We took Emilio to see the Christmas lights the other night. When we stopped to buy dogfood, a young woman leaving the store blew a huge stream of cigarette smoke into Emilio’s face, who was sitting atop Luis’ shoulders. There wasn’t time to react because an older woman, who I shall name Marisol, grabbed Luis’ arm.
“Help me! Those people are bad, really bad,” she said and pointed to two men watching us from the other side of the road in a white van.
I’m not sure if they really were or if she just needed an opening line. She continued talking incoherently, all the time stroking Luis’ arm and head. She was not all there, it was obvious to see, and her affection for Luis made me giggle.
Afterwards Luis was clearly rattled by the encounter. When we returned home after our walk Marisol appeared again. This time she launched herself at Luis and grabbed his face, while telling him our handsome he was. I laughed and Luis appeared quite shocked.
But afterwards I thought about it more. Was it funny to me because Luis was a man and the lady was crazy? If the roles had been reversed I would have been terrified and I would have looked to Luis to help me. What makes it more acceptable for a man to be molested?
This brings up the topic of gender roles, something that is ever-present in the news these days. SERNAM (Chile’s governmental Service for Women) reports that half of all women have reported domestic violence, with around 70 women killed each year by their partners – and those are just the reported statistics. A google search brings up countless more articles regarding violence against women, but interestingly I could find nothing about violence towards men. Does that mean it doesn’t exist here?
That in itself is interesting. The problem with living in a society with rigid gender roles is that anything that breaks the mould is laughed off or ignored. I am tired of women always being seen as the victim. I am also tired of the stereotype that men have to be “macho”. Luis will never admit to being upset by an older woman inappropriately touching him, let alone admitting deeper emotions like fear. And as hard as it is for me to admit, I am also an example of judging by stereotype.
Now when I look back to that night I feel embarassed. I shouldn’t have thought it was funny. I shouldn’t have walked off thinking Luis “could handle it like a man.” But if I’d have said something Luis would have felt inmasculated. Marisol could have then lunged at me with a knife and I would have been completely helpless, forcing Luis to step in. This would then open that whole can of worms entitled “never hit a woman.” It’s like a circle, going round and round: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The New Zealand that I know battles these same issues, although its a bit more liberal in the cities. I come up against gender roles time and time again here in Santiago, however. I watch as my suegra does all the work in the home as well as working full-time. I watch as my sister-in-law fills up the glass of her husband. I have seen a plate of unaccepteable food being thrown against the wall by a guy. And it’s not just gender. Santiago is just swimming in rules. I am tired of living by endless societal norms that deem what is acceptable, but that have really nothing to do with being “chilean”. Luis and I are getting married in March and we don’t have any money to have a wedding. We will have a kiwi-style BYO barbeque that Luis is already stressing about but you know what? It’s time to make our own standards of what is right instead of just following the crowd.
It was a bit of a squeeze the other night on the metro – as it is always is on the red line – when a family hopped on. Mama was rotund, Papa was large, oldest daughter was fat (and about 12 and dressed like a stripper), middle daughter was very large and there was a boy of about four who was extremely obese. You could argue that maybe their size was a genetic thing, but when I watched them all sit down and stuff their faces with McDonald’s I think we can safely say that perhaps their diet just isn’t flash hot. The boy than had an extreme tantrum for some lollies, which his mother embarrasingly gave to him. I sympathised with her in this moment – the whole train was watching and the easiest way to make him be quiet was to give in to his demands. I felt very sad because I could see the parents loved their children, with the father guarding them all protectively. They got off when I did to change to the yellow line, and they took the lift instead of the escalator.
I know people eat for different reasons. Nearly all of us have beccome accustomed to feeling too full, and we eat more than we need to – when we don’t need to. Our eating habits have changed so drastically over the last hundred years that its almost unrecognizeable (must read: The Gift of Good Land by Wendell Berry). Chile today is one of the most at-risk countries in Latin America, with the national Ministry of Health stating that 22.4 percent of children overweight and 22 percent of adults obese. Dr. Juan Carlos Prieto, from the Clinical Hospital at University of Chile, blames the ridiculous amount of bread that Chileans have become accustomed to eating – some six to eight servings a day – and one of the highest rates in the world.
Bread certainly is a staple item here. Everyone I know consumes it for both breakfast and dinner, usually with eggs, avocado or tomato. It’s delivered fresh to our local corner stores twice a day and it’s preservative-free so if you don’t eat it when you buy it goes all crusty and stringy.
In my opinion the cause of the dietary shift is the stratopheric rise of the supermarket. I trace the changing diet of Chile here an academic essay for Massey University, in which I detail how these hypermarkets have replaced shopping in local markets, or ferias, for the majority. I can see the appeal of supermarkets – your not forced to cook around seasonal ingredients, you can buy ready-made foods, you can buy cheaper in bulk, you can buy everything you need in one go … When you don’t have much money (or time) the supermarket is an excellent place to stock up on what you need to feel full, especially when buying pasta is sometimes alot cheaper than buying fresh vegetables. Note: the bread is not preservative free!
I have spent alot of time introducing readers to the people that I know in Recoleta. All of them are overweight. I’ve also talked time and again about the issue of education. The connection is obvious: 35.5% of low-income earners are overweight compared to 18.5% in Chile’s highest income bracket, with obesity twice as high for those with little education (Chile National Population Health Survey 2004).
In 2010, President Sebastián Piñera began a national programme to target the weight epidemic by increasing physical education in schools and a programme to refer obese children to nutritionists. However, given my own experience with a nutritionist in a reputable public hospital here, this is obviously not enough. Education is the root of the issue – people are just not being exposed to new information in the lower-income brackets, and they then do not have the means or tools to implement any changes.
Today I asked one of my English students what the biggest issue in Chile today is.
