Burn The Witch: Me V social conservatism 

I’d always imagined that adjusting to life in a foreign country would be a challenge: Cultural differences, language and lifestyle lags obviously lay in wait, However, I was ill prepared for the unexpected and fierce battle with staunch social conservatism, a phenomena largely alien to my UK life, that would sabotage any attempt to adopt Chile as my potential home.

Within days of arrival in the Chile of 1990 I gathered that racism, homophobia and misogyny were endogenous to the Chilean linguistic landscape. On one occasion, watching the World Cup final with the family and having ‘onces’, I grew so tired of my relatives calling black players ‘niggers’ and ‘monkeys’ that I smashed up my crockery and left.

Another time, a boy I had been seeing lured me to his car to question me on whether it was true that I had been with a black American in Concepcion, when I remarked that I had and that it was rather enjoyable, he assaulted me, smashing my head against the window and punching me in the stomach. Calmly he drove me home in awkward silence as I bled into my lap.

My unwillingness to fit into the norm made me a target. For some reason this made people angry. Especially men. More than once I was backed into a corner by angry males, furious that I would not sleep with them yet was known to be brazenly dating a ‘negro’. And then a Mapuche. Far from being afraid, I was amused by the antics of the socially conservative youth, neurotic and tightly packaged into their neat, safe clothes, fearful of being caught slipping.

Like many countries in the taught grip of strict Catholicism, the townsfolk of Chillan groaned under the strain of keeping up appearances, However by night the town I nicknamed ‘Twin Peaks’ would show its true nature. Beneath yellow moons and confetti skies the night vibrated to the tune of distorted shadow egos and werewolves.

It was on one of those such nights that due to my youth and inebriated state, I ended up in a small house on the dodgier end of the city with some posh boys; the son of a distinguished, wealthy Palestinian and the other, the son of a corrupt right-wing local politician. They had been leering all night, making lewd comments about ‘gringa’s’ and derisory references to exiles. They were getting rowdier and seemingly angrier the more they drank and snorted. Overhearing their whispered scheming, I began to suspect that their plan was to rape me. I managed to escape but not before the debauchery reached an unexpected crescendo and one began to felate the other. After that I was then threatened to keep quiet lest their gay secret be made public.

I grew to expect this hypocritical way of being from ultra conservative types but depressingly it came from everywhere. Seeping and constant, the incessant stream of prejudice became too toxic to bear: from burying a friend who had died from AIDS, saying it was in fact cancer to avoid public knowledge that he was gay, to always shouldering the blame for my cousins for any drugs found in the house.

I was always to blame. The degenerate outsider. Easier to believe, easier to digest.

The prejudices spawned by conservatism in Chile no doubt anchored by years of state endorsed classism, ingrained casual racism and the absence of political and sexual freedom seemed to manifest in many guises. From the constant public molestation of women, to open racism towards the Mapuche, contempt towards poor people, opposition to all types of reforms and the demonisation of the left.

After six difficult years in Chile I decided that although language can be learned and social codes undeciphered, the impenetrable force field that had locked Chile into its anachronistic mindset is impossible to smash.

 

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Golden

‘Exile is golden’ Not as I remember Christmases were cards, deaths, a blue letter

‘You travelled so much’ I’m blacker than thou, the name on the list grounds us somehow

‘You learned to speak English’ But it wasn’t the Queen’s, bread on the table escaping smashed dreams.

‘Exile is golden’ Not in that small room, bedtime stories sad memories and doom.

What is your problem. You escaped the dictator. Don’t fill wounds with salt. Don’t be a hater.

Exile is golden. You ran away. Rootless don’t matter or lonely decay.

Sluts and virgins: my very female return to Chile 

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.

Fit in or fuck off: The anatomy of an identity crisis

The daunting theme of ‘Fitting in’ has featured heavily throughout my life whether I chose to admit it at the time, or not.

When an infant and although of a pale complexion, in a sea of Gaelic faces, while my face was pleasing, it didn’t quite fit. Growing up a dark-haired avocado eater in the midst of blonde and ginger crisp-munchers was no easy feat. Then again, justifying my Englishness at home wasn’t much fun either. As I drifted into adolescent years my contempt for Chile was big. It was a place to be dragged to, away from cosmopolitan London where finally, save for a Birmingham accent that wouldn’t budge, I was learning to find my niche.

