People and Culture

Geography and history formed the crucible from which Chile was born. In the twentieth century, the country survived dictatorships and social upheavals to become a model of democracy in Latin America. Today, the vitality of its people and culture heighten the world's respect for this small nation even more.


Chile's 15.7 million people are descended from various ethnic groups, most of whom intermixed during the country's history. Mestizos, those of mixed European and Indian ancestry, make up 70 percent of the population. About 25 percent are European immigrants and their descendents. Most of this group has Spanish ancestors, the most privileged of whom have unmixed bloodlines traced to colonial criollo and peninsular families. Members of the indigenous groups comprise about 3 percent of the population.

Although they are relatively few in number today, American Indians are important to the nation's history and culture. The Mapuche are the most numerous group, numbering about 600,000. Most of them occupy the Araucanian Region and the Lakes Regions. There are several thousand Huilliche-speaking Indians. They still live in the Lakes Region, south of the Mapuche area. The Indian tribes of the archipelago farther south are nearly extinct. About 2,500 of the Alacaluf (Kawashkar) are the only surviving group. Another area of Indian settlement is the altiplano of the extreme north. About 50,000 Aymara Indians reside there. They are a spillover population from neighboring Bolivia, where Aymara-speakers make up one-fourth of that country's population. A group of about 20,000 Atacamenoes resides in the Central Valley and coast range in the far north.

The growth rate of the nation's general population was 1.06 percent in 2003. This percentage was lower than most other South American nations. Uruguay, Brazil, and Guyana had lower growth rates, but they also lost population because of out migration. (In today's world, a high population growth rate is not a good thing, because as the years go by, the population increasingly pressures the nation's natural resources.) Chile's average life expectancy, slightly over 76 years, is the second longest in South America (trailing only French Guiana). The high life expectancy reflects Chile's excellent national heath care system.

Eighty-seven percent of all Chileans live in cities, a marked increase of 17 percent in the last 10 years or so. About 80 percent of the nation's people live in just 20 percent of the total area—the main agricultural region of middle Chile. The most densely settled area is Metropolitan Santiago, which, with a population of nearly 6.5 million, dominates the middle region and the nation. The city itself is home to about 4.9 million Chileans. Geographers call cities such as Santiago primate cities. A primate city has a population that is more than twice that of the next largest community. It also is the country's political, economic, and cultural center. Santiago is home to the nation's largest universities and has most of its government offices, banks, insurance companies, and industries.

Middle Chile has several important cities beyond the borders of Metropolitan Santiago. Valparaiso has nearly 300,000 people. It is connected by highway and railroad to Santiago and is the capital's main seaport. Vina del Mar has a population of about 360,000 people. It is the country's main resort city and is only 6 miles (8 kilometers) from Valparaiso. Concepcion has about 400,000 inhabitants. It is situated 10 miles (16 kilometers) inland, near the mouth of the Bio Bio River. The port of Talcahuano (population 300,000) serves Concepcion.Most cities in middle Chile are experiencing rapid growth mostly caused by migration of people from other areas of the country who come seeking jobs.

The cities in northern and southern Chile are also increasing in size because of migration from rural areas. For the most part, the main cities are commercial seaports. Immigrants seek jobs on fishing boats. They also hope to find work at dockyards, warehouses, and processing plants. Transportation routes link the seaports to mining and agricultural towns in interior Chile. In a few cases, they link to Bolivia and Argentina. In the arid north, Antofagasta is the largest city, with about 267,000 people. Also important are Arica and Iquique, both with about 200,000 people. There are no large cities in the northern desert interior. Temuco (259,000) is the largest city in southern Chile. The two major seaport centers in southern Chile are Puerto Montt (168,000) and Punta Arenas (131,000). Of the world's cities, only Argentina's Ushuaia lies farther south than Punta Arenas.


