When I left for Santiago, Chile, I had no idea of what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know it then, but it was the perfect time and place to learn what it means to be Chilean. It has also become prevalent to me that Chile and the US have a surprising amount in common: Many of the same cars driving in the same directions, safe streets, social equality/tolerance, breathtaking mountains, friendly people, and even their flag (red, white, & blue with a star of its own). What’s more, like the US, September 11, marks the memorial of a dark day in Chile’s past. It was this day in 1973 that began a coup d’etat and violent military dictatorship lasting 17 years. Then, just a few days later, Chileans begin celebrating their independence day (9/18) with parties “fondas” all over the city. To experience the polarity of two of the largest and emotionally differing events of the Chilean year, has been a rollercoaster to say the least--and an experience I will never forget. My short but moving stay in Santiago has given me a deep appreciation for the people, their past, and the extremely bright future of the Chilean people! Viva la Chile!
The Coup and the Memorial
Chile, like many other countries in South America, has had its share of coup d’etats (37), with 4 since the start of the Cold War. Their latest may have been one of the worst and most challenging for the country. On September 11, 1973, Chilean military General, Augusto Pinochet, along with backing from Chile’s elite families and aided by the CIA, staged a coup d’etat accounting for more than 28,000 tortured, 2,279 executed, 1,248 missing, and nearly 200,000 exiled over the next 17 years. But unlike so many cultures that denounce the injustices done to its people, Chile embraces it with an annual memorial--sadly they often end in potentially violent protests.
When I first heard of such memorial, I knew I had to attend. My interest really peaked the day before, when I visited the Museum of Human Rights in Santiago. The museum itself is well laid out with the first floor dedicated to the coups that took place across much of South America during this time. The second floor, by far the most emotionally challenging, is dedicated to the victims and discussing the travesties that took place during the years following the coup. More interestingly, in the days following the coup, many of former Salvatore Allende’s supporters were rounded up, tortured and/or killed in the National Stadium. Finally, the museum’s third floor is dedicated to the eventual rise of the people and return to democracy in 1988. However, much unrest over this dark time remains as Pinochet was never prosecuted for his crimes against the Chilean people.
The memorial had street protests, live music, and vigils at the national stadium. The locals I asked about attending warned me of potential dangers in attending such an event, but I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see and do... I am glad I didn’t listen to them!
The crowd at the memorial couldn’t have been more peaceful, and the emotionally rich environment was one of the best experiences I could have asked for. One particularly memorable moment came during a performance by Intii Ilimani, as people started chanting along with the band while raising their fists during the words “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido”. Which also happens to be the name of the song too! Translated: “The people united will never be defeated”, is a pretty powerful statement by itself.
Another emotionally charged part of the night came while entering the stadium. Inside is a permanent memorial to the 40,000 imprisoned, with thousands being tortured, and potentially massacred there. It was in these places, where such atrocities took place, that sent me into waves of sadness and happiness for the Chilean people. Chile has come a long way since then. Today, Chile is likely the most developed country in all of South America, and their ability to embrace their past is incredibly moving.
As party aficionado “fiestero”, I can tell you the Chileans know how to have a good time. They love dancing, drinking, and celebrating as much as anyone. Additionally, Chileans don’t have any taboos surrounding public displays of affection, which can be truly eye opening, even for a Tarzan like me. Chilean independence day celebrations are on of the best examples of how they celebrate, as parks around the city host fondas with music and plenty of booze--and they take place over several days! They also have military parades across the city with one at Parque O’Higgins on the last day filled with patriotic displays, air force flyovers, and marching in the traditional Prussian style. Surprisingly, the fondas are a very communal place with crowds of neighbors, friends, family, and anyone else looking to celebrate with them.
The booze and food at Parque O’Higgins was awesome! My new buddy Nick and I started off with a few Terremotos (Spanish for earthquake). Terremotos, as the name suggests, can really cause some damage. Traditionally consisting of white wine, grenadine, and pineapple ice cream, they give you a sugar rush while your inhibitions melt away. At Parque O’Higgins, they were being made with a cheap sweet wine called Pepeño and cheap vodka… a fantastic way to imbibe in my opinion.
After three Terremotos and huge stick of barbequed pork for a snack, we realized just how drunk we really were. Our metro ride home confirmed our drunkenness when we missed our connection by two stops. We followed up the festivities with a double date with some locals at a swanky bar near Bellavista (the touristic party neighborhood of Santiago). There was no better way to spend a day in such a wonderful country!
While I initially came to Chile to finish the winter season on my snowboard, my snow dances seemingly failed and I only got a few days of riding in. Without snowboarding, I had plenty of time to learn more about the culture and dificulty in learning Spanish here. Chileans talk super fast and have a lot of slang specific to their country--making it one of the most difficult places to learn Spanish in South America. However, after a month filled with learning and exploring, I decided Santiago is the perfect place to spend more time to learn Spanish. The people here have much to offer a Tarzan like me, and I feel I have only scratched the surface of what it means to be Chilean... Let the learning begin!