Interview: How Black Feminists in Chile are Challenging The Country's Whitewashed Identity

Black Chilean feminists marching with raised fists

Photo courtesy of Red de mujeres Afrodiaspóricas

We spoke with members of a new Afro-diasporic network about how black and indigenous Chileans are being scapegoated during the COVID-19 crisis and how they're pushing back.

Racism is nothing new in Chile—discrimination against its Indigenous Mapuche community was present at the South American country's creation and remains widespread today. In recent weeks, 27 Mapuche prisoners have gone on hunger strike in protest of their current treatment by the government. Afro-Chileans have also faced prejudice in the hundreds of years they have lived in the country.

While not to the same extent as some other regions of Latin America, thousands of enslaved people were brought to Chile from Africa during the Spanish colonial era. The fight for those of Afro-descent to be recognized has been long—with some organizations like Oro Negro and Lumbanga forging the way. But changes to the country's population in the last decade have created a need for new advocacy groups. Chile's Black and Afro-diasporic community has grown in recent years from migration, due especially to the Haiti earthquake, an increase of violence in Colombia, and to the complex humanitarian emergency in Venezuela, making representative groups like the Red de mujeres Afrodiaspóricas, a network launched earlier this year, important.

Black and Indigenous communities, both migrant and native to Chile, have historically been used as scapegoats for various social problems experienced in the country—and the circumstances under COVID-19 have been no different.

"There is a racist imaginary which tends to construct non-white people as criminals, irrational, opportunistic and saboteurs of the supposed normality," says Camila Lima, a founding member of the Red de mujeres Afrodiaspóricas. "This has been exacerbated in the context of the pandemic, and it is very evident that the traditional mass media are trying to strengthen the narrative of Black and Indigenous people as dirty and irresponsible."

Black Chilean feminist wearing a political T-shirt that says ser mujer negra es mi esencia no mi sentenciaPhoto courtesy of Red de mujeres Afrodiaspóricas

The network was born before the pandemic hit Chile, back in January, during a multi-national meeting in Santiago "Of Those Who Fight," an encounter of feminist collectives willing to discuss new parameters for building an inclusive future.

Women from different territories, cultures, races and narratives came together for three days to think and debate different realities. Three organizations—Negrocentricxs, MicrosesionesNegras and the Luanda Collective—were called to co-build an "anti-racist axis." Many had one main goal in mind, however: try to make the world an inclusive place for all.

But since then, the first year of the network has already been a turbulent one, filled with new obstacles created by COVID-19. In Chile in particular, the pandemic has affected the lives of many, especially vulnerable migrants that depend on informal jobs and face xenophobia on a daily basis. Still, the team of 31 women keep their objectives clear: to connect collectives of Black feminists; support Black women; and to provide information regarding anti-racism and how to be an anti-racist ally.

In recent months, the team has worked hard to support victims of arbitrary evictions, distribute help to those who have been left without a source of income, and denounce discrimination based on race that has found its way inside narratives promoted by both the central government and Chilean media that blame vulnerable communities for the spread of the virus.

OkayAfrica interviewed Lima, 25, and another Santiago-based network member, Ana Carolina Amaral, 24, over email to understand more about the importance of intersectional discourse in feminist movements and how race has become a critical factor when studying the effects of the pandemic in Chile. The answers reflect both their responses.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OkayAfrica: Migrant communities have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Chile. How do vulnerabilities of migrants overlap with race-based bias?

Camila Lima and Ana Carolina Amaral: There is a strategy to individualize the blame for the infections, ignoring the precarious realities of racialized and impoverished migrant communities. This is partly because of the construction of Chilean neoliberal laws. Chile's immigration laws [for instance] reflect an "internal security" position that sees racialized migrants as a threat to the supposed order and purity of the country. However, there are benefits and protection for people who migrate from Europe—mainly white people.

The Chilean immigration system has a clear distinction of class, race and territory. One of the situations that has arisen from this is the supposed "humanitarian plan of return," which offers aid and flights for migrants to return to their home countries—mainly Haiti, Colombia, Dominican Republic and Venezuela. But with the condition that neither the person who signs, nor any member of their family, may return to Chile for at least nine years.

Black Chilean feminists holding signs, wearing masks, and protesting racism.Camila Lima, Ana Carolina Amaral and other activists at a rally in Chile.Photo courtesy of Red de mujeres Afrodiaspóricas

Since the pandemic started, different collectives have denounced racism from the government and the media in Chile. Why is it important to call out narratives that perpetuate stigma and prejudices?

