23 September 2008

The Real Chile?

We just completed our third, last, and best Fiestas Patrias--those week-plus long September celebrations that commemorate everything from Chile's independence from Spain, to Latin America's biggest and baddest military force, to the US-backed, CIA supported 11 September 1973 coup that ushered in the reign of General Pinochet and the death of Salvador Allende. Woo-yoo! Parteee! The same coup d'état, by the way, than then National Security Advisor and soon-to-be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously commented on: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves." Yes, it's a crazy time around here.

Starting September 11 the city center clears out in the afternoon--universities shut down, Embassies post bulletins to stay away, etc--in preparation for the annual riots and demonstrations that still protest the coup. Windows are broken, fires are set in garbage cans, people throw rocks, and riot police wash them away with high-powered hoses; all in all, it's not much different than your average day in the park, Latin American protest. It certainly sets an interesting tone, however. At least for me.

We didn't participate in that part of the celebration. Our fiestas began on September 11 but started, instead, with Hank dancing cueca and singing Chilean songs with his classmates.

Ask just about anyone the first thing that comes to mind when the dieciocho holidays are mentioned and you're likely to hear la cueca (both the type of music and the style of dancing), huasos, rodeos, and parillas. At some point it was determined that these cultural artifacts best represented Chile and Chilean identity and so they are celebrated in full force this time of year. All of these expressions usually gather together in places known as fondas, basically organized public parties that feature national food, drinks, entertainment, and horsemanship competitions. They're more or less small fairs.

Chile has been engaged in an enduring war of social classes. It's my belief that much of this wrestling with the idea of national identity was born during the troubled years of both the Allende and Pinochet administrations.

As a Socialist with close ties to the Communist parties, Allende championed himself as the president of the people, of the working class, of the country-folk. His upbringing, however, was far from the daily struggles that faced his constituents. Allende came from two well-bred, upper-class families and, in reality, only knew and understood the working class through ideological precursors. On the other hand, the General was born from Breton immigrants and was raised in both seminary and military schools where he rose quickly in experience, rank, and social stature.

During the years of the dictatorship, national identity and political subversion often traveled parallel lines. To counter this, the military government banned the Nueva Canción movement, sending many of its proponents into self-exile and, after the takeover of the national radio station, replaced other forms of music with military tunes and cuecas. The most violent episode of this kind occurred just four days after the coup d'état. Victor Jara and thousands of other "subversives" were taken to the National Stadium of Chile for interrogation and torture by Pinochet's military police. The story goes that Victor was repeatedly beaten and both hands broken. The Pinochetistas taunted him with suggestions that he continue to play his guitar. In defiance, Victor sang songs of the Unidad Popular, "People's Unity" party, up until the point when bullets from a machine-gun ended his life.

On Independence Day, 18 September 1979, Pinochet decreed the cueca the official national dance of Chile.

Similar stories exist about the huaso as a national symbol, and the creation of national foods, national drinks, national sports, as well as a national law that requires the national flag to fly from every public building in the country for the entirety of Fiestas Patrias (though this latter law was passed before the Allende/Pinochet eras).

Few things originate exclusively in Chile. La cueca is no exception. Its origins belong to a large collection of so-called handkerchief dances known in countries as close as Argentina, as far as Mexico, and as culturally and politically significant as Peru and Bolivia. Much of what we now know as cueca music and cueca dancing filtered into this country with the Peruvian and Bolivian labor force who filled the saltpeter mines in the far northern Atacama desert.

There is also the organillero.

The barrel organ was brought to this country mid-19th century with the first wave of German immigrants. The organillero in Chile today belongs to a shrinking but true folk occupation where not only the professions themselves are passed down from generation to generation but, as there is only one remaining shop in the country capable of repairs, the organs as well are handed down as family heirlooms. The instruments are still imported from a factory in Germany and cost a small fortune so repairs are made by swapping used parts from older organs. It's a very small community but everybody knows each other and though they all work independently of each other to earn their living they all work together to preserve their tradition.

Then there is the huaso. I've posted before about the differences between the huaso and the gaucho so I won't go into it much again. Basically the difference comes down to region but the issues with class, nobility, and heritage cannot be avoided. In September 2007, pre-Home Is Where Your Skis Is, I also wrote up a short bit with photos about the rodeo on a Telemarktips thread.

