Chilenismos and Holiday Decorations

It might surprise you to know that even though it’s summer here in Chile, they are going to go ahead and celebrate Christmas anyway.  It certainly surprised me.  That’s the true Christmas spirit: overcome all obstacles for a little holiday cheer.  It’s heroic, really.

I love the fake snow.

I love the fake snow.

They don’t even try to cushion the blow.  In fact, Santas are still dressed in ridiculous North Pole suits, and “White Christmas” is still heard jovially in the streets.  In Spanish.  (It’s not like they don’t know what “blanca navidad” is about.)  My mother-in-law even told me it didn’t seem strange to her!  Poor soul.

The Christmas trees are up in offices, houses, malls, and the streets.  Poinsettias and wreaths hang from the lampposts.  Some people have even put out inflatable snowmen and reindeer in their front yards.

I just can’t get over it.

Halloween aND Christmas??This has all been more ridiculous considering Chileans have been milking it since October.  OCTOBER.  They don’t have Thanksgiving to break it up, so… why not set the Christmas stuff next to the Halloween stuff?

More interesting, however, is the amount of gringo culture reflected in these celebrations and decorations.  But I’ll talk about cultural transfer another day.  Let’s get to the chilenismos.


This word is how Chileans say navidad or Christmas.  Kind of.  Because it’s also the word for Easter and Passover (you know, from the Hebrew pesach/פסח).  And Easter Island, which is part of Chile, is called Isla de Pascua.  Anyhow, here are some other things that contain pascua.

El Viejito Pascuero

Surfing SantaSanta Claus is known by many names all over the world, but Chile is the only place to affectionately call him “the little old Christmas man.”  The men who dress up as el viejo pascuero here really have hearts of gold—I mean, apart from systematically lying to children—it’s way too hot to be wearing that suit!

Pan de Pascua

image from kaminokultural.blogspot

A traditional bread that resembles fruitcake… but it’s generally more revered in Chile than fruitcakes are in the US.  Also, if someone has a ton of acne, you might mention that their face looks like pan de pascua.  If you were a jerk.

Cola de Mono

Monkey’s tail!  This is like a Chilean version of eggnog… Except it has milk, coffee, sugar, spices, and aguardiente (firewater! or “alcohol prepared with local ingredients”).  No, it doesn’t include monkeys, but there are some interesting theories about how the drink got its name.

Cola de mono is a very traditional Christmas drink, and if you’re interested in making a glass or two to go along with your pan de pascua, check out the cooking show below on how to make both.


Knowing that this word comes from engañar, which means “to decieve,” you might not think you would like to receive an engañito.  But it’s actually the Chilean word for a little gift that may not be worth too much money, but it’s an expression of love and caring for the other person nevertheless.

It’s like saying, “Here, I got you a little something for your birthday.  It’s nothing big…”

It could be something that didn’t cost the other person much.  For example, we have some wonderful tíos who came to our Vermont wedding and bought us little souvenirs from the locale.  They told Edwin to give them to me for our first anniversary.  That’s an engañito—it probably only cost them a couple bucks, but it was really special.

Happy holidays to all!

What’s your favorite holiday phrase?  Any chilenismos that I missed?


Chile: 7 Things I Like About You

Honorable mention: this ice cream

Honorable mention: this ice cream

When I was a kid, if I called my sister “stupid” or my brother “ugly” or whatever, my parents would make me say seven nice things about the other as a consequence.

I must confess that sometimes I give Chile a pretty hard time.  I’ve been really frustrated for the past month or so, and I think I owe it to Chile to say seven nice things.

Here are some reasons I love you, Chile.

7.  Almacenes or corner stores:

In most neighborhoods, you can buy fresh bread daily by walking to an almacén within five minutes of your house.  The owner, who will probably call you mi hija, usually runs the almacén out of part of his or her house.  We have three of these within a five-minute walk of our house.

Almacenes are much preferable to a convenience store or gas station on the corner, which is what we typically have in the States.  And the funny thing about those is that they frequently aren’t really “around the corner.”  And nothing, nothing, is fresh there.  What up, food deserts!

On a related note…

From our local feria6.  Fruit and veggies!  

I love the fruit Chile has to offer.  Of course, for those of you from warmer climes, maybe this isn’t so impressive.  I’ve spoken with Colombians that feel Chile has a small and expensive selection of fruits and veggies.  But for a Vermonter, this selection is phenomenal.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, you can buy fresh produce at the weekly ferias that happen on a weekly basis in most neighborhoods.  Some highlights for me: lúcuma, chirimoya, avocado, strawberries and all of the exotic fruits I mentioned in this post.

5.  Political discussion:

While the US has tabooed socialism and communism as the most “un-American” things you could possibly discuss, Chile is a highly capitalist state whose next president will probably be socialist Michelle Bachelet.  Bachelet is running for the Nueva Mayoría, a political coalition that includes parties such as the Socialist Party, Christian Democrats, the Social Democrat Radical Party, and the Communist Party.

