Chilean americans

by Phyllis J. Burson


A country slightly larger than Texas, Chile is located on the west coast of South America. Its land mass measures 292,258 square miles (756,945 sq. km.) and is bounded by Peru on the north, Bolivia and Argentina on the east, and the South Pacific Ocean on the West. Chile is a long, narrow country, about 100 miles wide and 2,600 miles long.

The population is approximately 13.75 million. Ninety-five percent are of European-Indian (mestizo) and European origin. Three percent are Indian and two percent are of other descent. Over 80 percent of the people live in urban areas. Almost 90 percent of the population are Roman Catholic and about ten percent are Protestant. A small percentage are of the Judaic faith. Virtually all of the people speak Spanish. Santiago, in central Chile, is the capital city and Valparaíso is the largest port. Mining, agriculture, light manufacturing, and fish products are important to the economy. The national flag is based on the design of the U.S. flag and is divided in half horizontally. The upper left two-thirds contains a white star on a blue background, to the right of which is solid white. The lower half is red. The national flower is the copihue, a member of the rose family.


The name Chile comes from an Indian word meaning "land's end," and indicates that Chile stretches to the tip of South America. Indian groups migrated into the area of modern Chile at least 10,000 years ago. In the early fifteenth century A.D. the Incan empire began to expand from its center in Peru into present-day Chile. At the height of the empire, it stretched 3,000 miles along the Andes, extending into what is now southern Chile. The Incan advance was halted by the Mapuche Indians, who still live in Southern Chile, and by the Spanish, who invaded the Incan capital in present-day Peru in 1532. The first Europeans began to explore Chile in 1535, claiming it for the Spanish crown in 1536 and founding Santiago in 1541. Over the next several years, the overwhelming majority of the Indian population died because they lacked immunity for diseases, such as measles, brought by the Europeans. As a result, most of the indigenous groups were easily defeated by the Spaniards, though the Mapuche Indians successfully resisted the invaders.

Extensive intermarriage occurred between Europeans and Indians, creating the mestizos (mixed) race that makes up two-thirds of the current Chilean population. The Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism and a land tenure system that created a small, wealthy landowning class and a large, landless, peasant class. Over time, those born in South America grew to resent foreign domination by Spain. On September 18, 1810, the day that is still celebrated as Independence Day, the Chileans set up a rebel government. After several battles, Bernardo O'Higgins (1778-1842) and José de San Martín (1778-1850) led the Chileans to victory. On February 12, 1818, they proclaimed their independence from Spain. Bernardo O'Higgins became the first head of government and is revered as the father of Chilean independence.

In the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) against Peru and Bolivia, Chile increased its area by one third and gained valuable mineral resources and deposits of nitrate, a natural fertilizer.

During the first half of the twentieth century, several governmental reforms took place. Church and state became separate, ensuring freedom of worship. Women gained the vote, and the government set up free, compulsory primary education. The Chileans were proud of their democratic tradition, with regular elections and freedom of the press. Many considered Chile to be the most stable democracy in South America and, thus, were unprepared for the violence of the 1970s.

In 1970, Salvador Allende (1908-1973), a Marxist and an organizer of the Socialist party in Chile, became president. He instituted far-reaching social reforms, but these contributed to an economic crisis and widespread dissatisfaction. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, fearful of Allende's Socialist policies, secretly supported groups hostile to the government. On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet (1915– ), led a military coup and established an authoritarian government. During the coup, Allende lost his life.

Pinochet took strict control over the press, radio, television, and school system. The government repeatedly violated civil and human rights. Many journalists and other intellectuals were killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile. About one million people, almost a tenth of the population, left Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. However, the government succeeded in building a strong economy. In 1990, after 16 years of military rule, Pinochet allowed an elected president, the moderate Patricio Aylwin (1918– ), to take office. Aylwin and the current president, Eduardo Frei, who took office in 1994, have moved Chile toward more freedom and openness, while maintaining economic growth.


Because of its long coastline and its several major ports, there has long been an interchange of people between Chile and other seafaring countries. Few Chileans live more than 100 miles from the ocean. Because of its strategic position on world trade routes, a lively trade developed between North and South America. Until the Panama Canal was completed, many ships traveling between the east and west coasts of the United States made the long journey around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. They stopped in Valparaíso and other ports to sell goods and replenish their stores. Significant immigration to Chile did not end with the coming of the Spaniards. Because of economic hardship or political difficulties in their countries of origin, a significant number of Germans, Italians, Irish, English, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Lebanese, and others came to Chile during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, after each of the two world wars, a significant number of Germans and other Europeans came to Chile. During and after the Hitler era, both Nazis and the Jews they persecuted settled in Chile. Because of these many diverse groups, Chile has been called the United States of South America. The diversity is also reflected in the variety of surnames found in the country. Typical last names are Spanish, such as Lopez; German, such as Hahn; Irish, such as O'Connell; or English, such as Lee. Because more than two-thirds of the population is mixed European and Indian, the typical Chilean has brown eyes and dark brown, almost black, hair. However, some are blue-eyed blondes, have red hair, or even look Middle-Eastern.

The seaports were also a takeoff point for those wishing to emigrate from Chile. Indeed, leaving Chile by land was difficult until the advent of the airplane. The high Andes mountains and one of the driest deserts on earth separate Chile from its neighbors.

