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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 come.

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 spilled soup.

"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 shuddered.

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. That's Chile."

"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 never changed."

"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 Insurance."

"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 children."

"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 ads."

"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 outside."

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 clothes."

"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 them."

"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."

"Why that?"

"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?

from PARADISE FOUND, AND LOST Odyssey in Chile
© 1994, Eva Krutein

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