When I decided to move to Santiago, Chile, I thought I would look like everyone else in the country. People have always thought I was from the Caribbean or South America because of my skin tone and Miami accent. In my admitted ignorance, I was certain that Chileans would look just like Brazilians, and I could blend in with ease. I realized just how wrong I was the minute I arrived to my adopted home three months ago.
From the time my best friend and I moved to Santiago, we have experienced a whole new type of staring game. Everyone — and I do mean everyone — stares at us. This is not the “oh, you look different but now that you see me looking, I’ll look away” type of stare. This is more like “I’m going to look at you until I can read your mind” type of stare. They would look at us for a full two minutes and then snicker with their friends about us.
Some of the attention is a bit expected, such as people trying to touch my hair or men cat-calling, because that happens in America. Still, most of it is unnerving and damn near rude. One night, my best friend and I were visiting a park when this group of teenagers suddenly ran up to us and started speaking to us in the world’s fastest Spanish. Next thing I knew, they were taking a picture with the two of us. I immediately felt like I was some ancient artifact on display in a museum.
My discomfort led me to discover the history of Chile, which has had scarce numbers of people who look like me for centuries.
A European country in South America
Basically, black people have not had a true identity or presence in Chile in the 20th and 21st centuries. Some official accounts of Chilean history exclude African slavery altogether (we see where certain U.S. textbooks get it from). Nearly 89 percent of the current population is white and non-indigenous, and it seems this makeup is extremely intentional. Like other Latin-American countries, it feels like Chile has adopted the idea that the more European the country looks, the more successful it will be. Even with the country's denial of African heritage — Chile's national dance, cueca, is said to have African elements.
I don’t know what to call Chileans’ obsession with my skin tone. Chileans make it extremely clear that I'm different, though it doesn't feel like it's in hate. It feels more like an uncomfortable, inappropriate curiosity. Given the history of the country, it's easy to understand why; however, the idea that I am now part of the country's 0.3 percent of the population that is of “unspecified” race is an idea that I am finding difficult to grasp.
One in 6.5 million
For the last three months, it's been painfully clear that we're different. I’m totally used to being one of the only black people in my class or at certain functions. It's an entirely different feeling being one of the only black people in the whole country. It's not something you just deal with or brush off. People remind me of it every day when they to ask me where I'm from and what I'm doing in Chile — like I don't belong here and there's nothing for me here.Faced with an outrageous amount of unwanted attention, I started to ask around. In a city of 6.5 million people, I simply couldn't accept that we were such an odd sight. There had to be diversity right? I wanted needed to find out where all the black people were. I began by asking my students why my best friend and I were looked at like some kind of genetic mutants. All the students had the same answer: Chileans were simply “curious” because there have never really been black people in Chile. Never? Not ever. They all said that the Spaniards didn't bring African slaves when they occupied Chile. They even said black people only started arriving in the country less than 10 years ago from Brazil and Colombia due to the political climate.
Where are the black people?
And as it turns out, my students were partially right. The Spaniards didn't find much to exploit when they arrived in Chile in the mid-1500s. There was no gold or silver and Chile quickly became a blip on Spain’s map. Chile did have copper, however, and the Spaniards enslaved indigenous people to work in those mines. They later brought Africans to Chile to supplement the indigenous workforce. Major slave markets were more than 2100 miles away from the newly established capital, making it too expensive to bring in large numbers of slaves. Still, within 100 years of Spanish colonization, there were approximately 20,000 Afro-Chilean people in the country.
By the beginning of the 19th century, this all changed. Chile was fighting for its independence from Spain and promised slaves their freedom if they fought against the Spaniards. Slave trade from Africa ceased, along with much of the recorded history of Afro-Chileans. Historians speculate that there were much more men than women imported from Africa, leading to more frequent mixing with the indigenous population. At the same time, Chile made a major push for European immigrants. The African diaspora became intertwined with the largely mistreated indigenous people while more Europeans moved into the country, resulting in a very white-washed culture.
Want more content about Living abroad? Sign up for the Blavity weekly roundup!