This discussion had started after my mention of the book Viva South America in which journalist Oliver Balch presents an in-depth look at pressing topics from across South America’s countries. We decided on areas for New Zealand (employment), Australia (refugees), Britain (immigration) and the United States (healthcare) but the question was what would take the top spot for Chile? The book chose women’s rights, which I wouldn’t debate given that femicide, spousal abuse and abortion rights are currrent areas of concern. This is a land where the machista attitude still rules the nest in many homes, particularly in poorer neighborhoods or away from the cities. But to be fair, today’s Santiaguinos appear modern in every sense of the word and I don’t think this is Chile’s most pressing issue. I offered up drugs as a possibility, and we agreed that this certainly seemed to be eating the country from the inside out, influences the crime rate. But my student firmly put forth that everything – from attitudes towards women to drug use – can be attributed in some way to education, and she is right.
What do I see when I look at Chile? I see a nation on the verge of something amazing. But the people are divided. Everywhere else I have been race, caste and color have been the dividing cause between people but never have I been to a place where people are torn apart by class. If you have been reading my blog then you will know I talk about class alot – it was the subject of years of anthropological study based on Santiago and I freely admit that I look at most things from that angle – however few can deny that classism is not a problem in Chile today. How is this linked to education, you ask? It’s linked because the education system in Santiago purports this viscious cycle of discrimination. The state school system is falling apart at the seams, and as mums frequently point out to me, even some of the better private schools here are lacking in facilities and aid for the teachers (some even have 40 children per class too!). The top school – Nido de Aguiles – requires a entrance submission fee of $12000 and monthly extortionist payments to pay for the kind of services that were completely free in New Zealand. The school day is long from 8am -4pm and teachers walk around in a state of serious stress. And what are the students learning? Do they learn about the real people around them – perhaps on their lunch break while they play together? Nope because as they grow and leave school they attend a university that is filled with people from similar backgrounds. That is if they make it to university, given that the PSU exams are so ridiculously hard that without a support system around them many teenagers end up giving up, dropping out, failing or never living up to their potential.
I think the biggest mistake is to think that the school system is the only place where learning ocurrs, and that there is only one type of learning. We can learn to memorize historical treatizes from a hundred years ago, poetry from 500 years ago or solve math equations formed with dozens of squiggles, but at the end of the day do these things really matter? If we don’t know our neighbours or live in fear of being robbed by the nana or continue to justify a system where the poorest people live off a few hundred thousand pesos a month and cannot afford basic living conditions, then I can’t say that we are all that intelligent. This isn’t a “Chile bash” by any means – this conversation could be directed towards most countries in the world – but just because here it’s about Chile does not mean it should be shrugged off as the moans of another expat. I came to Chile because I fell in love with a Chilean. His family is now my family, and his home is now my home. I would do anything to make sure that the people around me are happy and healthy, so when those two basic human requirements are not met because of education system flaws, then I feel the same need to change it. I’ll never be Chilean, I’ll never know the correct moment to use weon but that doesn’t matter. I am human and there are people around me who need help. A woman once told me that reading my blog opened her “eyes to what the real problem is in Santiago, and what everyone really needs to do.” The first is to overhaul the education system so that everyone gets a fair shot and the second is to stop the discrimination. Shakira sings “waka waka … we are all Africa.” Well, we are all Chile. Remove the pretend boundaries.
“Your blog would go down well here. Tolerance is much needed”
– is one of the comments I received after yesterday’s blog post. For the first time, I ruffled a few feathers, as I knew I would. To be fair, that is the intention of this blog – to bring awareness and humanity to the reality of Santiago life – and unfortunately the truth isn’t always English classes, pisco sours and delicious sopaipillas. Although it can seem like the easiest option at the time, burying ones head in the sand does not actually make much substantial difference.
Without ill-intention (though it certainly seemed like it!), one reader incredulously asked “what are you doing living there? I really can’t believe someone would choose to live in that situation”. I suppose that brings me to points 31 and 32 on my 50 Things To Expect post. Basically, not all gringos fall on their feet here. Having a child (restricted time) along with Santiago’s high living costs and lack of job opportunities (I don’t speak Spanish fluently) means that my options are limited. Combined further with the fact that mi amor is a) from here, b) owns a house here, c) works here, d) has family here, e) is not wealthy and it all makes perfect sense.
What is the name of my blog? It’s “Querida Recoleta” – my Dear Recoleta. I genuinely like living here. There is more character here than in the east, the people are friendlier than in downtown, the transport links are excellent (better than Nunoa) and I’ve been here over two years so I know my way around well. We know everyone and everyone knows us. Luis can get home safely when he finishes returning the taxi to his father at night and he can get to work quickly when he starts in the bus at 5am. People smile at us in the street, help us when we need it, the facilities are excellent (like Thai Chi or Cappoeira? There’s classes), and on holidays, this place is for the community.
I also genuinely feel safe here, despite what you may think from my blogs. In the day, flaites leave me alone and address me as Tia, and I don’t do much wondering around at night time. If anything happens the police arrive instantly, and when there is a commotion it doesn’t involve us. Every blog post so far I have tried to show people a world beyond their prejudices, because to be fair, that is rife here and it does go both ways (I’m battling that too with Organizacion Ojos Abiertos). My view is clearer than most because I study social anthropology and for the past three years I have specifically looked at class in Santiago.
My goal has always been to write about my experiences in Chile – the good and the bad. Any reader will see that I have tried to capture its beauty and the reality of its existence for locals. This is the home of Luis, his family and his friends and this place is good enough for them. I’m also not the only gringo living in a place such as this, but I do appear the only person writing about it in English. There are stories to be told here because Santiago is much, much more than what people see in the Plaza de Armas or Providencia or Lo Barnechea, and millions of Santiaguinos call barrios like Recoleta home. And to be fair where I live it’s not even that bad. But we are lucky, some people need urgent help and it’s a spiral of mis content.
Emilio has spent the majority of his life here thus making him Recoletano. My family is my home and they are here. So everytime someone takes a shot at these people without really knowing them, they are also aiming at me. No change will ever come from this. #queridarecoleta
NOTE: if you have family or friends in Recoleta in need of support or assistance please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Organizacion Ojos Abiertos may be able to help. I also offer FREE English language tuition to anyone who wants it and doesn’t have the means to pay.
