I’m sitting in the bar I go to every Friday, sipping extremely cheap wine and chatting with a friend and some new acquaintances. The bar is called The Library, and its walls are covered in a mural of a bookcase, posters of Alf and a giant portrait of Violeta Parra. The music alternates between Spice Girls, Andean folk music and reggaeton, which, combined with the jar of wine I’ve just managed, is making me feel a little schizophrenic. Or maybe it’s that my friend keeps changing languages on me – he’s learning English translation and keeps prodding me with phrases. I’m going to the toilet! he screams over the music, and leaves me with his buddies who I am meeting for the first time.
So, um, why La Serena? is the first thing they ask me. During the first few months I would have told them that I chose to study here because of the beaches, the relative lack of foreign students, the small class sizes in the university, or the tranquil ambiance that hovers over the budding summer destination five hours north of Santiago. But now, after three months of getting to know this town, I tell them I have no fucking clue. This tends to produce a better reaction from my new acquaintances because disliking La Serena is something they can understand. For the majority of students in this town, Chile is the buttcrack of the world, of which La Serena is a concentrated representation.
There is a strange sort of social oppression in this country. I’ve gradually realized that the hatred and frustration I feel towards many Chileans is cultural insensitivity on my part–the knowledge is hidden and sort of seeps in, in a way that’s made me feel for months that I’ve been inflicting it on myself. I think it all started the night that I had a conversation about sexual orientation with my ex-host-dad, Otto, and the other student boarder in that house, Diego, a Chilean. The two key points of this conversation are as follows: 1. Otto, a 50-something who works on the administrative side of the Chilean park service, told me that he does not hire someone he suspects of being gay because it is a risk to the other workers, despite the illegality of this type of discrimination in Chile. 2. I refused to tell Diego and Otto my sexual orientation on principal because, I said, my bedroom practices and partners are none of their business.
This bugged them for about a week, during which they asked me all sorts of questions to try to get the juicy information out of me – even telling me all of their sexual escapades in an effort to get me to open up. “Sex is out in the open here in Chile,” Otto said to me one night. “Yeah, especially Lesbians!” Diego added. I started to hate their combination of homophobia and fascination with lesbians. Otto treated me like an idiot most of the time and Diego hit on me, asking me to have threesomes with his girlfriend and encouraging me to try anal sex. I didn’t fall victim to the machismo behavior – I could keep up with them in a debate and did not tolerate Otto’s attempts to lecture me like a child. But living with them drove me nuts. After two months of taking their shit, along with almost getting raped by Diego–an incident that the family chose to blame on the slutty American girl–I finally told Otto’s wife that I couldn’t stand to live with them anymore. She looked at me stupidly and said, “Otto’s not machista. We women have to stick together in these things.”
“I guess I just have problems with men,” I said.
I will never know whether she meant that I should evade the problems or the men, because that night she kicked me out of the house.
Being roomless in La Serena is a great way to make friends. It’s something most students here have experienced–a boy in one of my classes has lived in ten houses during the three years he’s been going to school here. Everyone knows someone with a great story about having to change houses, and everyone wants you to live with them. It’s a little bit like talking about apartments in New York, but more intense because most students move in with family units. For me, living in a family’s home was an incredible situation to be in after four years of dorms. I was living with a catholic woman, her pig of a husband, their 13 year old daughter who wanted to know everything I would tell her about sex, and Diego, who refused to speak to me after that night when he fed me a half liter of vodka and then forced himself on me. I didn’t know what to do with myself and I think this is mostly because of the strange duality of oppressiveness and openness about sex here – a duality that carries over into the whole culture in La Serena.
Newspapers and magazines are full of topless women; sex is on TV in all its forms; young people have sex through their clothes in broad daylight in the plazas that dot the city. But Chile is just the opposite of a hedonistic love society. I think more than anything, there is a combination of religious conservativism and attempts at being modern that came after military dictatorship. Case in point: no one seems to know whether prostitution is legal in this country or not. The ads in newspapers for sexi university students and Otto tell me it is legal and the girls in my classes who will start teaching high school sex-ed in a few years say it’s not. I finally had to ask a lawyer, who assured me that prostitution is legal – the government even has medical assistance for women who choose to work in that field. But people operate on the assumption that it is illegal.
A strange state of affairs–and one that is disproportionately unfair to women. In an article on the increasing promiscuity in underage discotecas here, one 13-year-old interviewed summed it up nicely: a girl can touch and kiss lots of other boys in the clubs if she wants to, but she shouldn’t do it too much, or guys will think she’s a slut. And even though public places are host to all sorts of sordid practices (Chileans don’t usually move out of the house until they get married, making motels, bars and public parks the sexual spaces), if a female is too open about sex she is looked down upon. That’s why most women I’ve talked to say they would never request their partner to wear a condom or get tested for STDs. That’s why Diego and Otto couldn’t get enough of talking to me about sex, and why when an American friend of mine (male) was hooking up with a Chilean woman, she told him “We are not going to have sex,” and then proceeded to make it happen. A senorita does not have sex, or at least she should pretend she doesn’t, even though society today has gotten rid of most of the good reasons for this advice.
I’ve managed to make myself into a rebel in this country because I’m not willing to let guys treat me like a sex object, but neither am I going to be covert about my sexual operations. I haven’t dated anyone here yet, and when Chilean girls ask me why, I tell them that Chilean guys don’t want me. This is a lie. As a Caucasian blonde, I am exactly what Chilean men want. But once they start to talk to me, hear me explain in low-toned Spanish that I miss English because I can’t be perverted in Spanish, that back in New York I work for a Sex Education program, that my best friend and I email one another erotica by Anais Nin, and I want to be a gynecologist, yes a doctor, and no, I don’t have a boyfriend back in the states, but we should go on a date some time – they’ve already started searching around the room for someone with a shorter skirt and longer hair.
Which brings me back to The Library, where I’ve encountered a few bartenders who keep good company and don’t treat me like a member of the inferior sex. I usually show up after midnight and stay till five, set up at the bar next to the Dominican immigrant who happens to dance like a dream, order cheese empanadas or a hot dog with avocado, and chat with these relaxed 20-something gentlemen. I haven’t really figured out yet what makes them different. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t allowed to hit on someone while on the job, or maybe it’s because they’re not originally from La Serena – a place they call ugly and empty, a tourist city that dies in the winter months. Or maybe it has something to do with their openness about sex in general. I’m still a virgin, one of them, age 23, told me, and I’m not really interested in having sex – it’s just not on my agenda yet. I tell him I don’t know many men like him. He shrugs and we move on to something else – education, poetry, broken hearts, ghosts, sadness – those universal things that everyone seems to talk about in solidarity, late at night.