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.