Notes from the Street: A Mother’s Honor

There was a bit of commotion outside last night.

Lately things have heated up. We’ve had a few fires which has resulted in fire sirens blaring down the road at 6am – one time going to help the neighbour directly in front of us. Then Banco Estado (by metro Einstein) was robbed at gunpoint by six guys who then stole a woman’s car for their getaway vehicle. There were two plainclothes police there at the time (they are everywhere but you never know it) who were able to call backup right away. Luis had been in the bank just moments before and watched the whole thing unfold. Scary stuff.

Last night Luisa was in the street yelling obscenities.  All the dogs were barking and the kids were crying. I’m pretty sure she was angry with her daughter Ashley, the mother of Antony.  A year ago a similar scene played out when Luisa found out about Ashley’s pregnancy.  They fought in the street for all the neighbours to hear, with Luisa screaming that she was “a slut … bringing shame on the family for sleeping with so many men.” The pregnancy was not welcome news and Ashley was kicked out of the family home.

It does sound harsh but I hate judging a book by its cover – surely there must be more to the story?

These days sex is everywhere but not too long ago Chile was pretty conservative. It has never had the wild and free reputation like that of Brazil or Colombia, and the roots of religion went deep.  Honour and family are words that seem to go hand in hand here (see A Mother’s Wisdom) and, when you don’t have much, keeping the family name intact becomes paramount.

Luisa also lives with more than twenty people in tiny, cramped conditions and in a house that constantly needs fixing. One of the things I discovered from Ojos Abiertos is that many children share the same room as their parents. Many of them grow up with a very adult view of sexuality because they witness the act of sex very young.  While this isn’t true of everyone, its big enough of a problem that the school specifically requested a sexual education talk for parents to combat exactly this. Most of the people living there do not have what you would call typical jobs either – some of the men rely on labouring jobs they source by word of mouth, and they sell drugs. The women seem to be constantly pregnant.  They are families brought together by extension, sharing what they have and live off minimum wage. They rarely leave the house, let alone Recoleta.  Every pregnancy means another mouth to feed and more space to go without. In this case, Ashley was not in a relationship with the father, and without the security of a marriage the future must have looked precarious. The father of Antony is not a nice man and meets every stereotypical requirement that you would expect: baggy pants, baseball cap, fake Adidas stripes, flash shoes, tendency to say “o’e!” I know that they all tried to rent a room a few blocks down but it has ended in disaster, so Ashley and her son are back with Luisa.  For now.  The whole thing is so sad.

This isn’t a situation that is  black and white. For all those people who say “why don’t they just get a job?” I ask you to think for a minute. These are people who come from difficult backgrounds – often with trauma – who cannot read or write well (if at all) and have little education.  The only world they have ever seen is the world that they are living.  I also ask where are the jobs for them?  They don’t have references or experience, and I honestly wonder who would hire someone who may need a lot of help.  It’s depressing especially when, for the most part, they are nice people, with children who have talents and abilities that just need a little nurtering and someone to show them new possiblities. This is why I greatly respect Jose: to have come from such difficulties and rise above them as an honest and hardworking example is beyond inspiring. You only know your strength when you are called to use it, after all.

I feel strongly about this subject, hence my blogs for education. It all starts with opening the eyes of the children. I don’t want them to turn to mind-numbing and mind-altering substances just to cope with life. In front of our house there is a small shrine to a young 20-something man whose throat was slit by his neighbour over a minor dispute one night they were using illicit substances. This story breaks my heart in so many ways: the fact that they were young, the fact that the murderer only spent a short time in jail, the fact that they are both someone’s children.  The line between sanity and insanity is minute, and easily broken by drugs, anger and unhappiness. I don’t want this story to keep repeating.

Notes from the Street: A Mothers Wisdom

I always worry how my blogs might be received when I know I’m about to delve into a troublesome topic. I have had to learn it the hard way thanks to A Chorizo Tale, which prompted this blog, and now I’m about to head into murky water once again. Today Luis and I overheard the following heart-to-heart between Luisa and one of her daughers:

Hija there are only two places you must never steal from: the home and from the school. If you steal from someone like from your family will make you a domestico – and this is the worst possible thing you can be. Betraying the trust of those closest to you would put you in the lowest place you can go – a position which even the hampas [delincuent commiting crimes like robberies] look down upon, You can steal from the supermarkets and the stores but not from us or your school so I don’t want to hear from your teacher again!”

Before everyone condemns Luisa for her motherly advice, it might be worth remembering the world that she comes from. The reality is that on the lower wages people struggle. Like everyone, they struggle against the media, the injustice, the system, their partners etc while also struggling against a world that seems to be moving on without them. While people around Santiago are slowly waking up to the fact that diet affects health and wellbeing, people like Luisa have never heard this information and still believe that coke for babies is not only acceptable but perfectly normal (and not so long ago we thought so too – thanks Coke propaganda!).