Alas, as I turned 16 I found myself a ‘retornee’ in Chile where I was constantly hounded by my relatives and anyone I came into contact with, about whether I liked the UK or Chile most. Deeply nationalistic were the Chileans, so despite their admiration for the UK, could not feign their disgust at my rejection of the homeland. It seemed to me that the very things I loved about the UK, were the things that conservative Chileans abhorred about England; Diversity, tolerance and sexual freedom; particularly female or gay sexual freedom.

After six fruitless years in Chile I returned to the UK aged 22, trying to escape the impending identity crisis looming before me but I was back in a quagmire; My time in Chile had led me to acquire unforgettable friendships and new knowledge about my racial origins and in a sense, converted me into a hybrid.

I threw myself back into British life by embarking on a degree in a faceless university in a new town (Bristol) and upon graduation, various jobs in the stiff black and white corporate world but my existence seemed shallow. Not even achieving many of my career milestones made me feel whole. At the time I also became engaged to an English builder becoming the ‘foreign chick’ in a family so blonde, they were extras for a BBC drama about the Nazis. I endured eight awkward years of pubs, nightclubs & Sunday roasts.

While in that life, Pinochet was arrested in London and I became politically active for the first time. Those eighteen solid months of political awakening and grief at discovering the horrors mine and so many families went through, brought with them a new conscience which was at odds with my life. I became distant from my English boyfriend, a feeling stemming from a huge sense of alienation and displacement. Finally I got sick and moved away to London.

The capital offered a Latin experience unavailable in the rest of Britain. I spent a time among the Colombians, Ecuadorians and Chileans on the south side of the river. It was an attempt to ‘ Be Latin’. This phase was quite possibly the most ridiculous in my identity quest. Try as I might to emulate Latin-ness I was always approached in English and considered ‘gringa’ by any fleeting boyfriend or friend. My pale face and inability to understand Colombian Spanish also worked against any attempt to fit in. My ‘English’ ways aroused suspicion & misunderstandings with potential partners. Soon I stopped trying, stayed North of the river, got some tattoos and a fringe and set about discovering who I really am.

Despite completing many other life cycles including motherhood, the feeling of being an actor within my own life has never left me. An ‘Imposter’ even within my personal narrative I have never shaken off the feeling that my interactions with others is a construct merely to fit in to that particular situation at that particular time. This, I have discovered, is called Imposter Syndrome. I have spent so much of my life changing colours like a chameleon, that I no longer know what my true hue is.

Fitting in is all about denial. In this case denying my own identity, not just that of being Chilean but also my political history, that of being a genocide survivor. In order to live in this life knowing what I know, there has to be constant repression; a denial of my past, in order to be functional.

The shoes don’t fit but somehow I choose to keep walking.

To Be Or Not To Be: English

‘You’re so English’ assorted family members have muttered exasperatedly since I was able to string a sentence together. My seamless assimilation of the customs pertaining our country of refuge should have been a badge of honour, but over the years it came to mean many things. Not all of them pleasant.

My Englishness set me apart from the group I’d arrived in the U.K. with. My parents, grandparents and tíos were all Chilean, I on the other hand, was only so through genetics.

Being English came naturally to me. Schooling, friendships and interests were all anglophone, Chilean-ness juxtapositioned itself awkwardly within my daily life. It was something my parents tried to impress upon me through taking me to cultural events and encouraging Chilean cuisine & customs within the home.

As a child my Englishness and in particular my accent, was a source of amusement for the adults but this mirth gave way to umbrage as I mutated into a woman. It was here that an intense period of inter-family cultural clashes came into the fore.

As my adolescent peers sailed unscathed though the usual rites of passage: first can of Stella, first fag, make up, short skirts and gate-crashing adult parties, I had what my other friends didn’t: Chilean parents, who despite being of left wing extraction thus presumably ‘right on’, were not as liberal as I hoped. Deeply entrenched in catholic traditional & patriarchal Latin American values, the family viewed my normal English teenage behaviour as an aberration. My Britishness was a ‘problem’ and the refusal to speak Spanish or give a shit about Chile became obstructive.

