My aborted attempt to return to Chile had many factors that could be attributed to it’s failure. One that is rarely covered by memory documentation however, is the feminist perspective on ‘el retorno’ or put more eloquently, the female experience of the Chilean retornéé. In effect, what it is like for a woman or girl who has been raised in liberal Europe/North America/ Australia, to come into contact with Latin American societal attitudes firstly towards women in general and then women from other cultures perceived to be liberal.
I was lucky to have been raised a feminist. My father described himself as a Marxist/Feminist in many of his discussions with his political circle. As a child I was encouraged by both parents to engage with what are normally considered male dominated activities; football, roaming the streets, Scalextric & chemistry sets and was subject to feminist perspective sex education. I was taught to pursue love and sex for pleasure and not simply to become a mother or fulfil a traditional role in society. As a teenager I expected equality in relationships and had high hopes for my future career.
Of course not everything was perfect in the UK, among my peer group there was regular slut shaming and an unequal moral code for girls, this aside, I felt free to wear what I liked and do what I wanted within reason ( and parents permission).
Then we went back to Chile. It was 1990, the tail end of the dictatorship. One of the first gender related incidents that shocked me was the first time we visited ‘el centro’. It was a hot November day, far hotter than anything I’d experienced in England. I put on my clothes and climbed into the taxi with my father. I noticed the taxi driver staring at me which I thought was gross because I was only 16 and he was old. We got to Providencia and as soon as I got out of the taxi it started. Men were saying things as they walked past, almost grazing my skin as they leant in to whisper whatever disgusting thing a man would say to a child. Within minutes I was so upset about the unwanted attention I was getting from passers by, including cars, my father took me to a store and bought me a cover up.
From then on I never went out wearing shorts and a vest again. I was furious that I had been forced out of wearing what I wanted to. I then began to understand why Chilean girls wore jeans even on the hottest days.
Next up were boys in my own age group. I was lucky to inherit my cousin’s gang to hang around with and thus went to many parties upon my arrival in Santiago, in fact, I was able to go out and consume far more drugs and alcohol in Chile with its lax laws and open-all-hours nightlife. The reason why I had more freedom was because I now had a chaperone; a male companion of my fathers trust (my cousin) which in itself is a hideous concept.
As I got acquainted with Santiago’s boys I quickly learned that they supposed because I was from England, I was sexually liberated, therefore ‘up for it’ in other words, fair game. This Chilean male idea had also infuriated other female friends from Canada, Sweden and France to the point that we began socialising at home to avoid the leeches. We also began to form romantic relationships within the retornéé community to avoid misunderstandings and the rigmarole of being taken home to meet facist parents who would recoil in horror to find out their son was dating a returning left-wing dissident’s offspring.
It may have been just unfortunate that I spent much of my ‘return’ in conservative Chillan. The bigotry of the women never ceased to shock me. Particularly among the middle/upper class femmes. They regularly partook in slut shaming, expected men to pay for their drinks & dinner (and sometimes drugs) and held deeply catholic anti abortion views.
In the family environment things weren’t much better. While my cousins were encouraged to go on three-night rampages, I would be tutted at for doing the same. I was also now expected to not walk the streets unaccompanied at night and to serve male family members when they dropped in for tea. Of course I defied all of these conventions but constant battling with machismo made my adjustment to Chile all the more conflictive and difficult.
Returning to a country that was previously a dictatorship when coming from the freedom of Europe requires much cultural adjustment. Add being a woman that runs with the wolves to that, and you have a very complex route to integration ahead.