The first time I came to Chile, I was told to steer clear from El Persa Biobío because I would be robbed many times before I knew what hit me. When I had acquired a fanny pack and a Chilean boyfriend, I decided it would probably be safe to give it a try.
Whozits and whatzits galore
The Persa Bio Bio is basically the biggest flea market you’ll ever see. On weekends and holidays, the streets to the northeast of the metro Franklin slowly fill with food stands, blankets or tarps overwhelmed with goods, and endless streams of people. Around 10 a.m., vendors that begin to open their sliding metal doors seem to transform into hungry hands that peel back their shops’ sardine-can lids, revealing merchandise that is equally as cramped as that cluster of canned fish—and much more diverse. It is a bustle of everything I can imagine anyone would sell: antiques, toys, books, clothing, furniture, electronics… you name it. But don’t take my word for it, check out the testimonial below of loyal Persa customer, Mario.
I am a lover of used books, and it’s something of a tradition for me to buy cheap used books on the Fourth of July. It was this tradition that first brought me to the Persa Biobío. Unfortunately, books in Chile are expensive, and there’s no way to get around it—even pirated copies and smutty books are usually not worth the 4,000-8,000 pesos that vendors might charge. But it certainly is fun to root around in the stacks and stacks of yellowing and worn books. For those of you interested in finding specific books or books of better quality, check out some of the shops near metro Manuel Montt or the Calle San Diego, which is where I celebrated my Independence Day tradition this year (I’ll post about it soon!). While I was disappointed by the availability of books, I was satisfied with the many opportunities to grab a delicious empanada or listen to some live music.
All in all, the Persa has proved to be a very entertaining place, and I would recommend it, even if you are as notably gringa as I am. It’s always hard to visit some of these local markets as a tourist—simply because you have no idea where you are or what you’re getting yourself into—but I don’t see it as an unsafe place. I think some of the warnings I had heard about the Persa were extensions of stereotypes that have stuck around from this area’s history (What history, you ask? Just keep reading!). Moral of the story is, the next weekend you’re in Santiago, you should grab your fanny pack, hop on the yellow line (línea 2) to the Franklin metro stop, and enjoy exploring!
History of the Persa
What is now most popularly known as the Barrio Franklin, home to the beloved Persa Biobío, used to be known as the Barrio Matadero—the Slaughterhouse District. As you can imagine, the Barrio Matadero was historically outcast because of disease, poor living conditions, delinquency, and relative geographic isolation.
It all started in 1847, when a slaughterhouse was opened on Franklin Street in the southern periphery of Santiago. Poor laborers, often immigrants, moved to the Barrio Matadero seeking work. They made up most of the barrio’s population and lived under terrible conditions. The picture to the right shows slaughterhouse employees who started their day at 2:30 a.m., working barefoot so as to not contaminate the blood that would be later collected and used in other products.
Near the beginning of last century, there were several state initiatives to build better housing for the workers in the area. Along with this construction came the installation of various shops, including those that would take advantage of the flourishing leather industry, such as tanneries, shoe shops, and the National Glass Factory. To this day, Franklin Street is associated with the shoe industry and has many locales to buy shoes, although they are no longer made in that area.
During the Great Depression, vendors took to the streets. This began the tradition of informal and improvised markets in the sector. By the 1950s, when countryfolk or campesinos began to immigrate en masse to the “big city,” there was plenty of work to be found in the Barrio Matadero. Furthermore, as Gran Santiago expanded, the Barrio became more and more integrated into the life of the city.
The informal markets grew to the point that when the slaughterhouse closed in 1979, shoppers continued to frequent the ever expanding informal stores that offered a cornucopia (haHA! I used cornucopia!) of products at low prices.
Financial crisis in 1982 solidified and formalized the Persa’s place in Santiago. The tannery and slaughterhouse’s huge warehouses were finally ceded to the street vendors and shops that make up the Persa as we know it today. Over the following two decades, the Persa was extended all the way to the Calle San Diego, establishing the Persa as one of the most important commercial centers of Santiago.