Chilean Culture

Core Concepts

  • Solidarity
  • Pride
  • Modesty
  • Hospitality
  • Loyalty

Chile is one of the longest countries in the world, encompassing a diverse set of landscapes and climates. Regional and geographical differences aside, many Chileans tend to believe their society is homogeneous. The Chilean Spanish language, Catholicism and the relative isolation of Chile from the rest of South America have all contributed to the unity of Chilean culture. With the reorganisation of the economy and politics under dictator Augusto Pinochet and the subsequent return of democracy, nearly every aspect of Chilean society has changed in the past 20 years. Traditional values are adapting to globalisation and social mobility has markedly increased. While family is still the bedrock of society, the prominence of family life has diminished slightly as Chileans relax some of their more conservative attitudes.

Ethnicity and Language

According to the CIA World Factbook (2016), 88.9% of the Chilean population is white or non-indigenous. This figure includes those who are of mixed European-indigenous descent (also known as ‘mestizos', although Chileans rarely use this term). Approximately 9.1% of Chileans are ‘mapuche’, which is the main indigenous population in Chile. Chileans often like to be thought of as a homogeneous society, largely because the majority of the population possesses mixed ancestry and thus shares ethnic heritage in one way or another. However, for some, there is a feeling that the emphasis on homogeneity fails to acknowledge the multi-ethnic nature of Chilean society. Indeed, indigenous rituals and respect for the natural world have impacted Chile's customs and traditions throughout history. Some indigenous communities may feel ignored because of such attitudes.

Despite ethnic differences, nearly all Chileans speak Spanish (99.5%), which is also the official language of the country. The Chilean dialect of the Spanish language has evolved to encompass numerous indigenous words from the Mapuche language as well as many chilenismos (Chilean slang). Due to this and other linguistic features, Chilean Spanish is quite characteristic and distinctive across South America (see ‘Verbal’ in Communication). Despite the country's geographic length and diversity, there is a relative absence of recognisable regional accents. The basis of accent distinctions is usually on differences among social classes. The national coverage of many Santiago-based radio and television programs also assists the standardisation of Chilean Spanish.

Social Stratification

Chilean society tends to be stratified according to quite distinct socioeconomic groups. Indeed, one's socioeconomic status is considered to be a major determinant of one's identity. The importance of social class is reflected in the various Chilean words used to describe the social position of someone. For example, ‘cuico’, ‘pituco’ and ‘esnob’ are often used to refer to the upper class, while ‘roto’, ‘ordinario’ and ‘flaite’ are used to describe the lower class.

Chilean society has experienced a significant change in the last five years with the arrival of immigrants from countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia (among others). Upon arriving in Chile, many of these migrants work in unskilled jobs or trades usually associated with the lower social class – such as cleaning, waitressing, domestic work and street vendors – despite having high levels of education. This migration has stressed the living conditions for many Chilean families already living in poverty, resulting in the emergence of a new social class – the middle-low class.

The interaction between social classes is usually fleeting, occurring mainly through workplaces such as a businessperson interacting with a maid or taxi driver. Various facets of society perpetuate social class distinctions. One example is marriage, whereby family pressures can prevent one from socialising or marrying those from a different social class. Another notable example is in education, whereby the quality of teaching is largely dependent on whether the institution is public or private. Those in the upper classes often send their children to private schools, which are often too expensive and inaccessible to the lower classes.

One's social class can often be discerned by one’s surname. For example, the Chilean expression “apellido vinoso” ("wine surname") refers to the select group of families that continue to have much influence over the country. Ethnicity may also be an indicator of one's socioeconomic class. The general pattern has seen those of darker skin to be more economically and socially disadvantaged. Typically, those of predominantly European or Middle Eastern heritage are in the middle or upper classes, while those of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage are in the lower class. Traditionally, social mobility is quite difficult in Chile. While this has changed with the advancement of Chile’s economy, many tend to stay within the same social class.

Geography and Space

Most of Chile's boundaries are marked by formidable natural barriers that isolate the country from the rest of South America. To the north, the arid Atacama Desert separates Chile from Peru while also surrounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and west. To the east, the tall Andes peaks make up the country's natural frontier with Bolivia and Argentina. The Andes mountain range constitutes a barrier between Chile and the rest of South America, which has diminished Chile's interactions with neighbouring countries quite significantly. With globalisation and the introduction of the internet, however, Chile has become more connected with its neighbours.

