Open Letter to Hospital Roberto del Rio

(I wrote this at Emilio’s bedside in hospital last year, and misplaced it until recently)

Dear Hospital Roberto del Rio,

When my 19month old Chilean son stopped breathing on Tuesday I did not think about the distinctions between public/private, Chilean/extranjero – I did not even think forward enough to put my shoes on. To see my son’s lips turn blue, eyes rolled back in his head and his small body convulse with seizures drove all thoughts from my mind except “save my baby.” Roberto del Rio is the closest hospital to my house and considered one of the best for pediatric care, and as we rode there in a stranger’s car I had no idea of the trial that was just beginning.

I have no real qualms about the care we received in Urgencia  – my son was saved not once but twice and all manner of exams were organized quickly. However when he was transferred to the children’s ward two things happened that was troubling, upsetting and concerning.  The first is that my position as a New Zealander with limited Spanish resulted in a condescending attitude being shown towards me by staff with a complete lack of communication on their part.  I was told that I should not be there if I couldn’t speak fluent Spanish, medicines were adminstered without my knowledge or consent, exam results were never explained and intimate details about my son’s case and our family were relayed to the other patients in the ward. Important questions were even directed to them. I was laughed at during my attempts to communicate (by the doctor no less) and those who did speak fluent English did not disclose this information. I felt abandoned, stressed and worried because I felt my son was not being laughed and instead of feeling support around me, all I felt was attack.  From a medical standpoint, the lack of interaction and interest shown is particularly concerning as vital information about my son’s symptoms were ignored or unheard by medical staff, meaning that they did not have a clear picture of my son’s condition.

The second concern is how my son was treated. He was confined to the cot – his place of rest – during his stay, and received all medical treatments and examinations in it. Twice a day he was left alone for testing for up to an hour and a half. He was not permitted to see his parents at the same time, which in our case is particularly troubling given then the father speaks English and could act as a translator.  My son very quickly began to exhibit signs of severe psychological stress and trauma: screaming, violent behahavior to himself, difficulty sleeping, self harm whenever he was left alone or saw a staff member coming. Staff members made derogatory remarks about him to co-workers and other patients in the ward, spoke harshly to him during testing and monitoring, and at times handled him very roughly (including forcefully administering a blood test that caused him great pain). Each time he was forced to be without me contributed greatly to his mounting terror.

I am disgusted that we should suffer such care and psychological harm in a place of care by the very people who take oaths to protect us. That my personal status as a non-chilean should have any bearing upon the care given to a baby is deplorable. To hear Chileans around me say that I must “suck it up or my son will be punished” goes against the core of biomedicine and of human rights in general. We are just two of many who have suffered at the hands of the system and will continue to suffer unless urgent attention is given to rectifying what I believe to be despicable breaches of ethical conduct.

Yours Sincerely,

Helen Cordery

UPDATE: After concluding our week-long stay at Roberto del Rio, and after having unnescessary tests performed, wrong medicines administered and various conflicting information and advice handed out, we returned home. Over the next few months we lived with a severely traumatised child. He could not sleep alone or eat properly,  developed a morbid fear of strange people and things and lost weight.  It took a very long time for our family to settle back into a normal routine and now, a year on, our son is still terrified of any medical situation.

Roberto del Rio Acceptable Practice Examples:

  1. Urgencia doctors exhibited professionalism
  2. One excellent female doctor in the ward that we saw on the Thursday morning
  3. Quick exams performed in Urgencia
  4. One friendly tecnical assistant during our ward stay.


List of Grievances:

  1. Lack of translation, interest in translation or attempts at communicating with me, despite being our son’s carer
  2. One nurse hurt Emilio while administering a blood test and made no apology
  3. One nurse reprimanded us for not getting appropriately attired before bringing our technically-dead son to the hospital
  4. Spinal exam performed without anaesthetic
  5. Three doctors did not disclose to me that they could speak fluent English in the ward, even when I was visually struggling to communicate vital information
  6. The Declaration of our rights was partially translated into English but most of it was not
  7. All exams were administered when Emilio was in his cot
  8. Despite being told our twice-daily seperaion would last 10-20 minutes, one time it lasted 1.5 hours.
  9. Conflicting information from nurses
  10. Nurses talked about our case to other patients in the room, sometimes negatively
  11. Staff directed all questions to other patients in the room instead of to me
  12. At no time was information given to us about our son’s condition, his test results or his medicines
  13. One doctor laughed at me while attempting to speak
  14. Repeated remarks made about my son being “too scared” and that it was “the mother’s fault.”
  15. No attempt to ease his pain
  16. No nappy cream administered or offered despite having diarrhoea that was acidic. His entire bottom was bleeding and leaking green pus.
  17. No help when Emilio vomited and could not breathe in front of the staff
  18. When I needed help I had to repeatedly ask.
  19. Each concern I raised was met with “no entiendo nada”
  20. I was shouted at  allowing vomit to get on the cot sheets
  21. I was kicked awake by a tecnica while sitting on my suitcase
  22. Conflicting medical advice given
  23. Dietary advice given that is not in accordance with common international practices, such as WHO.
Emilio five days before going into hospital.
Emilio five days in to his hospital stay and finally lucid.
Emilio  five months after his hospital visit



Notes from the Street: Made In Recoleta

It is 5.30pm and I have been sitting on the grass at a Recoleta playground for the last 2.5 hours. It is one of those neighorhood spaces down a normal street and placed so smack-bang in front of people’s houses that residents must drive their cars through the playground to reach their driveways. There are a few exercise machines meant for the elderly but that get invariably commandeered by adventurous children. There are two swings, two slides and some trees interspersing a small grassy area.  In front there is the usual corner store that Emilio will forever associate with cheap icecreams and in the near distance there are cranes building yet another apartment block.

The first tme we came here I felt nervous and more than a little obvious, mainly as Emilio and I are both fair unlike the majority around us. For another, teenagers slumped in tight circles on the grass with loose cigarettes hanging from their mouths while on the roadside groups of men lingered, immersed in clouds of marijuana smoke. Today, for example, there is heavy metal blaring from somewhere nearby while the occupants of the shadowy house beside the park are doing little but standing outside with their beatup car and their fake Nike. The ground around me is littered with poop and ciggie butts and every so often a dog will come over to me, sniff my butt and then leave after confirming that, yes, I am here.

For all of these seemingly ugly features there is something special in this park, something which draws us back day after day, for hours at a time. And that reason is the children. Right now the air is filled with the sound of laughter and squealing as Emilio plays with the neighborhood residents. One of them is about three while the other is around 7 – the latter a mother-hen type who watches her sister like a hawk, reprimands her when she is naughty and comforts her when she falls. She also looks after Emilio and plays with him, pushes them both on the swing, giggles when he does and dusts his bottom off every time he gets (very) dirty.  There is a nurturing aspect to the children we have encountered here that I do not recall ever witnessing as the norm in New Zealand, or even when I take my charges to the park in other areas of Santiago. Of course, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I just have never noticed it to this degree.  Everyone seems to be really looking out for each other, and I see this time and time again. I can’t even safely say that it’s because the girls are being shaped into the moulds of their mothers because I’ve noticed the same from the boys as well. I remember when Emilio attended the neighbour’s birthday party and decided to jump on the trampoline with the big kids. They were all so protective of the small fry amongst them that it really touched my heart, with one in particular going above and beyond to help him up every two seconds as he fell down. Alot.

