Wednesday, September 22, 2010

los 33

So after a long absence, mining is my theme. Below you’ll read about my recent travels, how to know when the desert flowers, what makes Chileans honk their horns, why zee Germans are in Chile, the still fresh Bolivian grudge against Chile from 1884, the Day of National Dignity and how it caused the coup, a little IPE jargon, stories of real live Chilean miners that I met in real life and also a link to a quite informative article.

This past week I took a trip up the coast of Chile with some friends to see the desierto florido or flowering desert. Every few years or so, depending on the rainfall, parts of the desert in Chile will spontaneously burst into bloom. It can happen in many different places, but usually centers around Vallenar and Copiapó. It’s impressive, considering this country is home to the Atacama desert which has the distinction of being the driest place on earth. This phenomenon is one of those natural wonders that so unpredictable that it can still easily be enjoyed without seeing a gift shop. The 6 day trip up was everything you could dream of as a gringo college student—our lives contained in our backpacks, every night clandestinely sleeping on beaches, surviving on deli meat, cheese, bread and avocado for every meal, never showering—I had a blast. I’ll put some more photos up on my tumblr, for all to see.

When we were driving through the desert, taking in the dusty hills that have been transformed by washes of fuchsia, yellow and baby blue, our driver told us that about 34 km away were the trapped miners. It was odd standing in the dry heat with the sun beating down on my already burnt face while that only X miles away there are men who hadn’t seen the sun for…how many days?

When the miners first sent up their letter with saying they were alive after XX days, I was in an underground museum in Santiago. As my friend and I entered an exhibit of staged photos of the who’s who of Chile committing unspeakable acts in the darkness of the Santiago nighttime, a security guard stopped us with the news. Los 33 todavía son vivo. When we got above ground the city was reverberating with the honking of cars. As we walked down an avenue cars went by with Chilean flags waving out windows and words painted on their hatchbacks? I tried to imagine that sort of spontaneous, public, communal celebration happening in the US. Chalk it up to culture, to a different brand of nationalism, to latin passion, that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the States unless there is a sports team involved.

Mining is integral not only Chile’s economy but also their national identity. We are a country of copper, a Chilean told me, which is Chile’s most exported natural resource. In fact, mining created Chile’s borders. The War of the Pacific (1879-1884), that Chile won quite handily against Peru and Bolivia, started with disputes over the mining region of Antofogasta. For a few decades Bolivia and Chile had shared the territory, giving free reign to their respective venture capitalists, obviously an arrangement meant to be broken. By the way, while Chilean entrepreneurs, engineers and miners were flocking to what is on the surface an arid wasteland, the fledgling Chilean state was paying Germans to populate the much greener and hospitable south. (More on Chilean Deutschophilia later).

In any case, secret treaties were made, there were arguments over taxes, so inevitably war broke out. Chile, much more unified than Peru or Bolivia, won and came away with some heroic stories to retell during national holidays and two more regions chocked full of mines (more on Arturo Pratt later). Bolivia, on the other hand lost its access to the sea, which they are still contesting to this day (current request: 10 km of coastline). Peru lost dignity and territory. This new acquisition was a very lucrative source of income for the Chilean state and much needed to solidify its hold on the area.

The mines, however, were not a continual blessing for the Chilean state, nor did they even stay in Chilean hands. The elite in Chile, since the beginning, have tended toward a mutually beneficial (for them) combination of a conservative politics with very liberal economics. Sounds familiar, right? As mercantilism faded into a more free market policy, the income from the mines stopped flowing back into Chile and instead was extracted (hah) out by multinationals.

There was a break in this process of extraction is when the mines were made state property during a process known as the Chileanization of Copper, starting in 1955 with the establishment of a government body to deal with the multinationals and then worked towards state ownership through “negotiated nationalization” in which the state bought shares to avoid conflict with businesses (and according the Wikipedia article, the US). Then, that dastardly or saintly—depends who you ask—President Salvador Allende took a drastic or much needed—again, depends…—step and got Congress to unanimously pass a constitutional amendment that nationalized all mines, present and future, which was celebrated with the Day of National Dignity. These fairly radical socialist policies were the catalyst for the coup that instated the military government or dictatorship—…who you ask—headed by the infamous General Augusto Pinochet. Under Pinochet the mines were made private once more, as they are to this day.

I could write about resource traps and what they mean for the development of a country, but this article summarizes much better.

If you don’t want to read it, heres the jist:
A problem facing Chile and other Latin American countries is “the inability to break free of the shackles of commodities exploitation, which provides their livelihoods but leaves them perennially vulnerable to boom-and-bust cycles and wild currency fluctuations. It also consumes capital that might be used to develop higher-revenue, and more stable sources of wealth, like manufacturing”…as well investment in science, technology and education.