The vast majority of the population live in urban areas (89.5%), particularly in the central region.1 The capital city of Santiago is located in the central region of Chile and acts as the political, cultural and economic centre of the country. Santiago attracts most of the country’s internal migrants. Indeed, Santiago facilitates interaction between Chileans from different regions of the country that would normally not have contact due to the vast distance between their locations.

The layout of Chile's cities reflects social and class distinctions. Separation within Chilean cities by socioeconomic status has made residential areas quite different from one another. This generally manifests in contrast between ‘campamentos’ (‘tent cities' or ‘shanty towns') and the upper-class residential neighbourhoods, a differentiation which is most obvious in Santiago. Shanty towns are located within or on the outskirts of Chilean cities. These makeshift houses consist of one- or two-room cardboard and tin huts usually built by the residents themselves. Gradually, these shanty towns are being replaced with low-income housing with better facilities.

It is common to hear Santiaguinos (those from Santiago) claim that there is no substantial difference between them and people from outside the capital city. However, the perspective of those who are not Santiaguinos is quite different. Cultural differences become more pronounced the further one ventures from the capital. Those in the southern rural regions feel particularly disconnected from the rest of Chile. This is largely because much of the dominant culture is defined by the capital. At times, one may hear someone refer to an easily identifiable rural Chilean as a ‘huaso’ (‘cowboy') in a pejorative way. Nonetheless, there is minimal regional hostility or conflicting regional identities. This is mainly because one's socioeconomic status is considered more important than one’s geographic region of origin.

Military Rule (1973-1990)

In recent history (1973-1990), Chile was under an authoritarian dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. It was the longest period of authoritarian dictatorship in Chilean history, which began by eradicating all political opposition. This caused many Chileans to flee the country as political refugees and live in exile. Pinochet initially prohibited the exiles' return; however, growing protests in the 1980s compelled the government to ease restrictions. In the post-Pinochet period, restrictions were lifted and the government facilitated the return of exiles.

Life under the Pinochet regime presented many changes and challenges for the Chilean people. Although not all were directly affected by the dictatorship of Pinochet, the climate of fear had a significant impact on people’s behaviour. Interactions and socialisation on the street became less common and people became less open to conversing in public. Friends would meet in the home and the private sphere instead, while many others would fear such visits due to curfews. Moreover, television programs would frequently be interrupted by nationwide messages from Pinochet, which contained orders or general information for civilians, thus often reminding Chileans of the change in social conditions. Chile became a more individualistic society and social class distinctions were exacerbated. Moreover, inequality between socioeconomic classes grew, in part due to widespread unemployment, which consequently reduced the standard of living for those of the lower and middle classes.

In contemporary times, conversations about the military junta or investigations into  human rights abuses are likely to reveal the polarised attitudes within Chilean society. Indeed, much of Chilean society is divided between supporters and opponents of the former dictator. In heated debates, each will accuse the other of being ‘anti-patriotic'. In some sections of society – such as the pinochetistas (Pinochet supporters) among the upper class, those in the military, and some right-wing parts of the middle to lower class – there is an association between the Pinochet regime and economic stability and security. The death of Pinochet in 2006, which triggered street riots, celebrations and mourning, showed that Chile continues to be divided on such matters.

Solidarity and Changing Attitudes

Chileans are typically helpful and hospitable, at times going out of their way to help others. Indeed, many Chileans have a sense of solidarity and will assist each other in times of need. Moreover, it is expected that people will be reciprocal in their actions. Some consider the challenges posed by the Pinochet regime help fostered a sense of solidarity within the family or among close friends. This has expanded since the return of democracy, whereby new, wider forms of social solidarity have developed, especially in defence of the dictatorship's victims and support for the poor.

In more recent years, the frequent occurrence of natural disasters in Chile has also greatly contributed to the sense of solidarity among community members. For instance, many Chileans may set aside social, cultural and economic differences to assist each other. On a more local level, communities and families will often play a vital role in supporting their weakest members. This attitude is particularly noticeable in rural areas and the poorest urban boroughs such as campamentos.

Primarily influenced by Catholicism, Chileans tend to be conservative, modest and respectful towards authority. Indeed, Chileans are generally more reserved than their South American neighbours. In recent times, Chileans are becoming more relaxed about conservative attitudes and defiant towards conventions. This has been described as the Chilean ‘destape’ (‘taking off the lid') whereby Chileans are becoming more liberal in their outlook. However, this phenomenon is more prominent in the younger generation; the older generation tends to continue to cherish and uphold traditional values. In recent times, the most controversial social issues in Chile are abortion, divorce, the use of marijuana and homosexuality.

1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2016


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