On Thursday night we were awoken by that most beloved of sounds – flaites.
This is nothing new for us, but that night we were both struck by the sheer desperation we heard in the voice of the man yelling beneath our window.
Don’t worry, he wasn’t demanding Luis come down and fight with him, he was requesting the presence of another. He kept up his ranting/raving/screaming/pleading/threatening/begging for a good hour but the other man in question did a sensible no-show. Instead, our friend was joined by several others who upped the volume by telling him to shut his flaming piehole.
Someone once asked me “how can you live there?” They then swiftly followed this up with “I’d never live in a house in Santiago because I’ll get robbed” and it is true that occasionaly I feel fear (especially because although our dog sounds like a bear, she’s so old she can’t even walk to her kennel without taking a rest en route).
We are fortunate because it just so happens that the family who run the street also happen to be decent people. Its a conundrum to say that because, yes, they do break the law but once you have the social etiquette down, they are perfectly nice people. It helps that they all have children (they live as an extended family) because kids are the same everywhere. You have already met Maria, so now I shall introduce you to Jose.
The first time I met Jose without Luis I was scared. I was scared of the street, scared of the loiterers that lingered on the footpaths, scared of the language – hell I was even scared of the old lady next door because I heard her shouting all day long. The Spanish I knew clearly wasn’t enough because when Jose greeted me in his shop with a “Como ha estado?” I had no idea what he meant. Combined with the tattooes across his hands, knuckles and arms and they made one more reason to feel intimidated. Everytime I left the house and entered the store I felt like I was naked with a big sign above my head flashing GRINGA. Every time I fumbled my way through saying “marrequeta” (or god forbid topping up my cellphone) the queue behind me would grow until I’d turn around and see the staring faces of my entire neighborhood. Jose is not flaite, but he was in jail for a few years (hence the tattoos). He was in with a few Canadians actually, who taught him a few words of English, which in itself would make for an extremely interesting story. I’ve never felt confident enough to ask Jose about that time, but maybe one day I can share more of his story. Regardless, Jose is friendly and smiley with a daughter Emilio’s age (who is going to be a real stunner when she grows up). He is married to Graciela, a woman incredibly shy and sweet with me but when shit hits the fan on the street she turns into something kind of akin to a ninja. Because no matter how aggressive and dangerous the men may get here, the truth of the matter is that women run this show.
The sister of Graciela is Luisa and no matter what her faults are, she has earnt my respect. No-one I have met has the strength of this woman. When things get really dangerous here, she confronts it and she is the reason that safety here has increased in the last year. While the men in the family go from job to job, Luisa works hard every single day to the point where I have never really heard her leave the house.
I can say that because we live directly adjacent to one another, to the point that with our curtains open we can actually peer into each other’s rooms. Because there are more than twenty people living on their property and daily life is communal, alot of time is spent calling instructions or keeping people in line. I feel like I have come to know the family intimately. I know all their names, recognize every voice, can smell their lunch cooking and occasionally, they get a glimpse of me sitting on the toilet (darn you Emilio for opening the door!).
When my dad stayed for three weeks last year, he was bothered by their constant racket. “Don’t they every shut up?” He’d lament, night after night, and at the time I moaned with him. I have now grown so accustomed to them that they have become as comforting to me as the nightime sound of pukekos in the NZ bush. I’d really miss them – honestly – if they weren’t there. Even the sound of the old lady vomiting the morning after too much “happy time” the night before.
The family do not sleep. The children seem to be awake every time I get up during the night, and the grandma (we call her alcochofa – long story) spends alot of time doing drugs (like I said, we hear all). They love a cause for celebration and Luisa ensures every possible occasion is attended to. Her entrepeneurship astounds me. They sell the best ceviche and pebre of my life HANDS DOWN in Jose’s store and every weekend there are empanadas or completos. Depending what’s on, they sell flowers, kites, teddy bears, toys – you name it, they’ll have it.
You already know how my mind works if you read Santiago’s Children. If you have read any of my blogs then you will know I am not about making quick judgements. I like the family of Jose, Graciela and Luisa because they have always been honest, friendly and helpful with me. When Emilio was ill, Jose – like all of Zapata – was a shoulder to lean on. There are boundaries though. The social rules of Chile or even Santiago generally do not apply in friendships such as these. This calls for the understanding of what is choro (brave/hard) and what is not. What crosses the line and what does not. My friends are not delinquents like the flaites are but they are borderline. They are known as chorizos. An affront on their honor calls for swift repreive. There is no such thing as appearing weak. This is no sense of 100% trust because outsiders can never be one of the pack. They defend and keep their own valiently with no regard for anyone else. Most of them are around drugs and many of them have not had easy lives. They speak differently, adding articles and pronouns when they shouldn’t and the modulations and inflections in their tone is different to that of Santiaguinos elsewhere. They use alot of slang, and sometimes coa (originally jail slang). I don’t have a problem with them because I know they will help me if anything were to happen. It’s different with the flaites, but even that is more complicated than most people understand. If anything is taken from this brief glimpse into their lives today I hope that it is a realization. A realization that no matter how someone talks, or how they dress or what their life choices may have been, they are people too.