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.
Who was it that said, “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing?”
I will tell you. It was Socrates, the man I would have tried to marry if I had been born over two thousand years ago. The Greek philosopher may not have been a looker (so they say) but he whipped the young people of Athens into such a frenzy that he was found guilty of disturbing the peace and forced to swallow poison. Nice*
The reason that I bring him up is that I often mull over deep, existential questions when I’m travelling on Santiago’s (excellent) metro system. The commute to Nunoa is like a lesson in “How to Enjoy Life as a Sardine” because at rush hour its impossible to do much else but use the little grey cells of the brain. You don’t even need to hold on to anything because men very kindly squish themselves so deeply into your behind that its impossible to move. Or run away.
My academic background is in social anthropology. I just love people. When I meet a person I take in everything about them, from how they speak to how they dress, and I store this information away, to be put together at a later time. I see their stories in front of me like I see their eyeballs – unique but also formulaic, and thus predictable to a degree.
Emphasis on the “to a degree.” It’s really quite impossible to make generalizations, especially when all the information you take in enters via several filters, whether they be filters of the senses, beliefs or of your own life experiences. This causes a difficulty in objectivity. That is why this blog is about my experiences in Chile, and not about any grand general statements about its people.
I was walking to my English class today when I saw an elderly gentleman sitting on a fold-away chair, out on his doorstep, in the street. He was alone and wasn’t do anything special, just sitting and watching, at that moment, me walk by. Later, as I tried to escape appendages on the metro, I considered him again and I was struck by a thought: in nearly every country I have been to, I have witnessed similar behavior!
When I stayed with the adopted family of my uncle in Rural Gujarat, India, I would assist the aging patriarch to his porch each morning and there he would sit, until lunchtime. After lunch, back out he would go until the evening, when the whole family would soujourn to the living room and share the immensely bonding experience of Indian soap-watching. He did absolutely nothing the whole time … that I could tell. Maybe he was seeing something that I just could not.
In England, my own grandparents would dust their sunroom with glee as spring approached, and summer was spent doing something similar, albeit with a healthy barrier of glass between them and nature.
In the north of New Zealand, we live outside come rain or sunshine, and I would argue that Sitting on the Deck is a national pastime.
In all these instances it’s plain to see that we human beings are united in our desire to enjoy the outside world, which seemingly increases with importance as we age.
What I love about its occurence in Recoleta is that it is an action without prejudice. We don’t have the best streets – hahaha (excuse the laugh). In case you are wondering why I chuckled I will paint you a clearer picture. Santiago in general doesn’t have good roads (except the highways) and even the nicer areas flood after a drop of rain. Here in Recoleta its almost impossible to use a pushchair thanks to the broken footpaths, the roads are filled with potholes, and there’s always a dog every few metres that kindly offers you a present when you walk by. There’s rubbish everywhere, perhaps because people leave their rubbish bags outside and the dogs rip into them. Worst of all, when it’s warm, it gets stinky.
If it sounds like I can’t write a much worse description of the place I call my home, let me pause here and tell you one thing. On a sunny day, this smelly pot-holey barrio becomes heaven. Maybe I say that because I love observing cities and their inhabitants, but the truth is it really is magnificent when the sun is shining. Every house is unique, no one style employed in design, and the extravagant paint work bursts forth like an explosion under the sunlight. Every house and apartment keeps plants that have the power to transform even the most mundane of dwellings, and what you can find on the roadside is surprising. By my house there is a line of aloe vera plants. Nearby there are cacti with such aggresive spikes that they jut out into the road and dare you to walk by (seriously, they are so spikey you have to actually step off the footpath and walk around them – I’m surprised no-one has been seriously injured there). There are flowers of every description that bloom over fences and brighten doorways, and there are plum trees so laden that they drop their heavy purple fruit onto your head as you walk underneath. I remember months ago we were walking home from taking the recycling (Recoleta recycles – woop!) and I saw a very elderly couple with thinning white hair out in the street and trimming the trees. It struck me how happy they were, how they were laughing and joking like teenagers while taking the time to care for the street. The moment really touched me.
So to return to the eternal question: what makes us human? I have no idea but I want to say that the answer could be found in the way we always try to re-connect with the outside world, especially as we age. But the anthropologist in me hesistates to say anything and I leave you here with another tidbit from my past lover, Socrates: “true wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life ourselves and the world around us.”
* If you can, have a read of Plato’s Apology, which details Socrates’ trial. The man could debate.
Now I am not one who takes the history books at their word. I am sceptical of everyone and everything (hence why I am making my own volunteer organization!) but I have to admit that this does not always apply. I think we can safely say that the indigenous people of many nations had a terrible time, and none more so than the people of Tierra del Fuego, the region in the extreme south of Argentina and Chile.
It is difficult to obtain much information about them – indeed, Chileans don’t really talk about them. So I was happy to see a small section on the numerous groups at The Natural History Museum, in Quinta Normal.
Tierra del Fuego is the bottom-most part of Patagonia, the cold, vast expanse that is shared by southern Chile and Argentina. It was inhabited by numerous indigenous groups such as the Ona, Selknam, Qawasgar and the Yagan. The organisation Cultural Survival describes this region as having each year: 80 blizzards, (up to) 5 metres of rain and snowfall and just 20 days of sunshine (1987). There is few fish, no arable land, and the Qawasgar Indians, for example, had no clothes, no musical instruments and only a few stone tools to use.
Today, small numbers of Qawasgar survive and many were brought to the island of Chiloe to work as boat hands (Cultural Survival, 1987). However, Cultural Survival reports that these workers are discriminated against and easily fall prey to alcoholism, which is encouraged by either low wages or by being paid in spirits (Cultural Survival). This prevailing attitude of racism is most likely connected to past ideologies which were noticed in 1853 by the ethnographer Samuel Kirkland Lothrop who wrote that Tierra del Fuego was viewed as a “strange and romantic land, peopled by unmitigated cannibals (…) the very distance of Tierra del Fuego from the places where most of us live is a gap (…) not only geographical, but racial and cultural as well” (210).