These are good kids, despite some of them growing up in difficult situations. Recoleta is, after all, a barrio just like Conchali, if you will recall the encounters of Ojos Abiertos last year. Or perhaps you can remember the story of Jose, our neighbour, and his family.  Some of these children will spend much of their lives sleeping in the same room as their parents, bearing witness to acts that children shouldn’t otherwise see. Some of them will go on to make bad choices, made bad friends or head off in unwise directions. Some of them may copy their parents and follow a path of crime or other unsavoury activities, while others still will strive and achieve success.


I can’t remember if I have mentioned Diego before but I have certainly meant to. He is the adopted son of Jose, of the famous empanadas, and at a guess I’d place him around twelve years old. He is tall, skinny, softly spoken and has a shiny earring in one ear.  I cannot tell you where his birth parents are or how he is related to Jose, but I assume Diego has had some difficulty in his life. I admire Jose because not only has he transformed our street to have a strong sense of community, but he actually no longer lives next door to us (though he continues to work there every single day without fail).  When he and his wife were expecting a baby they moved to the countryside near Batuco, taking Diego and Maria with them (another cheer for the subsidio grant!).

Not all the kids we encounter here are angels but Diego has something special. He is caring, considerate, extremely intelligent and most of all he exudes a quality of gentleness. Every time he sees Emilio he hugs him or gives him a high five, and if the other kids are around with a toy or a lollipop he encourages them to share.  One of the children from next door is close in age to Emilio and about as similar to him as night and day.  I will call him Daniel and his mother is one of the daughters of Luisa. Daniel is not a happy toddler, in fact every time I see him he is either crying or bashing Emilio over the head with something. His mother, Ashley, is extremely aggressive and will never make eye contact if I encounter her a few metres away from her house.  I do not imagine that she has had an easy life either, and certainly she has made a few mistakes along the way. Daniel, according to Luisa, was one of them, as the whole street found out the night when her pregnancy was ever so discreetly announced. Luisa was screaming at her using every curse word and foul thing to say under the sun – right below our bedroom window – mainly because the lack of respect her pregnancy brought but also, I suspect, because the father is about as big a drug addict as you can get, does not work and therefore would not be able to contribute to the growing costs of pregnancy, birth and raising a child (even using the public system of healthcare and education).  The family were already strained enough, with a good twenty people sharing the small living spaces next door. That was all two years ago now and during that time Ashley has been kicked out of a rented room down the road, moved back in with her mum and given birth to Daniel. Daniel and Diego are as different as chalk and cheese but they originally started out in the same household. What a difference the guidance of Jose has made. I really, really hope that some compassionate teacher will see the potential Diego has and single him out, hopefully providing him with further positive mentors and options for his future. If he receives that, Diego will go a long way.

Being a mother here in Santiago has come with plenty of ups and downs but the general attitude towards my son has been overwhelmingly positive. Strangers will look out for Emilio and interact with him, sometimes in the most unlikely of situations. But what I really love is how warm and caring so many of the kids are, especially when I’m sitting on the grass, five months pregnant (and therefore slow to get up) and writing a blog entry, like today. If the future is in the hands of the children then the future of this city looks bright indeed.

Very bright indeed.

Valparaiso art, but seemed fitting.

Note: the featured image for this blog was drawn by one of the students of Hoda and Georgina in Conchali last year, during the volunteer Art Expression classes organized by Ojos Abiertos.

An Essay on La Pincoya

Political Economic Theory in Clara Han’s “Life in Debt”

       ‘Life in Debt’, by the anthropologist Clara Han, is not the easiest read.  It is based upon three years of ethnographic research in Chile, a country with a long troubled past (including a dictatorship), and it is densely filled with information. Today Chile is one of South America’s most prosperous nations and has attracted considerable foreign interest.  Han’s ethnography is concerned with a specific area of Santiago known as ‘La Pincoya’, a low-class neighbourhood which locals label as dangerous and drug-laden.  In the following essay I shall analyse in close detail her use of anthropological theory in analysing her data, in addition to the strengths and weaknesses of using this theory.

To first paint a picture of where this ethnography is set, La Pincoya is located in the north-east of Santiago, in the suburb of ‘Huerchuraba.’ It is bordered on one side by a small business sector that includes CNN and other prominent companies, and on the other by a trendy, residential area which it is separated from by a series of large hills.  La Pincoya is, however, of a different calibre to the above. It contains small streets lined with coloured houses and fenced patios; sometimes the yards are completely enclosed by tall gates or iron placed in a ramshackle fashion, while house windows are barred, the roads full of potholes and the pavements broken and filled with street dogs. People here know little of life outside of La Pincoya (except what they learn from the media) and life is communal as neighbours are both friendly and close. In the patio of some of the houses, at regular intervals, you can find stores which sell an assortment of things one might need such as garlic, batteries, tampons and coca-cola. This is a distinctly lower class neighbourhood and a world away from middle-class suburbs such as Nunoa, or the vast exclusive districts that resemble the leafy parks and stately homes of England. La Pincoya is dusty and full of concrete, but it also full of character, laughter and people like any other suburb.

Before identifying Han’s theoretical approach I would like to draw attention to the metaphorical spider’s web because it helps to visualise what culture is and why theory is used.  The theorists Clifford Geertz (1926) and Arthur Radcliff-Brown (1881) both use webs as a way of explaining how culture and society are dependent upon numerous strata, each with the power to affect the other.  The many strands of this web represent different aspects of society that together make a whole – a ‘social organism’ if you will (Barnard, 2000: 62).  This is a striking notion because (in my eyes) each theoretical approach appears to differ only slightly from another, making the choice of theoretical framework all the more difficult. Furthermore, the ‘living’ nature of society makes analytical observation impossible due to its tendency to evolve, however this does allow for small pockets to be observed depending upon what the anthropologist is looking for. In the case of Han, there are three areas which dominate her work. The first is kinship, which follows the path set by Bronislaw Malinowski (1884), Edmund Leech (1910) and Claude Levi-Strauss (1908). Han focuses her data-collection on the social visits she makes to families (specifically the family matriarch) in their homes.  She then explores relationships in this context while looking at the descent systems that are being passed on using participant-observation and interview as her modes of viewing. Her second theoretical approach is political economy, as she notices that many of these descent systems are the result of “centuries of social, political, economic, and cultural processes” (Roseberry, 1988 in Morris, 2015: 2). She chooses to highlight many of these political and economic processes and how they have created a social existence that has contributed to the consciousness of the inhabitants (Marx, 1971 in Morris, 2015: 2).  This is closely related to the third theory that I see evidence of, which is the search to see how power has become influential and then a part of a society’s epistemology as per Michel Foucault (in Morris, 2015: 1). In numerous ways Han has traced to those things which have the most power over the inhabitants of La Pincoya – whether that be credit cards or pasta base – and then links to how they have become embedded as part of the local discourse. She uses Foucault’s theory of ‘normalisation’ to trace how monetary spending and consumer habits have become linked at the micro-level in an effort to ‘fit in’ (Morris, 2015: 4).

