Chile does not mean chili! and other interesting facts

The hardest part of learning Spanish here is understanding it. After living in California I’ve grown accustomed to hearing Mexican and Central American Spanish. This…this is something else entirely. My host dad tells me I’m not alone: other Latin American countries can’t understand Chileans either (I think that’s supposed to make me feel better). Chileans are famous for speaking very quickly and swallowing (i.e., not pronouncing) most letters (this makes a phrase like “mas o menos” sound like “maomeno” (provided you can catch it in time, that is)). Although this can be very frustrating, it can be a good thing too–mastering Spanish in Chile means I’ll be fine wherever I go. Yay for motivation! :)

So…this page is dedicated to chilenismos, or Chilean slang, and other facts about Chilean culture and customs I find particularly cool (too many c’s?). Since it’ll constantly be updated as I learn new stuff, keep checking back every few days. Woo!

Edit (16/11/2012): I’ve added a whole bunch of stuff to this page. Most of the new information comes from a class I’ve been taking about Chile and its history. A big thanks to Professor Gabriel Matthey Correa–the most un-Chilean Chilean I’ve met–for sharing with us his love for Chile, it’s people and its culture.

Chilean culture, languages, and customs

Chile is:

A far-off country

  • Chile lies below the equator and reaches all the way down to the South Pole. It may not seem so far-off now–during daylight savings time Chile and the east coast of the U.S. are in the same time zone, which makes it seem much closer to home–but around the time of the “discovery” of the continent by Europeans, Chile was (is) effectively the farthest South American country from the continent of Europe (in terms of distance, not necessarily accessibility–e.g., boats usually passed Chile first before making their way up the west coast of South and Central America).

A tall and thin country

  • Chile’s length is around 4300 km (2700 mi), about the distance from San Francisco to New York.
  • Chile’s width averages 177 km (110 mi); its widest point cuts across the Atacama Desert

An island country

  • Not a literal island but a metaphorical one: its dramatic geography–in the north: the driest desert in the world (the Atacama Desert), in the south: antarctic glaciers, to the east: the longest continental mountain range in the world (the Andes), to the west: the Pacific Ocean–kept Chile isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of years. It’s no surprise then that this perpetual and innate isolation has marked the country’s character.
  • Imagine you’re standing on an island. Where else can you look but out? For centuries Chile has looked to the world outside its boundaries and this has changed the way Chileans see and understand Chile. According to my professor if you were to ask any Chilean a question about the country’s geography it’s likely that they will not know the answer. Just yesterday he was telling us how there are no classes about Chile taught in la Universidad de Chile (the University of Chile) that don’t focus on the country from a sociological or anthropological point of view. For example, there are no classes about the Chilean economy or Chilean politics or Chilean geography. Chileans know surprisingly little about Chile.

A country of introverts

  • Chile’s physical isolation has rooted itself deep in the Chilean psyche. Majority of the Chileans you’ll meet here are timid and introverted; it’s become a part of their national identity.
  • This introversion manifests itself in various ways. One of the more subtle signs is in how Chileans dress: they rarely wear brightly-colored clothing (especially in Santiago) in order to avoid standing out. One of my friends recently traveled to Brasil and the two things that stood out to her the most were 1) the colorful, vibrant clothing, and 2) all the extroverted personalities.

A country of mestizos

  • Chile is 80% mestizo (a mix of European and indigenous blood)
  • I mentioned in my post about the Mapuche, one of Chile’s ethnocultures, that despite being the overwhelming majority you rarely see a mestizo person representing Chile’s national identity. The type of people you see in commercials or on billboards are usually white and have blond hair and blue eyes.

An adolescent country

  • Chile’s independence movement began in 1810 with a junta but it wasn’t officially declared an independent republic until 1818.
  • In the grand scheme of things Chile is still a very young country and many believe that it hasn’t reached its full potential. It has complexes and insecurities; it always looks outwards–towards the U.S. or towards Europe–for inspiration and leadership, though this is beginning to change.

A small country

  • Chile has 17 million inhabitants (this is an approximation based on the 2002 census of 15.1 million people and the 2050 projection of 20.2 million people).
  • Compare this number to populations of several U.S. states: #1 California with about 37 million, #4 Florida with about 19 million; #5 Illinois with about 13 million.

A centralized country

  • Majority of the population lives in urban areas and a majority of that population lives in Santiago. Many (erroneously, in my opinion) believe that Santiago is Chile. Professor Matthey believes differently. He often says: “Salir de Santiago es entrar a Chile. To leave Santiago is to enter Chile.”
  • He also tells us to ask a Chilean which city they think is the geographic center of the country. Most, he asserts, will say it’s Santiago. It’s not.

Chile does not mean chili!

The country may be shaped like a chili pepper and the two words might sound ridiculously similar…but Chile ≠ chili! Possible theories of how Chile derived it’s name include:

  • a Native American word meaning “sea gulls”
  • the Mapuche (one of Chile’s indigenous groups) word for “where the land ends”
  • the Quechua word for “cold” or “snow”

Americano does not mean American!

Well, it does mean American…just not the kind you think. If people around here ask you where you’re from and you reply “soy americano/a” (I’m American), you’ll most likely get blank looks until you add, “de los estados unidos” (from the United States), after which they’ll probably find you presumptuous and ignorant. Fantastic! We really need more negative “American” stereotypes…

But what’s wrong with saying your American? Well, people south of the U.S. border have long since considered themselves americanos too, and rightly so: they are part of the North and South American continents after all.  So if we’re all American, how do we specify which part of the Americas we’re from? In Spanish, U.S. nationals are estadounidenses. The translation into English isn’t very graceful: “United Statesians”. Still, it’s better than saying “yo soy de los estados unidos“, which can be a mouthful.