In the US, the moment someone begins to talk about something like socialism, a forcefield of caution begins to flicker up around the listener.  Even if the listener is a young, educated, liberal, the fear is there: is this person a nut job?

4.  People are affectionate.  

I know that in other places in the world, particularly other parts of Latin America, Chileans are considered cold and distant.  But for a gringa, the people are much warmer and more affectionate than the typical Usonian.

This makes some gringos uncomfortable.  However, I am in constant need of physical contact, and so it helps that it’s perfectly natural to touch someone’s arm during conversation or hug and kiss a person in greeting.  Back home, I’m notorious for invading people’s personal bubbles; here, I’m considered to not be as awkward as other cold gringos.

3.  Chilean poets:  

What more do you want to hear?  It’s the land of the poets—such as Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Pablo de Rokha, Vicente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra, to name a few whom everyone should know.

Go read them.  And check out my posts on Neruda’s houses.

2.  It is beautiful.  

I know I complain endlessly about life in the city—the smog and the lack of green and the ugly buildings—but Chile is much more than Santiago.  It is one of the countries with the most diverse, rich, and breathtaking landscapes in the world: the desert, the beaches, the forests, the lakes, the mountains, the strange and otherworldly Patagonian terrain, even down to Antarctica.  Unparalleled, in my mind.

And along with the diversity of terrain comes an explosion of endemic flora and fauna.  Seriously, there are almost three thousand plants unique to Chile.

Finally, and most importantly,

1.  Its people: 

Where to start with this vibrant and quirky people that I’ve so come to love?  The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Chileans is their humor.

There’s something inherent to the rapid fire Chilean Spanish that lends itself to humor.  Chilean Spanish is full of opportunities for double entendre and dripping with character.  On top of that, when telling stories, my husband’s family showcases a range of the human voice that rivals that of Mariah Carey.  That kind of expression is simply funny.

Chileans are quick to laugh at almost anything—even things they probably shouldn’t laugh about, like the numbing terror of living through the golpe militar and subsequent torture and disappearances.  Or talking about living in extreme poverty and becoming malnourished.  In these situations, Chileans use laughter as a way of connecting with others, a way of being able to express difficult times and be assured that life goes on.

My in-laws with their English class

In less serious occasions, Chileans are equally ready for a laugh.  This morning, for example, I was waiting to make a transfer in the metro.  Since it was rush hour, there was a huge mob of us waiting for the next train, which was very slow to come.  As it approached, metro workers told us to step back, as the train was going to another station.  Several people started to jokingly boo the worker, as if it were her fault, and then the majority of us began to laugh at the situation.  Granted, sometimes people really get angry with workers, but that wasn’t the case today.

So Chile, I’m sorry

…for calling you stupid, ugly, and hopeless at times; there are many things that make you special, and many things that I can learn from you.

Alright, readers; what do you appreciate about Chile?

Welcome to the AA meeting: Assimilating Activists…

I hit a wall.  An obstruction.  Like writer’s block, but a… thinker’s block, maybe.  An activist’s block?  Can that be a thing?

So here’s basically the conversation I’ve had with myself this week:

Me 1: I can’t find my critical thinking!

Me 2: When was the last time you used it?

Me 1: I don’t know… just, do you know where it is?

Me 2: It’s probably right where you left it.

What, what, what are you doing?!

I don’t know if I’m simply too flustered, too embarrassed by the catcalls, too wrapped up in trámites, too focused on wanting to fit in, or too desperate to get my feet on the ground and start a new life with my partner… Whatever it is, I can’t manage a scrap of clarity to figure out how to live congruently with my ideology.

It’s not as if I’m doing nothing.  I am.  I’m living.  I’m doing.  I’m acting.

In fact, I’m teaching English to students who can afford to pay thirty dollars an hour for a private class.  But most of my energy goes into trying desperately to avoid sticking out, to assimilate.

And that’s it; that’s why I’m in a fog.  I have lost track of how to identify myself, how to understand where I am located within these new social fields.

You cannot live as an activist while you are trying to assimilate to the mainstream in an oppressive society.

You got resocialized … like a n00b.

So, yeah.  It turns out that trying to assimilate interferes with your ability to think and act critically.  (Especially if you’re assimilating into an upper-middle class.)  You get lost in the soup of resocialization.  Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been living with my in-laws.

Resocialization at its best… Credit:

As an immigrant, I’ve been thrown into this process, which involves both losing much of my previously formed identity and forming a different one that is more congruent with my new society and environment.

My first time around, I was a visitor playing the “act like a Chilean” game.  It’s part of the college, study abroad experience.  I didn’t want to adopt my host culture entirely, but rather to learn to navigate it adequately enough to pass.  Just like I was doing at an elite university back home.