As I write this, my earlier blog How To Keep Safe in Santiago is under attack because I question the wisdom of fighting while being robbed. In fact, like every other security pamphlet in the world, I advise against it.  There is nothing wrong with running away.. I once saw a man nearly beaten to death by a mob for no apparent reason and the whole situation could have been avoided had he just run away.  There is a difference between blindly fighting for honor, like trying to change the social system through one successful scuffle with a guy wanting your purse. Although you may win, if we advise everyone to fight then alot of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, might lose the battle and become seriously hurt, or worse, die.  And what will change? I get to hold onto my 10,000peso handbag, my BIP card and my lipgloss? My Louis Vuitton I ferociously guard while others struggle to buy gas?  This isn’t to condemn those of you who might own a LV – I’d sure love a wallet! – the point that I’m making is what changes? There is a quote from the book The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls that goes “It gives me strength to have somebody to fight for; I can never fight for myself, but, for others, I can kill” and I agree with this. If someone attacks me, I am forced to realise who I really am. I’m Emilio’s mother, first and foremost, and I am here to protect him. Sometimes the best wisdom is walk away – to know when to really fight. If all of us got together to fight for our children we would be stronger than ever imagined. Would going to the areas where criminals live and imprisoning people, or sectioning ourselves off from them, make a difference in the long run? We would be tearing families apart, children would grow up with revenge on their minds, not knowing anything other than the hateful world around them. The real solution would then be to change their world.

“The only way to break a circle is to change its shape. Teach people that there are different ways to live the life, that you don’t have to repeat what people say or what you see around you. The only way to do something different is is to understand that you can.  So somewhere you have to be given the chance to see that. It’s all about education.” – Luis D.

Honestly, it hurts my soul when people take my blog the wrong way. It hurts because they don’t realise how much I care – how much I passionately care – for this city. For them. I’ve lost readers due to this passion but maybe they don’t see that, like them, I’m wanting a good future for Chile. I have only one motivation and that’s Emilio, but it terrifies me sometimes the world we are leaving for him.  Education is key.

We Are All Chile

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.

Apt painting from La Moneda

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.

Reach Out. Barrio Concha y Toro

Meet Volunteer Extraordinnair, Sally Rose

After the negative response to my last post, I was feeling pretty sad about my blog. How can such good intentions go so awry? For the record I just want to say with conviction: we are not bad parents for living In Luis’ home!

So I thought today that I would draw the attention away from being a bad mother and instead focus upon someone who is so overwhelming decent that she is a gleaming beacon of expat goodness. You might recognize her name because she is all over the internet. It’s Sally Rose!

I met Sally after posting on The Chile Experience my desire to start a new volunteer group to work in public schools. The result, of course, was Organizacion Ojos Abiertos, comprising of Hoda, Georgina, Carolina, Mariana and Natalie.  Sally came to our second meeting and it is thanks to her that we met Gerhard and became involved with Liceo Almirante Riveros in Conchali.

Why is Sally “expat goodness?” Because over the last four years she has dedicated herself to bettering the lives of Chilean children by volunteering as an English teacher. She has worked across Santiago’s low-income barrios in public schools and over the years has forged real bonds with many of her students, even inspiring some to train to become English teachers themselves.  Although she only briefly volunteered at Almirante Riveros, she still dropped by the other day with two HUGE boxes of English books for the students (we are already planning on using them in our classes!).

Her path hasn’t always been easy but its hard to imagine Sally without a smile on her face. Her perservence has paid off in a new book about her adventures and trials in Chile called “A Million Sticky Kisses”.  In it, she reveals real life stories of the people she has met and offers an in-depth glimpse into the reality of Santiago public education, and is worth reading just for this reason.

Photo courtesy of Amazon

Sally is an inspiration to anyone thinking about coming to Chile, not only because of the way she has tried to give back but through her efforts to share the stories of the people that she meets.  I hope that we can carry on her great work through Ojos Abiertos – on behalf of Santiago’s Children I thank you Sally Rose!

You can read Sally’s entertaining blog here.

Notes from the Street: Manuel & The Taxi Pirata

“Never trust a Chilean!”

Not quite what I had expected Manuel to say after telling him how much I loved living in Chile. What on Earth, I wondered, had caused such as explosive statement?

“They will be the first to talk about you behind your back.  They are lazy and will think nothing of taking you for a ride.  Trust me … NEVER TRUST A CHILEAN!”