As early as the 1790s, merchant ships from Chile began to arrive at the California coast. The first large wave of immigrants from Chile to the United States occurred during the California gold rush of 1848–49. Carlos López, tells the story in his book Chilenos in California; A Study of the 1850, 1852, and 1860 Censuses. Ships arriving at the port of Valparaíso first brought the news of the discovery of the precious metal, along with samples of gold dust. The Chilean economy was in crisis and ship owners, hoping to create business, spread wild rumors about the abundance of gold in California. Thousands of Chileans crammed the ships to make their fortunes. Some of the first Chileans to arrive were experienced miners. They taught the "anglos" better techniques of panning for and extracting gold. In order to crush ore, these miners improved an existing device, expertly fashioning huge stone wheels to be used in what came to be called "Chili mills." Adventurers came, too, including the prominent Vicente Pérez Rosales (1807-1886), who kept a record of his trip in his diary. In San Francisco, the Chileans settled in an area called "Chilecito" (little Chile). When a new shipload of Chileans arrived, they were welcomed and instructed in the ways of California by the Chilecito community. On July 15, 1849, residents of Chilecito were attacked and robbed. Chileans suffered other discrimination; the government passed a foreign miner's tax. Further, in the summer of 1850 there was a move to expel foreigners, especially Chileans and Mexicans, from the mines. Thousands of Chileans returned to San Francisco, though many remained in the mining towns. Perhaps half of the Chilean 49ers eventually returned to Chile, disappointed with the difference between the romantic stories they had heard and the realities of nineteenth-century California.

The Chileans who remained in California retained an active ethnic identity for some time. They often lived in areas called "Chilitowns," speaking Spanish and cooking their traditional foods. To keep in contact, they established newspapers and local clubs. In 1867 a Chilean American newspaper appeared in San Francisco. In translation, its name was "The Voice of Chile and of the American Republics." Later, it merged with a Mexican American paper, providing news of interest to Chileans and Mexicans in San Francisco until 1883. Local organizations all over California provided a way for Chilean Americans to continue their traditions and support each other socially and financially.

Though many of the 49ers who settled permanently in California retained their interest in the mother country, the majority of them married non-Chileans. Over time, Chilean Americans spread out all over California and into neighboring states. As their children learned English in school and mixed with the wider society, the high rate of intermarriage with non-Chileans continued. The ethnic neighborhoods, newspapers, and clubs disappeared as the interests of Chilean Americans changed.

From the time of the gold rush until the 1960s, a small number of immigrants trickled into the United States from Chile. Young people from upper class Chilean families came to the United States to attend college or graduate school, and frequently remained. Single men whose companies sent them to Chile often returned with South American brides. Exporters, sailors, and professionals emigrated to the United States to increase their economic or career opportunities.

However, significant immigration into the United States did not begin to occur until the latter half of the 1960s. At that time, a larger number of Chileans began to emigrate in hopes of increasing their economic opportunities. They knew they could find better jobs and a higher standard of living in the United States.

The overthrow of Allende in 1973 and the establishment of a military dictatorship led to a large exodus of Chileans. Pinochet was determined to rid the country of divisive elements. Chief among his targets were journalists, radical students, intellectuals, and other professionals. Many fled for their lives to Europe, other parts of Latin America, the United States, and Canada. The size of the group that came to the United States was small in comparison to those who emigrated to other countries. Some countries persuaded Pinochet to exile Chilean dissidents rather than imprison or kill them. The United States offered to take Chilean refugees under a program for so-called "political parolees."

Many of the refugees were ill-prepared for the transition to life in North America. They lacked employment, housing, or contacts with Chileans already here to ease their entry into the United States. Some were sent in the middle of winter to areas of heavy snow, for which their California-like climate had not prepared them. A number of churches responded to these needs. In one well-known case, an Irish priest, Father Chouchulain Moriarty, heard of the plight of the immigrants. He dedicated himself to assisting the newly arriving Chileans to adjust to American life. Father Moriarty established a program in the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in San Jose, California. New arrivals were housed in the church convent building, and helped to find jobs, secure permanent housing, and learn English. Because of the reputation of Father Moriarty's work, political parolees from all over California and as far away as the Midwest traveled to San Jose to become part of the program.

Throughout the Pinochet regime, Chileans continued to emigrate to the United States, for both political and economic reasons. Those who have come since 1990, when the military regime ended, are emigrating primarily for economic reasons. Though the Chilean economy is growing, there is still a large class of poor people in the country.

Beginning in 1988, Chilean exiles were allowed, and later encouraged, to return home. In that year President Pinochet decreed that all those in exile could return to Chile. After he came into office in 1990, President Aylwin established a generous program for Chileans who returned, including financial assistance and other benefits. A substantial number of those in exile did return, including some living in the United States, eager to reunite with their families and to be part of a more democratic Chile. In addition, Chilean Americans have been affected negatively by downturns in the U.S. economy. For this reason, some, especially those who have lost jobs in downsizing, decided to return to Chile. Many of the returning Chileans brought with them their children, who had been born abroad and were often not fluent in Spanish. There were so many such children that the Chilean government found it necessary to set up programs for "Spanish as a second language" in the schools.

Most of the Chilean American population has arrived during the past 25 years. As of 1990, the U.S. census indicated that there were about 61,465 persons of Chilean ancestry in the United States. About 55,681 of these had been born in Chile. Thus, less than one-tenth of all Chilean Americans were born here. The overwhelming majority are first-generation immigrants who retain close emotional ties to their country of origin. Many visit their families in Chile periodically or send their children there for vacations. A small percentage, especially academics and business people, spend some of their time in the United States and some in Chile, pursuing their careers on two continents.


Most Chileans who come to the United States settle in or around cities. They come from a highly urbanized country and find it compatible to settle in a metropolitan area. Cities provide the jobs they need and the opportunity to interact with other Chileans. They especially gravitate toward California, New York City, and Florida because of the large Spanish-speaking population in these areas. They know they will be able to find jobs where they can use their Spanish language and communicate with bosses. Furthermore, Chileans feel an emotional tie to states such as Florida, where there is a substantial Latin influence. By far, the largest number of Chilean Americans live in California. States with the next largest numbers of Chileans are, in order from greatest to fewest: New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas. Many settled in Canada, especially Toronto and Montreal, during the Pinochet regime. At that time, the Canadian government allowed them special entry visas for humanitarian reasons.

