Interview: Chilean Culture

Monica Guzmán, a native Chilean and fellow graduate student, kindly agreed to answer some questions about Chilean culture on Thursday (9/30/10) night.

How would you describe the Chilean culture?
That’s tough because culture in Chile is not well-defined. Chileans don’t really have a sense of national identity. If you look at our history, we have this mix of Spanish, Native American, German, and even Polish. If you look at me, what would you say that I am? I know that I’m part Native American, but who knows what part? It’s very difficult to trace my heritage. We don’t have a national identity but we are nationalistic. For example, when 33 miners were rescued from a collapsed mine, there was a gathering at Plaza Italia (in the middle of Santiago) where people came out with Chilean flags. They were thanking God as if it were some miracle when it really took a lot of hard work to get them out. The Chileans are very resilient people.

For the bicentennial, the government is going to bury a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. One of the things they want to put in it is the note that the miners sent up to say that they were okay. Another thing is a picture of a dog, not just any dog, but the one on this yellow can of Lipigas (which is used in some homes for stoves and to heat water for showers). The dog is a hibrid, it’s of mixed race. It sounds weird but that’s as close to a national identity as you get. We are that dog, Kitro, the perro Lipigas.

What creates a sense of community?
There’s the pizanga de barrio. It’s any small area where kids and even grandparents play soccer. Really, it could take place anywhere. Then there’s the feria. I guess you call those farmer’s markets here? Even though the country is mostly Catholic, the church is more of a symbol than anything else. It’s not so much about going as it is about the images and prayer.

If a Chilean’s home were on fire, what things would he or she try to rescue first?
I think people would take their pictures. After the earthquake, people went into the supermarkets to steal food but they stole TVs as well. So people would save their TVs. But it’s different from the United States. In the US, the first place you would have a TV is in the living room. In Chile, we have this tradition of having the TV on during dinner or tea time. They’re located in kitchens and dining rooms.

What do people watch on TV?
There are télénovelas (soap operas) during the day from other countries that are for housewives. They are even more dramatic than the Chilean ones. You have a programs at 4PM that aren’t very popular. You have programs for teenagers with young people dancing with not a lot of clothing and a lot of gossip. Then you have the Chilean télénovelas (7-9PM), the news (9-10PM), and then you have prime time (10PM-midnight). The most popular are all programs that have been borrowed from other countries like these dancing things or programs where they invite national celebrities like football players or models. There’s not a lot of content. People aren’t really interested in politics. They prefer fairly light shows.

There’s this beautiful program that I saw called “Santiago No Es Chile.” It’s a show where they send a person living in Santiago to other parts of Chile under very extreme circumstances to live their reality. They show the lifestyle of the people there and how the person from Santiago struggles outside of the capital city. Chile is very centralized. There’s this attitude that Santiago is all that matters. The rest are “huaso” which literally means land worker but has a negative connotation. They are uneducated.

Please describe the education system.
You have public and private school. Public school lasts 14 years: pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, elementary school 1-8, and high school 1-4. The first college degree normally takes 6 years and you leave with the equivalent in the US of a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the same time. They are trying to shorten some of the programs to 5 years. A master’s degree in Chile is another 2 years depending on the program. You can start teaching at the college level after a bachelor’s if you have work experience.

What do people do for fun?
Friday and Saturday nights are givens. We usually hang out in homes rather than going to bars. We park at one home and then go from home to home. On a typical night we will meet our friends at 11PM at the first house, 1AM at the second house, and get home between 4-6AM. Chileans drink more than Americans, usually cheap wine and Piscola. We carry it around in a mamadera which is like a plastic Coke bottle you use to disguise alcohol.

Tell me about a typical weekday.
It depends on what you do. I woke up around 7AM, went to work or school between 8-8:30AM, took an hour lunch either at noon or 1PM, and went home at 6PM. Then I have té and dinner later. In terms of class, people show up at any time. You can have a lot of absences and nothing will happen. For work, 20 minutes late is like being on time. Chileans work a lot of hours but aren’t very efficient. People say “sacar la vuelta” which means running around in circles or procrastinating. You start to work and then you decide to go for coffee, or check facebook when you should be working. We’re efficient in crisis though.

How do you celebrate holidays?
On September 18, we have Fondas. That’s sort of like Taste of Chicago where we go around through booths of traditional foods and wines. The next day there’s a military parade. I think there’s also a big religious ceremony. It’s on TV all over the country. I guess you could watch other things if you had cable. There are no fireworks or balls dropping like you have in the US. People fly kites. People are required to display flags in their homes. If you don’t put one up or don’t do it right, you can get a fine.

On Christmas Eve, we have a big dinner with the family. Children are taken somewhere outside of the living room when Santa Claus comes and drops off the presents. Presents are opened that night instead of the next morning.

On New Year’s Eve,we have fireworks. Valparaiso is really the place to be. Everyone is on the streets celebrating. There are a few superstitions that people have. At midnight, eating lentils will bring you good health. To have 12 good months, eat 12 grapes. Wear yellow underwear for good sex. The first person you hug after midnight must be of the opposite sex and no hugging before midnight. We don’t have a New Year’s kiss.

Some people celebrate Santo, which is really Honomástico and get extra presents on the saint’s day that corresponds to their first name, but it’s growing less common these days.

We don’t really celebrate other national holidays.

How do you introduce yourself in Chile?
The same as in the US, I guess. Unless it’s really formal, you say, “Como estai?” We replace a lot of “as” endings with “ai.” If it’s a formal presentation it’s okay to use “Como estas?” Handshakes are for people you don’t know and formal situations. Women touch cheeks and give one kiss in the air. It’s the same for a man and woman. Men still shake hands. You greet coworkers informally too, as long as you know them. The usted form is only used to address someone older than you or your boss. People of the same age use the tu form.

How do the socioeconomic classes view each other?
The lower class work a lot. They are strong and resourceful. Even if they got rich quick, they would stay close to their roots. The upper class see them as smart but lazy. It’s harder to define the middle class because they don’t stick out. One thing that I guess you could say is part of our national identity is “pillo,” which means sneaky or tricky. Chileans have this tendency to always find ways to cheat the system, like finding ways to get things for free that are not otherwise free. There’s also a kind of shame with this. The upper class are seen as selfish, materialistic and superficial. They are exploitative of the lower class. For example the mine collapse was due to poor working conditions. The owners cut corners to save money. There are no laws to protect the workers and wages are low.

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