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Home/Stories and articles/People
September 2001

Armando De Ramón, National History Award 1998:
"Santiago has always lived afraid of the plebe"

In his book Santiago de Chile investigator Armando de Ramón tells with surprising sharpness about the capital's history, from its foundations until these days. A text that reveals unusual and precarious realities, and which follows a process that, according to its author, can only be understood from the Santiago society perspective.

By Rosario Mena

The classism and racism, the spatial segregation, the centralization, pollution, crime, the patrimony abandonment. All the problems that now affect Santiago are not new. On the contrary, they are the result of germs born on the city's origins, and that are now part of its society's idiosyncrasy. It is this society —and not the monuments, parks, streets nor buildings— the only thread that, according to Armando de Ramón, allows us to follow the history of Santiago.

—In your book, you say that only through the study of Santiago's society it is possible to apprehend the city's history. You say that Santiago is a city very hard to understand. In what sense?
—In the sense of 'seizing' it. A legible city is the one from which you can get a complete image. Currently, Santiago is not legible at all. It only was until (chronicler) Vicuña Mackenna's time.

—And does that mean it is also a city hard to love?
—A city that can not be understood can not be loved.

—How do you explain this lack of comprehension and identification with our city?
—First, by how fast it has grown. We lost all contact because of the massive destruction of neighborhoods and a re-construction that did not follow any style patterns, but completely transformed the city. It is another city, not the one I knew as a child. It is unbelievable how we have got used to this. I remember looking through those oval windows that old cars had, and I remember so vividly the rural landscape that began at the San Carlos Canal.

"There are elements whose influence over the city is absolutely determinant, like the Arauco War, which meant the escape of the southern people to Santiago, and the formation of indigenous marginal zones around the city. Or the abandonment of the City's center by upper-class people, who moved to the mountains. Or the big classism still existing. We are not really conscious of all this, even though the War lasted for more than three hundred years. The Arauco War is the single most important milestone in Chile's history. It necessarily has to have a mark over Santiago. Actually, the war's financing came from Santiago".

"Pedro de Valdivia founded the city thinking for it to be a fort, that's why it has a strategic position. The Indians used the Santa Lucía hill to place their altars. During the incaica time, Santiago also had a number of things inherited by the mapuches, like a fantastic irrigation system by ditches. Some are still used, such as the Carmen Canal, which runs through the San Cristóbal hill border, all the way to Conchalí (commune). The Incas made that canal during the 15th Century. So all this infrastructure already existed when Santiago was founded. It was obvious for the city to be founded here: there was cultivated land, a working force".

"When Valdivia continued to the south, he found the araucanos, who were no laughing matter. Valdivia, who had been in the European wars, said it was unbelievable how these Indians approached fighting, something he had never seen before. 'They fight like tudescos', he said, which means 'like Germans'. This made the Arauco war so long; and the South Conquest, so difficult. All these cities from the south had to be maintained by Santiago, from where it came food and people. This explains the centralism of Santiago in relation to the provinces, and an economical waste that prevented more progress.

—Specifically, how do the mapuches that arrived to Santiago determinate the city's shape?
—You have to keep in mind that all cities founded by the Spaniards were thought as places for them to live. Indians were supposed to stay on their towns. When the Indians came to Santiago, they always lived on poverty zones. The biggest one was at the Mapocho river northern brook, on an area then called 'El Galán'. By the south, the border was the 'Death Field', between Matta Avenue and the Zanjón de la Aguada, where now you find Franklin St. And by the west, the Central Station area. It is a 'U' that fences Santiago against the hills, and that is one of the reasons why the upper classes moved to the mountains. There are other motives, especially sanitary. Since Santiago's gradient goes southwest, that's where the garbage ended up, until the sewer system was built, not until the beginning of the 20th Century. There were real marshes, a lot of stench.

—After all Arauco's War and the mapuche immigration consequences, what is, in your opinion, what most determined Santiago's society?
—A single thing: the fear of plebe. During Conquest's first two centuries, there was the terror that the Indians would attack Santiago, rising the slaves and servers. This took another form during the 18th Century, when a poor group from the fields moved to the capital, forming the first ghettos. The Presidential edicts of the time were 'it is prohibited to sing', 'it is prohibited to disguise, dance, play chueca'. All these prohibitions against people where useful for capturing those who broke them, and then force them to work. Vicuña Mackenna made the remodelation of the Santa Lucía Hill with prisoners, saying there was no money.