Acculturation and Assimilation

There are two major reasons why Chileans have come to the United States during the last 25 years. The first group, small in number, emigrated because of the political repression of the Pinochet regime. Many of these immigrants are of middle or upper class origin. A significant proportion of them arrived with advanced educations and well-developed skills. They had contacts with other Chilean exiles and a sense of identity from their shared commitment to a democratic Chile. After a period of adjustment, many of them were able to pursue skilled jobs or professions. Unfortunately, others, who lacked skills or whose professional certifications were not recognized in the United States, were forced to take low-level jobs in which they were unable to use their skills. Some had been politically active students or union leaders in Chile who did not enter the United States with easily transferrable skills.

Most immigrants fall into the second group. They come to the United States searching for economic opportunities. Many of these are poorer, with less education and fewer skills than the group of political exiles. They often find it necessary to take jobs at the lower end of the pay scale. A typical pattern is to find a job as a babysitter or in the construction industry, where fluency in English is of limited importance. As time permits, they attend English classes or get secretarial or technical training, eventually acquiring more desirable jobs. Chilean Americans work hard to secure education and training so as to better themselves.

Because Chile is far away and does not share borders with the United States, immigrants cannot simply cross a border to enter the country. They must save money and work hard to get here. Such enterprising immigrants often have high motivation and additional skills, as well as American relatives or other contacts. These facts ease their transition into the American economy.

Because they share the Spanish language, Chileans often interact with other Latinos in church, at work, and around the neighborhood. This frequently leads to friendships and sometimes to marriage. Chileans also have a high rate of intermarriage with other U.S. citizens, which is contributing to their assimilation into mainstream society. Although most Chilean Americans are eager to learn or improve their English, some find it more comfortable to live and work in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.

Chilean Americans find themselves in the position of being a minority within a minority. That is, Chileans make up a tiny part of the Latino population in the country, itself a minority group. Many Chileans feel quite separate from Central American or Caribbean people; they have never tasted Mexican food and their accents are quite different from Puerto Ricans. Yet the dominant white majority considers them all to be Latinos, making few distinctions. Indeed, most books about Latinos, such as Milton Meltzer's Hispanic Americans (1982), fail to discuss Chileans at all, focusing only on the larger Latino groups in the United States. Because Chilean Americans are such a small group numerically, most mainstream Americans do not know enough about Chileans to have well-defined ideas of how they differ from other Latinos. Thus, most discrimination that is specifically targeted to Chileans, as Chileans, comes from other South Americans who bring old grudges to the United States. In October, 1994, for example, Bolivians staged a protest at the performance of Bafochi, a Chilean ballet group, in Washington, D.C.

The Bolivians called the Chileans "thieves" and "pirates." They were objecting because some of the dances to be performed had originated in an area Bolivia lost to Chile during the War of the Pacific in the nineteenth century. To avoid open conflict during the performance, the ballet group omitted several controversial pieces.


Chileans have a reputation for being a friendly people and this tradition is maintained by Chilean Americans. According to a well-known folk song, "if you go to Chile, the country folk will come to greet you and you will see that Chileans love a friend from far away." Unlike certain other Latin countries, guests wait to be invited into the home. They usually greet the head of the family first to show respect. Visitors often spend time asking about the family, including the children.

When Chilean Americans come to the United States, they find the pattern of the regular work day not too different from their native country. Business people are accustomed to working from nine to five, perhaps staying a few hours extra to finish work. Although this has changed in the larger Chilean cities, many more Chileans are used to coming home for lunch hour than is true in the United States. Although some Chileans take a nap after lunch, the siesta is not as entrenched a tradition as it is in some other Latin American countries.

Chileans commonly eat four times a day. They have breakfast, a late lunch, tea at about five, and a late dinner. In Chile, lunch is typically the largest meal of the day. Afternoon tea is served in late afternoon around five or six o'clock. People eat sandwiches or, sometimes, cakes, and drink tea. Chile is one Latin country where tea is a more popular drink than coffee. Dinner is often eaten between eight-thirty and ten-thirty, but some Chilean Americans report they have, on occasion, left the table at two o'clock in the morning. Chilean Americans are often forced to change their eating patterns by the necessity of leaving for work early in the morning and taking coffee breaks at the times designated by their employers rather than by their traditions. Some Chileans are so poor that they can only afford one substantial meal a day. Chilean Americans from poor backgrounds often eat better in the United States, even when working at low-paying jobs, than they were able to do in Chile.


Chile's rich store of folklore, sayings, and supernatural beliefs is derived from its European and Indian past, as well as its relation to the mountains and the ocean. One saying, related to the water, is that the shrimp who falls asleep is carried away by the current. Tuesday (not Friday) the 13th is considered to be an unlucky day. One saying is that faraway loves are loves of idiots. Some traditional Chilean folk beliefs are identical to those in the United States. For example, Chileans also say that breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck.

Some believe that the spirits of the dead are responsible for strange noises. It is said that spirits of the dead will visit those who work late at night. Also, neighbors may say that someone who is suddenly lucky has entered into an agreement with the devil. Some of these ideas are more common in the Chilean countryside than in the cities. Though many Chileans and Chilean Americans repeat them, they do not always believe them.


