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The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie

April 16, 1997

Chile's capital, Santiago, has been hot and dry for weeks and is choking in a white haze of exhaust and construction dust. It is a city of five million, in which it seems that everything is being torn down or built up, or is about to be. Recently I went with a Chilean friend to see the hole in the ground where, just before the summer vacation, an old and cherished house of his had stood. An expensive apartment building will now rise in its place. Of the five houses my friend has inhabited in his adult life, three have disappeared. This last one was old, small, spontaneous, and rented. Before he moved out he went through it from front to back, taking pictures every ten feet to record its charms. Already he had watched the street being destroyed as a row of balconied high-rises rose back-to-back across the way. In a larger sense he now regrets that so little of the city's five-hundred-year history has been preserved, and that Santiagans do not value their public spaces. He knows a poet who says it is the frequent earthquakes that have erased Santiagans' memory and taught them not to care.

But something else is happening here. Chileans feel that they may finally have emerged from their troubled past, and in their eagerness and relief they want to move quickly forward. It is Chile's successful economy that propels them: for about ten years now it has offered the poor a better sort of shantytown and the middle class a chance truly to succeed. Like modern Americans, Chileans now measure success in unintentional opposition to their communities -- with quiet cars and spacious houses and gardens walled in like little paradises. The wealthier new parts of Santiago have come to look like those of Los Angeles. I recently took a walk through one of them, and thought that the process works the other way, too -- that Los Angeles has come to look like Santiago. Whether in California or Chile, the ease of tree-shaded streets does not mask people's isolation, their overblown fear of crime, their burglar alarms and private patrols.

Chileans, of course, have more recent reasons than we to fear social collapse. Beneath their economic success lies an informal pact to put the country's near-fatal disagreements aside and not to dwell on the terrors and killings of the past. Even among the enfranchised middle and upper classes voter participation in the new democracy is low -- which may be a good thing, a move away from the all-inclusive politics of civil war. Children no longer fight in the schools over their parents' ideologies. Chilean politics have become so muted that even the government seems reluctant to engage in them. The current idea is to let technocrats rule. People want to get on with their lives, make money, and be left alone. This, more than the history of earthquakes, is why people do not care about the public spaces of Santiago: public space is political space, and Chileans have had enough of that for a while. What now seems to matter is shopping space.

In central Santiago several streets have been closed to cars and given to pedestrian shoppers. I went there not long ago to watch the scene, and found crowds so thick that walking through them was difficult. After a while I gave up, stood still, and let the thousands of people pass me by. They were up to more than shopping. Beyond the economic boom, the other big change in Santiago is that after years of repression the social lid has been pried off. The result is a sort of mass exuberance, a rediscovered appreciation for living that becomes visible when people congregate.

The exuberance often takes a sexual form. There are, for instance, new espresso bars in which the walls are made of mirrors and the employees are exclusively girls dressed in skimpy skirts. I had a cup of coffee in one and practiced the Chilean technique of appearing not to look. As an American I found the place hard to take seriously, one way or the other, but as a man I admit that the women of Santiago are difficult to disregard: many are elegant and beautiful, and they flaunt their sexuality openly. My Chilean friends say this openness is new, and I believe them.

Self-confidence, sexual or otherwise, is an essential part of Santiago's new character, but the proclamation of individuality is secondary to the middle-class pursuit of stability and employment. It gradually becomes obvious on the streets of Santiago, for example, that many of the neatly dressed young women, often walking together, are dressed identically, and that their tailored suits, white blouses, and slip-on shoes are in fact company uniforms. Imagine streets full of airline stewardesses. It's what middle class Chileans seem to want.

I heard a story of a two-person business operation in which the only secretary went to her only boss and asked him for a uniform. "How can you have a uniform when you are the only secretary?" the man asked in surprise. "Why don't you take a clothing allowance instead and buy whatever you like?" But she insisted, and when the man did not oblige her, she quit that job. This may seem strange, but I don't think that anyone here in Santiago would be surprised. The men, too, wear office uniforms -- dark suits and blazers and ties -- and the children parade around in perfect little English-school outfits. No doubt this fascination with the uniform has ties to Chile's centuries-long history of militarization, but it also has to do with the strivings of a new civilian society. By comparison with the Chile of old, this is a good thing.

William Langewiesche is a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly. His most recent book, Sahara Unveiled (1996), was featured in Atlantic Unbound's Books & Authors ("The Desert Extreme," August, 1996).

See the April 2 dispatch from Moscow, by Jeffrey Tayler.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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