There is an old Chilean saying that ‘Nothing ever happens in Chile’. Since Pinochet's coup that is no longer tenable, although it would appear that in the Chiloé archipelago, 1100 kilometers to the south of Santiago, the time has largely stood still. I visited this group of islands over a period of seven years and lived there without electricity, hot running water or health care. It is a primitive life, rich in myths about the constant struggle with the sea and land. Still, it is an open question how long this lifestyle will continue to exist. With the arrival of new technologies, the development of tourism and salmon farms economic changes are inescapable – and with them the sapping of centuries-old social structures and cultural traditions. I recorded the Chilotes while that was still possible. The result is an account of a people who believe in ghost ships, witches, God, and the power of community.
In 1974, I was six. I was in Belgium and I had never heard words such as “exile,” “torture,” “dictatorship,” “junta,” or “desaparecido.” My mother had a pupil, Pilar, a Chilean girl who came to live in our small industrial suburb with her family to escape the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power in a military coup in 1973. Everything about her was unfamiliar to me: her language, why she had to leave her country…even her name. I imagined other stories, other lands, and other people, images that stayed with me for a long time. Years later, when I was in my early thirties, I came across an article about Chile. I was surprised to see that the country looked nothing like I had imagined. I decided it was time to see it for myself.
Today, Chile is a democracy again, but it has not returned to pre-Pinochet politics or the left-leaning government of deposed President Salvador Allende, who was killed in the 1973 coup. The country is still heavily privatized, and the wealth is in the hands of a few big families and landowners mostly located in the Central Valley. Chile is still trying to reconcile with its past; at the same time, it is moving forward. In January 2006, it elected its first female president; and in 2004, in a highly conservative country, a law authorizing divorce was passed.
In 2002, I set off to explore the country for the first time. After three weeks, I ended up on an island called Chiloé. When the 18-meter tower of the church of Chonchi fell on my rental car, I was rescued by some Chilotes and adopted by a family. I ended up returning again and again.
Chiloé is an archipelago in what is called the tenth region of Chile, approximately 1,100 kilometers south of Santiago. The first Spanish colonists came to Chiloé in the mid-Sixteenth century and lived in peace with the island’s native Chono and Huilliche people. Jesuits from Peru arrived in the 17th Century, built more than 200 schools and churches. The churches are an important part of Chiloé’s distinct history and remain the center of the island’s religious and social life. Throughout its history, the island has remained isolated from the mainland. The Spanish even continued to rule Chiloé for eight years after Chile had declared its independence in 1818.
The isolation of Chiloé has created a strong sense of identity, kinship, and community. The island has developed its own mythology and culture, reflecting the constant struggle with the land and the sea. It is believed that Chiloé was created after a fight between Caicai-vilu, the evil water goddess, and Tenten-vilu, the good land goddess. The small village of Quicaví, on the other hand, is said to be the place where witches gather and transform into birds. Traditional tales are filled with creatures with names such as La Pincoya, El Trauco, or El Caleuche—a ghost ship with beautiful lights, playing music and navigating through the fog with its crew of drowned sailors.
Change has always come slowly to Chiloé. But today, some fear that the island’s mystique will soon be lost. With the arrival of electricity, radio, television, and running water in some rural communities, Chilotes are beginning to see changes in their economy and their personal relationships. Road-building, logging, and tourism, combined with the international salmon industry’s contamination of what were once some of the clearest waters on the planet, have slowly consumed Chiloé’s solitude and traditional way of life. The government has also been trying to build a bridge to connect Chiloé to the mainland. If constructed, it would increase tourism, as well as business and investment opportunities. But many fear this would destroy the island’s culture and tax its natural resources. They feel a bridge would mainly benefit the salmon industry’s need to truck fish to the mainland. What is certain is that the lives of Chilotes would change forever. This is why I wanted to collect stories of a way of life that may soon disappear.
There is tremendous beauty in this life connected to nature, tradition, and community, but it is also a life of hardships. In many rural communities, there is no hot water, no doctor, and only a few simple grocery stores. On the small islands, a few people have cars and most ride horses. On the other hand, more and more people have cell phones nowadays, though they might not have electricity to charge them. In some places there is no high school, so the children have to go to boarding school on a different island. People survive through farming, a little fishing, and collecting seaweed. The only jobs are found at salmon factories or in the tourism industry. When they can, young people leave for the capital of Chiloé, Castro, or Puerto Montt. When women find jobs on the main island, they often have to leave their children behind with the grandparents.
It is sometimes hard for economically impoverished people to see the value of their heritage. Renovating an ancestral wooden house might not be a priority when it is much cheaper to build a new one out of corrugated steel. Someone who can hardly make ends meet doesn’t think about deforestation when he or she needs firewood. Some modernization could make life a little easier for Chilotes; the challenge is to make a transition towards modernization while keeping tradition and identity alive.
I have been to Chiloé seven times. I spent a lot of time with my friends, talking, visiting people, looking at the rain, sometimes hardly moving at all, and constantly eating. I took numerous buses and boats, I missed others. I was attacked by birds; danced with local borrachos, or drunks; fought armies of insects; and listened to the Roman Catholic versions of Simon & Garfunkel songs at mass. I even attempted to make some "Belgian" food—nothing too exotic, just simple mashed potatoes and carrots. It was still too radical…only my friend’s son and myself ate it…and then it went to the pigs!
My head was going to explode with Spanish words my mouth could not seem to pronounce, and sometimes I found myself trying to explain things I thought were obvious. One day we were watching the news on a five-by-seven-inch, black-and-white television when they announced that someone had proposed renaming a street in Santiago after Pinochet. I looked around and nobody really seemed to care.
I tried to be in the present and absorb everything I saw, experienced, and felt. Bits of things speak to us; others get lost, never to reach us. I left Chiloé with my handmade woolen shoes, my dried mint, oregano, and at least 5 kilos of fresh garlic. I left a big bag of potatoes that would not fit in my backpack. My legs hurt a little from horse riding, and my nose was peeling because of sunburn.
These are the stories of an island that believes in ghost ships, witches, God, and the power of community. Chiloé is a land of rainbows and potatoes—a place where church towers help fishermen come home.