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PARADISE FOUND, AND LOST
Odyssey in Chile
by Eva Krutein
Chapter 3 - Women's Torment
[Santiago, Chile, 1951]
On the first night at our newly-rented bungalow on the
outskirts of Santiago I lay in one bed together with Little Bear at
my side and Renate across our feet. With wide-open eyes I
listened to Manfred snoring in the other bed, hoping he wouldn't
wake Lilo at his side. Yet despite the crowdedness of our beds
my children were warm and safe.
How blessed we were to live under Chile's sun instead of
Hamburg's eternal rain! At every moment to gaze in reverence
at the gigantic, snow-covered Andes, at whose feet we lived
now! Surely, this was as close to paradise as we could ever
Suddenly I felt my bed sway. A hard jolt struck. Another,
even stronger shake followed. "Earthquake!" Manfred shouted
in the dark. "Run to the backyard!"
I jumped out of bed, snatched up Renate and dragged Little
Bear. She lost my hand. "Mami! Mami!" she cried. I turned and
grabbed her hand. We ran through the door into the garden.
"Sit down," Manfred said, his arm around Lilo's shoulder.
"Nothing can fall on us here. It can't last very long."
Trembling with fear and cold, we crouched on the grass. The
only light was a full moon. An aftershock jolted us. Nowhere to
turn, we huddled together for mutual support. Gradually, the
swaying of the ground began to lessen. The children still
whimpered and I put my arms around whomever I could reach
and tried to calm them, although I was trembling. My adored
Chile didn't even have firm ground!
Finally the terrible shaking of the earth stopped. "Nowhere
in the world is safe," I moaned. "That was like an air raid. The
same mortal terror."
"There's a difference. In the war we learned to hate the
people who launched the bombs. But an earthquake isn't human.
It has no malice. You can't hate nature."
"I was as scared as during the bombings."
"We have to get used to it. This probably won't be the last
earthquake." As if on call, the earth hit again. A loud crash
reverberated from the direction of the house. The children
screamed, clinging to us like climbers to rocks. I trembled like
a leaf on an aspen. I turned around. Our free-standing kitchen
had collapsed. We sat in shock.
After a while I realized that the earth had been still for along
time. The full moon shone undisturbed, stars glowed and snow
shimmered on the mountains.
Manfred got up first. We approached our caved-in kitchen,
which Manfred called a "fox hole," because it had no window.
Now it looked like a ruin in a ghost town. The corrugated iron
roof had fallen onto the sink, but the walls stood intact. The
two-burner gas stove still stood on top of the three suitcases we
used as a base. Leftover potato soup had splashed out of a pot
down to the floor. A cat I had never seen before lapped up the
"No big deal," Manfred said. "Let the cat clean up and let's
go to bed. I'll worry about the roof tomorrow."
Back in my crowded bed, it dawned on me that my
enthusiasm for Chile had been tested severely. Would I ever
learn to feel at home where the ground was unstable? I
In spite of a strong wind, Gloria Toro came to see how we
had survived last night's disaster. I already had a friend who was
concerned and ready to help! She'd brought two of her children
along, their age matching Little Bear's and Renate's: Pancholo
four, and Ana Maria, two. The four ran in the garden to play
ball. Lilo was at school.
I told Gloria about the collapse of the kitchen roof and
showed her how well Manfred had fixed it this morning
"You're lucky to have a handy man around," she said in her
high-pitched voice. "Tremors like last night happen quite often.
Real terremotos are rare."
"I hope I'll get used to it." I went to the kitchen for some
apple juice. Then we sat down on the sofa.
"I would have called you earlier, but we don't have a
telephone," I said.
"Neither do we."
"A doctor without a telephone?"
"Doctor or not - there are only a few lines in the suburbs.
Only bakeries get them. Everybody goes out to make calls.
"Are you happy here?" I hoped for a song of praise.
Her brows knit and two vertical lines between them appeared.
"The question is too general. I don't like to be a woman here,
that's for sure. We have no rights."
I was all ears. "Can you give me an example?"
"Men can do what they want. They own everything and don't
have to ask their wives for consent. In contrast, I can't even sell
a chair without Ricardo's permission. And until recently, I
couldn't even vote!"
Her emotion touched me. Was she just complaining about the
Chilean culture or did she have a problem with Ricardo? If our
friendship developed further she might tell me. "Why is Chile so
different?" I asked.