I’m living here now.  And assimilation expects that immigrants adopt the norms, values, and roles of the host culture.


I know I don’t!  What was I planning to do, assimilate and pretend I’m not a white gringa?

The problem is that if I actively choose to assimilate, I actively take part in existing power struggles.  I, personally, would be assimilating into a place of privilege—the realm of being unquestioned and not questioning.

Everybody to Starbucks!

What is it that makes me regularly work at Starbucks in Chile while in the US I never set foot in the place?  Part of it is being unquestioned.  I’m not questioned if I enter the store just to use the bathroom and leave without so much as looking at the menu… basically whatever I choose to do, I won’t be questioned, because we have ownership of this space.

Furthermore, because of this white gringa immunity I’ve got going for me, I risk very little with nonconformity except the discomfort of standing out.  People assume the best of me.  And I have more freedom—I can “choose” to assimilate or not.  I will probably be successful either way.

To be an agent of change, I need to be willing to act in opposition to whatever system perpetuates oppression, whether it is in my native country or in a foreign country; whether the patterns of oppression are familiar, or whether they look slightly different; whether I benefit from the dynamics at work, or whether they limit my prospects.

What are you waiting for?  DO SOMETHING!

GO GRINGO, GO!!In this context—in a different country, society, culture, with close to no pre-established group ties—I really don’t have the right to speak for anyone here, nor do I know where to start.

The last thing anyone needs is for me to storm in on my gringo-righteous horse and fix the s!@# out of this country.

But maybe I’m actually in the best position possible for me now.  There is work to be done where I am.

It starts, as always, with listening and learning.  I want to seek a community of critical thinkers, a group of people who knows Chile and its needs better than I do, and listen to what they have to say.  And learn.  And listen some more.

Next semester I will probably be working with a population closer to my ideal—or at least with students that aren’t more or less guaranteed to learn English regardless of what I do.

In the meantime, I am in a place to speak to my students about the experiences in my country and to be honest about who I am.

I’ve heard and seen enough to engage in thought-provoking discussions about these two countries.  Our inequalities run parallel—we have the same heritage of colonialism and imperialism. (Oh, heyyy, Columbus blog post!)

I’ve lived with Chile’s working class and its upper-middle class, studied in the private Pontificia Universidad Católica and in the public Universidad de Chile, and worked in the extremes of Santiago’s neighborhoods, from El Castillo in La Pintana to the Cerro Apoquindo Community in Las Condes.  And now, I’ve found and married a straddler like me.

Everywhere, I’ve seen the same patterns of oppression that exist in my country, sometimes more pronounced, sometimes less.

These conversations have already started with some of my students.  The next step is figuring out how to react to discussions about nannies.  ’Cause I’m like…

Anyhow, I guess what I’ve figured out is that I shouldn’t be so quick to hop into the Chilean melting pot or charquicán or whatever they have here.  I guess I’ve figured out that during the process of redefinition while you move from one country to another, it’s easy to lose track of where you left yourself.

While I try to find myself, feel free to give suggestions for the nanny conversations.  Because I’m really at a loss there…

Pueblito Los Dominicos: Artisans at Work

Art in Pueblito Los DominicosQuaint, narrow alleys lined with traditional adobe buildings, straw roofs, artisan shops, and the irresistible smell of pastel de choclo—this is the enchantment of Los Dominicos, Chile’s largest artisanal center.

Many people say it’s a must-see for tourists, but Edwin and his mother had never visited.  (The life of a foreigner is so different from that of a local!)

So in hopes of amending the fact that we had forgotten her birthday, we took my mother-in-law on a day trip to Los Dominicos.

A maze of shops

Narrow streets Los DominicosThe Pueblito de Los Dominicos has some 160 shops and unquantifiable amounts of talent.  We enjoyed watching artisans in their workshopschipping away at wooden statues, heating metal for jewelry, or weaving wicker baskets.

Condor in LapislazuliI found the prices to be very reasonable, even in comparison with markets like Santa Lucía.  It’s important to remember that Los Dominicos has a wide range in its quality of work.

There’s a difference between works of art by master artisans and smaller, touristy or utilitarian items.  In Los Dominicos, you can buy both: beautiful artwork to cherish for your whole life and unremarkable souvenirs for your nephews, nieces, or friends at work.

In addition to handicrafts, you can buy plants and pets, or explore art expositions and plays.  We bought a lemon tree and some tomato plants as a gift to my mother-in-law.


The food is a little pricey considering it’s the kind of food that you can find in picadas, the Chilean “hole in the wall” food joint.  If you want to buy the pastel de choclo, it’s probably worth it.  But for other vegetarians out there, it’s slim pickings—salads, cheese empanadas, french fries or maybe mashed potatoes.


