Black and on the Boardwalk. The Story of a Black Woman in Chile.


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Published: April 21st 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Muelle BaronMuelle BaronMuelle Baron

Part of the boardwalk.
While doing my research before coming here, I discovered that there isn't much information out there on people of African descent in Chile. Simply because there are virtually no black people in Chile. True story. Since I've gotten to this country, I've seen less than 10 black people and that includes my time traipsing around Santiago, the capital of Chile, which has over 5 million inhabitants. As a result that means that black people here are seen as extremely exotic. I've never experienced anything like it. Over this past month, I've come to see myself differently and I've also come to recognize the destructive influence that the U.S. media can sometimes have on the selfesteem of my African American community. It's a subtle, unnamed problem in society that I've lived with my whole life. I've lived with it for so long that I began to think it was normal. But now I see that it's a United States problem and not something that is experienced in the rest of the world. Living in Chile has opened my eyes. Let me share my thoughts and experiences.

In preparation for my trip, I began researching gender roles, racial demographics, and other social dynamics in this country. My study abroad advisors advised this so we wouldn't get to our foreign country and be surprised. I had heard that although things have gotten tons better there is still a lot of sexism in Chile "machismo". I'd also heard that it is a very classist society. Those things I was prepared for. As a black woman, I thought it would also be prudent to see if there is any racism here that I should be aware of. I couldn't find anything so in that aspect I came blindly. I was in no way prepared for how people would respond to me here.

Chilean men are professional cat-callers! They do everything from whistling, to kissing noises, to cat hisses. You name it, they do it. The colectivos (taxis) even have special horns that sound like sexy whistles that they use to honk at women. For the longest time I would hear "tweet-twoo" but I had no idea where it was coming from! It also sounded like a car horn so I was super confused. Finally I realized it WAS a car horn as I stood on a street corner waiting for the bus and a colectivo driver honked it at me as I looked right at him. Amazing.

Black women here are considered beautiful. Probably because we're so rare. My host dad was trying to explain it to me one night at dinner. He said Chilean men like foreign women--a lot. I understood that because I remember getting shouted at while walking around with my girlfriends in Santiago. Not surprising. Then he said they really like blonds. Not surprising either because everyone's brunette here so blonds really stand out. Then he proceeded to tell me that seeing blonds here is becoming much more common because of tourism, and that Chilean men really love black women. I wasn't expecting that. But as I go places every day, I see that it's true. Papa Samuel gets a kick out of it and loves to relate the tales to the family at dinner, much to my embarrassment at times! His favorite story is when he took me and Cassandra to a store to put money on our prepaid cell phones. It was barely our 3rd day in Valparaiso, so he had to show us how to do it. As we were all standing at the register, there
Twistin' like it's going out of style!Twistin' like it's going out of style!Twistin' like it's going out of style!

I promise I don't walk around like this everyday. Haha! I was being silly and Lauren caught me!
was a gentleman behind us in line. I didn't really pay attention to him. All of a sudden, the next thing I know, the woman behind the register gets quite angry and sternly tells the guy behind us "Sir! There is another clerk over there who can serve you." I was just like, "Dang. This chick's grouchy." Haha! But when we left the store Papa Samuel told me that the dude behind me was looking me up and down like a nasty perve and that's why the lady got mad and told him to change lines. She was actually looking out for me! So sweet of her because I was super oblivious! Then Papa Samuel told Mama Sussy that he's amazed by how much attention I draw in the streets. He's so funny. It's like I'm his little bobble. Haha!

Anyway, I wanted to think that Papa Samuel was just exaggerating. I told myself that part of the attention I drew was because usually Cassandra and I walk together. A tall black girl and a tall blond girl walking together is not common at all. Well, when I went to the boardwalk today...alone, I realized that Papa Samuel was right. It WAS me! And it was quite the experience. I got out of class and decided I wanted to spend some time on the beach so I headed over to Muelle Baron which has a boardwalk along the beach in that particular area. The sun was shining and it was a great day for a stroll. There I was, with my big hair, my favorite green shorts, and my Indian sandals and the breeze coming off the water felt so good on my face. I was only there for an hour but it was going down. Men walked by and called me hermosa (beautiful), starred, whistled, and waved profusely. One man approached me and started walking along side me to talk to me. A group of men shouted "¡Oh que linda la morena!" as I walked past. Another man said, "Muchas gracias. Tu eres muy hermosa" and practically thanked me for the shorts I was wearing (and no I wasn't the only one wearing shorts). Then yet another asked me if I spoke Spanish. When I lied and said no he yelled that he loved me...in English! It was intense!!

