Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Haitian Connection?

In 1978, when I first visited Chile, the default choice for coffee junkies was semi-soluble Nescafé, and that’s still common here. It didn’t bother me personally, because I don’t drink coffee—how can something that smells so wonderful taste so awful?—but my fellow travelers often searched desperately for espresso or even a freshly brewed cup from grounds.
Café Haití was Santiago's original café con piernas, but more drinkable than Nescafé.
At that time, just about the only place to do so was Santiago’s Café Haití, a chain of standup coffee bars that was notorious for its café con piernas ("coffee with legs"), served by attractive young women in micro-skirts and other form-fitting clothing. The clientele was overwhelming male (and machista) but, on occasion, female clients couldn’t resist what appeared to be the best available caffeine fix. My own wife, given her Italo-Argentine background, reluctantly became one of them.
Taken last year, this screenshot summarizes the size of Chile's immigrant communities.
Why the chain’s founder chose that specific name is unclear—the source of his coffee seems likeliest to have been Brazil or Colombia—but in recent years Chile has become the country of choice for emigrants from the impoverished Caribbean country, and Haitians are a visible presence in the capital and elsewhere. For what it’s worth, Chile was the second country in the Americas to abolish slavery, after Haiti itself.
Caleta Camarones is an historically Afro-Chilean community.
Even though I have a background in colonial Latin American history, I’d never seen much evidence of the Afro-Chilean heritage. The only precise location I can identify is the coastal village of Caleta Camarones, midway between the Atacama desert cities of Arica and Iquique, whose four-time mayor Sonia Salgado once stated that “Our ancestors arrived here together with the conquerors.”
My Haitian immigrant waiter at Ostras Azócar
The Haitian presence is something different, though, and it’s increasing. The first Haitian I ever encountered personally was a waiter at the classic seafood restaurant Ostras Azócar, who told me more than a decade ago that he learned his fluent Spanish through listening to radio broadcasts from the neighboring Dominican Republic. He now has a family here, and has recently opened his own small business.

I see many Haitians in the Renca neighborhood where I’m staying at present and, at best I can tell, most of them are speaking Haitian Creole (I certainly don’t recognize it as standard French, of which my knowledge is admittedly limited). At a downtown Santiago gas station, I recently had a conversational exchange with a Haitian janitor whose Spanish was likewise limited but was clearly making an effort to communicate.
Haitian options are becoming part of Santiago's fast-food scene.
Most Haitians appear to occupy menial jobs, but there are some indications of entrepreneurship as well. Not far from my Renca accommodations, there’s a sandwich shop that offers Haitian dishes alongside the standard completos (hot dogs) and churrascos (grilled beef). That suggests, at least, a hopeful foothold in the dominant Chilean culture, though there’s certainly been some anti-immigrant sentiment here. I’ve not yet sampled the food there, and it’s unlikely ever to match the impact Peruvian cuisine has had.

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