The fishing industry is larger in Chile than in any other Latin American country except Peru. Seafood has long been an important part of the diet, with approximately 200 types of fish available. Fish is inexpensive, so it is eaten by almost all Chileans. The types of seafood they eat include mussels, scallops, clams, crabs, lobsters, abalone, and sea urchins. The conger eel is a national specialty; there are many ways to prepare it in both simple and elegant dishes. Chilean Americans adapt their seafood cooking to the varieties of fish and shellfish that are available in North America. They enjoy soups, stews, and seafood combinations.

Many traditional dishes contain beans and corn, reflecting the Indian heritage of the country. Most Chilean bean recipes call for porotos or cranberry beans. The climate of the country allows beans to grow during most of the year, so they are a natural for inclusion in many dishes. Chilean corn is somewhat different from that grown in the United States. In some Chilean varieties, the ears are much larger than their North American cousins. One very popular dish, porotos granados, contains beans, corn, squash, garlic, and onion. Many recipes, such as pastel de choclo (corn and meat pie), call for unripe corn. In this dish, ground corn, sprinkled with sugar before baking, replaces the upper crust found in meat pies made in the United States. Empanadas —pockets of dough filled with meat or cheese, onions, olives, raisins, hardboiled eggs, and spices that are baked or fried—are one of the favorite traditional foods of Chilean Americans. They are eaten as snacks or one course of a meal, and are a favorite treat for holidays. Humitas are made from grated corn, onions, and spices. Traditionally, these are wrapped in corn husks and cooked in boiling water.

Wine is a popular drink among Chileans. South of Santiago lies a stretch of Chile's central valley that is superb wine-growing country. The early Spaniards introduced vineyards to Chile so that they could grow wine for use in the Catholic mass. From the time when a French winegrower was imported to improve the wine, Chileans have used European methods to make wine and have won prizes for their specialties. Another alcoholic drink, also made from grapes, is called pisco. A favorite drink is pisco sour, in which pisco is served with lemon juice, sugar, beaten egg whites, and ice. The Chileans also use fermented grapes to make another popular drink called chica.


For Chileans, appearance is important. They make an effort to appear neat and clean. Chileans are generally not attracted to the casualness and, what some consider to be sloppiness, of dress in the United States. Even those who are poor make an effort to avoid wearing tattered clothing. Styles generally follow fashion trends set in Europe. Chileans tend to be more dressed up for the same event than people in the United States. For example, men usually go to restaurants in suits. Over time, Chilean Americans tend to become more relaxed in their dress, while still enjoying more formal dress. Sometimes conflicts arise between immigrants and their children, who wish to adopt the sloppy appearance of other teenagers.


The so-called "national dance" of Chile is the cueca, which depicts the courting behavior of the rooster and the hen. Characteristic of this dance are stamping and use of scarves. The man may use the scarf to pull the woman toward him, and she may use it to cover her face in a flirtatious manner. The cueca may be performed in formal attire or a more rural outfit. The formal, ballroom attire for men is based on the traditional dress of the Chilean cowboy. This consists of black pants, a colorful sash, white shirt, and a black bolero jacket. A waist-length, brightly colored, handwoven woolen poncho is worn over the bolero, or sometimes thrown over the shoulder. The man wears fringed leggings and high, pointed leather boots with large decorative spurs. He wears a flat, wide-brimmed straw or, sometimes, fancy leather hat. Women wear a straight black skirt with a slit from which can be seen layers and layers of white lace. She wears a white blouse, black bolero jacket, and a hat like her partner's.

Alternatively, the cueca may be performed in a folk outfit. In this version, the man wears rural work pants with a shirt open at the neck with the sleeves rolled up. He wears the traditional woven straw hat and boots or sandals, depending on what part of the country is being represented. As in the more formal outfit, the man will wear a short, colorful poncho. The woman wears a dress gathered at the waist with a round collar and lace at the cuffs. The dress may be plaid or flowered, with white lace underneath.

Chilean American performers dance along New York City's Fifth Avenue during the 1992 Hispanic Columbus Day Parade.
Chilean American performers dance along New York City's Fifth Avenue during the 1992 Hispanic Columbus Day Parade.

Another popular dance is the refalosa. In this dance, scarves are also used, but the typical movements are sliding, rather than stamping, as in the cueca. Other dance traditions in Chile are those originating on Easter Island that feature pelvic thrusting, and the skimming dances characteristic of the fishing villages of the area of Chiloe.

Chilean Americans enjoy watching and performing dances. In some cities there are dance groups where people get together periodically to enjoy their traditional dances.


Chilean Americans celebrate New Year's Eve with parties. On this night, as on most holidays, children are allowed to stay up as late as they wish. There is a tradition that it will be a lucky year if the first thing a person says in the New Year is "rabbit." New Year's Day in Chile falls in summer (because the country is south of the equator), so many families have a picnic or spend time at the beach.

Chileans celebrate Independence Day on September 18th. On that day in 1810, criollos (settlers born in Chile rather than Spain), began their struggle for independence from Spain and set up a government. In Chile fairs are held in cities and towns during the week before and the week after September 18th. People build booths with thatched roofs in which to sell food, exhibit crafts, and put on entertainment. In some parts of the United States, Chileans hold similar fairs on Independence Day. There is an annual Independence Day festival in northern Virginia, called ramada, referring to the branches that are used to make the booths of the leantos constructed for the celebration. Visitors to the fair enjoy traditional crafts, sing the national anthem, dance the cueca, listen to folk music from the Andes and other parts of the country, and eat plenty of empanadas.

