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I’ve been an observer of Chilean culture for many years now, and observing someone else’s culture, when done right, reveals an awful lot about one’s own. Many foreigners complain about how hard it is to make real friends with Chileans. I just happen to have a theory on that regard. We, by definition, are outsiders. We are out of context, we have few or no social networks or obligations and, being the social beings that we humans tend to be, we reach out to others in search friendship and are perplexed when it is not reciprocated. Don’t take it to heart. It’s not that Chileans are not interested in you; it’s that they don’t have time. Their dance cards are all filled up.
I see it like this. It all begins with the “baby theory.” At the most basic level, human parents everywhere have a responsibility to keep their children safe and help them become adults. What changes however, is the job definition. Essential needs—food, shelter, safety, education, etc.—seem to be universally common, but the way of going about it can have a distinctly different focus.
A young couple from the US takes their new baby into their arms for the first time and knows that they must raise that child to be a responsible individual, someone who can stand on his or her own two feet and walk through this world with confidence and self-reliance. To be someone who can lend a hand, but who won’t ask for one. Someone who will work hard and live a productive life.
In Chile, indeed Latin America, however, those young parents welcome their wriggling infant into the fold and are charged with raising a responsible member of the group, someone who knows that the group is life’s safety net and that it comes with privileges and responsibilities. That they can stumble and the group will be there to break the fall. That what happens to one member of the group affects them all. That no one stands alone, nor would they want to.
Group loyalty is utterly important in Chile, and any adult will have concentric circles of participation in and responsibility toward the groups he or she has formed over the course of a lifetime.
Family comes first, of course. It is the inner circle, the core of one’s being, the nucleus of the group. And that comes with Sunday dinners (no excuses), inter-generational birthday parties til 2 AM, full-clan vacations, cousins as best friends, enormous weddings with all 500 members of the extensions of the extensions of the extended families of both bride and groom, and so on.
Then comes school. Children begin kindergarten (even pre-K) together and remain in the same group of 20 or 30 or 40 kids until they graduate together 13 years later. That’s thirteen years of birthday parties, class outings, shared trials, tribulations, and mutual personality shaping. They are not only painstakingly molded and tightly bonded, but their families are as well. And while they may or not be truly friends at the end, their lives are intertwined forever. Social networking par excellence—no Facebook required.
Then on to college. More group indoctrination. Everyone in the same degree program takes all the same courses in the same order from beginning to end. Monday 10 AM. Biology. Wednesday 4 PM, Intro to Physics. Friday 9PM, party at Pablo’s. Another tight group is formed.
And then marriage, an intersection of two social circles and the formation of a new one. Let the circle be unbroken. Life goes on. And that gringa friend… really nice, an interesting person… let’s get together sometime… but oh. Friday is my cousin’s birthday. Saturday? Sorry, my niece’s christening. On Sunday we always go to my grandmother’s house. Monday? I told my mother I’d go shopping with her. Tuesday? Getting together with friends from high school. Wednesday? Taking my uncle’s dog to the vet. Thursday? Parent-teacher night at my kids’ school. Friday? The whole family is going to the beach for the weekend.
See what I mean? Dance card’s full…