Chileans are primarily mestizos, the product of unions between the country's indigenous peoples and various European colonizers. Demographers (scientists who study populations) call areas where people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds “co-mingle melting pots.” The Chilean people and culture evolved from four major melting pots: the Central Valley, the Araucania Region, the Lakes Region, and the Magallanes Region. Most mestizos in these regions have Spanish and Indian ancestors. Each region includes a unique mixture of other European ancestors, most of who could not speak a word of Spanish when they first arrived. Today, these regions offer slightly different flavors of Chilean culture.

Spanish colonialists concentrated their settlements in middle Chile. Thus, this region was by far the largest European group in the country's formative years. Therefore, the Spanish cultural influence was strongest there. Some British and Irish immigrants came during the Spanish colonial period. After independence, the region was the main entry point for virtually every other major immigrant group. Some members of these arriving groups stayed in the valley and married local Chileans.

Other immigrants quickly moved out of the valley to settie an expanding frontier. Beginning in about 1860, there was a steady out migration of recently arrived foreign immigrants and mestizos to nitrate, copper, silver, and coal mines beyond the valley, mainly in northern Chile. Later, immigrants and mestizos pushed into the southern Lakes and Magallenas regions. In the mid-twentieth century, there was a stream of Chilean mestizos from the middle region into the Argentine oases on the eastern side of the Andes.

A second melting pot was in the Araucania region, an area between the Central Valley and the Lakes Region, near the town of Temuco. The Araucania Region is the heartland of the Mapuche Indians. The Mapuches were the only major Araucanian tribe to survive Spanish colonization and the ensuing Indian wars. To make room for European settlers, the Chilean government established a reservation policy in 1866, which moved most of the remaining Mapuches onto reservations. These reservations are in the hills to the south and west of Temuco. They are still home to the Mapuche culture. About 200,000 Mapuche who live in this region are active speakers of the Mapuche language. Many Mapuche people, pressed by the need for work, have moved to the cities where they have gradually lost their cultural identity. By 1890, small groups of Boers (Dutch colonists from southern Africa), Italians, French, and Swiss immigrants had settled this area. Mestizos from northern and middle Chile were also drawn to the region. Generally uneducated and destitute, they were seeking to make a new start in what was then a settlement frontier.

Immigrants also helped form a third melting pot in the Lakes Region. In the nineteenth century, the Chilean government actively sought more European colonists to settle this part of the frontier. German immigration began in 1848 and lasted for 90 years. By 1900, 30,000 Germans had cleared the forest, planted crops, and founded small towns. Many German men married Indian women there. The resulting German mestizos and other Indians mixed with Chilean mestizos who entered the region from middle Chile. Today, the cities of Valdivia, Llanquihue, Osorno, and Puerto Montt, and fishing villages of northern Chiloe, have a strong German influence in architecture, food, and culture. What is more, German surnames are still common, as is the German language.

Magallanes, the southernmost region of the country, was another melting pot of diverse peoples. Large-scale immigration occurred from 1845 to 1906. Among the earliest arrivals were Chilotes (Chileans from Chiloe Island). Afterward, British businessmen started sheep estancias (ranches) in the grassy parts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. They raised merino sheep for their mutton and fine wool. Laborers for the estancias included Chileans migrants. Nearly as many foreign migrants came as well. The latter were mostly from Eastern Europe, particularly Croatia. Croatians and their descendents still make up a large fraction of Magallanes' population. In Punta Arenas, one in four residents is of Croatian decent. Chile's Croatian population is the fifth largest in the world. Immigrants also arrived from Spain, Great Britain, Italy, Germany, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Argentina, and France during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Immigration added Middle Easterners to the melting pots. They came in two groups. The first group started arriving in the second half of the nineteenth century. They were seeking to escape from turmoil in the Middle East caused by the Crimean War. This war pitted Great Britain against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Turks were forcing male Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese, especially those who were Christians, to become soldiers in the war. At the time, the Chilean government was seeking settlers for its southern region. Parents put their adult sons on boats bound for Chile so they would not have to fight in the war. The second grouping of Middle Easterners was primarily Palestinian families from the area of Bethlehem.

They began arriving in 1948, after the creation of the state of Israel. Chilean society absorbed the Middle Easterners, many of whom became productive members of the business community and the government. There are about 300,000 people of Middle Eastern origin living in Chile today.


