Elena Porten:: Chile
I arrived in Linares, Chile on January 16th, the eve before Chile held its presidential elections. A momentous shift in Chile’s political administration took place the following day as the candidate, a Harvard graduate and businessman, from the conservative right, was elected into office. Since the dictatorship of Pinochet, Chile has maintained a center-leftist coalition called the Concertación, and this recent election marked the first change in 20 years. For some Chileans, this is an exciting and refreshing juncture, for others, it is a suspicious change that feels uncomfortably similar to Pinochet’s conservative party. Either way, my first full day in Linares was filled with honking horns, celebratory smiles, and music in the streets, and it was powerful to watch a thriving and functioning democracy of people cast their votes - generations of women holding hands, marching to the ballet box, and freely expressing their opinions in a country that experienced 16 years of dictatorship. The elected President, Piñera, is Chile’s third richest man, owning a TV channel, an international airline, and a national Fútbol team, among others, and it is disputed among his opponents that his billionaire wealth is not a healthy mix in Chilean politics. Fascinated by politics, and as an outsider, I’m excited to be here for the transition and the sequence of opinions that will surely follow.
Back to Linares. When I arrived I was welcomed-in by a smiling family of six, who live on the outskirts of town; their house is bordered by blueberry and agricultural fields on one side, and a crowded and active neighborhood on the other. It took me a while to get comfortable with the unfamiliar idioms of Chilean Spanish, and it has become a daily routine to study them, but my host-family was relaxed and everso gracious. The Chileans are very clam and light-hearted, and I immediately felt comfortable in my new home. Now, it has become customary to return home for almuerzo (lunch) everyday in a collectivo (a 50-cent shared taxi service), and eat “once” (dinner) together every night as a family. My host-parents are hard-working laborers, working construction and picking fruit everyday. Last weekend I got to work in the fruit fields with 75 other women, who make $20 tops a day. It was interesting to gain an insight into the hard work they do day-in and day-out, picking products that will all be exported. Located in the central valley, in the heart of Chile’s fertile land, Linares is surrounded by fields of every type of fruit, corn, wheat, rice, flowers and much more. The central industry here is transparently dependent on foreign demand and cheap labor. This brings me to my internship and scope of work.
Yuni and myself are both in Linares working with a social organization called Caritas. Briefly, Caritas is an International Catholic Organization that focuses on working with and providing opportunities and services to the most marginalized and poor communities. Here in Linares they work in close connection with the Chilean Government, where the majority of the funds come from. One interesting thing about Chile and working with Caritas is how integrated the Catholic Church and the Government are. Collaborating together on every social service, these two forces are constantly at work in the Caritas office. The first two weeks in Linares we received a full and broad introduction to each program, employee, and project. We spent the mornings conversing with program coordinators, and frequently went into the “terreno” during the afternoons. A few of their projects include, housing for children who are victims of abuse in their homes, micro-loans for small businesses, job-training for unemployed youth, and cooperatives for temporary fruit pickers. One of my favorite days “in the field” was spent cultivating honey from a bee farm with two families and a Caritas employee. The honey project provides families, that have no reliable income and who are considered to be below the poverty line, with the necessary equipment and information needed for a bee-farm. For example, this family was able to harvest enough honey to be sold in a small roadside stand to keep them going financially throughout the year.
Although we’ve visited and experienced many programs, the one that I have chosen to focus my project on is working with the “Temporeras”, the temporary fruit pickers. Currently working on a project to organize the women into groups and unions, Caritas intention is to help educate the women on both their legal and human rights as fruit pickers. Basic rights, such as the right to a bathroom, a lunch-break, and cold water, and a living wage, are not recognized in most companies here; the workers voices are not respected nor heard. Exporting all of its products to places like the United States and Europe, Chile boasts its open market, yet the repercussions felt in the field are devastating. For the next two months my intention is to work with Hermana Fuesanta (the program coordinator), record the stories and experiences of these women, and help to compile the information into a pamphlet. The days in Linares feel comfortable and routine, as if I was heading to and from my house and office in Seattle. Mobility is smooth, and I enjoy drinking Nescafe with a spoon-full of sugar every morning in Caritas, watching goofy reality shows in Spanish with my family, and taking public transportation wherever I go. March will come fast, and so with a full schedule, I’m out.