Christmas is celebrated in Chile on December 25th, just as it is in the United States. Children and adults stay up late on Christmas Eve to eat a big family meal. Some people go to mass. At midnight everyone opens presents, including small children who have stayed up for the event. This means that kids are running around outside in the summer weather until four o'clock in the morning. Santa Claus is popular in Chile. As in the traditional U.S. outfit, he has a beard, but he wears the traditional folk dance outfit of Chile with open shirt, rolled-up sleeves, woolen socks, and sandals. Chilean Americans have, in general, kept the tradition of opening presents at midnight and allowing children to stay up. Most Chilean Americans also continue the tradition of a relaxed Christmas Day, with perhaps an outing.


Health in Chile has improved in the last 20 years, with falling infant mortality and longer life expectancy. As other diseases decline in importance, Chileans give more attention to heart disease and cancer. There do not appear to be any special diseases specific to Chileans. Many Chilean Americans believe in the effectiveness of herbal teas for a variety of illnesses. They call such teas "little waters."

For many years, health care in Chile was nationalized, so that many Chilean immigrants have experience with, and are comfortable in accepting, such care. However, recently, health care in Chile has become largely privatized. Like other Americans, Chilean Americans vary in the type and amount of health care coverage they possess, largely depending on whether they receive benefits from their employer.


Virtually all Chilean Americans speak Spanish, though some have come from parts of Chile where German, Italian, or another language was spoken in their homes. Their accent depends on social class and region of the country from which they came. Frequently, Chileans omit the "s" sound in words, and sometimes drop out the last syllable of a longer word. (In the greetings listed below, the "s" sound is retained, because it is used in conversation where there is reason to be formal.)

Chileans make great use of the suffix "-ita," a word-ending that literally means "little" but translates more accurately in this context as an indicator of familiarity. A friend named Norma may be referred to affectionately as Normita (nor- mee -tah"), literally meaning "little Norma."


Friends and family commonly greet each other with the abrazo (ah-bra-zoh). This is a handshake and hug, sometimes with a kiss on the right cheek. The abrazo is repeated upon parting. Other greetings include: Hola! Qué hubo? (oh-lah kay oo-boh)— How are you?; Cómo está? (koh-moh ess-tah)— How are you?; Gusto de verte ! (goo-stoh day vehrtay)—Nice to see you!; Buenos días ! (bway-nohs dee-ahs)—Good day!; Chao ! (chow)—Goodbye!. To express appreciation for their host's food, Chileans say: Es Rico ! (ess ree-koh)—It's delicious.

Family and Community Dynamics

Chileans have strong family ties. Traditionally, the father is the head of the family, but the mother makes many decisions within the home. Chilean women often speak out and take stands on both private and public issues. They have a tradition of being politically, as well as socially, active in their communities. In the United States they are an important part of the self-help and cultural groups that are active in many cities. Children are taught to give respect to their parents and the elderly. Young boys are typically given more freedom than girls. Teenagers are usually allowed to date by about age 16, with the emphasis on group activities. It is common for children to live at home until they marry. Even after they have families of their own, children often return home to spend Sundays and holidays with their parents.

Machismo, the cult of male superiority and dominance, is still a fact of life in Chile. However, in comparison to some other Latin countries, women have more opportunities. Social customs reflect fairly egalitarian treatment of the sexes. An increasing number of women work outside the home. The majority of these are domestics, but there are also teachers, secretaries, social workers, and other professionals. Women make up 30 percent of the work force. There is some opportunity for women to gain career advancement. In 1970, for example, a higher percentage of women who worked outside the home had technical and professional jobs than was true in the United States. As in other Latin countries, Chileans typically retain two last names; the first is from their father and the second from their mother.

Children frequently have two parties a year, one for their birthday and one on the day of the saint for whom they were named. Since many children in Chile are named Juan or Juana, St. John's Day is a big day for parties. Chilean children usually have fewer toys than the typical child raised in the United States. Children are more likely to receive gifts of candy than toys from their friends at birthday parties.


In Chile, baptisms are often performed when the child is about two months old. Godparents are chosen who agree to raise the child in the faith if the parents should die. At age eight, children take their First Communion. Another set of godparents may be added at this time; sometimes the child is allowed to choose them.


Chileans often have two marriage ceremonies, one civil and the other religious. These are frequently performed on different days, with the civil ceremony perhaps several days before the church service. At weddings, the bride traditionally keeps the groom waiting. Everyone arrives at the church except the bride, who will have someone drive her around the city until she is ready to appear. After a half hour or, perhaps, an hour, she arrives at the church. The bride wears white, but the groom seldom wears a tuxedo unless it is a high-society wedding. There is not usually a wedding party; the bride and groom go through the ceremony without attendants. The reception is often a sit-down meal.


Funerals are usually held sooner than is the practice in the United States, because embalming is not common. Wakes are held in the homes and the funerals, usually relatively brief, in churches. Because the country is so long, many relatives never reach a funeral, because of travel time.


Chile has one of the best-educated populations in Latin America, with a literacy rate of 94 percent for men and 93 percent for women. Eight years of education are free and compulsory. Chileans value learning and are proud of their educational system; they consider education to be a way to a better life. Parents often urge their children to complete their education before marrying. If their means are limited and they must choose between educating sons or daughters, sons are often chosen. Many Roman Catholic parents prefer to send their children to religious schools. Several thousand Chilean American students are pursuing degrees in higher education. Although they are enrolled in a wide variety of programs, two particularly popular fields are natural science and engineering. These fields are seen as leading to promising careers. In addition, students are attracted by the well-equipped laboratories and other technical apparatus available at universities in the United States.


Because such a high proportion of Chileans are Roman Catholic, most of those who emigrate to the United States are of this faith. The global nature of the church, with its shared beliefs and practices, eases the transition for a Catholic from Santiago to San Francisco or New York. Chileans find that, although the churches may look different and the congregation and priest may speak English, there are still the comfortable traditions, the same saints, candles, and order of the mass. Chileans often attend churches in which there are services in Spanish. Sometimes they organize local events especially attractive to other Chilean Catholics, such as those connected with patron saints.