Most Chileans share a common language and religion. Spanish is the official language of Chile. Except for small minorities of Indians and Germans, everyone speaks the language. The Spanish word for the language is espanol. Guillermo Castillo-Feliau, author of Culture and Customs of Chile, points out that in Chile, as well as most other countries of Spanish America, people prefer to say castellano, rather than espanol. He notes that to say, “Do you speak Spanish?” one normally says “Habla castellanT Spanish-speaking South Americans prefer saying the latter, because the Spanish language of South America is so different from that of Spain. Some observers even think of Chilean Spanish as a separate language, because the Spanish spoken in Chile is such a great mixture of languages. Chileans make liberal usage of words from American Indian, English, German, Italian, and even Serbo-Croatian languages. What is more, Chileans' pronunciation of many Spanish words is very different from the Spanish spoken in neighboring countries.

Like the rest of Spanish America, Chile has been Roman Catholic since its beginnings in the early 1500s. During colonial times, the Church and the Crown were essentially a partnership. Their common objective was to colonize new lands and to convert Indians to Christianity. For example, if an area had a relatively large population, the Crown decreed that the Spanish conquistadors must establish churches there. In return, the Church would teach scripture to the Indians and keep colonists faithful to the Spanish king because he was, supposedly, divinely inspired. The Crown and Church considered a marriage between a Spaniard and an Indian or a Spaniard and a mestizo disloyal acts. The purer a Spaniard's bloodline, the more faithful he or she would be to God and country, or so the reasoning went. The Crown attempted to discourage interracial nuptials by giving lucrative and prestigious government jobs only to Spaniards born and married in Spain.

There were fewer Indians and hardly any African slaves in Chile compared to other Spanish colonies. Thus, the Church was able to spend more time ministering to the Spanish colonists. The Crown and Church tried to keep a monopoly on Christianity by allowing only Spanish citizens to migrate to Chile. In this way, Spain kept away Europeans who belonged to other Christian religions until the nineteenth century, when important changes began to occur. Immigrants from other parts of Europe, especially Great Britain and Germany, were entering its colonies. British settlers brought their Anglican faith. German immigrants brought either Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism to their new home. Anglicans and Lutherans did not attempt to preach beyond the immigrants' settlements, however. In Chile, the Roman Catholic Church was permitting the union of German Lutherans and mestizo Chilean Catholics by 1880. Protestant missionaries from the United States, who preached their beliefs to anyone who would listen, were entering Chile. All the while, the government gave financial support to the Catholic Church. The Church, in turn, tended to support politicians who wanted to keep the conservative, aristocratic elite in power.

Chile's 1925 constitution officially disbanded the alliance between the Roman Catholic Church and the state. The constitution recognized the free exercise of all religions. It gave other religious groups the right to own property and to erect churches. Moreover, the government would no longer provide financial support to the Church. In the following decades, the Catholic Church gradually became a religious body that better represented Chilean society as a whole. Today, it no longer allies itself automatically with conservative elements of the government. Chile's Roman Catholics generally respect the rules of the Church, but many members reject some of the conservative views of the Vatican. Many, for example, practice birth control. Many also support marriage of the clergy and, to some extent, abortion.

The number of Roman Catholics has been declining since 1970. At the same time, the Protestant population has been increasing. About 90 percent of Chile's total population was Roman Catholic in 1970. Slightly more than 6 percent was Protestant at the time. The 1992 census shows that 77 percent of the population declared itself Roman Catholic. The number of Protestants more than doubled between 1970 and 1992, increasing from 6 to 13 percent. The increase in Protestants was primarily caused by Catholics converting to evangelical Protestant sects. Other religious groups include members of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Orthodox faiths.


