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People, Language & Religion


To a traveller arriving in Santiago from Lima, Chileans will in general seem more Latin European-looking than Peruvians. By contrast, to a visitor arriving from Buenos Aires, certain native American features will seem apparent in large numbers of Chileans in contrast to Argentines. These differing perspectives can be explained by tracing the distinctive historical roots of the Chilean people.

The Spaniards who settled in the pleasant Central Valley of what is now Chile beginning in the late sixteenth century found no rich lodes of gold or silver to exploit, and therefore saw no need for employing masses of indigenous forced labourers such as those who were put to work in the Andean highlands and in the mines of Mexico. Although copper mining became an important part of the late colonial economy, even the most successful of operations employed no more than a few salaried workers. Settlers took to developing the agricultural potential of the land, which, given Chile's climate, was well suited for growing the crops they knew from the Old World. This seasonal form of farming was different from that practiced in semitropical plantations in that it required few workers except during the harvest. As a result, the Spanish settlers in Chile did not seek to force large numbers of native Americans to toil for them, and they had little use for slaves. Relatively few enslaved Africans were brought into Chile and slavery was abolished soon after the country declared its independence from Spain in 1818.

The Spaniards encountered fierce resistance to their occupation efforts from one of the main indigenous groups, the Araucanians, who lived in the south-central part of the country. The settlers managed to take control of the land down to the Río Bío-Bío and to establish strongholds farther south, but throughout the colonial period the area that is now Chile consisted of two distinct nations: one a poor outpost of the Spanish Empire and the other an independent territory, Arauco, occupied by the Araucanians, whose territory consisted of most of south-central Chile between the Río Bío-Bío and the coastal areas around Temuco. By the end of the colonial period, the Araucanian territories had been reduced, but they had not been fully incorporated into Spanish rule. The indigenous wars lasted for more than three centuries, with a final skirmish in 1882.

Although warfare and the diseases brought by the Spaniards decimated the native population, Spain found it necessary to keep sending soldiers to protect its distant colony. They came from all regions of Spain, including the Basque country, and many of them ended up settling in Chile. The combination of an economy based on temperate-zone agriculture, native American resistance to Spanish occupation, and a continuous influx of Spaniards from the midsixteenth century to the end of the colonial period defined the main body of the Chilean population--a mixture of native American and Spanish blood, but one in which the Spanish element is greater than in the other Andean mestizo populations.

During the nineteenth century, the newly independent government sought to stimulate European immigration. Beginning in 1845, it had some success in attracting primarily German migrants to the Chilean south, principally to the lake district. For this reason, that area of the country still shows a German influence in its architecture and cuisine, and German (peppered with archaic expressions and intonations) is still spoken by some descendants of these migrants. People from England and Scotland also came to Chile, and some established export-import businesses of the kind that the Spanish crown previously had kept at bay. Other European immigrants, especially northern Italians, French, Swiss, and Croats, came at the end of the nineteenth century. More Spaniards and Italians, East European Jews, and mainly Christian Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians came in the decades before World War II. Many of these immigrants became prominent entrepreneurs or professionals, and their numbers never exceeded 10 percent of the total population at any given time. Thus, in contrast to Argentina, whose population was transformed around the turn of the century by numerous European immigrants, especially Italians, the Chilean population continued to be defined by the original Spanish and native American mixture. Acculturation was fairly rapid for all immigrant groups. Because second-generation residents saw themselves primarily as Chileans, ethnic identities had little impact on national society.

Chileans of all colour gradations between the fair northern European and the darker native American complexion can be found, although most have brown hair or dark brown hair and brown eyes. There have been no really salient racial distinctions affecting daily life and politics in Chile, but there is unquestionably a strong correlation between high socioeconomic status and light skin.

The social definition of who is a native has not depended so much on phenotypical characteristics as on cultural ones. This means that Chileans generally have considered someone to be a native only if, in addition to native American features, he or she has an indigenous last name, wears native clothing, speak a native language, or resides in a native community. Consequently, the native Americans who wish to assimilate fully into Chilean society often take Spanish surnames after moving out of reservations.

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