Chile culture and people - cultural travel experiences in Chile - cultural heritage

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Chile Culture

Art & Literature

Pablo Neruda

Chile's most famous contributions to literature have come from Nobel Prize poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, whose homes and birthplaces are now museums that attract literary pilgrims to Chile. Neruda's Heights of Machu Picchu, Canto General and the autobiographical Memoirs are widely available in English, however Mistral's works are harder to find.

Contemporary Chilean authors have earned an international reputation in the literary world. The most famous is novelist Isabel Allende, whose House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, and Eva Luna have all been international bestsellers. The increasingly popular Luis Sepúlveda has written stylish short novels like The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, and combines travel writing with imaginative fiction in Full Circle: a South American Journey. José Donoso's novel Curfew recalls the latter days of the recent military dictatorship, while Antonio Skármeta's novel Burning Patience (drawing on Neruda's life as a Chilean icon) was the inspiration for the Oscar-winning Italian film, Il Postino (The Postman). Ariel Dorfman is an internationally known critic, novelist, and playwright who is also active in human rights causes. His play, Death and the Maiden, was made into an English-language film. The most successful play in the 1990s has been La Negra Ester - a dramatic adaptation of a poem dealing with characters working at a seaport brothel, written by Roberto Parra. La Negra Ester is revived yearly for audiences and is sold out weeks in advance. Santiago's Municipal Theater, since its creation in 1857, has played a critical role in disseminating the arts: visits by national and international celebrities entertain audiences with concerts, operas and ballets.


Chilean music, particularly folk music, has had international acclaim since the 1960s, when Violeta Parra and her children Angel and Isabel made their names as politically committed singers and songwriters. During the 1970's and later as exiles, folk groups like Quilapayún and Inti Illimani regularly toured Europe and North America before returning to 

Violeta Parra

Chile in the early 1990's, when democracy was restored. Today, Inti Illimani, Illapu and Congreso are three well-known groups that have successfully combined past folk traditions with their own contemporary sound. Jose Vasconcelos is another top artist whose music reflects links with Chile's past. As for the contemporary rock scene, the group Los Tres recently debuted in a live MTV concert, and other groups such as Lucybell, La Ley, and Los Tetas are gaining international recognition.


Fiesta de La Tirana

The most important festival in the Norte Grande region takes place in the small town of La Tirana. Each year, from the 12th through the 18th of July, some 40.000 believers arrive to celebrate the Virgin of Carmel, Chile's patron saint. Activities include songs and dances that seem to go on 24 hours a day for the whole week of ceremonies.

The annual Festival Internacional de la Canción (International Song Festival), in Viña del Mar is an extremely popular event. In February, the liveliest musicians from every Latino country flock to the beautiful outdoor amphitheater, Quinta Vergara, and surrounding public park for a week of song, dance, and limitless fiesta.


The cueca is the national dance. It originates from peasant folklore and some sources believe that it emerged as a symbol of the newborn republic in rebellion against the Spanish crown. The steps represent the cock stalking the hen, the amorous courting of a couple, or the cornering of a filly by a huaso (Chilean cowboy), which he is trying to lasso. Man and woman dance to the classic rhythm, twirling their kerchiefs in the air. 

National Dance "Cueca"


"Minga" in Chiloé Today, when modernization has become the cornerstone of the Chilean economy, some traditional customs still endure, particularly in the countryside. One of them, the trilla a yegua, involves using horses to help separate wheat from the chaff. In another, the rodeo, huasos on horseback rope and bring down calves in a crescent-shaped barricade, la medialuna. The island of Chiloé, meanwhile, is Chile's land of myths, and tradition.

Here local folklore is peppered with stories of La Pincoya, the goddess of fertility, beaches and seas, and the Trauco, an ugly dwarf that lives in the woods attacking men and seducing virgin women. A Minga is any type traditional community task in Chiloé. For example, it is not uncommon to transport entire houses to a new location. The houses are moved by placing it on tree trunks and drawn to the new site by oxen. To aid in the community effort, the homeowners are required to provide food and drink for all of those involved. A wide variety of handicrafts are produced in Chile. These include traditional pottery, knitted and woven textiles, woven baskets, and sculpture from the blue lapislázuli stone. Some of the towns in Chile that make their living from handicraft work include Pomaire, Donihue, Quinchamali, Rari and La Ligua.


Chile's population of 14 million is relatively young. Nearly half the population is under 25 years of age and 72 percent is under 40. Women have an average of 2.4 children. Despite the country's length, most of the population is concentrated in the southern and central regions - Santiago alone accounting for 5.5 million. Chile as a whole has practically eliminated illiteracy, and the average school attendance level has doubled in the last two decades. In June 1996, President Eduardo Frei mandated an increase of classroom hours to benefit students and bring new vigor to the educational enterprise, or at least that is the hope. 

Chilote little boy

The Chilean people and their culture is a mix of Spanish and indigenous groups native to the region. Chile was the last country in the Americas to be occupied by the Spaniards. A later dose of immigrant influence, particularly European, was added to the mix following the second world war. The common religion is Roman Catholic. Although Chilean society is not riddled by ethnic, religious or regional conflicts, certain class barriers and distinctions still exist. Over the past 20 years, modernization in a vast array of fields has improved the quality of life for many Chileans, yet great disparities in income are still apparent. The present challenge is to overcome the growing gap between those with easiest access to a modern Chile, and those left behind.