It is thus evident that all of the above points appear to be related although many can be attributed to class and economics, for example the introduction states that Han will “explore how political and economic forces are realized in people’s lives’ (2012: 6). Accordingly, I shall focus upon Political Economic theory. The introduction defines the current system in place, which Karl Marx has defined as “the superstructure” (in Morris, 2015: 2). Han explains that it draws upon the University of Chicago’s economic theory, of which encompasses “all of human action and sociality, and economic science was the analysis of and intervention into this reality” (Burchell & Lemke in Han, 2012: 6). Chile, she writes,  became a testing ground for this theory in the 1970’s, with its “economic manifestation (…) as the structuring principle for life itself, the market became the primary mode of governance (…) actors made choices in their own self-interest” (Han, 2012: 7).  During the oppressive years under the dictator, Augusto Pinochet, many state-owned enterprises such as health care were privatised, banks were deregulated and “the economy was opened up to the global market by reducing trade barriers and passing new foreign investment laws” (Han, 2012: 8).  The eventual result of many of these decisions profoundly affected Santiago’s urban poor while at the same time Chile was celebrated across the globe as a shining example of neoliberal reform (Han, 2012: 9).  Macroeconomics has therefore divided Santiago into a city with obvious class distinctions:  the urban elites, who live in their isolated bubbles, the striving middle class, and those at the lower rung which the anthropologist Eric Wolf would label as ‘proletarian’ (Morris, 2015: 4). To be defined as proletarian, residents of La Pincoya must be alienated from any Means of Production except their own labour. Han follows Senora Flora and her family who have no ability to sustain themselves as they live in a property “scavenged from construction sites” that was furnished by “bank loans and department store credit” (Han, 2012: 28).   When Rodrigo, the patriarch, loses his job in a textile factory the family have no choice but to take all the odd jobs they can to pay utility and loan bills (Han, 2012: 29).  Their position is thus so far removed from the Means of Production that the only thing they have to exchange is themselves and their labour, or in other words “Only under capitalism does human labour become a commodity to be bought and sold” (Hands, 2000 in Morris, 2015: 4).

That which can be bought and sold is a tenement of the Capitalist Mode of Production.  Known as commodities, these are things which are produced for sale and judged according to its exchange value (Morris, 2015: 4).  It’s exchange value is dependent upon its use value to the consumer, and this use value has no relationship to the market (Morris, 2015: 4). How, then, do things receive use value and how can this be seen in La Pincoya? For starters, the far-reaching arms of the media have considerable power because it helps to create and adjust the narrative at large. As an example, Han refers to a 2005 newspaper article which stated that the number of Chilean households in debt have risen at elevated rates that are above the growth of their incomes, and that the highest percentage of these debts are owed to department stores (2012: 31). However, the media downplayed this as an issue by writing that “indebtedness is natural (…) the greater the development of the country, the greater will be persons’ debts (…) [it is] less than in developed countries” (Han, 2012: 31). In one report in 2000, a reporter says “they bombard us with offers to change the car, the television, the house, without caring” (Han, 2012: 32).  As political scientist Veronica Schild explains, now even “basic necessities (…) through credit has become ubiquitous” (2007 in Han, 2012: 33).

To enforce this, Han gives the relationship between house, individual and capitalism as an example. She writes that “the house is spoken of in terms of intimate kin relatedness – one’s ‘house of blood’’ and that one becomes committed to it (2012: 33).  This highlights how a commodity can be afforded kinship-level status, even more so when its function is to strengthen connections both within and without (Han, 2012: 33). Renovating the house, cleaning it with all manner of products and adorning it nicely has therefore become a way to maintain relationships and pull women into further domestic relations (Han, 2012: 34).  A further example can be found in Kevin, the husband of one Senora Flora’s daughters. Kevin was addicted to the drug pasta base, the derivative of the cocaine-making process and a highly addictive, very low-cost drug that plagues Santiago’s low-income neighbourhoods. While in the process of quitting drugs, Kevin dreamed of “buying myself [things] from here and there. And I had the desire to buy myself a car also (…) so I put myself to work” (Han, 2012: 35). This quotation shows that a) sobriety was viable if there were the option of commodities and b) that a certain commodity had the power to change his life. However, when a stroke gives him a bad hand and neurological damage, he opted to retire and his life became filled with panic attacks (Han, 2012: 35).  Han writes that this is due to the power commodities have over actors, for in Kevin’s case “the desire and the wonder for the car could not be disassociated from a desire to work and to have a working body” (2012: 35).  Further, pasta base has become “a pervasive concern, provoked by a general sense that the number of neighbourhood youth addicted to base is increasing” (Han, 2012: 35). The only reason Kevin and his wife Florcita began taking it was when “the family’s debts to department stores began to soar”, most likely due to improvements to the house and domestic relations (Han, 2012: 35).  During this period, they sold all their possessions and took to stealing even from their family members, further impacting relations and perhaps (in a vicious cycle) prompting more house renovations (Han, 2012: 36).  These improvements are not solely relegated to the home – any commodity may find a place in the social discourse. To deal with Kevin’s addiction, Senora Flora borrows her neighbour’s credit card (having reached the limit on her own) to buy him a stereo because she thinks music will calm his nerves, while his wife Florcita sells food from the house to pay for sleeping pills and alcohol to send him to sleep (Han, 2012: 37).  Senora Flora and her family are not an isolated case. All across the lower-income neighbourhoods of Santiago the relationship between commodity, market and self have become enmeshed, causing “cycles of theft, destruction, and debt in households struggling with addictions to pasta base” (Han, 2012: 36). Commodities therefore are not simply something that capitalism needs but something that the actors have come to need as well.  The above examples reveal just how far removed La Pincoya’s residents have come from Kin/Tribute-Modes of Production, and how the ripple effects of capitalism have entrenched themselves into the everyday narratives.

The benefits to Han’s approach are obvious because one cannot deny the invasive nature of capitalism.  “Look for connections everywhere” Wolf proposes and Han does this – overwhelmingly so – across some two hundred and eighty pages (1982: 2). However, critics of political economic theory argue that placing too much emphasis upon modes of production comes at the cost of ignoring other structures of influence, along with human creativity and agency (Morris, 2015: 7).  From my own standpoint living in a similar community close to La Pincoya, I would agree with this up to a point. I recall the theorist Alan Barnard who believed that “Societies have structures similar to those of organisms. Social institutions, like the parts of the body, function together within larger systems. The social systems, such as kinship, religion, politics and economics, together make up society” (2000: 62). There are numerous other strata which play a role in the construction of societal and cultural identity and it is this concern which I believe to be the most lacking in Han’s approach. For example, her analysis is limited to the years of Pinochet’s dictatorship until the present but this blinds her to additional influencing data, such as religion, geography, rural occupation, linguistics and gender division which all factor into this discussion. Han herself agrees: “the neighbours of La Pincoya may have very different ideologies to each other but this does not determine their identity” (2012: 20).  I wonder then what does – a superstructure based on economic modes? The question is unanswered by Han. The most pressing question which I would have liked Han to answer is why capitalism is being integrated at such a rapid pace in places such as La Pincoya in comparison to the rates found in other areas of the globe with a similar history. This is a particularly pertinent question because many of the ideologies in La Pincoya may be “experienced in some form or another by major sectors of any working class population experiencing rapid structural change anywhere in the world” (Bourgois, 1995: 29). This is an important question to try to answer as it pertains to the crisis’ currently occurring in the domains of diet and health: Chile’s children are growing up with a radically different diet to their forebears with increasing wellbeing and obesity issues (Bambs, Cerda & Esalona, 2008).  Within the realm of political economy, it would have also been beneficial to look at how the Modes of Production in Santiago differs from the rural areas of Chile, and how this change of pace may affect newly-settled people in the metropolis.  To assist with all these questions, perhaps the adopting of Foucault principles would be beneficial to gauge the different contributions of power which may have been lacking under a political economy gaze.

