Chile: Culture and History

chile cultureChile is a country known for its culture, its history, and its unusual shape on the map. The South American nation of Chile comprises a narrow strip along the western coast of the continent. It has a population of over 17 million people, most of whom speak Spanish.

Chile is hard to miss when looking at a map. Hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the massive Andes Mountains on the other, Chile runs over 2600 miles from north to south but averages just 110 miles east to west. (That means its length is roughly the distance from Las Vegas to New York City, but its width is close to the distance from Philadelphia to New York City.)

Chile borders three other nations: Peru lies to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, and Argentina to the east. The capital city is Santiago. The current president is Michelle Bachelet, who is the first female president of the country.

Learning about the local culture can prepare you for travels or enhance the time you spend in Chile.

Chilean History

Prior to Spanish colonization in the 1500s, the northern area of Chile was ruled by the Incas. The Incas ruled the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. The southern area of what is now Chile was ruled by the Mapuche people. The Mapuche resisted efforts to rule them for centuries, and continue to this day as Chile’s largest indigenous group.

In 1540, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia started his takeover of the region. He founded the capital city of Santiago in 1541. Valdivia was later killed by his Mapuche captors following the Battle of Tucapel in 1553.

Chile objected to the usurpation of the Spanish throne by Napoleon’s brother Joseph in 1808. Chile seized the opportunity, during this political upheaval, to move towards self-rule within the Spanish kingdom. War broke out between loyalists and those who wanted independence. The date of the start of the fighting – September 18, 1810 – is celebrated as Independence Day. The loyalists lost. Chile declared its full independence from the Spanish throne, and the new nation finally emerged in 1818.

The following decades brought border battles with neighboring nations. The War of the Pacific was fought by Chile, Peru, and Bolivia from 1879-1883. Chile emerged victorious, depriving Bolivia of coastal lands. A subsequent civil war in 1891 transformed Chile into a parliamentary-style democracy.

The 20th century saw periods of growth interspersed with periods of political instability. Socialist Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown in 1973 and military dictator General Augusto Pinochet took power.

Today, Chile is stable and prosperous. The economy is largely service-based, but it also has significant industrial aspects (such as mining) and agricultural interests (such as wheat, corn, garlic, asparagus).

Chilean Culture

There are over 17 million Chileans. Nearly 89% of the Chilean population identifies as non-indigenous or white. The Mapuche, the largest indigenous group, makes up 9% of the population. Other indigenous groups include the Aymara, the Kaweskar, the Quechua, and the Yaghan peoples.

Spanish is spoken throughout the country, although indigenous languages also continue to be used as well. The national motto is in Spanish and it reads “Por la razón o la fuerza” – which means “By reason or force.” The national coat of arms depicts and a blue and red shield adorned with a white star. It is flanked by a condor on the right and a huemul, the rare Andean deer, on the left. Both wear crowns to symbolize Chile’s naval victories. A plume of red, white, and blue feathers sits atop the shield.

Chile is well-known internationally for its literature, particularly poetry. Chilean poets Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda both won the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1945 and 1971 respectively. Isabel Allende, niece to the late president Salvador Allende, is known for her novels, such as “House of the Spirits.” Three Chileans – Jorge Edwards, Gonzalo Rojas, and Nicanor Parra – have won the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, an important Spanish language literature award given by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

Dance is another aspect of Chilean culture. The national dance is the cueca. The movements of the dance are said to emulate those of a chicken and rooster, with the partners flirtatiously dancing in an imaginary circle. The couples do not touch, but they do move towards and away from each other. They also clap in time with the music and wave handkerchiefs in the air. Dancers typically wear traditional dress – the women in a flowered dress with an apron, the men in riding pants and a poncho.

Chilean cuisine fuses traditional Spanish elements with the local products available. Waves of immigrants – such as Italians and Germans – have also influenced the cuisine. The British immigrants left their mark on the culture with the tradition of tea time, called “onces” in Chile and served around six in the evening.

Chile is known for its wine and fish specialties. Marraqueta bread is popular, especially as served with butter, avocado, jam, cheese, or majar (a milk-based caramel). Charquicán is a stew originally made with llama meat that is now made with beef. The meat is mixed with potatoes, pumpkin, corn, and onion and served topped with a fried egg. Curanto is made of shellfish, meat, and vegetables that are cooked in a stone-lined hole in ground. Layers of ingredients are separated by rhubarb or fig leaves and laid atop the heated stones. Wet sacks are placed on top to contain the heat and cook the curanto.

Soccer is Chile’s most popular sport, and the game is enjoyed by people of all incomes. Chile hosted the 1962 FIFA World Cup. However, the national sport, declared in 1962, is rodeo. Chilean rodeo features two riders – or huasos – riding horses in laps in an effort to pin a calf. The crescent-shaped corral they ride in is called a medialuna. Rodeo is a beloved tradition, but it is very expensive to participate in. Huasos need horses, practice, equipment, and training – plus they must pay to enter competitions and seldom win cash prizes.

Skiiing is another popular pastime, with plenty of opportunities afforded by Chile’s mountainous landscape. Surfing is popular for most of the year, with the exception of the winter months of July and August.

With 61% of the population identifying as Catholic, Chile celebrates religious holidays in addition to national ones, like Independence Day. Easter and Christmas are significant. Christmas happens at the height of summer and it is often celebrated outdoors. Other holy days are cause for celebration, too. The Fiesta de la Tirana, on July 16th, and the Fiesta del Rosario de Andacollo, in late December, attracts tens of thousands of celebrants to their small towns. Both festivals are devoted to the Virgin Mary. Dancing, dining, cockfighting, and horse racing abound.

The Mapuche celebrate the advent of the new year according to their traditional calendar in June. It falls on the shortest day of the year in the Southern Hempishere, the Winter Solstice. The festival is called “we tripantu” in the Mapuche language. Folk music is played on traditional instruments like the horn (tructruca), the flute (pifilca), and the drum (cultrún). Celebrants bathe at midnight, perhaps in a river, to wash away the old year and begin the new one fresh and clean. Muday, an alcoholic drink made from fermented corn or wheat, is served, along with treats like sopapillas (fried pumpkin dumplings). Games like palín, similar to hockey and played with a leather ball, are played, and traditional dances like the purrún are enjoyed.

Despite its great length, the country of Chile, from north to south, is united through its culture and history.