Spanish Conquistadors When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the land known today as Chile was inhabited by various indigenous societies. Estimates suggest that the indigenous population exceeded a million, sprinkled irregularly from north to south. The Mapuche ("Men of the Earth"), inhabited the central and southern regions. The most outstanding of the Mapuche peoples were the Araucanians, renowned for their long-standing resistance to both the Spaniards and, subsequently, to the Chileans.The so-called "Pacification of Araucania" was achieved only in the second half of the 19th century.

Today, Chile's indigenous peoples include Aymara (some 35,000) and Atacameños (about 4,000) in the north; Mapuche (approximately one million) in the south; Rapa Nui (3000) on Easter Island; and a few Kawashkar and Yagan on the southernmost islands.

Foreign settlers began to arrive in Chile following independence, that is, during the l9th and 20th centuries. Seafarers and commercial agents were the first to take up residence, followed by traders and administrators. In a short time, they adapted to the local lifestyle. Many married Chilean women and became part of influential groups within society. As years went by, their descendants assimilated with the local bourgeoisie. Some even played an important role in the nation's economic and cultural development. However, immigration to Chile never reached the enormous proportions it did in countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

Chilean culture is a product of a cross-fertilization of European and indigenous influences. Following the contributions of a new wave of Spanish immigrants, mostly from the Basque region, French cultural norms gained popularity during the 19th century. The French influence found expression among the intelligentsia and the artistic community, as well as in the lifestyle of the upper classes. The arrival of silent films, at the beginning of this century, brought new customs and fashions, and contributed to changing opinions and concepts of culture and beauty among the well-to-do. The radio and written press were also influential. Over time, culture moved beyond the realm of the elite, reaching out to the middle and lower classes. The universities became important centers of cultural life: theater, music and ballet could be appreciated by people from all walks of life.


More recently, North American culture has greatly influenced Chilean culture. Cinema, broadcast and cable TV, the constant influx of the latest international advances and innovations - from complex scientific concepts to small consumer items - have all contributed to the homogenization of lifestyles. The United States customs and tastes are reflected in everything from fashion to fast food. In Chilean urban areas, daily life runs its course with the advantages and problems common to all large modern cities. However, the most notable successes of recent years in Chile have been rooted deeply in Chile's past. The work of poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, and the artistic efforts of various members of the Parra family (Violeta, Roberto and Nicanor) continue to have a strong influence in popular culture.


Chile has a presidential system of government. The Executive Power exercised by the President of the Republic is elected by direct popular vote, and the President is supported by 21 cabinet ministers. Eduardo Frei Tagle was elected President by an absolute majority (58 percent) on December 11, 1993. 

National Congress

The next presidential elections are slated for December 1999. Frei won with the support of a solid center-left coalition, the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Coalition of Parties for Democracy), forged during the final years of military rule. This same coalition brought President Frei's predecessor, Patricio Aylwin, to office in 1989. Aylwin served from 1990 through 1994. His was the first civilian government to follow General Augusto Pinochet's 17-year military regime.

The lower Chamber of Deputies is decidedly in control of the coalition of parties that helped restore democracy to Chile. But despite the solid electoral majority given both to the Aylwin and Frei governments, opposition forces controlled the Senate through 1997 by virtue of eight "designated senators" appointed by Pinochet prior to handing control back to civilians. New "designated senators," appointed in part by Frei in 1998, have altered the Senate's balance to make it almost evenly divided between Concertacion forces and opposition forces. In August, 1998, for example, the Senate had two tie votes in a row regarding the elimination of September 11 (the anniversary of the 1973 military coup) as a national holiday. The Senate ultimately voted elimination of the holiday after Senator-for-Life Pinochet proposed an alternative holiday celebration set for September 4.

Pinochet also left an his mark on the composition of Chile's 17-member Supreme Court. Prior to leaving office in 1990, Pinochet induced many older sitting judges to retire by offering them an early retirement bonus of US$50,000. This permitted Pinochet to name younger judges sympathetic to his values and so guarantee the legitimacy of his 1980 Constitution and the 1978 Amnesty Law, which absolved military forces of legal reprisals for massive human rights violations committed throughout Pinochet's dictatorship. Still, the retirement of many of the Pinochet-era judges in 1997 and 1998 has finally given the Supreme Court a new balance of power, resulting in the re-opening of many human rights cases that have been stalled for years in a here-to-fore unresponsive judicial system.

Chile's Congress is located in the port city of Valparaíso. It consists of 47 Senate members (including Senator-for-life Pinochet) and 120 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Most contemporary political ideologies are present in Chile. The four parties in the governing Concertación coalition are: the Christian Democratic Party, the Party for Democracy, the Socialist Party, and the Radical-Social Democratic Party. The opposition is composed of National Renovation party, the Independent Democratic Union party and the Center-Center Progressive Union. While the Communist Party has no representation in Congress, it does have members elected to some municipal governments and counts with enough votes to influence the results of various elections.

Chile's institutional structure also includes several autonomous organisms: the Constitutional Tribunal, the National Security Council, the Comptroller General and the Central Bank. The independent Central Bank is responsible for the stability of Chile's currency and for ensuring the proper operations of domestic and foreign payments. Chile's armed forces and uniformed police fulfill their professional duties under the direction of civilian authorities through the Ministry of Defense. Each of the four branches is led by a Commander-in-Chief. Chile is divided into 12 different regions for administrative purposes, plus the Metropolitan Region of Santiago. The highest ranking official in each region is the Intendente, a presidential appointee.