Chile enjoys one of the highest literacy rates in South America, just over 95 percent. Aside from the Bible, the most famous literary work among Chileans is La Araucaria, by Alonso de Ercilla y Zuftiga, a sixteenth-century Spanish soldier turned poet. Ercillia was bom in Madrid, Spain, in 1533. When he was 23 years old, he went to Lima, Peru, and joined a Spanish expeditionary force with the rank of captain. The Spanish Viceroy of Peru sent the force to Chile to fight the Araucanian Indians there. Ercillia remained in Chile for only three years (1556 to 1559). He returned to Lima and then went back to Spain, where he wrote La Araucaria, a 3,000-verse epic poem. Every school child reads La Araucaria, not as much for itsliterary quality as for its value as a meaningful description of the birth of the new nation. Ercillia's poetic brush depicts two rival warriors—the Araucania Indian and the Spanish soldier. He describes both as heroes struggling for the same land but for different and equally noble reasons. La Araucana is important, because Ercillia merges the power, bravery, and character of the two heroes into a single spirit. Because Chile is a mestizo country, the poem helps Chileans define who they are as a people. Literary historians recognize Ercilla as a great poet, mainly for the brilliance of La Araucana. He died in Spain in 1594, at the age of 62.

Two modern Chilean poets have won the Nobel Prize for literature: Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. As Nobel Prize winners, they are major figures in Chilean, Latin American, and world literature. Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was a teacher in several rural elementary and secondary schools. She was a private person who lived very simply. Her private nature cloaked the sensitivity and compassion of her poetry. When Mistral was 17, she fell in love with a man who later committed suicide. Mistral's best book, Desolacion (Desolation), published in 1922, expressed her bittersweet feelings of losing a lover. She received the Nobel Prize in 1945, making her the first Chilean, the first Spanish American, and the first woman writing in Spanish to receive the award. Mistral's life and poetry was not a matter of public controversy, so she was accepted in political circles. She became a Chilean diplomat and represented Chile as a cultural attache in various countries of Europe and in the United States. She never married, although she adored children, and eventually settled in Roslyn, New York, where she died. Langston Hughes translated some of her poems into English in Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.

The poems of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) often used images of the countryside and common people as his subjects, because they dealt with the human sorrows of abandonment and solitude. He received the Nobel Prize in 1971,26 years after Mistral received the prize. (Neruda was Latin America's third recipient of the award; the second was Miguel Angel Asturias, a Guatemalan novelist, in 1967.) As a teenager, Neruda lived in the town of Temuco, where he met Mistral, who was an undiscovered poet teaching elementary school there. She encouraged his writing and at 13, he published some articles in the local daily newspaper.

Growing up, Neruda became a much more controversial figure than Mistral. He was flamboyant and liked to spend money on lavish homes. He married several times, and his private life was public knowledge. Neruda also was more combative about politics than was Mistral. He became a member of the Communist Party as an outspoken champion of the poor laborer. He won election as senator of Tarapaca and Antofagasta, the mining provinces of the Norte Grande. In 1946, because of his leftist political views, the government forced him into exile in Argentina. He escaped by foot and horseback across the southern Andes.

Neruda returned to Chile and became the Communist Party candidate for president of 1969. He ran against his old friend Salvador Allende, the Popular Unity Party's candidate. Allende won the election, but he appointed Neruda ambassador to France. Neruda received the Nobel Prize while he was in France. He died in 1973, shordy after Allende was killed in a military coup. Neruda died a rich man and left his wealth to the Chilean people through a charitable foundation. Some of his work is available in English translation, such as Heights of Macchu Picchtiy The Stones of Chile, and Passions and Impressions.

Chile's most famous living writer is Isabel Allende (1942- ), the niece of Salvador Allende. This fact helped her become recognized as an author. Her own talent as a writer places her among the best contemporary Latin American novelists. Her writing is fictional, but her characters teach much about the mystical qualities of people. Her early works dealt with settings and characters in Latin America. She moved to the United States after her uncle was thrown out of power in 1973. Since then, her poems have involved North America, as well as Latin America.


Chile's cultural interests extend beyond literature to include the entire range of artistic expression. Santiago contains the Palace of Fine Arts, the National Library, the National Ballet, symphony orchestras, and theater companies. The performing arts, especially dance and music, play key roles in Chile's ethnic and national identity.

