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Struggle and Subsistence

In the Shantytowns of Santiago

By Michelle Haner

A military coup on September 11, 1973, ended more than 100 years of democratic rule in Chile. The military dismantled or repressed Congress, unions and political parties, quashing opposition and dissent. The state's welfare system was severely cut or privatized. The military's neo-liberal economic model left much of the popular sector unemployed, impoverished and struggling to survive.

These national transformations prompted a range of activity within the sprawling urban shantytowns surrounding the capital of Santiago. Often under the protection of the Catholic Church and with the help of international aid organizations, shantytown dwellers launched grassroots organizations. These groups ran the gamut from human rights groups to housing committees to productive workshops. The shantytowns became important nexuses of opposition in the national protests from 1983 to 1986. Youths erected burning barricades and pelted tanks and soldiers with stones. Women banged their pots to call for an end to military rule.

Many civil liberties have returned since Chile's first democratically elected president in seventeen years took office in March 1990. However, more than five million poor remain part of the legacy of military rule. Of these, 1.5 million live in the shantytowns surrounding Santiago.

At first glance the poblaciones or shantytowns of Penalolen appear to be a desolate, stagnant world far from the bustling, metropolitan center. Small houses, shacks and lean-tos of cardboard and corregated tin crowd together along unpaved streets that turn to impassable floods of mud in the winter. Delinquents hang out on the highway edging the shantytowns, passing a joint and listening to salsa on a battered radio, casting hostile glances at passers-by.

However, as one walks the labyrinth of streets within the shantytowns, another reality unfolds. Penalolen's shantytowns teem with their own choice life.

Women gather to collect their famies' afternoon meals at the olla comun (literally translated "common pot") in the shantytown Villa Cobre. The ollas communes were among the grassroots organizations to emerge in the wake of the 1980 economic crisis. In an olla comun, shantytown women gather to cook a mid-day meal using their own and outside resources. Today over 200 ollas comunes continue to provide a daily meal for 20,000 shantytown dwellers.

Marina lives in a shantytown in Penalolen. Two of her sons were part of the underground opposition movement. They suffered torture and internal exile. She considers herself fortunate however. Thousands of other individuals who were considered Leftists, Communists, or dissidents were desparecidos ("disappeared" or vanished without a trace).

In the mornings, open air markets line the streets and balding football field of Penalolen's shantytowns. Vendors sell everything from fresh fruit to used clothes to posters of the Virgin Mary, Twisted Sister and Che Guevera.

A man in the shantytown of Lo Hermida repairs his roof at dusk. With scarce resources, the shantytown dwellers must use innovation to survive. Shantytown residents often steal electricity and water by tapping into the public power lines and water conduits. Many make their living hawking candy, pens and umbrellas on buses or street corners. Others scavenge cardboard and discarded metal at night.

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