity; Ortega’s poetic voice, despite making grand statements, never ventures into the pretentious. 

The poet connects his feelings towards Santiago with his experience of love within it in the titular poem, Amantes de cartón. ‘Es tan fácil que la fuerza del desamor y el aburrimiento se devore a los amantes de cartón’ (It is so easy for the force of lovelessness and boredom to devour the cardboard lovers). The couple are almost powerless against a climate that rejects them, so strong is the ‘dinosaurio de monotonía’ (the dinosaur of monotony) that pursues them and attempts to destroy them.

The Santiago of today may cause lovers to suffer, but it is not without its romance. The poetic voice is imbued with small, everyday memories of love in the city. In Huerfanos, a street in Santiago’s Santa Lucía neighbourhood, the narrator recalls a walk he and his lost love took through the area the day his dog died. He describes the walk from Cerro Santa Lucía, a small park, fortress and tourist trap, all the way up to Quinta Normal to the west of the city, the lovers crossing the road to avoid the sun. Only someone that both knows and loves Santiago intimately could describe in such accurate detail a seemingly inconsequential memory. 

Love in modern-day Santiago is a key theme in the collection, but Ortega doesn’t hesitate to give a universal experience of love which is not particular to Chile. Dos mil ciento noventa (2190) is a poignant poem in which the poet runs into an ex-partner while going up in a lift. On the surface, there is nothing remarkable about this chance encounter, but Ortega gives the narrative voice a subjective power – he muses on has-beens and could-bes, wondering what she is thinking, where she is going, whether she will tell her friends. It is uncommunicated longing which resonates universally, transforming an everyday experience into something far grander and more profound. 

When asked about the ideas behind his newest work, Hugo Ortega told Cherwell:

“Es un poemario del fracaso amoroso, pero que recoge los momentos que marcaron para siempre la relación entre los dos. Está basado en distintas experiencias; leídas, escuchadas, vividas e imaginadas.”

“It is a poetry collection all about a failed relationship; one that brings together all the moments that will forever mark the connection shared between the two lovers. It is based on distinct experiences that have been read about, heard of, lived through, and imagined.”

Hugo Ortega has the rare gift of being able to move seamlessly between the big and the small, and it is here where the magic of Amantes de cartón lies. The political background is never forgotten – the reader gets a strong sense of its effect on the nation and on the poet – but the collection is also a meditation on love and lovelessness, on moving from lovers to strangers, and on the simple yet lasting impressions that these experiences evoke.