And the list could go on and on. Most traditions that have been mandated by the government or through a collective, select upper-class--that supposedly represents the core of Chilean identity--can be traced back somewhere else: Spain or Central Europe, Mexico, neighboring South American countries, and, most importantly, the continent's indigenous population. I've also written a bit about the Mapuches in a previous post but the range of influence (and problems with) certainly doesn't stop there.

Which brings us back to Fiestas Patrias 2008.

This year we headed for a fonda in our own commune of Lo Barnechea. If there is a place in Santiago that would best represent the discrepancies between the rigid class structures of Chile we only need to drive ten-minutes from our home to experience it. Which, by the way, takes us past the General's home now in its state of appropriate decay.

Lo Barnechea is the name of a commune, or city district, but it is also a separate village. At least it was until the hulking mass of Santiago itself swallowed it up. Like Pirque at the southern end of the valley, though, it still manages to maintain a sense of itself as a separate and independent community. So much so that the town of Lo Barnechea still celebrates Quasimodo, an ancient festival reserved for only the most rural communities in Chile.

But as Lo Barnechea once looked down on Santiago from its perch in the foothills it now finds itself surrounded by prime real estate and a wealthy upper-class more interested in shopping malls than horse pastures. Still, the commercial district inside Lo Barnechea is unique, its narrow, crowded, dusty streets a breath of fresh air. There is a look and a feel that sets it apart from the glitzy, overpriced and under-inspiring homogenized boutique shopping of its neighboring communes.

And Lo Barnechea is proud of its cowboy culture. And it boasts its own medialuna, or rodeo grounds, and its own fonda. It's the Lo Barnechea fonda we visited this year and it's this fonda we found most appealing. And, no, even though many live within spitting distance, the newest residents of this humble commune were nowhere to be found. For even on Fiestas Patrias when all of Chile is presumably recognized, and even in the fondas where all of Chile gathers to celebrate itself, the country--or at least Santiago--divides itself among social class distinctions. And by all accounts, the fonda at Lo Barnechea is a fonda for the working class.

Here the huasos are cowboys, not landowners of Chilean nobility. Here the horses run free on the hillsides above town, not in the manicured pastures of the valley haciendas. Here the maids and the gardners who work week-long at the gated subdivisions and condominium parks only a short bus ride away return with their own families, and without their uniforms, to share beer, cigarettes, and jokes with neighbors and friends. It feels like a rural county fair.

Travel twenty-minutes downtown and you'll find yourself at a fonda with white linen dinner tables, "artesanal" craft booths that display silver spurs and hand tooled riding saddles--all for a hefty price tag. At the Lo Barnechea fonda you buy plastic kites with pictures of Mickey Mouse and Chilean football team logos on them. You buy t-shirts with glittery stars on them. And you buy the brightest neon-colored candy your children can stuff in their mouths.

Then you wait for the rodeo and it never starts because it's mid-day and the real action and the real drinking doesn't commence until the sun starts to wane, long after the energy and enthusiasm has expired from our own huasito. Instead you watch tug-of-war competitions with the local boys in the medialuna. Sons of huasos and sons of gardeners. Sons of nannies and housemaids. The winners all received free sodas.

So I'm not sure what is celebrated exactly during the week of Fiestas Patrias. If there is any unity it is only under la estrella solitaria and very little else. But maybe that is enough. To me, the beauty of this country is that there isn't a real Chile. Other than the indigenous influences that lend the country significant amounts of oral and musical traditions (as well as add nearly the only source of spice to an otherwise straightforward cuisine) there isn't a set of identifiable objects and traditions that are specifically Chilean. And that in and of itself holds serious potential. The astonishing diversity of this long and narrow country, however, is often eclipsed by its own reluctance to accept itself.

Disingenuous and brutal leaders are a sad fact of life. Manipulated traditions are of themselves traditional. Enforced class systems along the lines of lineage, heritage, and hair and eye color is a little more difficult to stomach. Some Mapuches have been labeled terroristas by the Chilean government in response to actions taken to reclaim contested ancestral properties. The General understood Victor Jara with similar terminology. Class wars can not sustain themselves; the current situations in Bolivia and Venezuela demonstrate the negative consequences of longstanding social divisions. The real beauty of Chile will be revealed in its ability to view itself as the culturally rich and varied mestizo country that it is and finally abandon its Colonial Spanish cultural, political, and economic world view. There is some work to do.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)

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