I arrived in Santiago's gloomy winter from Buenos Aires in August 2017. It rained constantly in the first few days and I braved the cold, wet outdoors to capture a glimpse of the Chilean capital in the Plaza de Armas. I was sure in this bustling center I would be able to piece together a face to the city. In the Plaza de Armas I listened to an outdoor comedy skit, photographed a protest, and watched friendly matches of chess underneath the plaza gazebo.
While people watching, I was lead to continue building my collection of immigrant stories in Latin America. After trying a Chilean hot dog, I went to a street juice vendor to pick up some kiwi-orange juice. As the vendor prepared my drink I noticed her speaking to a coworker in Creole.
When I continued to explore the city I saw that there was a significant amount of Haitians living in Santiago. I spoke to my Chilean friends I was staying with and they confirmed that within the last few years Haitian immigrants have created a bigger community in Santiago, Chile.
With this tip, I started looking into where I could find the story I was looking for.
Just like in Buenos Aires, I discovered an immigrant population but I wanted to press further and connect with someone that might be able to tell me more about their experience in Latin America but even more so the Chilean capital.
Through many failed attempts at conversing and connecting with passerbys, I knew I had to be a little more committed and determined to get a story. My time in Chile was almost up, so I decided to go on facebook and place a call out in Haitian facebook groups and prayed my friendly, urgent tone wouldn't make anyone think this was some sort of scam.
To my surprise, a few responded. I couldn't get together with many because I was going to be leaving soon but I managed to come across Vanessa. She was unsure of agreeing to meet with someone she had only communicated with on the internet a day before but was still very willing to help me in my quest to learn more.
With no wifi, two train transfers and two buses, I somehow managed to meet up with her outside her family's apartment in the outskirts of Santiago. My brash call out made us both nervous upon meeting but after a few minutes we felt comfortable.
We sat outside in the building courtyard and talked while her niece ran around. On such short notice and with her friendly personality, I was grateful that she allowed me to learn about her experience as a Haitian immigrant in Chile.
Vanessa came to Chile on vacation with her mom only three years ago. They already had family in Santiago so they decided to stay. Vanessa and her family are only a few of the hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants that have found a home in Chile in recently. In the past three years alone around Vanessa's arrival, the amount of Haitians immigrating to Chile rose from around 13,000 to up around 100,000. As someone from the outside and being a first time tourist in Chile, I wondered why there were certain countries in Latin America that appealed to certain immigrants and why the surge in immigration to Chile. I brought this up with Vanessa and explained my curiosity as to what Chile would offer specifically to Haitians.
"I think in these past few years, Haitians have spoken positively about Chile, and it's encouraged more to migrate, not to mention the easy opportunities to find work. It's not only encouraged people to visit Chile, but to stay, and find a plethora of opportunities to grow and move forward in life", she explained.
While there are many Haitians that flocked to Chile for a better life, I wondered if there has been any controversy over the new demographic. Chileans mostly consider themselves as a "white" population. When asked about this Vanessa shook her head, "In my experience, I haven't really seen anything that felt uncomfortable", she said.
Vanessa's experience may have been different from other Haitian immigrants that have reported labor abuse, unsafe housing conditions, and discrimination. When I asked about any negative reactions that exist in Chile towards the bigger visibility of Haitian immigrants she shrugged, "it's like in any other country, there are some bad moments or people that are not used to seeing new faces in their country, it happens. But I personally haven't experienced that".
As I reflect on it now, she was right. The fear of immigrants coming in and changing things up could be a story told from almost any country. A recent survey done by the Chile's National Institute for human rights revealed that while Chileans believe that Haitians are good workers, 47% think they are taking jobs away from other Chileans and 68% of those surveyed said they want stricter controls on immigration. Kinda reminds me of a rhetoric I know.
"Although I haven't experienced any negative things, what I do see that is disappointing and challenging for Haitians migrating here is that their credentials or degrees they received in Haiti have no value here", she explained. "If I were a doctor in Haiti, I can't be a doctor in Chile. That I think is what makes life here difficult for Haitian immigrants, but I do believe this is changing now. The government is putting a plan in motion to facilitate life for Haitian professionals here."
With Haitians arriving in Chile in larger numbers in these past years and an increase in awareness of racial tensions and a outdated immigration system, it has been reported that at times assimilating to Chilean society can be hard for them (The Guardian & Miami Herald). Some Haitian immigrants have expressed disappointment after living here for some time. Others have expressed that they still don't find it worse than living in the Dominican Republic, where they were stripped of citizenship and even attacked. Some have claimed Chileans won't work with Haitians, and others say that there are Chileans that are interested to know about Haitian culture.
I wondered how assimilation had been for Vanessa.
As Vanessa's life developed in Chile, she established a relationship with churchgoers and got involved with a Christian church. "Chile has been a chapter of my life where I have been able to get to know myself as a woman. I have learned the value of work, being independent, being a business owner, and being part of acts of social work. Thanks to Chile, I have been able to integrate myself into communities and through this I have learned a lot [...]"
"I mean the only thing that has been particularly hard to get used to is the cold. There were also certain words or slang that I wasn't familiar with at first but you get to learn them and use them", she states. "I love that people are so simple and solitary." she expressed to me when asked about Chileans.
Before I left I had to ask her one last thing. "What do you like most about Chile?" I asked.
"I really like pastel de choclo", she smiled and we laughed together.
Assimilation and appreciation of a culture by way of corn cakes.