The cuencOy which originated in the countryside, is Chile's national dance. It is a traditional part of Independence Day (September 18) celebrations. Dancers perform the cuenca in various ways depending on their regional or ethnic origins. No matter the version, it involves an aggressive, strutting male courting a shy but flattered female. Using metaphors, Castillo-Felix, author of Culture and Customs of Chile, imagined the dance as “a reenactment of the cock's courting of the hen, the amorous wooing of a couple, or even the attempt of a huasco (Chilean cowboy] to lasso a young mare.” Typically, a male and female dance around one another, “brandishing handkerchiefs, in step to music played by instruments such as the guitar, the harp, and the accordion, as one or more singers tell a story.” Ethnic folk music includes various songs and tunes that recall lives of ordinary people plus historical events or celebrations rooted in history. The music (and dance) is evident in different forms depending on the ethnic group. It is typical music of the countryside but often appeals to the city dweller as well.

The folk band Inti Illimani (pronounced Inte-E-gee-mane in the Aymara language) is perhaps the most internationally famous Chilean group. Its music is of the classical Andean type. Andean music is unique, because it combines string instruments from other cultures with instruments that are native to South America. The string instruments include the acoustic (nonelectrical) guitar, tipla (a four-stringed instrument that sounds like a harpsichord), and charango (a mandolin-like instrument that has an armadillo shell as the sounding board). Indigenous instruments include bamboo panpipes (zampoflas), the cane flute (quena, which is made from a hollowed out sugarcane stalk), and the turtleback-shaped ocarina (which is made of clay). The rain stick (palo de lluvia) is a dried cactus branch filled with small beads. The musician holds the instrument upright and then inverts it. The beads pour from one end of the stalk to the other to make the sound of falling rain. The tambourine (of various origins) and the bombo (a drum of African origin) are typical percussion instruments.

The nation's present-day music is in a parallel universe. A syrupy harmony of international pop dominates the airwaves. At the same time, a fervent, moral rhythm—“New Song”— hangs on in the background. “New Song” is a type of folk music. In the late 1960s, inspired by the hardships of poor miners, tenant farmers, and factory workers, the early lyrics protested against the bleak life and hopelessness that oppression and poverty bring. The early songs became popular among Marxists, socialists, and other groups who wanted radical changes in government. Contemporary lyrics support change, but they are less divisive and appeal to a broader range of Chileans.

The New Song music reminds people that their multicultural heritage makes them a stronger nation and that the “haves” should be willing to help the “have-nots.” The turbulent politics of the 1960s gave birth to the music, and the movement reached its peak of acclaim during the Allende presidency, because it appealed to leftists. These people believed that the aristocracy should be stripped of its power. The movement hid underground during the Pinochet dictatorship, when leftists were viewed as enemies of the state. The present openness has resurrected New Song.

Viola Para (1917-1967) and Victor Jara (1934-1973) are the most famous New Song artists. They both died tragically. Viola Parra is the “mother” of the movement. She was a gifted singer, prolific composer, and brilliant songwriter. Tormented by personal problems, Parra committed suicide at age 50. In the late 1960s, American singer Joan Baez sang Para's best song—“Gracias a la vida” (I Give Thanks to Life)—at popular concert performances, making Para an international celebrity posthumously (after death).

Like Viola Para, Victor Jara composed and sang many songs that would become part of the New Song movement. In the days following the military coup in 1973 that gave rise to Pinochet's dictatorship, government troops rounded up thousands of supposed enemies of the state. The troops took them to Santiago's National Stadium for questioning. Jara was among the prisoners. Military interrogators tortured and killed hundreds of people at the stadium. The 29-year-old Jara was among them.

Victor Jara of Chile
Lived like a shooting star
He fought for the people of Chile
With his songs and his guitar
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

—“Victor Jara.” Lyrics by Adrian Mitchell, music by Arlo Guthrie (1990). Source: Lyrics Connection.

During the remainder of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, political and governmental deterioration led to the deaths of outspoken leftist leaders, like Victor Jara, and to other horrific acts. Since 1990, the country has undergone political reconciliation and now has a more stable government.