Saturday, November 1, 2008

Group post: Racism and classism in Chile

Anyone who's been to Chile knows that one could write tomes on this topic. In the interest of avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome and keeping your interest, however, I'll limit this post to racism in the context of my current housing search.

Right now, I am living in a student pension with eight boys. Believe it or not, I did not orchestrate this scenario. About a month ago, the owner of my apartment -- a man-behind-the-curtain character I've never met in person -- informed my roommates and I that our lease was up and we had to leave. Thus began the search for a place to live, a process I've learned is much more fun if you're not picky, which I am -- especially about location.

Over the past year, I've become fiercely loyal to my neighborhood. I've gotten pleasantly accustomed to knowing the shopkeepers, being close to and yet removed from downtown, and seeing cobblestones and brightly painted houses when I step outside every morning. Sure, Santiago's full of areas well suited to those with a taste for the picturesque. Only one of them is MINE, though.

Another thing I love about my barrio is that, by Santiago standards, it's quite diverse: Many immigrants from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Asia call the area home. Apparently, not all of my neighbors feel the same way I do. A few weeks ago, I saw a sign advertising a room for rent and decided to call. The place didn't sound bad -- until the owner told me he didn't allow Peruvians or Bolivians inside. The conversation ended there. As it did when another landlord assured me that none of the renters in her building were Peruvian.

The worst of all, however, was when V. and I roamed the neighborhood in search of "for rent" signs and found ourselves knocking on the door of an old house in a tucked-away passage -- in other words, a place I would pretty much kill to live in. A middle-aged woman answered and told us that yes, she had a room available and would show it to us in a moment. As we waited, two young men approached the house, obviously interested in seeing the room as well. They were darker-skinned than V. and I -- but then again, that's not hard. When the woman returned to the doorway, they told her they were Cuban and looking for a place to live.

"Sorry, I don't have anything right now," the woman told them. "You should try next door."

Once the Cubans had moved on, the woman turned back to us. "Looks like you don't have anything," I said and turned to walk away.

"No, you just have to say that to the Cubans," she said casually. "They're big drinkers."

But V. and I were already on our way out. "We're foreigners, too," V. -- who's from Eastern Europe and knows what it's like to be an immigrant -- said over his shoulder.

Apparently, it's not all foreign renters who are the problem. Only ones who aren't of the pale variety.

I can't say I was surprised. A Chilean once warned me to date only her light-haired compatriots -- not "negros." A few months after that, a friend's birthday dinner turned more than a little uncomfortable when the birthday boy's mother (half) joked that if I married her son, it would help "cleanse the race."

Oh, and let's not forget two of the major candidates in last month's Santiago mayoral elections, both of whom considered the Peruvians who gather in downtown's Plaza de Armas to be a problem that could partially be solved by giving them a building where they could get together out of sight. Hate to break it to you two, but the Plaza de Armas is overrun by another pack of foreigners, too: ones with guidebooks and cameras. I hear these marauding invaders prowl the streets of Bellavista in posses at night and flock en masse to artisan fairs, where they terrorize the native-born. Honestly, something has to be done.

In other words, being foreign in Chile isn't tough -- if you're the right kind of foreigner.

Actually, I've written a little about this topic before. So have a lot of other people. Check it out.

1 comment:

Abby said...

It still amazes me how overtly racist some Chileans can be.

Good luck finding a place!