The more refuge I sought in my English identity, the greater the Chilean clampdown was, until the asphyxiation became too much and I ran away from home just weeks before we were due to fly back to Chile for good.

Lured to Chile under the pretence that I would be allowed back if I did not adapt, I set about trying to make sense of the strange country my father called ‘home’.

In Latin America however, my Britishness seemed to amplify. From the clothes I wore, the habits I maintained and the inability to read or speak Spanish properly, my attempts to blend in were forever thwarted by my glaringly obvious foreignness. While it created a little bit of awe and envy among my new Chilean friends, it became a thorn in my side. At home with my father’s new wife, my English ways did not go down well. She was ultra conservative and disapproved of my liberal customs. I did not care what she thought and continued to come home drunk and smoke in my room.

It dawned on me that I could never erase my identity to make way for a newfangled one just to aid my father’s transition back to his homeland, I had learnt to speak Spanish but it was not my voice. It was time to go home although the path back would be rocky. Chilean norms in 1996 were completely indecipherable. 19 year olds seldom worked and I discovered that patriarchy dominates immigration rules: I could not leave until I reached 21 without my father’s permission and he was intent on keeping me close.

In an fateful twist of events, being English eventually facilitated my return to the UK. I found a job teaching English in Moneda, Santiago and built up an impressive portfolio of clients. Thanks to my British English accent that elitist Chileans wanted so badly to attain, I was able to fund an independent lifestyle and plan my exit back home to cosmopolitan London where I would not be called out for my identity, or lack of one.

Exile Makes Me Sick

I’m convinced I can pinpoint to the minute, the traumatic event that offset ‘the ill’.
It was in 1993 during the squalid winter of the dull rural town we were living in at the time. The conflict had arisen because we had moved away from vibrant Santiago to this colourless outback and I was furious. In my mind this was a clear act of sabotage to my adjustment in Chile. Santiago offered the anonymity and a modicum of personal freedom that all capital cities do. And now we had moved away, just as I’d planted some seedlings and carved out a little world for myself.

It was a very heated fight and at a pivotal moment I felt a little bit of my mind cave in. Suddenly the fury was gone and I sat in silence for hours, staring into the nether: I had resigned myself to losing my father to this Chile of his.

The sheer desperation of being in a situation that I had no control over nor could I remove myself from, left me slightly broken. Leaving Chile would be an arduous process that would entail finding funds and the emotional strength to leave my dad behind. It was not until 1997 that I was able to return home to England, losing my father in the process. It was several years later that I’d be diagnosed with Lupus.

When illness replaced my full time profession I began, as most people do, to seek answers to the origin of my disease. Lifestyle was the first thing I analysed, then diet. When this was insufficient I became more dependant on medication to battle my symptoms and in turn, more concerned with finding a ‘cure’, I turned to holistic approaches and complementary therapies: yoga, shiatsu, reiki and wheat-free -vegan diets, I then flirted with the raw diet, went to a shaman, guzzled peyote and bark roots. But I was never closer to the truth or relief.

It seems glaringly obvious now that the mind was a consideration I was intentionally overlooking. I did not want to go back to the separations, the rootlessness, the mal adjustment plus the torture and the death I spent a lifetime denying, patiently lurking in the doldrums of my mind. Despite my revulsion at exploring psychological explanations and the mind-body synergy theory, I could no longer ignore it.

Today, with what we know about physical illness and it’s deeply complicated relationship with mental health, and having given sufficient consideration to what being the child of exiles means, along with understanding the sadness and loss attached to this experience, may have enabled me to better understand the origin of my illness.

I am not alone. In my close peer group there are eight people with auto immune conditions and three with crippling mental health issues. We are all women under 50 years of age who have either arrived in the UK as political exiles as children or were born to Chilean exile parents.
While there are published studies about first generation exiles and health, there is very little about the ‘adjusting’ second generation.

