This weekend I went to Santiago, the capital city of Chile. Although I had spent a couple days there when I first arrived in Chile, my second time there was completely distinct. Like many of my travels around Chile so far, this was another trip that was organized through my study abroad program. This one was focused on the various immigrant communities and experiences in Santiago. To prepare for this trip, my classmates and I had to read various articles about the demographics of Chile, in addition to reading about the different waves of immigration Chile has experienced in the past. To my surprise, Chile has been almost as much as a “melting pot” of cultures over the last couple centuries as the United States, with many different immigrant communities present in Santiago, a beautiful city in itself.
Just for some background knowledge–at first glance, Chile is a fairly homogeneous country. Much of the population consists of a mix of Spanish and indigenous ancestry with some Western European ancestry, as well. However, over the years, immigrants from all parts of the world have arrived in Chile. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the majority of immigrants were from Europe. Some of the more significant arrivals include the mass number of Jews who were fleeing the Holocaust in the 1940s, as well as many Spaniards fleeing the Spanish Civil War several years earlier in the 1930s.
However, there were many immigrants that were not European; for example, there is a huge Arab population in Chile. Many Chileans have Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, or Palestinian ancestry. Many of these immigrants arrived in Chile in the 1930s, but there were many more who came later in the 20th century as well. In Chile, the Palestinian population is probably the most significant out of the four immigrant groups mentioned, with Chile having one of the largest Palestinian populations outside of the Middle East.
While in Santiago, I got to attend a lecture hosted by a Palestinian-Chilean (or Chilean-Palestinian, a semantic difference that is still hotly debated) man. His name was Marcelo – a classic Chilean name — and he told us about the immigrant experience in Chile, as relating to the Palestinian population here. From Marcelo’s lecture, I learned that the majority of the Middle-Eastern immigrants were professionals, namely businessmen. Many opened restaurants and stores, providing much-needed sustenance to the economy. Now that several generations have passed since the arrival of the first Middle-Eastern immigrants in Chile, many have since assimilated, although cultural enclaves, like the Patronato neighborhood in Santiago, still exist. With this said, it’s an incontestable fact that these immigrants and their descendants are an important and visible part of the rich social fabric that makes up this country. Even in Valpo, there are kebab and shawarma places on every corner, just one sign of this diversity present in Chile.
To touch on the controversial semantics of defining one’s identity, Marcelo explained that he defines himself as both Palestinian-Chilean and Chilean-Palestinian, which is why I use them interchangeably in the previous paragraph. Although there are many people who prefer to put one identity before another, embracing one identity more than the other, he explained that he sees both nationalities as having equal weight in his cultural identity, so one is not necessarily more important than the other. Something important to note is that Islamophobia is much less of an issue in Chile currently than it is in the U.S., so there’s less of a stigma in defining oneself one way or another. It’s more of a way to connect with one’s heritage, whether it be with one’s Chilean roots or Palestinian ones.
Another significant immigrant population in Chile, albeit a much more recent one, is the large number of Haitians living here. Unlike many of the other immigrant groups that arrived way back in the 19th and 20th centuries, Haitians have really only started coming to Chile as of 2007 or 2008. Of course, there are many immigrants coming from neighboring countries in Latin America that I have skimmed over, like the many Peruvians, Bolivians, and Argentinians that live here, not to mention the huge numbers of Colombians and Venezuelans arriving as of recently. It’s also important to mention the large Chinese and Korean population in Chile, evidenced by the number of Chinese restaurants all over Santiago (and Valpo, as well). We got a chance to go to the main market in Santiago where there are people from all parts of the world selling their goods.
Coming from the United States, a country born of immigrants, it was really interesting to learn how different immigrant populations in Chile have interacted with and adapted to Chilean society. I never knew that Chile had such a varied and diverse population. Although Chile has its own struggles within its diverse population, there’s something powerful about seeing another country fully accept its immigrants, something that gives me hope for the United States and its future arrivals.