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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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.