Friday, April 3, 2015

Observations on Chile's "H-Word"

Fifty years ago, in a prescient song titled “Trouble Every Day,” Frank Zappa made the sardonic comment that “You know, people, I’m not black, but there’s a whole lot of times I wish I could say I wasn’t white” (see the video above). The seemingly insoluble issue of racial conflict in the United States, exacerbated in the recent past by incidents like that in Ferguson, Missouri, has not gone away, and the issue arose unexpectedly yesterday while I was walking the streets of Santiago’s Barrio Bellavista to update my photographic library on the city.
Bellavista is Santiago’s self-proclaimed “Bohemian Quarter” and a major nightlife zone, with a mix of scruffy to high-end bars and restaurants, artists and artisans, antique and boutique shops, and vigorous street life. It divides, however, into two somewhat incompatible districts: east of Avenida Pío Nono, Bellavista is part of prosperous Providencia, whose municipal government warns locals and visitors alike of perceived high-crime; the area west of Pío Nono belongs to the municipality of Recoleta (which, although it’s the home of Chile’s landmark Cementerio General, otherwise bears minimal resemblance to its Buenos Aires namesake). It’s getting a makeover, though, as the brightly painted houses above and below suggest (the latter, obviously, is work in progress).
In reality, I’ve never really worried about personal safety in Santiago, though there are marginal neighborhoods I don’t know at all, and I do avoid soccer games (personally, I find the sport boring and, though Chilean soccer has its hooligans, they can’t approach the barrabravas of Buenos Aires). Yesterday, though, I found myself surrounded – in a manner of speaking – by three young Chilean men, dressed in hip-hop style, who addressed me in a mix of English and Spanish on the Recoleta side of the barrio.

On a warm autumn afternoon, even with nobody else on the block, this aging gringo didn’t really feel threatened, but it was a little unusual. As it turned out, they were kids from nearby suburbs who had clearly studied some English (though my Spanish was better), and were spending a free afternoon in the city. They were curious to know where I came from – couldn’t quite decide whether I was American or European – and wanted to know whether I liked Chile.

As I told them, that’s a question I don’t care for, because it begs a positive answer even when matters are not so simple. There are things I really like about both Argentina and Chile, and other things I don’t care for – which is also the case in my own country. Somehow the topic got around to race issues and specifically, they asked why it was OK for US blacks to use the “N-Word” among themselves, but offensive for someone else to use it.

In context, especially, this was a good and honest question – they were genuinely interested in the issue. I’m neither black nor Chilean, but the best explanation I could provide was to analyze a common Chileanism: the word huevón has some crude connotations, stemming from a comparison of eggs and testicles, but Chileans often use it in a friendly manner among themselves, as these three readily acknowledged. If they used it to address a stranger, though, it might be an inappropriate familiarity or even an insult.


That said, as I stressed to them, my analogy is probably an oversimplification, since their own “H-Word” lacks the same historical connotations of racial hatred and implied inferiority that the “N-Word” does in the USA (in Chile, the use of huevón doesn’t even imply class distinctions). At the same time, I hope that my imperfect explanation was at least a step toward satisfying their honest curiosity.

2 comments:

  1. Chileans (though mostly males) use "huevón" as USA hipsters in the 1970s said "man" at the end of every sentence.
    I walked from Bellavista to Recoleta 2 months ago and felt very comfortable.

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  2. It's true, Roger, that "huevón" has lost much of the bite it once had, but context and tone matter - it can still be an insult. I also agree that Bellavista is a safe place, but it was nevertheless a little surprising to see three young Chileans approach somebody more than twice their age.

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