Initially, a large percentage of COVID-19 infections in Santiago came from white-mestizo and wealthy people who contracted it on international trips. This situation gradually changed, because the necessary conditions were never provided so that the impoverished population that offers services to the wealthy could be quarantined without risking being on the street or starving. This is complemented by the government's management [of the pandemic response]. Its priority was to strengthen companies and employers over employed people, and at the same time, carry out a criminalization strategy against people who did not respect quarantine for having to work.

It is worth mentioning that the neoliberal constitution of Chile, created during dictatorship and still in force, does not allow for the regulation of prices in the market, which led to high inflation and a false shortage of masks, gloves, toilet paper, gel alcohol and other crucial items to prevent contagion. This allows us to identify the clear intention to individualize the blame for the infections, and to deny the government's social responsibility to provide protection to the population.

There was also a media circus where journalists—accompanied by police officers—recorded people inside public transport to humiliate those who did not have masks. [The recordings were played on national television.]

There was another particularly inflammatory instance where several caravans of journalists went to "expose" a shelter where 31 people had been infected, all migrants from Haiti. These people were blamed, described as dirty and unable to respect the laws of the country, basically as the cause of the spread of the virus. What this narrative chooses to ignore is the job, health and social precariousness of racialized migrants, which exposes them to work without a contract and without guarantees in case of contagion.

Days after this incident, a Haitian man, Jean Ricot Luis, 31, was shot and killed reportedly by the person who was subletting his home to Luis and other Haitian migrants, for not wanting to vacate the house. This is an example of the consequences of harmful coverage, that television's racist and xenophobic campaign kills.

Photo courtesy of Red de mujeres Afrodiaspóricas

Is there a misconception that there are no Black people in Chile?

Black people have always been present in the territory, but Chile has a deeply whitewashed identity, which denies the presence of Indigenous and Black people. It's a common statement that doesn't reflect the reality of the Chilean and [neighbouring] Argentine colonial process. In fact, the port of Valparaíso played a role in the trafficking of enslaved Black people to the continent, and to deny that history is to protect the elites who enriched themselves with indigenous and black slave labor. It also reflects the racism present in Chilean white and mestizo people, since they alienate blackness and, therefore, racism is constructed as an outside problem, excommunicating the responsibility that white and white-mestizo people have regarding anti-racism as a crucial part of social struggles in Chile.

What has been the role of the Afro-diasporic community in responding to complaints and helping during a state of emergency?

Given the pandemic contingency, we have been active through ethno-education on social media. Also, it's important to understand that many of the women who combine activism with Black feminism deal with the same precariousness that we denounce, therefore, many of us don't have the material resources to offer relief and economic containment to Black people who are in situations of impoverishment, overcrowding or violence.

Our wish is to be able to strengthen ourselves as an organization to have more tools to offer more concrete aid. However, educational work is profoundly important, and we consider ourselves very privileged to be able to use our organizational position to reverberate the demands of Black movements and to bring anti-racist strategies to white people who wish to join this fight. Since we started, many Black women—Chileans and migrants—have come to us to let us know that our work has helped them in their process of anti-racist political recognition and training.

Photo courtesy of Red de mujeres Afrodiaspóricas

Do you think that Chilean feminist movements involve the anti-racist fight? How do you position yourselves against hegemonic or white feminism?

Unfortunately, it has been very difficult to integrate the views and requests of Black feminisms into the Chilean mainstream feminist movement. Most times, racial issues are only discussed when some highly visible racist act occurs, such as the death of George Floyd. Also, when racism is discussed, it is presented as something separate from gender violence, that is, the intersectionality of race and gender is not taken into account, which invisibilizes the complex obstacles that non-white women face.

Hegemonic or white feminism often demonstrates a lack of understanding of the colonial and Eurocentric origins of gender roles. We cannot speak of violence in the territory of Abya Yala [in what is now South East Panama and North West Colombia] without speaking of the imposition of Catholicism and racist colonial processes. It is crucial to understand that the archetype of "woman" that is imposed is born from a white imaginary, and if we see the history of slavery of Black and Indigenous people, we can clearly see that this construction of women as fragile and unable to carry out productive work never applied to non-white women.

What practices do you propose to overcome biased narratives from government spokespersons and press?

We try to permeate spaces for political discussion, both civil and governmental, in order to establish the demands of Black feminisms. It's important for us to participate in instances of feminist action and reflection and expose intersectional epistemology, which views oppressions in an articulated way, to expose the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality and abilities interact, generating particular experiences of womanhood.

On the other hand, we are very happy with the network's blog, where Black women from different territories propose critical visions against different realities. It is very important for us to have a platform that reverberates Black voices and reflections, both for a Black audience and for anti-racist allies.

Gabriela Mesones Rojo is the editorial manager of Caracas Chronicles and Cinco8 and bilingual writer and journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @unamujerdecente. She reported this story from Santiago.