Protestant immigrants often join the denominations in North America in which they had been active at home. Santiago has one of the world's largest Pentecostal churches, so many Chileans look for Pentecostal congregations in the United States. Many German Chileans join Baptist or Lutheran churches. Other Chileans join the Seventh Day Adventist church. Like the Roman Catholics, the Protestants often search for congregations where Spanish is used. A small group of Jewish Chileans have also come to the United States. Like the Roman Catholics, they have a worldwide sense of community with others who share the Jewish faith and traditions.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Many Chilean American immigrants were political exiles who, as a group, were well-educated and highly-skilled. After a short period of adjustment, most became highly successful professionals in a variety of fields. More recent immigrants, who did not benefit from the same educational background as their predecessors, have had to take low-paying jobs—such as babysitting, construction, and maintenance—where their Spanish does not create communication problems. Over time, however, many of these individuals have obtained training in English and some technical training as well, therefore improving their economic status.

Politics and Government

The party preferences of Chilean Americans vary with their socioeconomic status and background. Most Chileans of upper class or business backgrounds favor the Republican party. Chileans of lower class backgrounds and those who fled Chile because of Pinochet generally favor the Democratic Party. Since the majority of Chileans have arrived during the last ten or 15 years, when union membership in the United States was declining, and since they are not entrenched in manufacturing jobs, Chileans have not been especially active in union politics. Those who have lost their jobs often do not feel comfortable using unemployment benefits; they have a strong desire to support themselves. Second-generation Chilean Americans, born and raised in this country, are becoming more involved in the issues of domestic Latino politics. Few Chilean Americans have been active in the military, but this will change as more native-born children grow up.


Many Chileans are proud of and optimistic about their country of origin. When an airplane from another country lands in Santiago, the returning Chileans frequently applaud to express their pleasure at being back.

The Chilean American 49ers and their descendants took a strong interest in events in Chile. During the War of the Pacific, local organizations in California raised considerable money to support the Chilean war effort and help the needy back home. A century later, after the military coup, Chilean Americans took an active part in protesting the repressive actions of the Pinochet government. A number of writers in exile in the United States centered their work on themes related to political and social conditions in Chile. In addition, local groups raised money to help families of the "disappeared" Chilean citizens who simply vanished because Pinochet had decreed their death. One type of Chilean craft, the arpillera, is a wallhanging made with bits of cloth sewn together to create a picture. Beginning in 1974, women in Chile created arpilleras to show the cruelty of the Pinochet regime. These could not be sold openly in Chile, but some Americans help to sell them in the United States as a way of publicizing the human rights violations. Many local groups in the United States continue to raise funds for social programs in Chile, such as rural schools or children without homes.

Individual and Group Contributions

Chilean Americans have contributed to American life in many realms, including literature, the arts, science, social science, music, and business.


Many Chilean Americans are active in academic institutions. Cecilia Hidalgo (1941– ), the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in biochemistry in Chile, worked in research in Boston for many years before returning to South America. Arturo Valenzuela is the director of the Center of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. A political scientist, Dr. Valenzuela is an expert on the political system in Chile. Alfonso Gómez-Lobo (1940– ) is a philosophy professor, also at Georgetown University. His specialty is ancient Greek philosophy. Gómez-Lobo stated that his academic reputation helped him leave Chile after the coup.


Artistic expression is another strong tradition in Chilean culture. Many Chilean Americans contribute to art, sculpture, and photography in the United States.

Montserrat Castedo (1941– ), is an artist and tapestry maker. She places bits of colored fabric, some of which she dyes herself, on a percale background stretched across an easel. Castedo focuses on the theme of peace and harmony in nature. After many years of residence in the United States, she has now returned to live in Chile. However, she has retained her ties with the United States and her work was recently exhibited in the United States.

Author and illustrator Fernando Krahn (1935– ) lived in New York for several years, providing cartoons for the Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, Esquire and The Reporter. His books include Journeys of Sebastian, Hildegarde and Maximilian, and A Funny Friend from Heaven. He has also illustrated books for his Chilean wife, who is a writer. The couple now lives in Spain.

Raimundo Rubio (1956– ) describes himself as a contemporary, avant-garde painter. He uses surrealistic techniques, placing unrelated objects together in the same picture. He comes from a family of Chilean intellectuals; his father and brother are poets. Trained in Chile as a painter, Rubio came to the United States in 1979. Exhibits of his work have appeared in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Spain. In October, 1994, he opened a one-person show in New York.

Soledad Salame (1954– ), came to the United States in 1982. She does painting, sculpture, and print making. Her work is closely tied to nature and the environment. For example, she has created murals that include living plants.

The sculptor and painter who signs her works with the name Pía (1953– ) works mostly with a variety of types of wood, but also in stone. She views her work as closely connected to Easter Island, a small land mass with ancient traditions off the shore of Chile. Photographer Luis Salvatierra (1948– ), born in Valparaíso, came to the United States in 1974 because of the military coup. He spent considerable time documenting the Latino community in Washington, D.C. More recently, he has been translating Pablo Neruda's poetry into photography.


Chileans are also involved in business, some at the national and international level. Andrés Bande (1944– ) is a business executive who was born in Santiago. Currently, he is president of Ameritech International, a worldwide telecommunications company based in Chicago. Previously, he was executive vice president of US West International, a regional Bell company, which he reorganized and expanded. Bande has been active in organizations for Latinos, including a group that promotes excellence in education.


