Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Chilean salad bowl

If there's one place in my neighborhood I try to avoid whenever possible, it's the Santa Isabel grocery store. Aside from being crowded, overpriced and poorly organized, it never seems to have fresh hallullas (a particularly delicious species of Chilean bread) when I need them. Of course, there are times--like when I need to pick up Frosted Flakes, pens and socks in one trip--when the convenience of the supermarket forces me to cave.

It was on one such occasion when I resignedly locked my bike up outside the Santa Isabel and went inside. On my way out, I noticed a baby sitting alone in her carriage next to the bike rack. I scanned the sidewalk for potential parents, but there were no adults in sight. Concerned, I went back inside and pointed the child out to two pharmacists. They were trying to decide what to make of the situation when a man--whose skin and hair were noticeably darker than those of most Chileans--walked out of the supermarket and reclaimed his abandoned daughter.

"Ah, he's Peruvian," one of the pharmacists, a young woman, muttered. Although she didn't say it, her expression implied, I should have known. "Peruvians are stupid," she said.

The other pharmacist seemed to agree.

"I don't think it's that," I countered. Sure, this possibly Peruvian individual had done something moronic, but the woman certainly hadn't been justified in applying her judgment to an entire nationality.

"Would you leave your baby out on the street like that?" she asked.

"No, but I don't think all Peruvians would, either," I replied.

My comment prompted two awkward smiles and my hasty departure.

On my way out, I found the father in question sitting on a bench examining the lottery ticket he'd just purchased inside. "Someone's going to kidnap your baby if you leave her alone," I said. He smiled, which was weird, and I biked on.

It wasn't the first time I'd come across prejudice against Peruvians in Santiago. When I was searching for an apartment back in October, I checked out a room in an apartment rented by a young writer. Everything about the place and the guy screamed "progressive," which was why it came as such a shock when he responded to my question about neighborhood safety by responding, "It's fine if you keep to safe streets. I usually avoid Loreto. There are a lot of Peruvians."

As soon as he'd said it, he began stammering through damage control. "I mean, I'm not racist. In fact, I have Peruvian friends." Classic.

Guidebooks are fond of calling Chile "ethnically homogenous." This is supposedly a country in which the vast majority of people share similar ancestry. After having spent three years living in Washington, DC--where it wasn't uncommon for me to overhear a half-dozen languages during the course of a Metro ride or a run to the pharmacy--I feel I can confidently say that Chile is certainly not the most diverse place in the world. While living in Quito, in fact, I was struck by how much more visibly ethnically diverse it seemed than Santiago.

The homogeneity hypothesis certainly offers a quick and easy explanation for the prejudice some Chileans show toward Peruvians. When one looks below the surface, however, Chileans come from a wide variety of backgrounds. In addition to being home to numerous indigenous cultures, this country has received sizable Arab, German and Balkan immigrant populations. The Chilean Palestinian community is one of the world's largest and, as it happens, has gotten bigger over the past few weeks. More recently, Korean and Chinese immigrants have arrived; every once in awhile, I see students of Asian decent walking around in their school uniforms, just as Chilean as their classmates.

A perfect testament to the diversity that can be found in Santiago is the district where I work, Recoleta. The streets are lined with Peruvian, Arab and Korean restaurants, and many of the stores have Arab, Korean or Chinese names. There's even an Arab Orthodox church where I took an Arabic class a few years ago. When Yasser Arafat died, people placed portraits of him in their windows and hung strings of Palestinian flags over the streets.

Another example is the neighborhood I live in, which is home to a significant number of Peruvians, Colombians and Ecuadorians. Seeing indigenous Ecuadorian women walking in their traditional clothing makes me feel at home here because it reminds me of my time in Quito.

Of course, the fact that immigrant enclaves exist in Santiago does not make Chile an Eden of diversity. I don't have Chilean ancestry statistics, and my experience is pretty much limited to the capital. I also couldn't tell you to what degree immigrant groups in Chile stick to themselves, as the ingredients of Chilean salad are prone to doing. Here, "ensalada de tomate" is frequently just that: tomatoes and nothing else.

However, I find that when I ask my Chilean friends about their ancestry, hardly any two family stories are the same. One of my friends has a Bolivian father, while another recently learned he has Irish ancestors. It would appear that Chileans--at least the ones I know--are not as homogenous as travel writers like to think.

A few hours after my run-in with racism at the Santa Isabel pharmacy, I went to hang out with a friend who lives in my neighborhood. He was born in Bulgaria, but he moved to Chile as a child and--aside from a predilection for pasta cooked with sugar--is almost as Chilean as if he'd been born here. Also invited to the get-together were a Chilean-born guy with Chinese parents and Chileans from different regions of the country.

The interesting thing is that these aren't people I met through the expat or exchange student circuits. It could be that my Bulgarian friend, given his own experiences, is inclined to seek multicultural company. That said, I consider his party proof that you can't believe everything you read in guidebooks. And that people like the prejudiced pharmacists had better start updating their ideas fast.

1 comment:

NancysGrace said...

I have known many Peruvians and they do appear to be very careless and not adhere to most rules that the rest of the world does. They are known as "The Land of Piracy" which is shameful. No wonder Yma Sumac became an American Citizen.