When Charles Darwin sailed through this region this gap would be noted down, in “The Voyage of the Beagle”, perhaps the most well known and most pervasive account of this area. Some of his descriptions may appear a little shocking to today’s sensibilities. In a 1833 letter he wrote: “In Tierra del [sic] I first saw bona fide savages; & they are as savage as the most curious person would desire.—A wild man is indeed a miserable animal, but one well worth seeing.”11 He wrote in his account that: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement. … Their skin is of a dirty coppery red colour. … The party altogether closely resembled the devils which come on the stage in plays like DerFreischutz.” (inGrigg, 2009). Many of his statements were based on second-hand accounts, for example he stated that “The different tribes when at war are cannibals. From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr Low [a Scottish sealer], and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr Low why they did this, answered, “Doggies catch otters, old women no.” (in Grigg, 2009). This was false information but the idea spread like wildfire in the colonised world.
It is beyond sad to me that today nearly all of these original groups are extinct. Please go here to hear recordings by the last of the Ona/Selk’nam people, Lola Skejpa.
I find it even more shocking when I go to a nightclub in Bellavista that uses images of sacred coming-of-age rituals as their decor, or when I visit museums and have the option of buying mugs and tshirts with these same pictures on.
These are the most popular images that we see of them today, in their traditional gear worn during the HAIN ceremony. In a nutshell, the Hain was a coming-of-age ceremony held by the Selk’nam. The Selk’nam had a fiercely patriarchal society that was re-enforced each year when young men would undergo a terrifying ordeal facing off demons ^. At the end of the ceremony, these ‘demons’ would disrobe and the adolescents would feel shock at the deception. This was then blamed upon the women of the tribe, who are blamed for misfortunes and as deceitful. Their beliefs can be read in more detail here.
The Natural History Museum
The museum itself isn’t anything special but it is worth a trip even if you don’t speak Spanish. It’s one of many museums in Quinta Normal, which in itself is a lovely park to while away a few hours. It’s also the place where I saw this shocking but evocative display:
There is always some cool shops in front of the park gates. One of them sells lovely natural honey products such as soap.
‘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 flaitestreet 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?
Word Count (inclusive of titles and references): 3239
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.
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 146.213Anthropological 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.
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.
It was difficult for me to decide on a ritual to observe here in Chile given that there are so many religious or secular options from which to choose. In the end I chose to closely observe my son’s first birthday party celebration. I am in the advantageous position of being in a relationship with a Chilean man, which has meant that I am lucky enough to be intimately acquainted with Chile´s foreign customs and rituals, all of which were adhered to at the birthday party. The following is my observation as a participant, focusing on numerous aspects such as colors and symbols, in addition to an analysis of their wider cultural significance. I have also included how aspects of the New Zealand culture were included and received, as well as touching on the elements of Dieciocho which were also present.
The party was held in Emiliano Zapata in the Santiago suburb of Recoleta at the beginning of Fiestas Patrias (national celebration-see below). Recoleta is a working class area that is notable for its growing immigrant population, namely from Palestine, China and Peru. It is best known for the cheap shopping district of Patronato, which includes the La Vega central market, and the national cementary. It is a gritty, dusty area with few trees or grassy areas, but does have a large population of street dogs. In wider Santiago, Recoleta is located to the north, above the colonial centre with the Plaza de Armas, while to the east are the more affluent sectors. In these areas, one passes through what is affectionately named ‘Sanhatten’ because of its skyscrapers and shopping malls. The more east of the city one travels, the wealthier the people become, and there are gated communities and mansions. There exists in Santiago a high regard for hertiage: the wealthier inhabitants pride themselves on their German or Spanish ancestry to the point where a ‘classist’ attitude has evolved. Recoleta, which was traditionally an indigenous area, is generally regarded as a poor suburb. The houses on Emiliano Zapata are a mix of bungalows and apartment blocks, with barred windows, high gates, barbed wire and guard dogs. When I first arrived in Recoleta, I noticed only the smell and the broken footpaths and potholes, but after some time here I see the efforts the locals go to, to show their originality. Many paint their houses bright colours, or paint regularly to maintain its condition. Others plant cactus or palm trees in the arid ground at the front of their doors. Each morning I look out my window and see a lady sweep the footpath near her house. Furthermore, the houses generally give very little away on the outside as to what lies inside, I have observed many a central courtyard and quite sprawling interiors. To describe the house at which the party was located, it is a two-storey building painted brown with no front door, only a black gate. There is no way to contact the inside except by calling or banging on the gate. On the ground floor is a store selling cleaning products that rents the space, and out the back there is a large yard that is also rented out as car parking spaces for people staying in the opposite flats. Upstairs is our open-plan, two bedroom home that also has a small patio. Directly ahead from here is a very large hill that is green when not obscured by smog, to the right are flats and to the left are a number of houses on the same property, shared by families living together. Our house is located several metres from an intersection that has several general stores and a newly opened Chinese takeaway.
The party was held because my son Emilio was turning one. As a mother, I wanted to have a party to celebrate Emilio being with us. I also wanted to enjoy the company of friends as it was only a year ago that I had to experience giving birth. It was also a great opportunity to invite alot of other babies over at the same time to meet Emilio. Therefore for me, the party was a way to bring everyone together and to socialize. My partner was a little hesitant about the demands upon him as a host (see below). However, his mother convinced him that the first birthday was an important time, for Emilio but also for the adults to take the time to enjoy him. This is understandable from either a Chilean or New Zealand cultural standpoint, but in our case especially so given that Emilio spent his first nine months with only me in New Zealand. Regardless, birthday parties are celebrated because the sociable nature of human beings means that additional meanings are placed upon the biological process of growth (Davies, 1994: 1). However, from a further anthropological standpoint, it is possible to consider my mother-in law’s eagerness for a celebration as a way to “reduce the fears that often come when life’s events threaten their security and sense of well-being”, due most likely to Emilio’s particularly international upbringing (Moro & Myers, 2010: 83). Typically in Chile, a birthday party includes a light evening meal called once that is often held around eight, however I was reluctant to prepare food given the differences in cooking between New Zealand and Chile. Here, women are trained from a young age to prepare traditional meals that are rarely deviated from, and as such, the standards are high. I did not learn to cook until I left home, and certainly not Chilean food, hence my aversion to cooking for a number of people. Therefore, four in the afternoon was chosen as it made a suitable compromise.