When I finally left, and hopped on a micro to go meet some Missionaries in the Plaza Victoria to be a translator, I realized that it isn't just Chilean men who love black people. Chileans in GENERAL love black people. I sat next to this really sweet older lady on the bus and she smiled at me and said "Oh que lindo el color de tu piel" (oh how lovely the color of your skin). Wow. I mean wow. And I remembered some Chilean girls in a discoteca telling me how much they love negras (black women), and then one girl even told me that she wished she had hair like mine! That's when it hit me. Everything just hit me! I smiled back at the older lady and realized wow...the United States has a freaking problem!!

I don't have low selfesteem. But I have never felt as beautiful as I do here in Chile. And no, it isn't because I get hit on every 5 minutes when I'm walking in the streets. It doesn't hurt (haha!) but it is truely because I feel like my type of beauty is appreciated here! I see beautiful Chilean women every day. Many! I also see lots of beautiful European and American women every day. But I noticed that in the U.S. we don't tend to appreciate all types of beauty. We appreciate white-beauty and there's no other way to put it. There are many beautiful black women but from the things on the TV, there is a subconscious message that for us to be beautiful, we have to look as "white" as possible. We have to be "light skinned" and have hair down to our butts. Oh, and our hair better be straight and not kinky. Look at all the black leading ladies in movies. Light skin. Long hair. Look at most of the black ladies in sitcoms. Light skin, long hair. Look at the black women they have in commercials, billboards, magazines! Lighter skin. Longer hair. It is a terrible bias and trust me, the message is not lost on my African American community, nor other communities. In the Mexican community, it's better to have "whiter skin". In the Indian community as well. The Bollywood stars are the ones who more closely resemble caucasions. It's considered more attractive to have blue or green eyes and blond hair. But you know what? There is more than one way to be attractive and beautiful. I really feel that here. I walk around with my poofy hair, my dark brown skin, and my sparkly sandals and people love it! From the men outside, to random chicks in the discoteca, to the little old ladies on the bus, these Chileans think I'm beautiful how I am. When I washed my hair yesterday, I couldn't straighten it which left it a little poofy and big. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't lookin' like Don King or anything but in the U.S. if I went outside, it wouldn't necessarily be considered cute. But at dinner, my host family was enamored! They were like "We love your hair Chekeitha". When I asked why, they were like, "because it's different and it's cool". Who ever thought that being black in Chile would teach me to appreciate the way that God made me in new ways. What a gift. :-)

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20th May 2012

raza
Hello. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your travelblog on your studies in chile (though not much of your actual studies have been talked about ;) ). I'm of Chilean origin but grew up in the US since I was less than two years old, but have maintained strong cultural ties to Chile and visit every few years (april '11 and jan '12 most recently), mostly to Santiago. It is always of added interest to read blogs by students of east asian or african decent since their experiences are often slightly different in chile than the "typical" gringos who go to chile. You have some very interesting insights and I'm glad you devoted a post to share your experiences in Chile and relate them to your life in the US. As an undergraduate, I did my study abroad in Madagascar, so I went through some of the same things you did as a Chilean in Africa (I have green eyes and olive toned, to the locals I was just some European and I was always asked if I was French or German, and I DO NOT look northern european, so this was funny to me) but in reverse (plus I'm male, but that didn't stop the female attention). It's not so much that chileans are not racist (because they certainly are, and fairly xenophobic, especially about Peruvian immigrants), but you are correct in assessing your exoticness makes you attractive to chileans in a way a Mexican or Italian student would not be. At the same time, black women are also associated with sex workers in Chile (not that you are, because you're obviously american), especially afro-colombians, afro-peruvians, and afro-brazilians. in latin american folklore and collective history, there is the stereotype of the sensual mulatta. this is true in brazililan and french culture as well (a latin-thing then). as i'm sure you've noticed from chilean TV and advertisements, there is a preference for european features, especially northern european features. there are certainly many chileans who embody these features, but they are maybe 5% of the population (yet they make up most faces you see in the media). This is not unlike your observations of black women in the US (the preference for that light or "mixed" look, and lack of women with very strong black african features). but try talking about that to chileans, and they often don't understand what the problem is. the chilean writer isabel allende wrote, in her book "my invented country" (you should read it when you come back to the US, you will have an appreciation for her insights on Chile after having spent so much time there), a woman can have the face of an iguana in chile, but if she's blonde, men will still think she's beautiful. regarding the preference of european-like features in India and other places, I have no doubt that european colonialism and American popular media have contributed to the preference for lighter skinned people in film and media. However, it's not quite as simple as that. Historically (meaning pre-20th century and pre-european colonialism), in China, India, the Middle East, and medieval Europe, there has ALWAYS been a preference for lighter-skinned women. With the exception of India, this is not because of some racist ideology. Someone who was lighter skinned meant they were not out toiling in the fields under the sun. It was a status thing (like those nasty-ass long nails on some ghetto women). It meant you were not a peasant but were someone who had the luxury of being sheltered in-doors, and didn't do toiling work. This is the same reason many east Asian women still avoid the sun (in Los Angeles, driving through chinatown, you see many women walking around with umbrellas on a sunny day for this reason). In midieval spanish literature, the fair and pale women was the noblewoman of songs and poetry, while the darkskinned woman embodied the peasants and the countryside. In India, the caste system has its origins in separating the invading Aryans (not to be confuses with Hitler's nazi german "aryans") from Central Asia (the name for the country of Iran is derived from Aryan) from the original very dark-skinned inhabitants of the subcontient. people of higher casts are often a light tan to a light brown, while those of lower castes are usually dark brown to black in tone. Lighter skin is still associated with higher social class in India for this reason, in addition to the "toiling in the fields" stigma of being dark. I'm sure british colonialism and euro-american media has compounded this, but it has always been there. In any case, i didn't mean to get all nerd on you. I just wanted to point out that there has been a preference to lighter skin for far longer than the US has existed. This does not mean your insights are completely incorrect, because they are not. You hit the nail on the head for just about everything you said. Just that it is a little more complicated than simple American racism and prefernece for whiteness. When you leave the US and reflect on American history, the history of genocide against the natives, slavery, and racism is almost impossible to believe. What I mean is, it's hard to believe a country calling itself the land, "with liberty and justice for all" has had such a hypocritical and fucked up history when it comes to its ideals. In any case, I hope you enjoy your remaining time in chile. You may want to check out the website for "oro negro" (black gold), which is a site dedicated to promoting the history and culture of afro-chileans. do a quick search for "oro negro" and "chile" and it'll come up right away. saludos.--Pablo Riquelme. Baltimore MD.
23rd May 2012