I recently went to a blueberry Packing Plant outside of Linares. I arrived in a truck overflowing with blueberry crates with Don Jorge, the owner of the farm, and Don Luis, the boss responsible for the Plant, greeted me. Before entering the giant box refrigerator, aka the Plant, Don Luis brought me to the sinks and handed over some required gear, a hairnet and a long white laboratory jacket. With a clipboard in hand, I felt very official standing with the smiley boss who somehow kept changing the flow of my questions back to the United States. No, unfortunately I do not know anyone famous.
Inside, it was 30 degrees cooler, and a long conveyer belt filled with blueberries moved slowly, stretching across the warehouse. About 25 people worked methodically, standing under florescent light bulbs with their hands emerged in blueberries and their eyes focused on anything unsuitable for exportation. Moving systematic yet careful, their hands threw out damaged, green, and overly ripe berries. The final product looked like something I would buy in the United States; small plastic cartons with labels written in English. The scene was quiet and sterile, and what interested me was that the workers were ALL women, minus of course, the boss who stood next to me proud of the production unfolding before our eyes.
Women dominate the fruit industry here in Chile. The majority of temporary fruit pickers and workers in packing and processing plants are women, women of every age. After asking several people in the industry including the bosses (always male) and the laborers, why there were more female workers, I continually received this answer: because women have more delicate hands and they handle the fruit with more care. I find this answer very interesting, because although it may carry some truth, its underlying tone bears a hint of gender stereotyping. Do women really have an innate capacity to handle fruit with more care, while men are better at holding management and supervisor positions, or has this concept of gender abilities been socially constructed within a patriarchal society? When the answer comes from an authority figure in such a matter-of-fact response, it’s easy to get sucked in, accepting what is given to you. Yet I know that when I dig a bit dipper, pulling back the layers of social structures, the reality of women in fruit picking industry is much more complicated.
Women that work in the fruit fields or packing plants work long and hard days doing manual labor that lasts only 3-4 months during the fruit season. Their work is temporary and insecure, dependent on market demand, high yields, and seasonal fruit. Their wage is frequently at or below minimum wage; an earning that is not sufficient for financial independency, requiring them to either work two jobs or be dependent on their husband to provide additional income.
As I work with Hermana Fuesanta and the “temporeras” it is transparent that in order to change a social structure and to begin a dialogue, enabling change, education is fundamental and necessary. As we hand out pamphlets to the temporeras that talk abut their “rights” as workers, their right to security, to health, to a fair contract, to daycare services, to a union, we begin a process. With more information about their rights, women begin to feel comfortable speaking up, giving voice to the many concerns and questions they have about their work and private life. Although I know education often serves to reinforce the economic and social stability of a structure already imbedded into a country, it is also imperative to recognize that education can serve as an impetus for progressive social change.
Education can serve to reinforce social change, but educating women, specifically, is paramount. Women, in most parts of the world, and most definitely here in Chile are the soul of the domestic sphere. The daily duties for women come in many folds. Not only do they work many hours in subsistence production, but they also take care of most domestic tasks and social work, such as raising and looking after the children, cooking meals and cleaning the house. Because their work is frequently poorly remunerated and often unrewarding, they remain materially depended on men and continue in a cycle of holding subordinate positions within the work field. While the government of Chile has made milestones of progress, in terms of education and women’s rights, during the last presidency of Michelle Bachelet, it is transparent that women’s education still lacks the voice and influence needed to change some of the unjust situations that occur. With educated representatives supporting these women, I expect social change to unfold with the continuing development of Chile as a whole.