Chile’s essence is in its genetic makeup

Professor Matthey has spent years creating a simple yet comprehensive list of characteristics that helps identify who Chileans are on a very basic and fundamental level. He breaks these characteristics into two groups: genes and axes. Here the term “gene” is used non-literally to refer to traits so strongly embedded in Chilean society and culture that they might as well be really passed down from one generation to the next. The term “axis” is defined in this context as a central idea explicitly or implicitly prevalent in Chilean culture that determines and guides the actions of its society.

It is important to note that these genes and axes, while still partially applicable to Chilean society today, are meant to highlight the evolution of Chilean culture from the moment Chile was recognized as Chile, if that makes any sense. In other words, not all the genes and axes are necessarily relevant today (though certain aspects of them might be). These characteristics originated around 1530, when Chile began to resemble a territory and solidified around the time Chile became an independent country (1810-1818).

Some genes innate to Chilean culture:

  • the colonial gene: despite being a sovereign nation for about two centuries, Chile continues to walk in the shadows of its colonial past. Chileans, to some degree, still lack a completely individual national identity. Chile, says Matthey, is a great copier: it is very good at imitating other countries and appropriating foreign/international styles and conventions for itself.
  • the familial gene: Chileans are very family-orientated. Even dating is taken very seriously. Young Chileans are encouraged to date and settle down at an early age (also, single women are a rare sight in Chilean society).
  • the machismo gene: like other Latin American countries Chile exudes machismo. This is evident in small daily exchanges–men opening doors for women or letting them board a bus first–to large-scale gender inequalities in politics and the work force. According to Matthey the concept of male domination became embedded in Chilean culture around the time of the “discovery” of Chile. You can look at this in two ways: the metaphorical rape of a virgin land or the literal rape of indigenous women. Either one (or both) can be said to have planted (no pun intended) this concept of machismo; the forced mixing of races and cultures gave rise to a paradigm shift in which the male called the shots.

Some axes that guide Chilean culture:

  • Politics (explicit): if you were to read any Chilean newspaper you will notice that majority of the reported news concerns politics followed closely by fútbol (soccer) and commerce.
  • Catholicism (explicit): Chile is a very religious country and many of society’s behaviors and actions are largely determined by Catholicism. The separation of church and state wasn’t defined until the new constitution in 1925. 1925! Divorce wasn’t legal in Chile until 2004. 2004!
  • Hidden matriarchy (implicit): so I just finished telling you that machismo is prevalent in Chile. Well, so is matriarchy. Both can coexist in Chilean society because they each occupy distinct spheres: machismo manifests itself in the public space (i.e., outside the boundaries of the home) while matriarchy manifests itself in the private space (i.e., within the boundaries of the home). Simply put: man dominates outside the house; woman dominates inside the house.
  • The unassumed double-origin/dual culture (implicit): Chile has not come to terms with its indigenous heritage. Although many Chileans are quick to point out the beauty of Chile’s ethnocultures–they often praise the Mapuche and the Aymara, for example–they do not like admitting the fact that their blood is also, to some extent, indigenous. Chile’s obsession with Europe and the U.S., determined by their island-like isolation, has caused them to overlook or neglect their dual culture heritage, which is a blend of European and indigenous ancestry.

¿De dónde eres? (Where are you from?)

There are quite a few linguistic and cultural differences between a heterogeneous country like the United States and a (more or less) homogeneous country like Chile, but the one I find the most interesting is explaining to people where I’m from–it’s not as easy as it seems.

In the context of the question ¿de dónde eres?, the verb ser (in the question it appears as the word eres) means “origin”. In English this would translate to  “from where did you originate?”. My first answer is “California” since I’ve grown up there. Usually this is enough, but more often than not I’m asked to clarify: “Where are you really from? Where’s your family from?” That’s when I bust out my “I-was-born-in-India-but-I-moved-to-California-when-I-was-two” explanation. What a complicated answer for such a simple question!

Having introduced myself to a lot of Chileans, I really want to know why they’re so surprised that I’m “American”. I have two theories (clearly I’ve had a lot of time to think about this):

  1. The stereotype of the blue-eyed, blonde, Caucasian “American” is still prevalent.
  2. They do believe I’m “American”, but they also know that I have to have come from somewhere else. I hypothesize that this is based on my skin color and “Indian” features.

I’m inclined to believe that what’s happening is theory #2. For the record, saying “I’m Indian” before saying I’m from California brings out more “oohs” and “aahs”. Such a great conversation starter lol.

The dictatorship

This is a complicated and sensitive topic, and I am by no means an expert. It’s one thing to read about the dictatorship in your upper-division Spanish literature class and quite another thing entirely to spend time in the country where it all happened.

Right now I’m in the process of writing a brief introduction to this time period. It’s a little hard to just “jump in” since many things require some sort of explanation or foundation. For example, I could tell you that in 1970, three years before the military coup d’état,  Salvador Allende was Chile’s first democratically elected Marxist president, but I’d have to remind you that there was a controversy about that election. Then I’d have to explain how elections in Chile work(ed), and from there…you get it. So please bear with me, I should have something soonish!


  • Bacán (ba-KAN) = cool
  • Weón (way-ON) = stupid/idiot (negative connotation); dude/friend (positive connotation)
  • Po (PO) = contraction of “pues” = well, so
  • Pasar la raja (pa-SAR la RA-ja) = to have a fantastic time
  • Carrete (ka-REY-te) = party
  • Cachai? (ka-CHAI) = do you understand?, get it?
  • Onces (ON-says) = tea time

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