Chile has a long tradition of poetry and other types of artistic expression. Two Chilean poets, Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) and Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), have won Nobel prizes. In 1945 Gabriela Mistral was the first South American to win the prize. She was a teacher and lived for a time in Long Island, New York. Neruda is thought by many to be the greatest Spanish language poet in the twentieth century. Though neither of these were Chilean Americans, they have inspired a generation of writers who are.

Much of the work of Chilean American writers is concerned with the plight of those who suffered under the military rule of Pinochet. Indeed, many of the writers are themselves exiles, voluntarily or involuntarily, from the military regime. Isabel Allende (1942– ), whose diplomat father was a cousin of the ousted president, Salvador Allende, is a novelist. After the coup, she participated in getting information out of Chile about those whom Pinochet was torturing. Afterwards, fearing for her life, she fled the country, eventually moving to the United States in 1988. Her first novel, House of the Spirits, has been translated into 27 languages and released as a film in 1994. The novel is loosely autobiographical, drawing on her experiences of being raised by her grandfather and clairvoyant grandmother. Other novels include Of Love and Shadows and Eva Luna. She lives and writes in California.

Ariel Dorfman (1942– ) is a well-known author, journalist, and educator who has lived in exile from Chile for many years. His works include Last Song of Manuel Sendero, My House Is on Fire, Mascara, Hard Rain, and a play called Death and the Maiden. One of Dorfman's themes is the state of being in exile. He has been an outspoken critic of Pinochet.

Fernando Alegría (1918– ) is a poet and novelist, as well as a retired professor of Spanish American literature from Berkeley and Stanford University. His work reflects his commitment to his Chilean ancestry and to improving the lot of the poor and oppressed. As a young man, he wrote a book about Walt Whitman. One of his favorite themes is the hero; he published a book about the Mapuchan leader Lautaro (1943). His Allende: A Novel is a fictionalized biography of Salvador Allende. Chilean Spring is a fictionalized diary of a Chilean photographer killed after the 1973 coup. The Funhouse tells the story of a Latin American who came to the United States during the Vietnam War.

Writer and poet Marjorie Agosín grew up in Chile and now teaches literature at Wellesley College. Her writings express her concern about the social conditions of women and the political repression in Chile. Cecilia Vicuna is a young poet whose works are published by Grey Wolf Press in Minneapolis. Her work is highly mystical. Elena Castedo is an author who lives in Boston. Her book entitled Paradise was one of five finalists for the National Book Award in 1993.


Chileans in the United States continue a tradition called peña. This means getting together to play and listen to music, telling long, Chilean jokes, and enjoying food. For many years during the military regime of Pinochet, Violeta Parra, a well-known Chilean composer and singer, lived in a tent in Santiago and held a famous peña every weekend. She wanted Chileans to return to their traditional folk music and instruments, rather than merely to copy songs from the United States or other countries. Under her influence, many young musicians, some of whom later emigrated to the United States, began to play traditional Chilean folk music. They used instruments, such as the quena, a small Indian flute, and a stringed instrument from the Andes Mountains. In the United States, peña is sometimes held in a local restaurant on a certain evening of the week. Chileans bring their guitars and other instruments; everyone enjoys the singing and the fellowship.

One type of traditional Chilean folk music that is shared by Bolivia and Peru is Andean music, sometimes called altiplano, to indicate that it originated high in the mountains. Chilean-born Rene Iribarren plays Andean music in the United States with a group called Alborada, meaning dawn. Iribarren, who plays ten different instruments, is the composer for the group. They have released a recording called Melodies from the Highlands of South America.

Many Chileans also excel in classical music. Pianist Claudio Arrao (1903-1991) is known throughout the world. A child prodigy, Arrao played for the president of Chile when he was only six years old. Later, Arrao went to Germany to study, where he remained for a number of years. In 1941 he moved to New York City and lived there until his death. Arrao traveled throughout the world giving concerts. He is considered to be one of the most outstanding interpreters of Beethoven's piano music.

A number of other Chilean Americans are classical musicians. Juan Pablo Tzyuierdo is the conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Maximiliano Valdés is conductor of the Buffalo Hill Harmonic Orchestra in Buffalo, New York. Juan Orrego Salas is a composer and a teacher at the Indiana University school of music in Bloomington, Indiana. Roberto Díaz, who comes from a Chilean musical family, is first violist for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.



La Aurora del Sur.

This periodical (which means "The Dawn of the South") is a monthly magazine with a national circulation that provides information to the Chilean American community.

Contact: Ines Yanec, Editor.

Address: 3111 Los Feliz Blvd., Oficina 101, Los Angeles, California 90027-0563.

Telephone: (213) 660-7960.

Fax: (213) 660-7919.

Online: .


There are hundreds of radio and television stations that broadcast in Spanish, so it is easy for Chilean Americans to find news and information in their native tongue. Most radio and television stations avoid regular programming that is specific to Chileans, because the stations want to appeal to a broad range of their Spanish-speaking audience.

One of the most highly rated programs on Spanish language television is "Sabado Gigante," or Giant Saturday. This variety program includes games, contests, interviews, and brief documentary pieces. Although the program features items of interest to Spanish speakers from many countries, the host was born in Chile. He uses the name Don Francisco, but his real name is Mario Kreutzberber. He originally produced the program in Santiago, but it is now produced in Miami. This popular show can be seen on stations in the Univision cable network every Saturday evening from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., eastern standard time.

Organizations and Associations

Perhaps because large-scale immigration has occurred only recently, Chilean American organizations are local, rather than national. Many such groups are oriented toward helping other Chileans with their adjustment to the United States. Some groups raise money to send to Chile to support social or political causes there. Another focus is the sponsorship of dance groups or other cultural activities to educate children and teenagers about Chilean traditions.

San Martín Society.

