A Story of Machismo & Chilean Men

The creative juices haven’t been flowing lately for me.  I actually spent all of last week in bed with a horrific cold that had me shivering and shaking like a praying mantis, which also saw me exclaim that I was dying and that Luis was quite simply the world’s worst boyfriend for expecting me to get up and cook for his family when I was at my worst.


This last, coupled with the fact that Luis went to have some “words” with our neighbour Jose this morning, has got me thinking about what it means to date a Chilean man. On Friday night I babysat until 2am and when I came home found I had misplaced my keys. While waiting for Luis to let me in, Jose appeared in all his drunken glory and slurred his way through the usual greeting spiel that constitutes Chilean small talk. Luis witnessed this and thought Jose had been way too friendly, something which I then made worse by saying “he was so drunk at one point I thought he was going to kiss me!” He didn’t try to and I said this only because he was very touchey and his reactions were slow from being drunk, but Luis took this literally and went to speak with him today. He told me so casually, like he had just gone to buy marrequeta and asked how the weather was.

“So I asked Jose what happened on Friday night,” he began and I felt my insides turn cold.


“I asked him what he was doing on Friday night with you. He didn’t know what to say, just ‘no no no!'”

“Luis what on Earth are you talking about? Nothing happened!”

“Helen you told me he tried to kiss you.”

“No I didn’t I said he was so drunk that he seemed like he was about to!”

“Well I didn’t say anything about that. I just said that I saw him from the window and that he was inappropriate with you.”

Now if you date a Chilean you probably have heard something similar.  There is a chauvenistic thread running through many of the men which sees some labelled as machista. You probably don’t want to say this in response:

“Luis, we are not married and even if we were I am still not your property. I can do whatever I like and if I need your help I will ask for it.  Don’t go causing drama over nothing!”

Luis is actually the least machista man I have met here but jealousy rears its ugly head every now and then. My sister-in-law Berny and I often joke at parties that the only way to get attention from our men is to suddenly begin a conversation with another man, because they will instantly appear. Funnily enough, when we went to Jose’s the other month he offered me a beer. I hate alcohol and drink very rarely, and Luis saved me from social disgrace by saying I wasn’t allowed. Usually I never get offered alcohol at parties but its not considered that polite to decline something when offered (my father-in-law thinks I’m SO odd for always saying no to Chile’s famous wine!).  Jose nearly spat his out when he heard Luis and called him too machista.  However, despite all the advances in the social sphere, Chile still suffers in the field of women’s rights. Femicide is a big issue here and abortion is still illegal, and many girls who have been raped never speak out. This is a nation that, until a few years ago, was a man’s world.  Just take a read of Los Prisoneros “Corazones Rojos” a song so damning against the men that it was years ahead of its time:

Eres ciudadana de segunda clase, sin privilegios y sin honor
Porque yo doy la plata estás forzada
a rendirme honores y seguir mi humor
Búscate un trabajo, estudia algo, la mitad del sueldo y doble labor
Si te quejas allá está la puerta, no estás autorizada para dar opinión”

This song, like all Los Prisoneros songs, is excellent and if you really want to know Chile you should take a listen of their music.

Four years ago, when Luis and I were newly living together, we shared with an acquaintance of Luis’ called Carlos. Carlos was a single man who was stringing along an ex-girlfriend named Viviana. Every time he called she came running, usually to cook him lunch. One time he wasn’t happy with the food that he threw the plate against the wall and it smashed into a thousand pieces. I don’t have any idea what happened with their relationship, but I do know that he owed our neighbours money for drugs and he had to leave so fast from here that he left all his furniture behind.


Emilio has been playing out the front the last few days with the children from next door. One of them, Antony, is a few months younger than him and his mother is the daughter of Luisa, the street’s main matriarch.  She is friendly enough and quite pretty (except for some of her tattoos) but she is the owner of the most awful voice I have ever heard. She is the woman responsible for the awful screeching we’ve heard out front over the last month during the night. They used to live further down the road but were kicked out of their room for causing trouble. Her partner is very flaite and is not that nice – Luis does not like him.  Together that pair cause the majority of the drama where we live and what is unfortunate is that their son Antony is learning from their behaviour all the time. He’s a little peleador and does not play well with other children – as we have been frequently warned – and the other day he took Emilio’s favorite toy he was playing with and then proceeded to hit him over the head with it. The mum did try to get him to share and she did bring Emilio some toys to play with, but while she expressed remorse Jose and his friends laughed and seemed to think that this display of aggression was acceptable. I asked Luis later if Antony’s behaviour would be considered a good characteristic in chorizo culture, and he thought so.  At the other end of the spectrum, Jose’s daughter is the most sweetest, adorable little girl who is as gentle and placid as a fly, so the contrast between the sexes is very pronounced.

I don’t think Luis has caused any lasting damage with Jose – in fact I’m sure that his proactive attitude lends him respect. You have to be assertive here or you won’t last.  Emilio was out the front playing again this afternoon, and what I love is how everyone – even the most unsavoury looking people – will look out for the children and keep them safe. A random guy even stopped to pull out all the stinging nettles around where they were playing!


Notes from the Street: Jose´s Story

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.

The famous empanadas!

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.