The road to Capitalism has not been an easy one for the residents of La Pincoya, however it is hard to imagine a time when it was not present. I have seen through my own experiences just how firmly entrenched it has become, as it is continued by habit, education and tradition which is strengthened over time until it is “self evident laws of nature” (Marx, 1967 in Morris, 2015 6).              Wolf wrote that the present cannot be understood without an understanding of the world market, and this cannot be achieved without a theory that can be applied to the unfolding processes (1982: 19).  In ‘Life in Debt’, Han uses the theory devised by Wolf and laid out by Marx to discover the multi-layered effects and affects in a low-income suburb of Santiago. She searches through the multitude of ways in which institutions and social and moral debts have impacted, and continue to impact, upon La Pincoya through specific interactions with people going about their daily lives (Han, 2012: 168). She identifies the decisions made by Pinochet’s government as the leading cause of foreign interest in Chile, which has lead to the privatisation of many of the nation’s resources and later resulted in a steeply tiered class system within Santiago. She recognises that, despite being on the lower rungs of society, many of the lower classes are still able to participate in much of the same consumer trends as the middle and upper classes but with the price of great financial and emotional debt.  Her ethnography is profoundly detailed and rich with information but what it includes blinds the reader to all that it excludes, namely other influencing factors that may form the superstructure of La Pincoya and Santiago. Regardless, there is truth to Han’s opening statement that “we can think of multiple ways in which the state is layered in people’s intimate lives” and therefore the use of the political economic approach was beneficial (2012: 17).


Bambs, Claudia, Jaime Cerda & Alex Escalona (2008). “Morbid obesity in a developing            country: the Chilean experience”. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 86: 10,   pp. 737-816.  Retrieved 14 Junes 2015 from: 

Barnard, Alan (2000). “Functionalism and Structural-Functionalism.” In Alan Barnard’s           History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Bourgois, Phillippe (1995). “From Jibaro to Crack Dealer: Confronting the Restructuring          of Capitalism in El Barrio”. In Jayne Schneider and Rayna Rapp (eds), Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Berkeley: University of    California Press, pp. 125-141

Han, Clara (2012). Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile.           University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Morris, Carolyn (2015). “Lecture 4: Political Economy”. 146.213 Anthropological         Enquiry. School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Massey University, Palmerston             North: extramural.

Wolf, Eric R (1982). Introduction. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley:   University of California Press, pp. 3-23.

Analysing Santiago

The Application of New Theory to Clara Han’s ‘Life in Debt.’

       ‘Life in Debt’ is an ethnography set in Santiago, Chile by the anthropologist Clara Han.  Han uses Political Economy theory to trace the influential trails that were lain down during the years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990) and then furthered by increasing global economic interest in Chile. In my first essay I analysed how these economic and political decisions have become embedded in society over the passing years, along with a brief critique of the limitations of Political Economy theory.  The following essay is an elaboration of this criticism, where I will apply two contemporary theoretical approaches to Han’s ethnography in the hope of divulging a larger picture of understanding of the how and why behind today’s socio-cultural constructs. My first approach is ‘multiculturalism’ because the influences at work are not limited to politics and economics – instead there is an array of factors that have arisen due to the shrinking physical and metaphorical borders of nations. The second is ‘feminist anthropology’ due to the fact that Han’s data is thick with gender roles and distinctions that impact upon the societal structure.


It is worth describing in more detail what life is like in La Pincoya, the section of Huechuraba where Han bases her participant-observations. To do this, I draw upon my own experiences in the field. I live in a suburb called Recoleta, which is joined to Huechuraba on its north-east side.  I visit Huechuraba regularly because it is the home of my partner Luis’ family, some of whom live in La Pincoya and others who live on its periphery. Huechuraba and Recoleta share many of the same characteristics, and some of these may be evident in other suburbs of Santiago or even cities of the world (Bourgois, 1995: 29). Unlike Recoleta which is uniformly the same, La Pincoya is like an island in the middle of two distinctly wealthier areas: the business sector which is comprised of tall towers, apartment blocks and  offices of international businesses, and Pedro Fontova Norte, a leafy residential section with gated and well-kept streets. Both La Pincoya and Recoleta contain ramshackle and badly-constructed houses, roads in ill condition and regular issues with flooding, water quality and electricity. Drugs are prevalent and many streets house dealers who sell cocaine and pasta base, the latter of which is a big problem but is relatively unheard of by those who come from wealthier backgrounds (I have met many people who were oblivious to its existence). Han points out that life in these areas is communal, with interconnectedness across a wider field of relationships, and this is correct (2012: 33). Neighbours can often be seen sitting together on their door steps and talking, or enjoying street parties during national holidays and football matches.  The small stores which pepper the streets every few blocks (and sometimes group together in friendly competition) become places of regular social activity for residents (and as a result the service is slow).  La Pincoya and Recoleta are generally considered to be poor and dangerous by other people, most notably because of the flaite[1] street culture that is typical of low-income neighbourhoods. This construct was unheard of a generation ago and its roots can be traced back to the economic conditions that Pinochet advanced. Much of Han’s research concerns it, however she does not expand on it much despite it being hugely relevant to a conversation about La Pincoya. The flaite world has many participants and it directly relates to multiculturalism, so it is here that I will begin my new analysis of Han’s data.


The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai stated that anthropology faces a “changing social, territorial and cultural reproduction of group identity.  As groups migrate, regroup in new locations, reconstruct their histories and reconfigure (…) ethnography [thus] takes on a slippery, nonlocalized quality” (1996 in Morris, 2015: 1). Actors now found themselves in a world that changed rapidly and, through globalisation, was filled with interaction and exchange (Inda & Rosaldo, 2002 in Morris, 2015: 1). Therefore, anthropology had to evolve to understand culture as something that was constructed and reproduced through unintended actions, both stabilizing and negotiable (Moore & Sanders, 2006: 17-18).  Appadurai began by changing anthropological terminology to suit the new requirements. Ethnography became an ‘ethnoscape’ because its link to the word ‘landscape’ evokes connotations of ambiguity (Morris, 2015: 1).  The influence of both high and low technologies was recognized as the ‘technoscape’ while ‘finanscape’ followed the hard-to-trace trail of economic capital (Morris, 2015: 1). The effect of these ‘scapes’ is known as ‘deterritorialization’ whereby detachment from location also detached the actor from identity (Morris, 2015: 1).  The theorist Ghassan Hage writes that his guiding philosophy as a multiculturalist theorist is “how do humans struggle to make their lives viable (…) understanding people from their point of view” without resorting to any politics (1998 in Morris, 2015: 2).