This national, historical society was founded in 1977 to commemorate the activities of the brilliant military tactician and independence fighter, José de San Martín, in Chile, Argentina and Peru. The society gives awards for civic or institutional leadership. It also maintains a historical collection focused on the contributions of José de San Martín. Holdings include 1300 books, dissertations, microfilms, speeches pamphlets, and other documents. Services include a copying center. The collection is open to the public by written request.

Contact: Cristian Garcia-Godoy, President.

Address: P.O. Box 33, McLean, Virginia 22101-0033.

Telephone or fax: (703) 883-0950.

Museums and Research Centers

Embassy of Chile.

The Embassy provides information about Chilean culture, business opportunities, and travel to the country. The Embassy sponsors cultural events and facilitates contacts with Chileans.

Address: 1732 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036.

Telephone: (202) 785-1746.

Homer Babbidge Library.

Located at the University of Connecticut, the library has about 2500 volumes, including many rare books, about the history, literature, and politics of Chile from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Collections are open to the public. Services include copying and interlibrary loan.

Contact: Darlene Waller, Curator, Special Collections Department.

Address: Homer Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut 06269-1005.

Telephone: (203) 486-2524.

Fax: (203) 486-3593.

Organization of American States.

Includes exhibits of Chilean American artists and sculptors in its Art Museum of the Americas.

Contact: Belgica Rodriguez, Director.

Address: Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 363-6336.

Sources for Additional Study

Chilean Writers in Exile: Eight Short Novels, edited by Fernando Alegria. Trumansburg, New York: Crossing Press, 1982.

Eastmond, Marita. The Dilemmas of Exile: Chilean Refugees in the U.S.A. Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1997.

Faugsted, George Edward. The Chilenos in the California Gold Rush. San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1973.

Lopez, Carlos. Chilenos in California: A Study of the 1850 and 1860 Censuses. San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1973.

Military Rule in Chile: Dictatorship and Oppositions, edited by J. S. Valenzuela and A. Valenzuela. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Pike, F. B. Chile and the United States: 1880-1962. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

User Contributions:

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Mar 5, 2007 @ 10:10 am
bueno, just for my own knowledge, i am looking for information on chileans in northamerica because i am frist generation canadian of chilean desendensy, and i am very proud of being chilean and any thing that has to do with my heritage is important and interesting. do not want my child to looose out on our culture. even thought this information is from the united states it is very informative thank you
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Jun 6, 2007 @ 12:12 pm
I stumbled upon this exhaustive review of Chilean culture and Chilean's in the US. From what I have read, thanks for the sensitive and insightful piece.
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Oct 28, 2007 @ 12:12 pm
I would like to add that I am almost sure every major university in the US has Chilean faculty. And I mean Chileans who live in the US and not just visiting faculty or researchers. Chileans are present in all Ivy League institutions, all Carnegies higher education universities and colleges, top public universities, and some hold high positions in some important universities. Since I live in Washington DC, I would like to add that the University of Maryland, George Washington University, George Mason University, Gallaudet University, American University, John Hopkins University, among others universities have US-Chilean faculty. Due to the European influence many Chileans assimilate very quickly, but still most Chileans retain ties with Chile their whole life and perhaps this cold make them difficult to identify.
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Jan 7, 2008 @ 7:19 pm
This article was SO helpful
i love it
p.s yall should not put a fifty character minimum
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Oct 9, 2008 @ 8:20 pm
the article was very helpful for my report
"boring report"
p.s. what with min of 50
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Jul 25, 2009 @ 11:23 pm
I am a son of a exile from pinoche era. 9/11/73. Would like to know if there are any support groups.
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Nov 22, 2009 @ 7:19 pm
Congratulations to you. This is a wonderful article about my mother land. There is only one word wrong. The drink made with fermented grapes is called CHICHA no chica. Thank you.
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May 4, 2010 @ 3:03 am
kia ora ,

im wondering what the different type of traditional chile clothing are called . it has not been stated . this information would be very useful for me to know . :)
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Nov 16, 2010 @ 5:17 pm
My wife Liliana Hermosilla Rosenthal recently wrote a short article about her late Uncle Carlos Hermosilla Alvarez who was a major figure in the development of Chilean printmaking. He was a Professor of Art for over 40 years until the 1973 coup and was well known for his commitment to social justice as well as an accomplished artist. Anyone interested in reading this piece can obtain a copy by writing to

Joel Rosenthal
Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA
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Aug 4, 2014 @ 10:10 am
Hola!Qué hubo? I learned how to greet in Spanish with this article. My boyfriend´s mother is Chilean, and they are going to visit her homeland next week, so I wanted know more about that beautiful country. I searched for information and this is the first article that tell you EVERYTHING about Chile. Thank you!

Elizabeth Turner
Ron Potter´s girlfriend
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Jan 9, 2020 @ 9:09 am
A small side note: The cueca was actually legally recognized as the national dance. Whether people enjoy it or care about it is in question, but cueca urbana (city style cueca) saw a bit of a revival recently. The picture of the dancers in the parade shown here is of caporales, a dance that originated in Bolivia. It is danced in Chile, usually in the far north (norte grande), and you are starting to see it work its way into Santiago. Its most Chilean version is found in religious dances, in which the costumes and dance are modified to match Chilean religious rituals. I just wanted people (particularly students doing a report) that Bolivians will argue strongly that the dance shown here is theirs (which is true if you go by origin and not by practice). The more typical representation of Chilean dance, in folkloric ballet style, is the Chilean cueca huasa, in which performers dress in the stereotypical outfits of the huaso (in chamanto) and the china (in a flower-print dress). Like much of Latin America, if you are having a party, truth is you are more likely to find Chileans dancing a form of cumbia than anything else.

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