We invited an American friend of mine and her Chilean boyfriend, the (separated) parents of my partner Luis, Luis’ older brother and his wife, Luis’ younger brother, a friend and his family, another friend and his family, a friend from university and a neighbour and their little girl. In total there were twelve adults, two children, one toddler and four babies around the age of one. Two of these babies are the offspring of two of Luis’ best friends, Andre and Felipe. Luis, Andre and Felipe were born and raised on the same street in Recoleta called Victor Cuccuini, and have been close friends since a young age. Together they have shared all the big moments in life, and along with several other people, have a group nickname, ‘Toxicuccuini’. Their three children, all around the same age, have been labeled ‘los bebes cuccuinis’ and are frequently banded together. This relationship echoes the process coined by Victor Turner known as communitas, whereby by moving through similar life phases together, these three boys “brings about a sense of community and camaraderi … [with] close bonds and will usually remain close friends throughout their lives” (Stern, 2011: 89). Today, most of the members of the Toxicocuccuini group of friends still live on Victor Cuccuini.
As a secular not religious ritual, a birthday celebration is a curious thing. While there are no rigid rules to adhere to, most certainly they contain the “fundamental beliefs, values, and social foundations of a group” (Mono & Myers, 2010: 83). The process is circular: a birthday is a rite of passage, which is an ideological ritual that dictates ones place in society, of whose place is determined by both society and rite of passage (Mono & Myers, 2010: 84). In the case of this particular birthday party, there was certainly an undercurrent of battle between the cultural forces of Chile and New Zealand, both of which were trying to make their mark. Symbolically, a birthday is an important time in one’s journey through life, however the very first birthday appears to cement the future of the child as it marks a stable condition that is recognizable by ones culture (Turner, 1967: 94). In other words, the rite of passage is a transitory period whereby one has “shed their previous identification and place in society but have yet to take on the mantle of their new status” (Stern, 2011: 89). In the case of this birthday party, Emilio lost his status as a baby the moment the party began and instead entered into one of liminality (Stern, 2011: 89). Of the features identified by Victor Turner as most often present, I can confirm that there was evidence of a transitory state, absence of property as well as the strong camaraderie of a communita and the inference of a sacred-like attitude towards Emilio (Stein, 2011: 90).
To detail the order of events, the party began with the first arrival of guests around four (the American). The Chilean family members arrived at five, and I was told that “they came especially early as they know foreigners are punctual.” The friends of Luis arrived around six. Upon arrival, each person greeted with a kiss and a hug, asked how the other person was and presented a gift to myself. All the gifts were placed under the table as there was little other space to place them. Everyone took a seat around the living area and the babies were placed upon the floor, mostly watched by Felipe and Luis’ parents. The mothers mostly talked amongst themselves, and several of the men went outside onto the patio. The older children, Martin and Ignacio, played often out on the patio as well, and I remember that it was an unusually hot day. Inside, refreshments were provided over two tables. On the first table there was a very large cake modelled upon the children’s story book “Dear Zoo”. It had two levels, was yellow and had animal figures made out of the icing. On the cake was the name ‘Emilio’ and underneath on the cake board was the words, “Feliz 1st Cumple.” This cake received much attention throughout the afternoon with many of the children unable to believe that the animals were edible. Also on the table were mini cupcakes with blue icing, biscuits in the shape of Trucks with the number 1, sandwiches, a potato salad, cut up strawberries and pineapples, and muesli bars. Above the table were two birthday cards pinned to the wall, some balloons and an owl bunting with the letters of Emilio’s name. On the adjacent table were serviettes with Feliz Cumpleanos written on them, plastic spoons, plastic cups, straws and paper plates, along with bottles of Coke, water, beer and homemade Strawberry juice. I observed that the guests were reluctant to help themselves at the tables, and remained seated until all the guests had arrived. Luis then proceeded to take each plate around the room offering to each of the seated guests. He said that this was normal custom in Chile and that it is not normal to ‘help yourself.’ As a host, his job was to ensure that each guest had plenty to eat and drink, and as a result, barely sat down. Myself, as the other host, felt quite uncomfortable with this. Of the food, the cupcakes were eaten rapidly and so were strawberries dipped in chocolate.
In terms of symbols, there were two strands at work. As we have seen above, there were balloons, cards and a bunting with the infants name. There was also music played with both English and Spanish songs. However, it is important to mention that there were decorations in the house independent of the birthday. Dieciocho is a national holiday marking Chile’s independence, and is celebrated as a week of parties known as Fiestas Patrias (patriotic parties). During this time, each house is legally obligated to fly a Chilean flag outside their home, symbolizing that they are a nation together. However, this time is typically a joyful time for Chilean families, who enjoy trips to fondas (fairs), watch military performances such as aerial shows, eat asados (barbeques food) and dance the national dance, the cueca, while wearing traditional dress. Throughout the week, houses are decorated in the colours of the flag: red, blue and white. At the party, there were garlands and wreaths in these colours across several walls. There were also traditional cueca songs played that attracted cheers and clapping. Therefore, the attitude during the celebration was considerably patriotic.