Still,the inter/multi/transnational ownership of the Chile's natural resources is a common complaint, with the main culprits being Canada, the US and Spain (and globalization looming in the background). It seems the only mining money this country really sees is from the income of those who are employed in it, and I’ve met many of them. My friend’s host dad is gone every other two weeks to drive a truck at a mine near Iquiqui, I talked with a man who does surveying for a Canadian mining company and spends most of his weeks traveling and I met a 20 year old Rastafarian from Copiapó who has a son on the way who is studying to be a mechanic in the mines. What ties these people together is that while the mines are providing their employment, their jobs are inconvenient, to say the least, and mostly chosen out of necessity. And lets not forget that mining is so dangerous that when the mine first collapsed on los 33, they weren’t the least bit surprised, they had been expecting it.

So, as I was passing through the northern parts of this country, I was glad to see all the Chilean flags inscribed with messages such “Esperamos por los 33”, esperar being a verb that encompasses wishing, waiting, hoping and expecting. At the same time though, I wonder if this will be a moment when the country not only revises its safety policy for mines (which, of course, the government is promising) but also reexamines what mining means for this country now, and whether it should continue to define it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

los modismos

Why hello there. How is it going?
Or, in Chilean...Hola wn/a, que onda wn/a...

To break it down:
Wn o weon, is Chilean phonetic spelling for huevon which is huevo (meaning egg) + ón, the ending that they tack onto words to mean it’s big. And the significance of big eggs of course has the crudest of roots.

Like most Chilean slang its all how you say it. At times it’s a term of affection--dude, bro, pal, what have you. Or, with accompanying hand gestures, it means fucker. I've heard a Chileana comforting another girl about a guy who was a jerk with: "Que weon, weona", meaning, "What a fucker, dude(tte)." While they may not have a lot of words, what they have, they so frequently they could put frat boys to shame, brah.

Que onda means, quite literally, how are the vibes? There is a Physics class called Ondas. My host mom's shampoo promises Ondas Perfectas. People/Places/Things are categorized by their ondas. My friend was taking a class where he has to do a presentation on what he likes so the class could feel his ondas. He has since reluctantly dropped the class.

Surprisingly, slang is a great conversation starter. Every Chilean loves their slang, from my professors complaining about the ubiquitous filler word “po” to a punk kid I met in a squatter house who quizzed me rapid fire about the dirtiest words. I now carry around a notebook of slang and whenever I whip it out Chileans love to add. Of course, its not quite kosher.

Slang is also very revealing about a culture. Take the word flaite. It means “ghetto” but in the “sketchy” sense. Although American rap culture is here in full force it seems the concept of ghetto fabulous did not get imported. But, as my host mom said, every country has a word for flaite, just as every country has a group that has been so entrenched in poverty that it has created its own culture.

Here is the one that really blows my mind (though no for delicate readers): choro. This word is used like “pussy” but it also can apply to a hard gangsta. Lets just reflect on the implications of calling a male a pussy in the United States.

In closing, here is a sampling of Chilean slang:

palta-avocado (in sp., aguacate, very common here, more on that later)
al tiro-immediately
1,000 pesos-una luca
quemar el arroz-to be gay (literally, to burn the rice)
cuático-out there, weird
La picada-the BEST place
filete, la raja, polenta, bacan-cool (I’m waiting to learn the distinctions)

Upcoming topics: micros, completos and my classes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Up North, ya know.

This is in Brule, WI. My family goes up to a cabin there with a bunch of their old friends. This year I asked my mom how they knew everyone and after each name she paused, thought, and said "music."
We've been going since I was 4, it was nice to return once again to a familiar place, with familiar people--in the "like family" sense. For one family, the Pucci's, my brother is Cousin Carlo and many of the adults have Aunt and Uncle prefixes.

Highlights included a drenched 3o mile ride to Lake Superior and back, another very successful trip to the Fig Leaf, a small town thrift store (high waisted coral shorts, $1.25!), watching World Cup semifinals in a small empty bar on Highway 2, and the 13th (or so, whose counting?) annual talent show, this time at 9:30 am featuring the vocal styling of a 4 year old boy in a Buzz Lightyear costume. And of course, who could forget the 4th of July celebrations put on by the Village of Lake Nebagamon. There was a parade of Miss and Little Miss Lake Nebagamon, a VW bug dressed up as the terrible Hodag and an intimidating black truck with Ole's written across it in red white and blue. All's well in Middle America.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Current location: Minneapolis, my bedroom.

Off Into the Wild Blue Yonder.

Didn't know that this phrase comes from a song commonly known as the Air Force Song. Not sure if that bodes well.

So, here we go. As the song says,

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
At 'em boys, Give 'er the gun! (Give 'er the gun now!)
Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,
Off with one helluva roar!
We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!
Nothing'll stop the U.S. Air Force!