I really enjoyed your comment on my blog Pablo. It was HIGHLY insightful and comments are always welcomed and well...exciting! I had heard about whiter skin being "in style" historically because it meant that the woman didn't have to work. Kind of like why being really fat used to be in style. It meant the woman wasn't starving like the rest and was therefore also a sign of higher status. I had never considered that the lighter skin preference could also be an effect of European colonization but now that I think about it, I totally agree. You seem very knowledgeable on the subject. And thanks for the tip on "oro negro". I will definitely have to check it out.
2nd September 2012

Hi! I thought that this was amazing! I was planning on going to Santiago to study abroad next year. I actually was trying to figure out how I would be able to maintain my hair while I was there and I found this blog. I was enamored! I just couldn't stop reading. At first I was nervous about the fact that there are hardly any African Americans in Chile. Your story put all of my concern to rest! Thanks for sharing. It was a great story. I can only hope that my experience is as great as yours.
2nd September 2012

I'm so glad that you enjoyed my blog and that I could be of help to you! You will LOVE Chile. It's a beautiful country with very hospitable people and trust me...the men will LOVE you. Haha! About maintaining your hair, I don't know if you have a natural hair style or if it's relaxed. But bring ALL of the hair products you will need for the duration of your stay because you will not find our hair products in their stores. I brought my own relaxer with me and thank God I did or I would have been looking like a troll doll after a while. :p I had a whole extra suitcase to bring conditioner, oil sheen, hair lotions, the relaxer etc. And if you wear weave, bring that too! All that I brought was really needed as these products do not exist in Chile. You're going to have such a great time. Just go prepared. No worries! :D
18th September 2012

I have read a lot about where \"whiteness\" came from. Light skin has been around for a long time but light eyes and hair arose real recently, after agriculture, near the Black Sea and spread from there. The anthropologists think it spread by sexual selection, that those traits make people more attractive. I think light eyes and hair can make people exotic and exotic is attractive. The most attractive to me are light-skinned Black people with red hair or green eyes! I think Black people are often very beautiful, though, and I appreciate beauty in most races (there\'s only a few I don\'t find attractive - filipino men and Mayan women for some reason). I\'m glad that Chile has been such an eye opener for you. I\'ve been to Europe and its interesting how the mixing of people from many regions has made Americans, at least before the obesity epidemic, more attractive in general. Europeans in a particular region will have \"a look\". Not that they all look exactly the same but there are enough similarities so they have \"a look\". Whites in America don\'t usually have that, with the exception of Appalacians. Nor do Blacks or Latinos. I think the mixing in the New World has really made us all more attractive compared to the Old World.
2nd November 2012

Black women and the chilean nation
I discovered that chilean men are very attracted to black women. Let me go on record to say that I think chilean men are the most handsome men to walk the face of this earth. Dont know what it is except that they have something other white men dont have. My discovery came when I was on a cruise to South America. All I can say is they have it. By the way I am a African American. Hope to visit Chile soon.
5th May 2013

Chilean women are very beautiful, they have very cute faces, they are classy and smart.

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