The afternoon was spent talking amongst each other, however people stayed generally in specific groupings, with the men and women separate. Conversation revolved around the children and also the house (it had been newly decorated). The outside area was very popular. Around seven, it was time for the cake. Everyone came inside, and the door was closed, lights off. The cake remained on the table as it was heavy and a candle in the shape of a number one was lit on the top. Luis stood next to me and I held Emilio, while everyone else were around us. ‘Happy Birthday’ was sung in Spanish: “cumpleanos feliz/deseamos a ti/feliz cumpleanos Emilio/que los cumplas feliz/” which is literally translated as “happy birthday/we desire for you/happy birthday Emilio/have a happy birthday”. It was sung loudly and there was much clapping and cheering at the end. The cutting of the cake marked Emilio’s entry into the liminal stage, of “transition or marginality. The individual is neither one thing or another, but ‘betwixt and between’” (Bowie, 2006: 149). After a slice of cake was eaten, we began opening the presents. This act represented the postliminal, representing Emilio’s successful pass through liminality into a new state as a one year old (Bowie, 2006: 149). What I note as striking is that in the preliminal state, Emilio played happily with everybody but during the liminal he was held closely by his parents, specifically his mother. During the opening of the presents he was again held but this time by his father. At the conclusion of the present opening, Emilio crawled away himself and spent the rest of the evening with the older children of Luis’ friends. This is notable because these actions appear as partnered to the symbolism of the rite of passage. When Emilio had completed his part in the ceremony, he was independent enough to move away as an individual who had been “reintegrated into society, but in a transformed state” (Bowie, 2006: 149). The presents themselves were particularly extravagant, consisting of a swing, toys, clothing and sports items. Everyone watched the opening of the presents with heightened anticipation, there was clapping and the whole process was filmed (rather than just photos, which were taken throughout). This rapt attention is fitting given it was the last stage of Emilio’s rite of passage.
After this stage had been completed, several people left. The immediate family stayed and partook in once. This is a custom unique to Chile and has ambiguous roots. One legend says a long time ago, eleven ladies used to clandestinely get together to drink alcohol and their code word for organising was ‘once’. Today, it does not involve eleven ladies or alcohol and instead is similar to breakfast but taken in the evening. In Chile, breakfast is typically light while lunch (at two in the afternoon) is the main meal, however as more and more families are apart during the day, once has gained more importance as important family time. Usually, freshly baked bread (preservative free) called marrequetas are served warm with ham, cheese and sometimes either stuffed tomatoes or avocado. Mashed up avocado with lemon and lots of salt almost always accompanies once, along with a spicty tomato mix called pebre. However, on the night of Emilio’s birthday we ate empanadas that were made in next doors garage. Empanadas can be fried or baked in the oven depending on what kind of filling they have, and we had either prawn and cheese, cheese or meat fillings. This was the culmination of the evening, as we all sat together and reminisced about the afternoon. Emilio was getting irritable at this point and was ready for bed, which appeared to dampen the spirits of the grandfather who could not fathom the baby being tired. At the conclusion of the meal, goodbyes were made along with the obligatory goodbye cheek kiss.
In terms of the broader socio-cultural significance, the first birthday celebration in Chile is equal to the Catholic baptism ceremony and is usually performed around the same time. The celebration has meaning for the adults as it is akin to ones affirmation within a family. In this case, Emilio’s birthday was a special one as his Chilean family were not present through his early life. It was especially significant to his grandmother, Viviana, who admitted that she was so emotional about finally having a grandchild. In South America, mothers are highly regarded and particularly close with their children. It is usual to live with ones parents until marriage, and then to live nearby and visit regularly. The birthday party provided an ideal time for bonding as the parents were busy hosting and attempting to socialize without needing to constantly attend to their child. This was especially obvious after the present opening ceremony when Emilio wandered off with a sense of new independence. Furthermore, this new stage appeared to have a dramatic effect upon Emilio, who finished the night by standing alone for the first time in his life.
Humans, when encountering danger, always respond uniquely, particularly through the use of symbols which include everything from pictograms to language. (Stein, 2011: 56). The symbols used during the party represented the slight power struggle between the New Zealand and Chilean cultures that were vying for equal footing. Spanish was only spoken, the majority of the guests were Chilean, the birthday song that marked the liminal period was sung only in Spanish despite English-speakers being present, and there were considerable displays of patriotic behaviour. In my opinion, the Chilean influence was certainly strongest, perhaps encouraged by the fact that many of the decorations were presented in Chilean colours. This then evoked a patriotic attitude because they were arbitrary symbols that provoked a similar agreement and response in the people that had been conditioned to recognise them as such (Stein, 2011: 57). The playing of Spanish music and traditional songs also set the mood of the event (Stein, 2011: 70). In terms of the broader significance of singing Happy Birthday, it is interesting and poignant that music during a rite of passage has its roots in religious ritual, of which it is a key element, as it helps to give birthday celebrations importance (Stein, 2011: 70).
It has now been several days since the conclusion of the birthday party. The sense of communitas is still strong thanks to the constant presence of the internet. Photos have been ‘shared’, ‘liked’ and commented upon along with much reminiscing. Inside the home, the decorations have come down except for the patriotic colours of red, white and blue. As we approach the day of the eighteenth itself, there is a heightened feeling of expectancy in the air. Emilio seems like a different boy, trying to walk and talk only after his rite of passage. It is evident that just as behaviours are learned so too are the meaning of symbols, all of which make an appearance during a first birthday party – from the power of the cake with its symbolic cutting, to the opening of the presents and the cheering that accompanies a national song. As a ritual, the birthday is closely tied to these elements but also to more tangible components such as a family. I observed the celebration as a bonding experience for the wider family unit (including friends formed during previous communitas) that also allowed the parents to spend time away from their child. The child himself responded to this with delight and embraced a strong sense of independence after the postliminal period had concluded.
Bowie, Fiona. The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 138- 173. 2006.
Davies, Douglas. Rites of Passage. Edited by Jean Holm with John Bowker. London and New York: Pinter, pp.1-9. 1994.
Mono, Pamela and James Myers. Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: A reader in the Anthropology of Religion. 2010. New York: Mc Grow-Hill, pp.83-86.
Stein, Rebecca L. and Philip L. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft. New Jersey: Pearson. 2011.
Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, pp. 83- 111. 1967.