Ironically, Manuel works in the profession that has the biggest reputation for ripping off people. He is a taxi driver, and works the day shift for a company that has an office near to where I live. The cars are not official and they do not use a meter, and as such offer cheaper fares than your regular black and yellow official taxi.

I seem to be the only gringa in Santiago that has rarely had a problem in a Santiago taxi. I actually love taking them. The majority of my Spanish vocabulary has come courtesy of taxistas, who all seem to have a burning interest in what I am doing here. I enjoy talking to them, but I do suppose I am biased because Luis is also a taxi driver.

Manuel has to be my all time favorite driver. Middle-aged and short with perfectly smooth black hair and a pair of black sunglasses permanently attached to his face, he is always the epitome of pleasantness. He hails from the north, near to Chiquicamata, and for many years worked in the mines. He came to Santiago in search of different work opportunities, and it is here that he met his wife, who is from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

When I got in the car with him this time, the first thing he says is how exhausted he is.

“I just cannot keep up with how much my family eats. Every time I make money it goes on food and then -” he snaps his fingers, “it is gone! All day every day I am working and all I have to show for it is food that is always disappearing. I love my family but ahhh how I remember the days when I could relax!”

“Don’t you have time to relax now?” I ask him.

“I like a beer but I am a family man. And I work seven days a week, all day every day. But I cannot afford all the things my family needs! My body is so stressed that I cannot sleep. All the time I am twitching – stress controls my life!”

It is easy to sympathize with Manuel. Santiago seems to run off of the hours put in working. While some say Santaguinos do not work very hard (and let’s be honest, have you ever had customer service here?!), many of them seem to have much longer work hours than I am used to in NZ. In service based jobs, the wages are generally very low and Santiago is not a cheap city to live in. Hence why extended family members tend to live together and why teenagers don’t leave home straight away. Before I went to work, we lived solely off of Luis’ wages and we did alright, if that meant that we could afford food. But it was impossible to do anything else, like save, buy things Emilio or the house needed, do something recreational, leave the city or pay off debts. And when our calefon broke, we could not afford to buy a new one (and I was even working then) so we went without hot water for THREE MONTHS!!! Do you know how irritating it is in the cold to boil water for a bath (our kettle broke at the same time!). We took it to be fixed but no-one had any idea what was wrong with it. Luckily, Luis fiddled about with it one day and it magically worked. “The Mysterious Incident of the Calefon” – we never did find out the reason.

So when Manuel told me his difficulties, I got it. Chile is a lot cheaper for food than NZ but the little things add up quickly when you don’t earn much. I like Manuel because he is like a breath of fresh air. His views are honest – sometimes quirky and profound – but always honest. Although I wonder if he includes himself as one of the Chileans to be “wary of.”

“Just trust me Helen.  Things are very different in Chile to Norway.”

“Nueva Zelanda.”

“Yes. Nueva Zelanda. And what is the weather like in Norway?”

* Giggle*  I have given up correcting him. I am just happy that he understands my Spanish and that I (mostly) understand him! Manuel is a lovely, trustworthy man who provided me endless support when Emilio was hospitalized a few months back. The whole street rallied around us then. But that is a story for another day. I shall sign off here and brave the ice berg that is my bathroom before finally hitting the hay. If you encounter a silver car in Recoleta with a happy guy wearing sunglasses you may just be lucky enough to be travelling with Manuel – say hi, listen to his stories and tip him well!

Notes from the Street: Santiago’s Children

For Santiago’s Children

When the smog hangs like a blanket in the sky, it can be hard to remember days of blue. You breathe it in, sucking it deep into your lungs to send it swimming through your veins, day after day, until the moment comes when you cannot remember how fresh air is supposed to be. Instead it just lingers there above you, always reaching you but not always seen, a heavy cloud of grey that taints a place that could almost be perfect.

That is how I see Santiago.   I call this city my home and I don’t want to leave, but it is not always wonderful. I am not burdened by this “grass is always greener on the other side” complex so I almost never compare Chile to my birth country. This does not make me blind to recognizing the issues at hand, however I try to view what happening here in its own context. Chile is not New Zealand. Santiago is not Chile. Santaguino’s are a whole different type of person to those in the far north. Even within Santiago there are multiple levels of experiences occurring. Many expats (and locals) recognize that there is a societal tier structure known as ‘class’ existing here, but it is difficult for them to understand what they have not lived. And vice versa. We all only know what we come to know, after all.

This is not going to be a post on how classism is flourishing in Santiago. I do not want to start a conversation about a topic that can be so very, very polarising. Every time we talk about people in terms of what they have, we create boundaries. Some boundaries are healthy, like when I tell Emilio to stop putting his hand in the toilet. Others become more like barriers, that instead of protecting you, rise up and block out the sun just like Santiago’s dirty smog. But it is the sun that gives us life. So what are we denying ourselves when we allow society to label us and then we turn around and judge others with those labels?

