MEXICO CITY -- Camila Vallejo broke into the international limelight in May 2011 as the beautiful revolutionary who led hundreds of thousands of student demonstrators in a call for education reform in Chile, toppling government ministers in the process.
She was, on the surface, an unlikely leader.
Just 23 at the time, the geography student dazzled the public early on with her statuesque features, shiny nose ring, and her soft, soothing manner of speaking. More alluringly, Vallejo was often inaccessible to the press, surrounded by student bodyguards.
Underneath the image, she was clearly exhibiting sharp political skills, both on the street among the droves of students and workers who managed to frequently shut down the capital of Santiago, and also in negotiations with the government of President Sebastian Piñera.
A year later, the students' demands for a freer, more equitable education system have made some progress against Piñera's initial response that higher education in economically prosperous Chile was "a consumer good."
But overall, the movement appears to be in a state of transition, if not stalemate.
Vallejo, now 24, has also reached a point at which she must decide what her next political role might be. Could a next step be toward the electoral arena in Chile?
Last week, Vallejo visited Mexico for the first time, to speak at a conference on higher education at a Mexico City university. The visit had been planned since late last year, explained a spokesman at the Metropolitan Autonomous University (known as UAM for its initials in Spanish), but by now Vallejo's presence in Mexico had acquired politically significant overtones.
Since mid-May, Mexico has witnessed demonstrations across the country expressing opposition to the possible return to power of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in the July 1 presidential election. The new student movement in Mexico, known as #YoSoy132, or "I Am 132," has won concessions from major newscasters and on Tuesday night organized an unofficial "citizen's debate," with all the presidential candidates except Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI.
Vallejo spent about three days in Mexico, speaking at the UAM's Xochimilco campus and meeting with members of #YoSoy132.
As the country bars foreigners from "participation" in politics, she made sure not to comment directly on Mexico's election. She also restrained from making any direct recommendations on #YoSoy132. "The students are their own advisors," Vallejo said at a news conference. "We're not here to intervene."
Despite the caution, she was treated like a rock star in liberal Mexico City.
UAM students clamored to reach out and greet her. At a public panel Saturday on a plaza near downtown, she was given bunches of flowers and greeted with shouts of "I love you!" from the crowds standing in the rain to hear her.
"What's happening here in Mexico and what's happening in Chile is that we're trying to repair the social fabric, organizing, mobilizing, so that we could more radically democratize our societies," Vallejo said in an interview with The Times on Friday.
"I believe the 'I Am 132' movement is in the same feeling," she added. "We are basically fighting for the same thing."
Her visit came at a moment of personal redefinition. In recent months, Vallejo may have seriously damaged her standing among less strident, more post-revolutionary young leftists in Latin America. She visited Cuba in April to attend the 50th anniversary of the Communist Youth Union, and apparently spoke approvingly about the Communist regime.
"If Camila Vallejo was born in Cuba, she'd be in prison or simply silenced by the mechanisms of power," said dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who sought unsuccessfully to meet Vallejo while she was in Havana (link in Spanish).
Vallejo has made no apologies for her affinity to Communist thought. She is the daughter of members of Chile's Communist Party and a member herself of the Communist Youth in Chile. With her charisma and political capital among Chilean society, some are beginning to wonder whether Vallejo would seek to further tilt Chile's current opposition more to the left, as a candidate of some sort for the Communist Party.
Speaking to The Times, she did not disavow the possibility.
"I think all the youth that have mobilized have a responsibility to assume a political role at the national level," she said. "We are going to fight until the end, and not just me, but many other new partisan militants who are young and want to build a social transformation."
"I will be there," she added, "and many other youth, social leaders, in that path."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo is shown before delivering a speech during a meeting with Mexican students in the #Yosoy132 movement, at the Metropolitan Autonomus University in Mexico City on Friday. Credit: Alfredo Estrella / Agence-France Presse