Michelle Vanderwist graduated from Georgetown with a major in English and minors in Spanish and Studio Art in 2011. Originally from Solon, Ohio, Michelle participated in the Berkley Center's Junior Year Abroad Network from Santiago, Chile during the fall of 2009.
December 9, 2009
My host family in Santiago technically consists of my mother and my two host brothers, aged 22 and 26. Sometimes, though, it feels like Carolina, the 22-year-old's girlfriend, is part of the family as well. When she's over (very often), she cooks and cleans and picks up after her boyfriend, to the point where it seems like Gonzalo (my host brother) basically has two mothers. As part of the family dynamic in Chile, this arrangement is very common. I've learned a lot about the ways in which family norms differ from the customary arrangements and relationships in the USA, and after several months here I have also become familiar with the reasons behind these dynamics.
When teenagers graduate high school in the US, many go on to college, and they usually live in dorms there and begin to learn independence. By their mid-twenties, most US "kids" have moved into their own place and begun a life of their own, separate from their parents (who may still provide monetary support but usually have a much more reduced role in their child's life than they had previously). In Chile, however, it is not uncommon for kids to live at home past age 30, and in some cases even after marriage. University students live at home (there are not really "dorms" as we know them in the USA) and commute to their classes each day using cars or public transportation. They don't typically get their own place until they are married and have a spouse to share it with.
While their children are still living at home, no matter what their ages, the Chilean mothers continue to care for them in much the same way they did when the children were 10: although my brothers were in their twenties and completely capable of mundane chores, my host mother cooked all their meals, made their beds, washed their clothes, and took care of them in a way that seemed like "babying" to me, since I was used to doing most of that for myself ever since I started college. Gonzalo, the 22-year-old, demonstrated the transition that men there make from home life to marriage, since his girlfriend was starting to take care of him alongside his host mother, whose role she will probably eventually assume. Carolina cuts his meat for him at lunch, and even goes so far as to wipe out his "eye boogers" when she notices that he has gunk in the corners of his eyes. Not every girlfriend, nor every mother, goes as far as my family did, but to some extent this is present in nearly every Chilean household. Independence does happen eventually, but it typically comes at a much later age than it does for kids in the United States.
Part of the reason behind this is economic. There is not a lot of space in Santiago, and housing is expensive--especially for young students who have just graduated high school. To save money, they attend their classes and begin their careers while living at home, and later move into their own once they have a fiancé or a spouse and have made enough money to afford it.
Another reason for this late independence is cultural. The Chilean society is one in which the mother is the center of the household, stemming from a cultural worship of the Virgin Mary as a universal "mother figure." Mothers are not bothered by their duties, and in fact define themselves principally by their role as "mamá," delighting in household responsibilities and taking care of their children, regardless of age. To Chileans, being a mother is a role to be proud of, and it has become a cultural norm to maintain this nurturing role as long as possible. It follows, then, that the duty of taking care of a man changes hands gradually from his mother to his girlfriend, who then becomes his wife and continues the tradition. While it is becoming more common for women to hold day jobs and the society is no longer as reliant on stay-at-home mothers, the mothers still hold a very obviously powerful position in the household, and there is an expectation that they will take care of their children and their husband at any age.
At first I was perplexed by the fact that my 26 year old brother still had his mother cleaning his room, and I was confused as to why Gonzalo's girlfriend was more like a second mother. After learning about the cultural significance of the Virgin Mary and the economic reasons behind these different family dynamics, however, I can understand why Chile is so different from the United States. It's not a disgrace to still live at home at age 30; instead, it is a mark of financial responsibility as well as a way for the mother to feel like she is doing her job.
November 5, 2009
I've been in Chile for almost four entire months now, and only a week ago I just went to visit one of the most well-known sites in Chile. Atop the enormous and sprawling "Cerro San Crístobal" (San Crístobal Hill), which offers an amazing vantage point for panoramic views of the valley city and the Andes Mountains beyond, I stood at the base of the most enormous statue I've ever seen, staring up at a 72-foot-tall white Virgin Mary, arms outspread as if to embrace Santiago.
Catholicism was introduced by priests who came to Santiago with the Spanish colonialists in the 16th century. Most of the native population in the northern and central regions was evangelized by 1650. Over 70% of the city is Catholic (or identifies as Catholic), but in reality a very small fraction actually practice the religion (going to church and taking part in religious activities). Despite the fact that so few people actively participate in their religion, the Catholicism in Santiago is still very apparent in the daily city life. Many of their holidays are taken from the Catholic calendar, and Catholic churches can be found on nearly every other block walking around the city. Other churches and places of worship can be found if you search, but Catholicism is by far the dominant denomination in Santiago. I myself am a Greek Orthodox Christian, and have been to the nearby Eastern Orthodox Church with my host mother.
The unique characteristic of Catholicism in Santiago, however, is the focus placed on the Virgin Mary. I'm somewhat familiar with Catholicism in the United States, but here the focus on Mary is much more intense than the focus back in the States. My culture professor has explained this is related to their focus on the mother-figure in the family, which is perhaps the biggest way in which my Chilean family differs from my North American one. During orientation, the program directors warned us with a laugh that Chilean "Mamas" are "
muy mamá." In other words, they're very motherly. In the family, the mother does all the washing, cooking, cleaning, and daily household maintenance. It is not unusual for her children to live at home all through college and into their thirties
sometimes even after getting married! My host brothers are 22 and 26 years old, and my host mother still gathers all their laundry, makes their beds, and organizes their rooms every single day. Here, this is the norm. The mothers do this as a way to show their love; their family is their livelihood and their job. This job eventually gets passed on to the wife, who takes care of her husband much the same way that his mother did. For example, my 22-year-old host brother has a serious long-term girlfriend, who is always over at our house helping with the cooking and cleaning, and at first I was almost shocked by how much she seemed to baby him. She cleans up his dishes, makes his sandwiches for him, and even wipes his eye boogers out randomly at the dinner table.
No one bats an eye at this because this is the order of the family here. It's the role of the mother and the wife, and this connects back to the importance they place on the Virgin in their society. The Virgin Mary is perhaps the most famous mother figure of all time, and as my professor explained it to us, she comes to represent a mother for the Chileans who, for whatever reason, have lost theirs somehow. Many Christian holidays not acknowledged by the U.S. government are government-recognized holidays in Chile (for example, the Feast of the Immaculate Consumption and the Feast of the Assumption). On the Chilean Independence Day (September 18th), I saw countless colorful dances meant to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary.
There are about eleven million Catholics in Chile, and even though many of them do not actively practice their religion, the underlying effects of Catholicism are apparent in everyday life. From the festivals to the focus on motherly nature, and from the numerous churches to the giant Virgin Mary who watches over Santiago, the impact that the Catholic church--in particular, the Virgin Mary--has on Chilean culture is undeniable.