Food and Identity in Chile: the Relationship between Diet, Class and Economics
Attempting to generalise an entire nation’s diet and its impact upon one’s social and cultural identity is daunting, to say the least. The links between each factor are tangled like a giant spiders-web whose threads are small but sticky enough that they affect the others in multiple ways. It is when one steps back, however, that the greater picture can be seen. This essay called on me to make a choice between the type of identity I would focus upon but once I began writing I realised that there were no separate parameters upon which to focus, instead that many are in fact so related that they have become inter-connected. This is an idea that is supported by the theoretical framework suggested by French philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu, who pinpointed several locations from which to base a study around societal identity. This essay shall use his theories regarding field, habitus and capital to discern the relationship between gender, class and identity in Santiago, Chile. In order to narrow the scope, I shall be basing my findings around the general diet of the people, beginning with my chosen commodity, ultra heat treated milk (UHT), and the offshoots that it leads to.
Before beginning my analysis, it is necessary to first understand better the framework of Bourdieu. It exists as a certain way to ask questions and format our thinking during an investigation, and is a concept known as generative structuralism (Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990:3). The genesis of generative structuralism is to discern how much of an identity is the product of one’s social structure at large, known as structure, and how much is derived from ones autonomous, independent choices, known as agency (Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990: 1-3). Given that human life today consists of “complex political, social and philosophical – that is, shared – concerns”, the questions are driven by investigating the direction of one’s subjectivity (Mansfield, 2000, cited in Morris 2014). To explain this further, Mansfield writes that “Etymologically, to be subject means to be placed under. One is always subject to or of something. The word subject, therefore, proposes that the self is not a separate and isolated entity, but one that operates at the intersection of general truths and shared principles” (cited in Morris 2014). Bourdieu’s loci for analysis consist of the following areas for consideration. The first is the field, which can be better understood as a “field of forces” (Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990: 8). These forces comprise of inner struggles enforced by actors who move around capital in order “to conserve or transform the field” (Bourdieu, 1983: 312). The actors entrance and subsequent role within the field is based upon ones knowledge, disposition and worldly understanding (Bourdieu cited in Mahar, Harket & Wilkes, 1990: 10-11). Positions in the field vary according to ones accrued capital which may be material or symbolic, and which gain status according to how sought after they are (Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990: 10). It serves as a “basis of domination” that can be exchanged or converted into other types of capital, the most auspicious being symbolic (Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990:10). Symbolic capital is regarded as the most important form of capital for it is here that all other types are recognised and accepted as legitimate (Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990: 10). The movement of capital could therefore be described as an interplay between the physical and material into energy and status.
By choosing the word ‘field’, Bourdieu has likened one’s social topology to the competitive world of sport, and this is a useful allegory to understand what is generally considered a complicated term. Here Bourdieu relates this concept closer to the social sphere: “People play different games, which are autonomous, but at the same time, there are homologies between different games and, I think, there are general principles of the functioning of these games” (1985, cited in Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990: 7). In simpler language, Bourdieu is suggesting that although one can and does make choices, in reality these choices are subjective structures which have pre-determined parameters. This directly relates to the food industry because, while it is true we can enter a supermarket or grow our own vegetables, what is offered is brought to us via an additional party. It is time to turn now to the situation in Chile, beginning with the trail set by the sale and consumption of UHT milk. UHT milk, as explained in my previous work, is the dominant form of milk drunk in Chile after replacing first raw then the pasteurised varieties. It has become a big business to the point whereby small providers are unable to compete, therefore making its field of sale very narrow. This field is driven by economic capital, as its actors seek to increase their monetary wealth. Of these, Nestle Chile and Fonterra-owned Soprole dominate the Chilean market and bring in billions of dollars annually. They sell a variety of dairy products from flavoured to diet, cheese to yogurt, all of which have been heavily processed using UHT while containing additives and preservatives. In addition, such methods of pasteurisation result in lowered nutritional value and, contrary to belief, remain at risk of contamination (Milk Facts, 2014, Harding, 1995: 118). Within this corporate field, therefore, very little consideration has been given into selling a product that is mostly beneficial to its consumers. Furthermore, Nestle Chile and Soprole have flooded the market with a multitude of options without any other competition. This has meant that the majority of dairy consumers in Chile have become entangled within the web of the economic field and as such are unconsciously forced into a limiting buying position.
Chileans have, in general, accepted this position and perhaps one reason for their complacency is due to the political field that has always been all-inclusive. There has been political unrest in Chile since the arrival of the Spanish, from 1537 onwards (Wikipedia 2014). Before then, the land was inhabited by warring Mapuche, among others, who are known for their resistance to the Inca, who were much larger in number. There has been much difficulty in uniting as a nation under an accepted leadership. In the 1970’s, Salvador Allende became president and began to transform the nation using socialist ideals, for example by increasing worker rights and nationalising Chilean companies. This was opposed by the United States, who funded campaigns to destabilize the Chilean nation (Wikipedia 2014). This resulted in a highly conflicted society, which alternated between extreme political viewpoints, made all the worse worse by crippling economics. In 1973, a military coup led by Agusto Pinochet overthrew the government of Allende and over the subsequent years human rights violations took place on a grand scale while at the same time suffering further economic crisis’. It is not difficult to conclude that emotional trauma was and still is fresh in the minds of many Chileans. In fact, many people that I spoke to in Santiago blame the governments of these years for unsafe business dealings that lead to contaminated milk being imported from Europe, resulting in a widespread drop in milk consumption. However, I have been unable to verify this information. The growth of Chile’s economy to one of international importance and a successful movement into democracy has lead to a feeling of trust towards the political field in general, along with an unconscious acceptance of business endeavours.