"It goes way back in history. Over four hundred years ago
the Spanish brought the concept of radical male domination to
this continent, and," — her voice rose a step in pitch — "it has
"I have the impression that Chilean men are chivalrous,
gallant and ready to flirt. They make me feel desired. I never
had this feeling in Germany."
With a bitter smile Gloria said, "That's only as long as you
aren't married to them."
I refilled our glasses. "How did you and Ricardo meet?"
A touch of smile smoothed out her face. "He attended the
university in Berlin, got his M.D. there. My father was one of
his professors. I met Ricardo at a university ball. We fell in love
with each other, and when I turned 18 we got married. Then we
moved to Chile and he got a job with the National Health
"You have so many children. You must have enormous
patience and strength."
"'Many children' here means ten or fifteen. We only have
five so far. Ricardo and I are against any form of birth control
because the Church forbids it. We are ready to have many more
"If ten to fifteen are the rule, you have quite a way to go."
Emphatically she put her glass down. "Be that as it may,
there are many things that compensate for the absence of
women's rights. For example, the Chileans' great love for
children. The kids are carried, hugged and kissed a lot, and
that's why they are so amiable as adults. What mother would
object to that?"
I smiled with relief. It felt good to hear Chilean life praised..
But it was time to discuss another issue. "Manfred is reading job
"Ricardo could help him with his cunas. Connections."
"But Manfred is an engineer, not a physician."
"That makes no difference. It's all a matter of cunas."
Skeptically, I shook my head. "There are lots of strange
things here." I pointed out the window across the street. "Do
you see the vacant lot? Some people live there in that windowless shack with lots of children. The pregnant mother washes
clothes by hand under an outdoor faucet and the little children
run around naked from the navel down although it's 50 degrees
After a glance at them Gloria turned back to me. "These
people are extremely poor and we call them rotos, the tattered
because of their ragged clothes. The mother lets the smaller
children run around half naked because she can't afford diapers."
I listened to her account of yet another social problem. "The man
of the roto family usually is an unskilled worker and terribly underpaid. Much of the little money he makes he spends for
alcohol. To feed her kids the mother washes other people's
"My first impression of Chilean women was of elegant,
flirting idlers. Now I see another extreme."
"And people like you and me live between the extremes."
"How many are rotos?"
"Too many. The tragedy is that the roto will always be a
roto. They'll stay in their class, no matter how hard they try to
get out of their misery. They can't get an education. The
children have to go out and make money somehow. They're
broken from birth."
"As refugees after the war , we all lived in poverty," I said .
"But we had a good education and the government made every
effort to get us out of the misery."
"Here, the government is made up by the upper class. They
keep the poor from going to school to have more power over
"So, education is the clue." I felt a deep sympathy for the
rotos. A pickup truck with the label "Compan a de Electricidad"
stopped in front of the vacant lot across the street.
"What's the electric company doing over there?" I asked.
Gloria glanced across the street. With a bitter smile she said,
"Cutting the poor family's access to electricity."
"The squatters' shacks have no plumbing and no electricity.
Can you see the cable from the shack to the power lines on the
street? To light their miserable interior they run clandestine
cables from the power lines. Once in a while inspectors drive
through the streets and destroy the cables. They can't collect
fines because the rotos have no money."
"And then the poor sit in the dark?"
"Not for long. As soon as the inspector is out of sight, the
rotos hook up another cable." She glanced at her wrist watch and
got up. "I have to go. Tell Manfredo to ask Ricardo to help him
get a job."
We collected the children from the backyard. I thanked her
for her visit, hugged her, kissed Pancholo and Ana Maria and
accompanied them through the tiny front yard.
The electric company's truck was gone. In the evening I saw
the washer woman's husband and one of his sons hooking again
a cable to the power lines. I smiled. I would do that too if I had
to live in poverty. I'd always be on their side, I told myself.
My support had to be halved, I decided, when on a late
Friday afternoon I saw the washer woman's husband coming
home, staggering to her as she was rubbing clothes on her
washboard. Shouting, he pulled her arm, she resisted, pointing
to her wash. He beat her and chased her to their shack. Holding
my breath, it dawned on me that he was going to crown his
delirium with a sex act that would give satisfaction to him and
pain and nausea to her. My heart went out to her. Yet I felt
anger and disgust for the man. I remembered Gloria saying that
the rotos had to stay this way all their lives. What in the world
was wrong with Chile?