I am a New Zealander. When I lived there, the nation was divided into factions like everywhere else, and we only really came over weepy under the flag when the All Blacks won the rugby. But when we are overseas, we band together as “the kiwis” and wax lyrical about vegemite, walking barefoot (across scorching tarmac) and exaggerate our “she’ll be right” attitude.   It is similar in Santiago. I have noticed a propensity of locals slamming their country but then change their tune the second an extranjero agrees.  My point is is that the idea of ‘nationhood’ and ‘cultural identity’ are myths, hence why there are numerous social science disciplines out there investigating these concepts at this very moment. What is certain? That we are human. That we feel emotion, bleed when we are cut, breathe. Sometimes “we dream the same dream and want the same things” as well. Every time we define ourselves by our colour, our beliefs, our heritage, our jobs, our schools, or our salaries, we are simply placing more and more labels onto our backs to carry. Or maybe they calcify our hearts, so that when we see someone sleeping on the sidewalk or robbing us to pay for their drug addictions, we shrug our shoulders or scream blue murder … neither of which come close to getting to the heart of the problem and solving it.

Many people will read this post and disagree. Some may even insult me. Some may throw around the “left-wing” label like I am the devil incarnate. All of them will miss the point and are likely always going to. This blog is not for them. Instead it is for the people who can still remember the sun when they look up into Santiago’s smoggy sky.


Maria is eleven. She is slightly chubby with a huge smile and rather wide-set eyes. She has long black hair that is always tied up and she goes to school in Lampa. She lives with twenty extended family members in Recoleta. There are two entrances into where she lives, through the corner shop her uncle runs or via the door opening out into a side street. There are two houses adjacent to one another in front of a concrete yard, and the whole complex has been hurriedly and cheaply built over the years. Sheets have been pulled across the open spaces that peek into the neighbor’s property which also offer protection from the rain. There is the sound of non-stop chatter. Life is shared: doors are always left open, they all contribute to the microcosm of family needs, and every Sunday Maria and her family eat a late lunch outside in the courtyard. The smell of asado, fish or Cazuela drift away into the afternoon wind. Maria cannot read well and she cannot count past twenty with confidence. Before I showed her a picture of a giraffe, she had never heard of one before. She told me that there are two toddlers that live where she does and neither have many toys. They love to draw though, and draw all day long. When Maria came to my house she was amazed at two things: what we had … and what we didn’t have. She’d never seen a tablet before but she couldn’t believe we didn’t watch television. She picked up all of Emilio’s toys in wonder.   Some of his simplest toys she didn’t understand how to use. Everything she touched and marvelled at. But she mostly marvelled at my son. They played very well while I just lingered about. She made him laugh, and he made her laugh. In those moments, it made no difference that neither could speak the same language (Emilio still speaks Baby, after all) nor that their world’s were a little bit different. They were just two children, enjoying a funny moment.

Maria’s auntie deals drugs that is delivered by Colombian’s who race about recklessly on a motorbike. This is not really unusual – the whole street deals drugs. It used to be really bad at one point, so the road became really unsafe. It used to be filled at all hours with slouching figures in baseball caps and ridiculously loud music. Maria’s aunties drove them all away when the new babies were born (the women are strong like that) and now there are only the residents, who are generally pretty quiet (but not always – eek!). Pasta base does rear its ugly head here and you can tell the users because you look into their eyes and see … nothing. Just an empty, empty sea. It breaks my heart.

I like Maria but she is not really my friend. This is not because she is poorer than I am, or because of the dodgy figures in her family. She is not really my friend because she is 11 and I am 28 – almost two decades apart. But I don’t dislike her and I care for her wellbeing as I would anyone else. Same goes for her family, some of whom I am quite friendly with, others whom I do not know. I want for her exactly the same as I want for my son, and that is education. Not because I want him to be able to get a good job one day (a bonus!) but because I want him to learn about the differences in the world and its people. I want him to grow up making mistakes but always being confident in who he is, where he is from and where he is going. Happiness is not something that comes from money but is a decision that you make for yourself. What is the biggest area for concern in Santiago in my opinion, you ask? Education. But education comes from all around us. I am here interacting with people like Maria every day, and every day they are learning about me and my life. Now I want to educate the other people like me, who live in this beautiful city. I want to humanize these people that are on our peripheries and show the world that they are beautiful too. I owe that to her, to my son and to every child in Santiago. I want us to all start clearing away the smog in front of our eyes. Please do it with me.  #queridarecoleta