"The last big proof of this phenomenon was during the Allende government, when the upper class people were terrified that their homes would be assaulted. This was intensified with the formation of a population zone where the poor and industrial areas were united. That was the riskiest moment for a popular revolution. I believe this was stronger than anything else to motivate the Military Coup. This fear of plebe persists all through the military government. There was rarely a week when militars would not arrive to a poor village, take the people out of their homes at night and take them to the football field, keeping them there till the morning, with kids crying and shouting.

—It is curious how we see so little diversity, so much uniformity in Santiago, which originally was a mixed city, where Mapuches, Spaniards, mestizos, Africans, mulatto… all live together. Can we, for instance, follow any of the traces that Africans left in Chile?
—Yes, on music and folklore. The cueca has a clear African influence. You see African traces on people's features. In Chile, the African influence was stronger that the amount of people that stayed, because it was a transitory place for the slaves heading to Peru. They would stay here for a while and were kept in corrals, like animals. The three mother-nations of America are Europe, America itself, and Africa.

—To this racial and cultural diversity we add the influences from the foreigners that arrived to Santiago. In your view, who were the most important?
—The French influence is very strong on the upper classes. A lot of French was being talked until the middle of the 20th Century. It was a colloquial kind of society, with lots of social life, a lot of showing off. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Dieciocho Street was a path to the Cousiño Park, but not by foot, but on extremely elegant carriages. If you add the cost of the horses, the drivers, the suits, the coaches... it is a fortune. The most expensive car that is now sold in Santiago is cheaper than those carriages. Dance-halls were also completely French.

"Now, if you go a little into that French kind of society's moral you find the Spaniard prudishness. I think the strongest influence, at least in Santiago, is from Spain. We still see a religious primitivism that you can't find anywhere else. A proof of that is the prohibition of the movie 'Last temptation of Christ'. We are now invaded by the American way of life that has been imposed over our culture since the middle of the 20th Century. It is the third most important influence in our history".

Republican Cathedral

—Let's go to our main foundation sites. The Plaza de Armas (Central Square) is still a place for popular expressions. Do you think it should be recuperated as a cultural place, like street theater used to be at the beginning of the 20th Century, or as a center for the public service, when it gave the water to the rest of Santiago?
—If the Plaza was completely clear, that would be possible. Since the middle of the 19th Century, the Plaza served as a public promenade, for people to relax. The popular life expressed itself on thousands of ways: with painters, photographers, sellers, lovers. That is no more so. The new Plaza highlights the public buildings, but to use it again as a stage you would have to take away all the trees.

"Now, all the Peruvians get together at Catedral St. They sit side of the Cathedral. That is a real job-fair, where they exchange information, news. That goes to show that, no matter what you add or take out, the Plaza will always have a multiple function, because that is its sense, for people to do there whatever they want. They have to ask no permission, they just do it. The Plaza importance lies in that the population takes it as its own. The Plaza de Armas has been used by all social classes".

"The Cathedral is one of the first buildings constructed on the 16th Century. The Cathedral we now have is probably the most emblematic Republican building still standing".

"The first Cathedral had its entrance at Catedral St., that's why it is called so. Between the building and the Plaza there was a sort of esplanade where a lot of religious acts were performed. There were some steps that held all the corpses found on the streets at dawn, for the relatives to identify them. In the book, that is described as a 'public morgue'. That first Cathedral was destroyed by fire. I was an assistant for the excavations; I asked to see the old Cathedral's foundations. And then some corpses appeared".

"In 1748 began the building of a new Cathedral. It was decided to make it big and impressive, with the entrance facing the plaza. By that sacredness of the plaza, it stopped being a profane and sinful place. The works took about 150 years, till reaching the shape it's now in".

"With this Cathedral just inaugurated at the beginning of the Republic, took place the first Ecumenical Tedeum, which is celebrated annually until now. This shows that our Cathedral is Republican. All of Chile's presidents, catholic or not, have participated in this act. The Cathedral transcends the Catholic Church. During the military regime a lot of acts took place there, like the first Human Rights Symposium, with people coming from all over the world, during the year 1978. A crowd came there with white carnations. The Cathedral has played a crucial role in our Republican History's most important moments, becoming a true popular expression point, not only religious. The public meaning of the Cathedral is even greater than that of the Moneda (Government House)".

—How do you see the Bicentennial celebration from an urban perspective?
—First, I think there has to be done a poll all over Santiago, in which people choose the priorities for the celebration. To me, there are three aspects to be solved: the public transportation system, pollution and crime. With that we could recover a lot of our City.


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