Sidney Mintz wrote that it is the economic and political fields such as the above who determine what is eaten, what is prized, what is disdained and the people whom are doing the consuming (1986: 185). This leads us now to a discussion regarding the social aspects that are affected by said structures. The question I asked myself is that there must be more to this story than the economic and the political, and there was. Researchers such as Ball (2004) explain that cultural, social and economic capital are at the apex of class structures, and its unequal access to them that maintains class distinctions (cited in Mellor, Blake & Crane, 2010: 118). Chile is a highly segregated society. My own research in the field has lead me to poorer middle class neighbourhoods such as Independencia, to upper middle class such as in Vitacura and finally inside the gated communities of the elite, who live in the outskirts such as in Lo Barnechea. There is a wide disparity between the economic capital available in these fields, however, the working and middle class attempt in a variety of ways to at least increase their social capital. This is achieved through a “particular set of social practices (…) [in order to] facilitate social and cultural capitals” (Mellor, Blake & Crane, 2010: 117). Increasing ones social capital is particularly serious in Chile because of its connection with other fields. Good jobs can only be given to those with degrees from certain universities, of which have fiercely strict entrance policies based upon the Pre-Universitario test taken in high school. This test is biased, however, because of the disparity between public and private education, the latter of which is exclusive and expensive. The elite keep themselves distinct from the other classes not only by economic and social capital, but by certain habitus perpetuated by said capital. For an example, the elite learn through the embodiment of certain habitus around them, such as by speaking a distinct form of Spanish known as ‘cuico’. In addition, because the elite have had sufficient capital to buy food they have had the option of choosing where they buy, and their drive for class distinction has resulted in them turning to places such as supermarkets for their options. Supermarkets have grown quickly in Chile and within them whole aisles are dedicated to processed foods such as UHT milk. As the elite began to support such businesses, so too did the rest of the social classes who turned to food as “a cultural realm where individuals can effectively engage in status displays” (Johnston & Baumann, 2007, cited in Mellor, Blake & Crane, 2010: 119).
Highlighting these practices allows for closer attention to be paid to gender. Chile was for a long time based upon traditional gender roles which saw the women remain at home to take care of the children and oversee the feeding of the family. The importance placed upon the woman to provide a food that does more than nourish infers that “it is an elaborate performance of gender, social class and identity” (Bourdieu, 1984, cited in Warin, Turner, Moore & Davies, 2007: 98). For this reason, the roles of men and women are kept strictly enforced, because “Feminine and masculine identities are not natural or given in biology, but must be constructed, and should be understood, therefore, as cultural achievements” (Moore, 1994: 42). Therefore, increasing ones social capital was made possible by emulating the buying practices of the elite, while at the same time enforcing one’s gender and status (Mellor, Blake & Crane, 2010: 116-117).
This then brings the cultural capital of Chile into the equation, particularly as food has always been “an important marker of identity (…) to demonstrate their cultural knowledge” (Mellor, Blake & Crane, 2010: 123-124). Today, many dishes and food habits Chileans consider as their own, incorporate these dietary changes. For example, one popular dessert are pancakes are laden with store-bought and artificially sweetened ‘manjar’, or condensed milk. Sugar has been replaced by artificial sweetener, while fizzy drinks have become are now among the top three items most bought today by Chilean families (Albala et al, 2008: 1). This rise of heavily processed foods has meant that a rapid nutritional transition has occurred across the board and resulted in a stark change in the nation’s general health (Bambs et al. 2008). In particular, said industrialization of food has been “associated with changes in lifestyle towards unhealthy dietary (…) patterns” and lead to a marked increase in health problems such as hypertension (Bambs et al. 2008). The Chilean identity, therefore, has become entangled with the results of their drive for different sources of capital which are “motivating their consumption, thereby entering intimately into the organization of their very personalities: who and what they think they are” (Mintz, 1986: 185).
Finally, I would like to return to the economic field. This is because, as Bourdieu himself pointed out, the formation of the social identity and its reality is dependent upon a dialectical fluctuation between ones personal economics and ones objective and subjective social structures – and this is complex (Mahar, Harker & Wilkes, 1990: 3). Mintz argues that “We are made more and more into what we eat, whenever forces we have no control over persuade us that our consumption and our identity are linked” and this has certainly occurred in Chile (1986: 211). However, these forces operate on a much grander scale than the Chilean class system – in fact, there is an international field that exists, moving around international capital and lead by an international team of actors. In the beginning section I pointed out that the leading suppliers of milk are Nestle Chile and Soprole, which is owned by Fonterra. Nestle Chile is part of the larger Nestle Group which is one of the world’s key international market players while Fonterra is the largest global processer of milk (Fonterra, 2014). In order for these companies to retain their position and continue earning economic capital, it is necessary for them to also convert this into additional forms of capital. One way this is achieved is through “a broad-sweeping, anonymous process that homogenizes various spheres (…) through spreading the basic principles of efficiency, predictability, calculability and control (Ritzer, 1993 cited in Illouz & John, 2003: 202). This allows big corporations to “establish monopoly over the species of capital effective in it (…) and the power to decree the hierarchy and ‘conversion rates’ between all forms of authority in the field of power” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, cited in Illouz & John, 2003: 205). The result is that this international field “is actively shaped and continuously constructed by the organization itself” (Fligstein, 1991, cited in Illouz & John, 2003: 205). All agents in charge of the direction of capital seek to preserve it (Illouz & John, 2003: 210). For this reason, in Chile, supermarkets are replacing street markets and processed foods are replacing home-grown foods, and the subsequent outcome is a transformed social identity.
It is more than confronting to realise how all social constructs, from culture and class to tradition and gender, are dependent upon a variety of influences pertaining to one’s sources of capital, habitus and fields. Bourdieu refers to this as a form of social conditioning (1998: 8) brought about by actors not “fully conscious of [their] motivations” (1977: 3). Within Chile, the acceptance of UHT milk is just the tip of an enormous iceberg that stretches from political concerns to economic, social and cultural ones as well. Bourdieu’s theory of generative structuralism has provided us with the base to frame this investigation and the result, to return to my leading metaphor, is a tangled, interconnected web of factors. In practice, there is no “mechanical reaction directly determined by the antecedent conditions” because there exists within the framework the possibility of one’s agency. Choice is therefore still possible, albeit limited, and it is this that allows me to point out that, despite all the fields that one may operate among, none of these are en statis. One’s identity, therefore, is malleable and subject to future changes.
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