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Upon her shoulders

Times Staff Writer

HEMMED in by waitresses in skimpy pink outfits, Alejandra Gonzalez is unfazed about crashing one of this nation’s stoutest bastions of old-school male privilege. “It’s still a macho country,” Gonzalez says casually while polishing off the dregs of her coffee at the Cafe Caribe.

Sort of a missing link between a Hooters restaurant and a Playboy Club circa 1970, the Cafe Caribe is a peculiar institution. Though it serves mainly creamy coffee drinks and no alcohol, its all-female staff wears short, clingy cocktail-style dresses and high heels, and favors the mostly male clientele with obliging smiles and sympathetic nods.

But cultural change is in the air in this South American capital. On Saturday, President-elect Michelle Bachelet will officially take office, becoming the first female head of state in what historically has been regarded as South America’s most socially conservative country. A single mother, socialist and agnostic, she’s the antithesis of the traditional Chilean middle-class housewife.

Like many women here, Gonzalez says she’s excited about how Bachelet’s administration could improve the Second Sex’s economic and social standing. And though Gonzalez thinks that “we’ll have to wait at least a year to see what happens,” there already are signs that Chile’s gender status quo is being shaken up -- even at the Cafe Caribe and a handful of similar surviving downtown establishments.

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“Not long ago there weren’t many women here; it was only men. It was like a pact,” says Gonzalez, who sometimes stops by the cafe with her female colleagues from Santander bank. “Now you come in and drink a coffee in the afternoon and go back to work.”

In the weeks since Bachelet’s election, Chilean culture has begun to register subtle changes. Newsstands bristle with photos of a triumphant Bachelet, alongside the usual profusion of futbol magazines. A recent newspaper cartoon depicted a woman barking orders to her male spouse as she heads off to work.

Among the numerous women recently appointed to be ministers in Bachelet’s new Cabinet will be Paulina Urrutia, a former theater and television actress whose career embodies some of Chile’s deepest cultural contradictions. Urrutia, who will serve as the new culture minister, made her name professionally during the waning years of the ultraconservative Augusto Pinochet dictatorship by starring in a lengthy TV dramatization of the life of St. Teresa of the Andes. A Carmelite nun whom Pope John Paul II declared Chile’s first saint in 1987, St. Teresa made her vows of chastity at 15 and died of typhus a few months shy of her 20th birthday, in 1920, guaranteeing her a long afterlife as the ultimate symbol of Chilean female self-sacrifice. Yet she’s also remembered for her passionate, borderline-profane writings about her love of Christ. Urrutia went on in the post-Pinochet era to appear in telenovelas with such titles as “Temptation” and “Cinnamon Skin.”

Even by the machista standards of Latin America, Chile has been slow to offer women a place at the coffee bar, let alone in the corporate boardroom or the corridors of La Moneda, the presidential palace. It was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize divorce, little more than a year ago. Abortion remains illegal. Rates of domestic violence against women are high, says Marta Mauras Perez, secretary of the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean regional office here. Part of the reason, she believes, is “because of this tension and redefinition that is happening in Chilean society. And part of the tradition is that whatever happens inside your home is your own affair.”

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Indeed, the conservative spiritual mandates of the country’s powerful Roman Catholic Church, and the reactionary social policies of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-90), reinforced a long-standing cultural bias that home and church were the only places for respectable Chilean women. Though Chilean women as a group are among the best educated in Latin America, female workforce participation here is one of the lowest in the region, and many women who do work are in the underground economy, where they receive no benefits or pensions.

Mauras sees Bachelet’s ascendancy as the culmination of Chile’s 15-year transition back to democracy following Pinochet’s ouster, a slow (critics would say too slow) and orderly process that reflects Chileans’ penchant for following legalistic protocol. “The election of Bachelet is the ultimate sort of maturing of this gradual process back into democracy,” Mauras says.

Despite steady economic growth and a 50% reduction in poverty since 1990, Chile still is a country of deep economic disparities. Yet on the streets and in other public places, women of many different social classes talk of Bachelet’s election as a potential turning point in male-female relations and thus of society as a whole.