Hage uses the term ‘passive belonging’ to categorize the way people construct their identities through such things as nation and culture (Morris, 2015: 4).  Passive belonging refers to the feeling of belonging to a nation, rather than the idea that the nation is one’s own (Morris, 2015: 4).  The word ‘passive’ is interesting here, as it belies the idea of quiet acceptance, or that a person’s voice is not loud enough to be heard by control systems.  Its opposite is ‘governmental belonging’ whereby the actor feels entitlement and ownership over the nations (Morris, 2015: 4). Applied to La Pincoya, there are two types of belonging that are visible. Many people belong passively by accepting their position at the lower end of society, and an example of this can be found in Han’s introduction. It is the night of September 11 (the anniversary of the coup d’etat), and residents are waiting for the yearly confrontation with police (2012: 1).  Bonfires are ready to be lighted and the streets are lined with people waiting for the arrival of the police so that protests can begin (Han, 2012: 2). However, that year (2005) the police did not come.  The general feeling of disappointment permeated the air, as if the protest could not go ahead with the police audience.  This is an example of passivity, because the protest did not have meaning unless it was given meaning by the state. The protest was a “performance”, “fear was mixed with a sense of the formulaic”, waiting for the “choreography dance of bullets, tear gas” (Han, 2012: 1-2).

       The Flaites, however, belong in an aggressive way that is akin to governmental belonging.  These are people with little regard for rules, who embrace anarchy as their right after years of inflicted wrongs.  We get a glimpse of this when during the same September 11 commemoration, “a few youths began to laugh and fire pistols in the air” (Han, 2012: 2). As a result of these two conflicting belonging types, the feeling of deterritorialization is exaggerated, which then forces people to find some way of identifying themselves. Belonging to a low social class or a type of social construct such as the flaite phenomenon, becomes “a mobilizing concept (…) to define their distinctiveness within an increasingly global and globalized world” (Moore & Sanders, 2006: 18).

The passive nature of La Pincoya’s residents can be linked to the political, such as the devastating memories left behind after the dictatorship, and the economic, such as the push and pull of capitalism. People are held entrenched within class systems that are a direct result of both, as Han correctly observed, but globalisation, and therefore multiculturalism, had their part to play too. For example, much of Chile’s slang is borrowed from English (“did you catch that?” became “cachai?”) and there are certain elements of flaite culture that can be traced to European culture. For example, the standard dress includes sports labels, running shoes and tracksuits in a similar vein to Britain’s ‘chavs’, whom they also share similar social characteristics with. Further, the term flaite has been linked to the English ‘fly’, which in Spanish is volar, a word that refers to the ‘high’ of drugs, also a common denominator of of flaites and England’s chavs (Han, 2012: 243).

In Hage’s terms, borrowing from other cultures can be viewed as the process of enrichment (in Morris, 2015: 3). To illustrate, Hage gives the example of White Australians who, by placing themselves at the centre of Australian belonging, can “walk around and enrich themselves” with what they want from multicultural offerings (1998 in Morris, 2015: 3). The flaites in La Pincoya operate in a similar way, although against the other classes of Santiago.  They want to buy many of the same commodities, such as Kevin’s desire for a car or Senora Flora’s purchase of stereos and televisions. This enrichment through purchasing power reveals the overwhelming presence that capitalism has over the residents of La Pincoya, and this is furthered by what Hage labels as the “Crisis for Hope’ (Morris, 2015: 6). This arises from the effect of globalisation, which places the Western world as a modern, better ‘other’ for many of the residents of La Pincoya (Moore & Sanders, 2006: 18).   “Dreams of social mobility [are] one of the main modes of hoping” Hage writes, and this transfers into “cultural capital” that becomes embodied in identity (2000 in Morris, 2015: 6). Han notes that for the people of La Pincoya, commodities are linked with identities (‘domestic relations’, 2012: 33) or connected to labour capital (‘Kevin and the Car’, 2012: 35), or a driving push towards drugs (‘pasta base’, 2012: 35).  Acquiring status through commodities is also evident in uniform purchasing, with things such as clothes (see flaite dress above) or house-related items. Han points out that many of La Pincoya’s residents are in debt to department stores (2012: 31) while burglaries are a fact of life and often attributed to flaite culture.  Such examples highlight the fact that multiculturalism, globalisation and political economic approaches are not secular but interconnected, and this connection must be utilised to provide a more detailed ethnoscape of La Pincoya.

Feminist Anthropological Approach

One of the approaches that would be beneficial would be a closer look at domestic dynamics, particularly because Han devotes much attention to men, women and offspring in her ethnography.  Previous anthropological accounts have been labelled as considerably ‘androcentric’ or restricted to the gaze of the male anthropologist upon the male actors (Feminist Anthropology, Morris, 2012: 4). Han differs because much of her participation-observation occurs with the family matriarch, Senora Flora, and she includes in her gaze the relationships between Senora Flora and her spouse Rodrigo, as well as other couples within the wider family. This is an obvious foray into feminist anthropology because it takes into account how domestic relations can affect things like identity and culture, while also showing that it joins into a discussion of politics and economics in a web of connections.

Women, according to the feminist anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo, have traditionally been based in the home because a good portion of their adult lives is taken up by child rearing, thereby placing women in a domestic sphere more than in any other (1974 in Feminist Anthropology, Morris, 2015: 7).  The home, therefore, appears throughout Han’s work because, as the anthropologist Janet Carsten affirms, “Kinship is made in and through houses and houses are the social relations of those who inhabit them” (in Han, 2012: 15). Han writes that the houses are referred to as ‘houses of blood’ because the relations contained within anoint them with extreme importance (2012: 16).  Women in their roles as sisters, mothers, daughters and friends, sustain the house to strengthen the relationships not only within but outside the house as well – with neighbours – and the forging of these close bonds helps all the residents to “mitigate the forces of economic precariousness” (Han, 2012: 16). It was close connections such as these that allowed Han to integrate so successfully into what is generally regarded as a tight-knit, untrusting and wary community.  In 1999, Han was invited into the poblacion through a meeting with a “feminist activist”, and she then followed a trail of female relationships that ultimately lead her to Senora Flora’s family: “through her daughter I met Ruby, and through Ruby I met Susana (…) they introduced me to their intimate kin, friends and immediate neighbours” (Han, 2012: 16). She was accepted readily because each member before on the trail had trusted her, and this in turn allowed her to become privy to sensitive information. Han engaged in “everyday activities such as helping to sew, looking after children, doing the laundry, learning how to wire a doorbell or rig an electricity meter” (2012: 17).  She didn’t just participate with the women, therefore, but with the men also.  This is interesting because it allows one to speculate that the sway held by women in the community was strong enough for Han to be accepted by the men.