Brought up in seeming normality yet facing the daily challanges of British life with its one dimensional reality, and then going home to a complex situation or indeed a parallel universe, afflicted by depression, unemployment and the overcoming of political persecution in all its guises, just may have made an impact on what were quite frankly, babies in a split dimension.

Internalising an unknown and often inherited pain has its consequences. There is strength in silence. In forgetting.. but the body has to place this somewhere. As I forced the fear and sadness out of my head, it leaked into my body like a fetid ink. I believe this is how it manifested in my body.

The only evidence I have that exile makes you ill lies in my peer group. As our lives roll on and we start to face new challenges such as coping with the death of our loved ones in exile, I can only conclude as I observe the ever increasing numbers of my peers being diagnosed with autoimmune conditions, that exile really does make you sick.

An ode to Hate

Hate has always loomed large in my life but this took time to realise. I could only comprehend its foul language when my eyes were truly open.

Like most of my Chilean friends, I’d grown up with the Chile-tragedy narrative that’d become mythical; a story ‘de los viejos’, distant and magical like unicorn tears.
As a child, Saturdays involved being whisked off to a community hall for Chilean parties, Once there I’d be skidding on my knees red-faced and running amok with the kids. Those very kids that formed the backdrop to my formative years in the UK, are now my solid life partners: the one’s who, no matter how immersed in my current British life, always take me back to the early days of refuge, solidarity and warmth of our communal lives, bound together by the grief and sadness that forced us out of Chile.

The ‘story of Chile’ didn’t even come to life for me when I ‘returned’ in early 1990. Consumed by a teenage mind far too preoccupied with rebelling against my parents and their unwavering desire to send me to Chile, when all I wanted was to sneak off to raves in the soggy English fields.

 I could not see what was around me. The inner toils of my selfish teenage world had blinded me. I wasn’t aware of the context in which I had returned to Chile, nor did I care.

I left Chile 7 years later having amassed a full catalogue of images and sounds that still trouble my thoughts on dank winter nights, such as the glum terracotta brick wall of the Villa Grimaldi on Jose Arrieta for example, where we would gather at night and harass the guard on duty. Just yards away from where perhaps my own aunty and uncle were raped, cut, beaten and discarded like cattle and then dumped into the sea via the lovely aeródromo by Tobalaba, that I would pass daily, awed by the sight of the luminous white helicopters juxtapositioned between the mountains and cobalt sky.

When Pinochet was arrested in London I was catapulted into stark realisation. It’s one thing hearing los viejos vaguely referring to the ‘terrible things happening in Chile’, and quite another to read a full length feature in The Guardian, about the violation and torture of the lovely tia you have visited nearly every Saturday for years on end, or indeed your own relative. Week after week, front page articles appeared in the press and on the radio, Chileans were on Question Time and NewsNight.

Pinochet and his crimes against humanity became a national obsession and also a personal one. I learned horrible things, that as time goes on, become more horrible and dark and unbearable. But once I learnt, there was no turning back.

From this rolled forth the avalanche of hate: this historical hatred I’d heard being detailed by my folks through their memories of their Unidad Popular years, with its scuffles and fierce divisions followed by the phantasmagoric hatred unleashed by the facist coup, spreading through Chile like a cancer.
The hate dimension now began to engulf my adult life, from social network interaction, to framing how I interpret what Chilean people are saying to me. I understand the meaning of ‘marxista’ as it’s spat out between the teeth of the blonde viejas cuicas I come across in Chillán. I now understand the strange gleam of hared in the eyes of my Chilean ex-boyfriend’s parents, whose father was in the Navy. With this clarity I can make sense of my experiences in Chile and those weird interactions I had with upper class Chileans. The language of hate has made itself apparent to me and I understand it’s key words like I never did before.
I’m not sad about recognising the hate in me and others. I see how this hate shapes the world and my personal history. The discourse of Trump. The tone of the papers. Attitudes towards refugees and black people.

Being aware of this hate while painful and irreversible has equipped me for this era. Yes, the world looks gross through shit tinted lenses, but it’s dark force is not to be underestimated as we enter a new post-hope political epoch.