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Special Report : Chileans in 2 Camps Share Abiding Ties to Distant Land

First of a series on the various Latino communities in the Los Angeles area.

June 15, 1989|RAFAEL PRIETO ZARTHA | Prieto Zartha is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

For the past 14 years, traditional celebrations have been held in two different parts of Los Angeles, with the participants paying homage to their red, white and blue Chilean flag and singing their anthem.

The mood and feeling of the two mid-September celebrations not only demonstrate the love Chileans have for their distant country, but also clearly reveal a rift in the Los Angeles colony.

In Elysian Park, the country's anniversary is celebrated by people who are close to the Chilean Consulate, while in the Ukrainian Center it is celebrated by the most ardent opponents of the current military government.

"It is no secret to anyone that the Chileans in Los Angeles have been divided by the politics of recent years," Ricardo Flores, a prominent member of the community, acknowledges.

"But not all attitudes nor actions of the Chilean colony have been marked by that division," noted Flores, an ex-professor who came to the United States in 1967 and has become the Chilean gastronomic ambassador in Los Angeles as the owner of the Rincon Chileno restaurant.

To prove his point, Flores cites the reaction to the earthquake that struck Santiago, the capital of Chile, on March 3, 1985: "The colony left aside its differences and faced the tragedy as one."

More recently, Chilean residents of Los Angeles pulled together in a similar display of solidarity when the U.S. goverment temporarily imposed an embargo on the importation of fruit from Chile last March, after two grapes containing cyanide were found in Philadelphia.

"It hurt us all a lot. There were no differences because of . . . politics" said Jose Altamirano, president of the Club Chile-America in Orange County. "The reaction of U.S. authorities was a little exaggerated."

It is difficult to determine the precise number of Chileans in Southern California, and estimates vary from 12,000 to 25,000.

The major residential concentration is in the San Fernando Valley. Another pocket of Chileans is in Orange County, where "there are 3,000 of us," said Fernando Velo, director of the Azteca weekly, which circulates in that area.

The Chilean community in Southern California has charted a long local history, even though its population is relatively small. In fact, Chilean cuecas were danced and sung in this part of the country long before other immigrants from Central or South America or the Caribbean arrived here.

During the Gold Rush from 1848 to 1852, more than 15,000 Chilean gold diggers arrived in Northern California. They had great success, founding towns and introducing new methods for gold mining.

A small group of the immigrants remained in California and the majority returned to Chile when they grew tired of confronting the Anglos.

The Chilean influence was greater in Northern California than in the southern region. The census of 1850 counted only four Chileans in Los Angeles County, five in 1852 and 35 in 1860, although, according to historian David Valjalo, the first pharmacy in Los Angeles was founded by a Chilean named Gutierrez.

The first significant wave of Chileans in this century came in the 1950s and '60s. Those who arrived in those years came in search of the American way of life, as idealized by Hollywood movies.

"The flow was relatively light, there were few of us here in Los Angeles," recalls Hugo Fraga, an elder member of the colony and director of the Refugio de Cristo charity organization, who reports that the majority settled in the Hollywood area.

At the start of the 1970s, two events provoked Chilean emigration to other countries.

In 1970, an election brought to the presidency Salvador Allende, the candidate of Popular Unity, a leftist coalition that included the Socialist and Communist parties. Allende's rise to power caused one wave of emigration.

On Sept. 11, 1973, the armed forces led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled the constitutional government of Allende in a bloody coup.

In response to the coup, a ship left Los Angeles for Chile in 1974, taking home 250 people. But the establishment of the dictatorship also created a Chilean Diaspora that spread to all parts of the world. In the United States, political refuge was offered to 400 families, some of whom settled here in California.

At the start of the 1980s, at university campuses of Southern California, a variety of symposiums of Chilean poets in exile were held along with political-cultural functions called penas de solidaridad.

"These activities, such as the instruction of Spanish and the history and geography of Chile for the children of the refugees have been sponsored by the political sectors that have maintained a position of struggle against the dictatorship," said Roberto Naduris, a journalist for KPFK Radio and a member of the exile organization called Chile Democratico.

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