Henrietta Moore wrote that “feminist anthropology has gone beyond an anthropology of women in many ways” at the very least because by nature it included a whole realm of other strata (Lewin, 2006: 20). We witness this when Han introduces us to Leticia and the possibilities contained within the female role. In Chapter Four Han explain that under the leadership of Salvador Allende (in power before Pinochet), there “advanced a ‘double celebration’ of women’s class militancy and their unique roles as mothers” (2012:132).  Some critics have argued that this splits women into restraining categories, and Han writes that, while the advancement of women as mothers and militants is striking, it also highlights the limitations in place by sexuality (2012: 132).  Leticia, a woman who was exiled to Argentina in 1987 for being a female militant, and who was separated from her from her children until 1995, is a good case in point (Han, 2012: 129-131). She suffers from what she terms the “neoliberal depression” due to self-inflicted feelings of guilt towards her children, and this sees her “speak in a language that the others do not understand; not even my own children understand me” (Han, 2012: 130).  It is thus difficult for Leticia to reconcile her two roles as militant and mother, because she had chosen to take on both the traditionally feminine and the traditionally masculine role at the same time (Han, 2012:132). Han explains that men and women are defined by roles that work together to give life to the “sovereign in different, but conjoined ways” (2012: 133).  Men are the figurative heads of the households, while women are pulled towards both state and their husbands (2012: 134).  Her role also has the ability to directly affect the male because his role as head of the household is not always fixed, for example he may be prevented “from being a proper head of household by [the giving of] illegitimate children” (2012: 134).  Further, while reproduction is considered as the way to be a good citizen for a woman, for a man it is likewise, “the certainty of paternity becomes a crucial aspect of political community” (Han, 2012: 134).

The intimate concerns of Leticia from a mothers perspective allows us to come full circle and tie in with the previous sections. Due to concern with the negative connotations behind La Pincoya life and flaite culture, many mothers are praying for sons who are ‘caseros’ or homebodies, rather than men of the street, or caballeros Han, 2012: 16). A great degree of responsibility is placed upon the mother for how her children – particularly her sons – succeed. Leticia cries, “look at all my children (…) Julieta did not finish high school (…) Johnathan lost everything (…) there is no case to be made [for the little ones] they had to repeat a year in high school” (Han, 2012:136).  Rather than place blame upon factors such as public education which is admittedly of low calibre (and is frequently in the press as the subject for protest), or the push and pull power of things such as social pressure and media, Leticia blames herself: “the only thing that unites all the children is the mother, and I say, perhaps, it was I who the cause. I failed” (Han, 2012: 136).  These feelings of blame and guilt provide good opportunities for further study into identity constructs, and particularly how it ties into the Chilean views of the education system, thus proving that it is a multi-faceted issue and certainly not limited to gender.


       The above has been my attempt at reworking Han’s data in a way that helps provide a more detailed picture of life in La Pincoya.  Rather than approach her work with a radically different theoretical framework that would perhaps downplay the role of political economy, I have endeavoured to instead place further rungs on the metaphorical ladder, in the hope of bringing us closer to the top. It would be impossible to ignore the importance that the political and economical have had on the formation of the superstructure, but likewise the consideration of other impacts is necessary.  Multiculturalism and globalisation have been directly involved in the construction of identity, particularly for their role in the making of a new construct, flaite street culture. Further, this also relates to the political and economic landscapes in a way that can only be described as interconnected. Feminist anthropology, on the other hand, takes us into the home rather than the street, by helping us to know the inhabitants of La Pincoya and the domestic relations within. This is not a world separated from the state, however.  Instead, it impinges in “multiple ways (…) layered into people’s lives” as the case of Leticia highlights (Han, 2012:17).  Therefore, these two new theoretical approaches have only served to strengthen the bonds between capitalism and those structures which influence identity, culture, tradition and memory. I close here with the affirmation that ‘Life in Debt’ is an exhaustive treasure chest of anthropological insight, it’s only limitation being the same one that confronts all anthropologists, namely, how can one seek an answer to a question when it is hopelessly intertwined with a score of others?


Bourgois, Phillippe (1995). “From Jibaro to Crack Dealer: Confronting the Restructuring          of Capitalism in El Barrio”. In Jayne Schneider and Rayna Rapp (eds), Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Berkeley: University of    California Press, pp. 125-141

Han, Clara (2012). Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile.           University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Lewin, E (ed). (2006).  Feminist Anthropology pp 1-38. .Malden MA: Blackwell.

Moore, Henrietta L and Todd Sanders (2006). Anthropology in Theory: Issues in           Epistemology. Maiden MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp 1-21.

Morris, Carolyn (2015). “Lecture 11: Multicultralism-Hage”. “Lecture 12: Feminist       Anthropology.  In 146.213 Anthropological Enquiry. School of Humanities and        Social Sciences. Massey University, Palmerston        North: extramural.

Wolf, Eric R (1982). Introduction. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley:   University of California Press, pp. 3-23.


[1] Flaite is not a self-identified term. It is the general term attributed by the residential majority however it often has negative connotations  due to its association with drugs and crime. They refer to themselves as chorizos however this is little-used by outside actors. Due to the fact that flaite is the majority-used definition and given that the negative connotations are a necessary part of the identifiable construct, I will continue use the term.

Dear Traveller to Chile

Dear Traveller,

I’m writing to you from a wet and blustery Santiago day, in the heart of Chile.

It’s very rarely wet here, so the rain is cause for both celebration and relief, with a bit of horror thrown in at the potential chaos that might arise.

Santiago is not a beautiful city. To the far east it is green and spacious while the “Sanhatten” area is all modern skyscrapers and grass. The centre is chocka with historic buildings but elsewhere the outskirts are a colourful shambles, a mixture of peeling paint, potholes, graffitti  and sopaipilla stands.

Sopaipilla is perhaps the only streetfood I would recommend to you. Chile does not have the gastronomic delights of say, Lima, but the sopaipilla is a fast and filling option when you get off the metro and need something cheap and hot to fill the gap. Top it with spicy sauces such as chilli or mustard, or something tame like ketchup (in the GREEN bottle!).

For shopping you won’t find many bargains unless you visit a market. La Vega is a sprawling one that extends into various buildings in the area of Patronato, where you can pick up cheap imported clothes alongside ingredients from Asia.  If you want a shopping mall, head to the Costanera Centre in Providencia because it’s also beneath the city’s new lavish symbol, the phallic (aren’t they all?) Costanera Tower.  For antiques and unique finds visit Avenida Italia in Nunoa, which is also the best place to drink a hot chocolate, order a REAL coffee or eat cake. I highly recommend Pasteleria Lalaleelu by metro Santa Isabel – there is even a cake tasting option.

For something a bit different, explore the General Cemetery in Recoleta.  Take your camera too because this place has an energy all of its own and walking around it could take you all day as you lost yourself amongst the tombs.

For eating out you have a few options. At the high end is Bocanariz, Borago, Mestizo and Astrid y Gaston, but you can also enjoy a meal for less, such as at Tiramisu or even at one of the more budget options. Chileans swear by Fuente Alemana or one of the tiny restaurants located inside La Vega Chica.  Many places serve a set menu known as a colacion for lunch, and some of these cost as little as CLP$2500.

In terms of what to see, you should not miss the highly acclaimed Museo Pre Colombino nor the historic Plaza de Armas. A visit to Barrio Concha y Toro will not disappoint either, particularly if you coincide it with dinner at Zully, set inside the restored house of Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro.

Visitors usually bypass Santiago after a few days and head further afield, to tourist sights such as Patagonia or San Pedro de Atacama, but there are things to see closer to home. Valparaiso rewards visitors willing to walk, while nearby Olmue has a wealth of national parks and outdoors adventures. The Cajon del Maipo is the holiday hotspot for day tripping Santiaguinos and it is one of the easiest places to visit the Andes. In summer, a drive along the Embalse el Yeso is unforgettable.