“It’s going to be a radical change for the country,” says Beatriz Hidalgo, 32, a widowed single mother who works at a downtown newsstand. “I think that for the culture in general, Latin Americans and South Americans are machos. But I think in Chile there is much more machismo than in other countries. The Chilean man doesn’t like to earn less than a woman. The man’s self-esteem is lowered when a woman is superior to him.”

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Bachelet’s emergence as the symbol of a new kind of Chilean woman is striking in a country with a historic dearth of prominent females. Chile has had no charismatic, self-dramatizing political diva like Argentina’s Eva Peron, no proto-feminist icon on the order of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Violeta Parra, a revered folk musician and committed socialist, whose song “Gracias a la Vida” (Here’s to Life) became a hit for Joan Baez, took her own life at age 50.

Towering above all Chilean women is Gabriela Mistral (nee Lucila Godoy Alcayaga), the Nobel Prize-winning poet, educator and diplomat. Yet asked to name some influential female cultural figures, Chilean women typically mention Mistral and perhaps the novelist Isabel Allende, who now makes her home in California, or a telenovela actress, then falter.

Maria Teresa Ruiz, a Princeton-educated, prize-winning astronomy professor at the University of Chile, says that as a girl she looked for inspiration to Madame Curie and her own grandmother, who was “very liberal” in her social beliefs and attitudes. Chilean professional women still labor under the presumption that they aren’t as capable as men, she believes. “The man is going to get the benefit of the doubt,” Ruiz says.

In the performing arts, Chile has produced a number of successful female dramaturges but far fewer women feature filmmakers. Director Alicia Scherson earned Chile’s official Oscar foreign-language nominee last year for her film “Play,” which examines the urban alienation of contemporary Santiago. But she says her country has produced only a handful of female feature filmmakers in the last 30 or 40 years. “You need, like, role models,” Scherson says. “It’s very hard to just start doing something if you don’t have a role model. In a way, there’s very few girls going into film schools right now, like after high school. They could, but they don’t have any model to follow.”

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In recent decades, Chilean women have acted at different times both as the country’s conservative ballast and as instigators of change. During the socialist presidency of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, 5,000 mostly middle- and upper-class Santiago women took to the streets to protest rising food prices in the so-called March of the Empty Pots and Pans, a piece of street theater that helped galvanize the right-wing opposition that eventually led to the Pinochet coup.

Women also were behind some of the first organized protests against Pinochet, says Margarita Maria Errazuriz, president of ComunidadMujer, a private, nonpartisan organization that includes many women professionals and seeks to advance political and social issues of particular interest to women. “They made resistance in the times of Allende, and they made them in the time of Pinochet.”

But women’s political power still wasn’t taken seriously, Errazuriz says, and when democracy began to return to Chile, women weren’t initially granted more influence or recognition. “There was a great disillusionment, frustration, of women,” she says.

The consensus here is that Bachelet’s predecessor, President Ricardo Lagos, was the first to bring significant numbers of women into his Cabinet.

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But more than any “role model” shortage, reproductive rights or domestic violence issues, or even the desire for more political power, Chilean women seem motivated by questions about how to balance the accelerating and conflicting demands of work and family life, a concern that cuts across social strata.

“Living in Chile, the workday lasts from 8:30 in the morning to 7 at night. And little flexibility exists for a woman to make the workday flexible to permit her to balance family duties with work,” says Loreto Seguel, 29, one of three business associates who run Mundo Marino, an all-natural frozen foods company. “That’s an important question in Chile, how are we going to develop that.”

Mauras believes that Chileans are “living a very, very profound transition culturally, not so much politically as culturally.”

“My own reflection is that we Chileans, and especially Chilean women, need to be very firm about supporting her [Bachelet’s] government, being critical if needed but also very firm, because it’s a real test,” Mauras says. “It’s a test of the change in society, whether it’s going to take root, and move ahead, or not.”

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Meaning that the days of the guy-friendly, female-ornamented coffee bar may be numbered?

“That’s a symbol of the machismo, although they’re disappearing, apparently,” Mauras says, laughing. “Starbucks is taking over.”


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