Did you know? The Iglesia de San Vicente Ferrer was printed on the back of the 2000 peso bill from 1997 to 2010.

Did you know? The Iglesia de San Vicente Ferrer was printed on the back of the 2000 peso bill from 1997 to 2010.

The Church of Los Dominicos, officially named la Iglesia de San Vicente Ferrer, was built during the first half of the 19th century in the skirts of the pre-Andean foothills.

During the late 1970s, artisans started setting up shops in the small adobe buildings that had made up an hacienda-style pueblito.  In 1983, the church was named a National Monument, and the “little town” next to it was dubbed the Pueblito de Los Dominicos.

It is now owned by the Cultural Corporation of Las Condes.

Visiting Los Dominicos

If you want to learn more about Los Dominicos before visiting, check out this gallery of photos or this video (Sorry, the chick’s pretty awkward).

Summer schedule (October to April): Tuesday to Sunday 10:30 to 20:00 hrs.
Winter Schedule (May to September): Tuesday to Sunday 10:30 to 19:00 hrs.
Phones: 8969841 – 8969842 – 8969843
Theatre phone: 8969840
Avenida Apoquindo 9085, Metro Los Dominicos

Classes have started!…sort of…

Bathroom at Universidad Católica

Above: Sign indicating a bathroom in UCatólica.  Remarkably one of the clearest messages I’ve received from my university experince.  It’s a stunning metaphor, really. I’m the flailing legs (much like Brueghel’s Icarus), and that brilliant, porcelain masterpiece is the Chilean university, or as I affectionately like to call it, Leviathan.

I’m finally settling in and gathering my bearings; I’m getting to know my family a little better, and I made a friend recently that showed me the ropes of navigating through Chilean classes.

The Chilean system of education is chaos.  The first class I attended is Sociology of Organization; its goal is to explore the continuum between chaos and order.  Initially, I didn’t know if I could handle that topic in Spanish, but now I realize that I need to study chaos and order if I want to survive this semester.

So here’s what I’ve learned in the past three weeks:

Initially, I signed up for seven classes.  The first couple weeks are generally a mad rush of frantically adding, visiting, and dropping classes.  I’ve finally settled on Social History of Latin America, the Sociology of Organizations (both at the University of Chile), Spanish for foreigners (at the University Católica), and an internship at Mano a Mano, an HIV research initiative at the Universidad Católica.

It’s taken me a long time to write about classes; I honestly have no idea where to begin or how to form some explanation of the phenomenon that is the Chilean university.  For example, one of the most frustrating experiences has been figuring out my Sociología de la Organización class.

My cool friends, Emily and Charles

We could figure out Chile… or we could use Brie’s orange peels to eat yogurt…

First of all, I’d never seen a description of the class.  I had no way to find one in the course booklet or the UChile website.  My directors didn’t know how to help me, nor did the counselors with whom they are associated because most students take classes in the Facultad de Humanidades y Filosofía (In Chile, each faculty is a separate entity, and students only take classes through their faculty.  The faculties are split into departments, such as Education, Sociology, or Anthropology in the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales.).  I sent an email to the “profe” to ask him where I could find the readings and for more information on the class.  He didn’t respond, but in class when he called my name, he asked, “Didn’t you send me an email?  You don’t know how to find the readings?”  One of the girls next to me saw that I was clearly gringa and took pity on me, writing down the website to visit.  This faculty has a separate website to view all classes, apparently.  Unfortunately, that syllabus listed over twenty texts, and I had no idea if I should buy them, try to find them in the library, or even which texts we would be reading, let alone when we would read them.  Usually, students don’t buy books.  Everything is photocopied.  But there was nothing in the photocopy room for me.  Ugh.  The next class I worked up the nerve to ask a student for some direction, and she was super-gracious and friendly.  I followed her to the photocopier, we copied the reading for next class, and then she took me to the computer room to show me how to find other readings.  Apparently, the sociology department has a Gmail account on which students post readings.  Each person then logs on, selects their course, and reads/prints out what other people have posted.  !!!  There is no way I could have ever known that!  And it took me two weeks to figure any of this out!

This is a perfect example of a significant cultural difference between Chileans and Americans.  If I want to get information in the US, I can make a phone call or shoot someone an email.  Usually, that will do the trick.  Or at least, the result is probably the same as if I were to go in person with the same inquiry.  Not so in Chile.  If you want anything done, you must go in person.  Even to register for classes.  Someone might tell you that there are no chorus ensembles available, but if you go in person to talk to them, they suddenly find information.

Other school-related tidbits:

If your profe (short for professor for those who aren’t used to being intentionally playful with words) doesn’t show up for class because he doesn’t feel like it, deal with it.  Move on.Intentionally playful

It’s not cool to come into class, sit in your desk, and wait for the profe to come in.  The cool kids (Chileans) wait outside the classroom and follow the profe in.

More to come…!