Pomaire is another stop worth making particularly if you want to buy souvenirs and gifts.  This small town is famous for its clay artisans who you can see making Chile’s ubiquitous bowls throughout the village (cheapest places to buy are around the edges of Pomaire).

I can’t say that living in Santiago is always easy but for the traveller it makes the perfect gateway to South America. It’s easy to travel with plenty of sights within close range of each other and the food scene is improving rapidly. This is the place I have called home for three years and raised a family, and it is one of the safest and easiest destinations to travel with children.  This city will reward all visitors whether for just a day or for longer stays. Viva Santiago!

For airport transfers, guided tours, chauffeur service or help settling in, please contact Helen at Miles & Smiles Santiago.  Phone 56 9 91482832 or visit their Facebook page: http://www.facebook/milesandsmilessantiago/

Santiago Poems

Anatomy of Santiago

What is a city?

Santiago has a heartbeat

It beats beneath our feet

It thuds from the hill of Renca

To the tops of La Reina.

It pumps a stream of cars

Through arteries of tar

Clogged are the paths around

With road, train or bus.

The dogs know the city best

Sentinels through unrest

And calm; they weather each storm

Both happy and forlorn.

The labourers are the hands

That toil upon the land

At dawn the market calls

Moving until nightfall.

Offices are ears to the call

Of the markets: it’s rise and fall

Always busy, never done

Stresslines visible by midday sun.

The trees deeply breathe

Soaking up with their leaves

A mouthpiece that speaks warnings

The bark hides its calling.

The mountains are the soul

The city but a bowl

A cup for them to drink

Until the sun sinks

They’ll still be silent there

Stretching thin and all laid back

Until The city is a body that is no more

And another rises up from the floor.

Would I?

If mountains spoke to me

Would I understand them?

They’ve stood at depths below the sea and looked above beyond me.

If a bird spoke to me

What would I say?

I’ve never soared upon the wind nor seen the dawn begin.

If sand spoke to me

Would I comprehend?

I’ll never age so gracefully nor share space so peacefully.

If you spoke to me

Would I want to listen?

Though we share the same lifestart we walk a path apart.

Colonics in Las Condes!

Warning: This blog contains graphic information of a personal nature!

Thanks to an ever-widening list of health issues, I followed the recommendation of a reader and visited Centro Bio-Medicina Natural in Las Condes. I had booked a colonic irrigation treatment, something  I have been wanting to do for a really long time but been put off by a) the idea and b) the price. However, given that my liver is failing and that  this clinic offers a comparitively good price (it’s CLP$40.000 for an hour), I booked with some urgency and attended my first session yesterday.

The clinic has a quaint garden filled with medicinal herbs and a series of private rooms spiralling off of reception offering everything from reiki to acupuncture, yoga to meditation. I was looked after by a very friendly Chilean woman who also is a practicing ayuvedic doctor, and the treatment began with a thorough analysis of my health and diet, followed by an explanation of how the body works and digests food.  I then got changed, lay down on my side and had a small tube inserted (it does not hurt). Oil was rubbed into my stomach whilst being massaged, before the water was turned on.  This feels like nothing until you are completely pumped full and then you get an urge to visit the toilet, at which time she reverses the process and everything is sucked out.  Your stomach is massaged the whole time, attempting to move anything stuck along the tunnel.  It isn’t painful though it is a little bit uncomfortable, but the pleasant bedside manner of the technician means that it’s not as bad as it sounds!

In my personal case, my body is so ill that my (rock hard) stomach needed alot of massage. These movements caused my organs to suddenly work fiercely, resulting in what felt like menstrual cramps. Because my liver is so toxic, I had a strong desire to vomit and only started releasing blockages towards the end of the treatment. For some reason, the sensation was not just physical but emotional, like I didnt want to let go of all the waste that has been piling up over many years causing such an acidic environment (believed to be the starting place of all ilnesses by both traditional and even Biomedical researchers).  It was profoundly uncomfortable but just by witnessing what was coming out was cause enough for me to stick with it.

At the end of the treatment I was given herbs to help with the nausea and discussed what my body was having difficulty digesting (not cheese noooooo!). Colonics is NOT a quick fix treatment, its a therapy that you need to continue until your body has finally been emptied of years worth of undigested food.  What I really appreciate with holistic therapies is that the whole being is treated, and I loved learning that I am an (off-balance) Vata type in Ayuvedic belief, hence my digestive and balance issues and proneness to anxiety.

How did I feel at the end? I felt lighter with noticeably brighter eyes (apparently due to the release of toxins). My stomach was no longer sensitive or the size of a melon, and that night I slept soundly for the first time in months. Although I am nervous, I can’t wait to head back next week. I didn’t encounter anyone who spoke English at the clinic but the practitioners are all extremely friendly and patient. I highly recommend this Center for all holistic and natural therapies and I will keep this post updated as I continue with treatments! May it please help me!!



Querida Recoleta: Que Interesante!

Most visitors to Santiago stop by its famous market, La Vega, for a taste of the exotic and some cheap lunch options. Those that linger longer browse Patronato in search of budget clothing or unusual ingredients in one of its many Asian food stores. The adventurous head over to the General Cemetery to soak up history that seems to press down beneath gigantic mausoleums and cramped casket towers.  Few people really explore this area and quickly dash elsewhere in Chile, despite this being a suburb that holds the history of Santiago in its palm.

Recoleta was originally the Wild West of Santiago, known as La Chimba. The Incas lived here  (Avenida La Paz & Independencia was their ancient route north) and Mapuches too, and today there remains strong indigenous presence. The Mapocho river was an imposing barrier between the Spanish colony of Santiago and La Chimba, but it eventually became a stronghold for religious institutions such as the Domincan order, and wine-making. As more bridges were built traversing the river, Recoleta became an attractive spot for immigrants, most notably from Palestine and Asia, but this has continued right through to the current day with communities from Peru, the Domincan Republic and Haiti.

Some people have emailed me after reading my blog asking to see this “real Santiago” after having spent their time in the modern city. This is a place that is gritty and real – there are no glittering high rises here – but this is a suburb that many Santiaguinos have called home for centuries. There is nowhere more “real” than Recoleta!

Our transport and tour company, Miles & Smiles Santiago, are just getting established but one of the first places we wanted to show people was Recoleta. There is a lot more here than originally meets the eye and a heck of a lot of beauty too. Our tours go at your own pace, in a private vehicle seating up to four passengers, and costs 25,000 pesos per tour (so if four of you book it’s cheap as chips!). Luis leads each trip and not only is he qualified and fluent in English and Spanish, but he’s a history buff from Recoleta!!

Here are some of the places you will uncover:

There are also excellent places to eat at excellent prices, from Palestinan to Syrian, Peruvian to Chilean, and we will point out the best.

We want to show you Recoleta because it is an important place, not only in Santiago’s history, but in it’s present. No trip to Santiago is complete without delving a little deeper into it’s secrets, and you will be supporting local businesses along the way!

State Schools: The Truth

Half a year later and Ojos Abiertos comes to the end of it’s work in Conchali. Last night we went for a group meal at one of my favorite, reliably good restaurants, Tiramisu (Metro El Golf). Ojos Abiertos began after I posted a message looking for people who shared my passion for righting social wrongs, namely the huge gulf in educational equality. Since then we have not only become firm friends, but we have both opened the eyes of students and had our own eyes opened as we worked in a Santiago state school.


To reiterate your memory, Carolina ran weekly dance classes incorporating English, literacy and numerous dance styles with any high school student interested in participating. Hoda and Georgina held back to back classes with pre-kinder and kinder aged pupils known as “Art Expression” –  a fabulous initiative born from Hoda Madi, one of Chile’s premier artists. These workshops involved a theme – discussed and then expressed in any form before being put to paper as artwork. The themes were Happiness, Love, Gratitute, Bad Feelings and The Hero Inside. Finally there were art classes held by Lina, Mariana and resident art teacher Amaro, which aimed at utlizing both English and recycling how-to’s. Meanwhile, Zoe tk up a position as an assistant to the English teacher, volunteering twice a week during the morning. We received numerous donations utilized in our classes, from the phenomenal English books donated by Expat Legend Sally Rose, to art and party supplies that the kids loved using. I also must stress that these projects were all lead by passion and a desire to help – no-one paid a fee to join as a volunteer or participant, and no-one was excluded from the classes. These were discrimination-free zones where the children forged real relationships with the teachers … and vice versa. It also wasn’t always easy, from volunteers who we never heard from again to the tireless dedication of Georgina in particular, whose persistence and hardwork really got the Organizacion off the ground.

Here we take a look back over the past few months at our time at Liceo Almirante Riveros:


Hoda: This has been the best experience of my life!

Georgina: There is no feeling like when you open the door and the kids just come running …

Helen: tell me about your first class. What happened?

Hoda: our first class was with the pre-kinder and the teacher had no idea we were coming!

Georgina: She didn’t know because she never attends meetings. She doesn’t agree with the art-based methods at the school. This isn’t to say she is a bad teacher. She was a bit wary at first but after the first class she jumped right on board. She started asking us for our opinions and for help and what she could do … once we told her there were loads of English books at the school she ran straight away to get them!

Hoda: The school accomodated us right away. For example in the first class the room only had a cassette player so we couldn’t play ur music. We told Gerhard and for the second class we had a speaker and could play the music off our phones.

Helen: How did the class go?

Hoda: At first the kids were shy but as each class progressed they came out of their shells. The first class was Happiness so we asked them what made them happy. All of them said being at the school, with their friends. At first they were very unsure and nervous about what to do with the painting – how to express their emotion – and always asking if they could do a line or a colour. But by the second class they were more confident and what they drew was amazing!

Georgina: We asked what they loved about each other in the next class. One boy needed a bit of prompting but when asked about a girl in his class he said, “her eyes.” It was the sweetest thing.

Hoda: A lot of them have never had the opportunity to express these things before. When we asked what they were grateful for, again all of them said the school and their friends. We talked about Bad Feelings next. They all spoke about sadness and family problems.

Georgina: One said he knew to just turn on the TV when the arguing starts. Another – who was four years old – said he would take his little sister’s hand, take her upstairs and cover her ears. Someone drew a person with a black face and said that it was his father leaving the house, because he always jumps in the car after a fight. Our final session was about The Hero Inside. What do they want to do? Some of them said doctors and nurses, but mostly they said carabineros [police], which says a lot about how active the police are.

Hoda: One girl who was 5 said she wanted to be an artist – to make people happy through her art. I really believe that art is something that anyone can do – it can save your from bad feelings and give you a way to let emotions out, without turning to drugs.

Helen: Carolina, how did you find your experience?

Carolina: It was amazing. There was a bit of a problem with people not turning up, but there was talent and people had fun. The teachers were really helpful and when there was a problem they did what they could to solve it.

Helen: Could you pinpoint any issues at the school, like where it is lacking?

Carolina: I was teaching teenagers in or nearing their final year, so around 17 years old. But many of them had no idea about basic literacy things like metaphors or similies. There also didn’t speak to be much cohesion between teachers – no collobarative learning. It seemed like they were learning not to respect adults or peers but to respect just the Head teacher when it should be towards anyone.

Helen: Zoe, you were 4th basico – so aged 10 to 11- and alongside their regular English teacher. How did you find it?

Zoe: I had a very mixed experience. The teacher had absolutely no presence in the class. She told me right away she wanted to leave and was looking for other jobs, and when we entered the class she would just sit down and start making notes – no greeting to the class, nothing. She didn’t speak English at all in the classroom – in fact when I finally got her to say something one of the students asked “Miss why are you speaking English?” She taught the same curriculum for all her classes from years 1-4 and no-one knew even the basics like what “how are you” meant. Instead of English she’d do lots of arts and crafts, and after a while I was like “use me – I’m here to help!” So she copied a long poem on the board without translating it and told the kids to write it down. They had no idea what they were writing and were so bored. I asked if I should explain and she said to the class “Zoe will say it out aloud and you all copy it!” She didn’t know the kids names, she didn’t know why certain kids were taken out every class, she cancelled classes every week and she never had a plan for classes. One time I told her I had some ideas, she said no they would make Christmas stockings instead, but when we got there we found the kids had finished them all at home. So the kids spent the whole class with nothing to do.

Georgina: But that is not completely normal. She’s not their regular teacher, only takes them for English, and she told us this was her first job. She was not experienced.

Zoe: I saw that the students were very good at sharing and that a few were really interested and tried hard. But without the teacher taking charge or explaining, they didn’t understand what they were doing. They did have textbooks, but they had never been used before I went there.

Helen: I don’t understand why there are teachers like this? Can’t they be fired?

Mariana: I think they are on a one-year contract and funding is tight with state schools.

Helen: Mariana, how was your experience there with Lina?

Mariana: We worked alongside Amaro, who was really respected by the students. He was incredibly well-spoken, knew all the terminology and explained everything to the kids.

Lina: All the kids were helping each other, asking opinions, and looking after one another.

Mariana: Amaro was taught by Gerhard, the principal, and took the job because of him. There is a lot of loyality between the staff and many aren’t there for the pay but because they want to be there.

Georgina: It all comes down to the teacher. If they are not happy with their salary, they won’t be happy.  There was good and bad at the school: the majority were really dedicated but there were some who were not so. We were left for two hours once by the teacher who was meant to stay with us. Most of the kids just ran away. We were only meant to be there 40 minutes.

Helen: Is that the guy who was yawning through our meeting?

Zoe: I saw him always sleeping in the staff room!


What have we learnt? That volunteering is not just out helping those in need. Its incredibly rewarding for both sides because everyone learns. We didn’t go in there with guns blazing thinking we knew better, instead we listened to the teachers, asked what they wanted and needed, and tried to work beside them in the classroom. We tried to provide a friend and a mentor, learning while having fun in an environment that is safe. We gave the kids an outlet to be themselves, be creative and learn something that was perhaps a little bit strange. Not all of us will be continuing next year due to various commitments (immigration! Work!) but we welcome new members and new projects. If you would like to be involved, have an idea or a school to nominate, please send me a PM to We also welcome donations for educational or play purposes.  If you are interested in the four week programme run by Hoda Madi, please contact her directly to see if she is interested in visiting your school.