Is the South a mirage?

A recent workshop in Valparaiso has revealed a contradiction in the Idea of South between the view from above and below. It’s a contradiction between romance and realism which is felt particularly keenly in Chile.

The University of Valparaiso has a small but adventurous design course where students go out to work with a remote community with a mission to develop product for a broader market. It’s an open process based on the personal relationships that students are able to forge with local residents.

The meeting of these two halves, urban and rural, offers an interesting space for considering the identity of South. In a workshop, the students worked on some exercises to consider Chile’s position in the South.

The first exercise was to create a world market. By this method, it is possible to consider the kinds of identity that Chile has on the international stage. First, the students identified some typical persons in a market. Chileans often feel they are characterised as thieves, having a hard time when entering shops in the North. The students avoided this role, but assigned Chile relatively peripheral roles, such as Acomodator de Auto (the man who looks after cars on the street) or Vendador Ambulante (the man who roams around selling things from a cart). The feeling was that the Chilean would be streetwise: he would get to know all the people in the market and learn how things work behind the scenes.

Acomodador de Auto   Chile      
Turista USA Gringolandia Gringos   Chile
Dueña de casa     Perú   EE UU
Feriante Turco     Chile  
Artesano   Perú   Boliviano  
Pescadero   Japón Chile Japón  
Cocinero   Italia Francia   India
Músico México   Brasil   Francia
Carabinero Ruso     Ingles  
Ladrón         España
Vendedor ambulante Chile        
Carcinero       Argentino  

The second exercise was to design a display for Chilean products in an exclusive gift store in New York. This display was framed by the statement, ‘Chile es un país del Sur, donde…’ (‘Chile is a country of the South, where…’) Students had to complete this statement. They came up with:

  • · …lo natural brinda la oportunidad (where nature supports opportunity)
  • · …toda se transforma (all is transformed)
  • · …existen contrastes naturales y gente cálida (there is contrasting nature and warm people)
  • · …se sirven la tradición (they serve up tradition)
  • · …el comer se vincula a la tierra (the link between food and earth)

The sentences had many layers of meaning that are difficult to convey in English. But the overall direction is clear.

The majority of groups developed stories about Chile that celebrated its rootedness. Chile was a country where you might enjoy the simple fruits of nature, discover the ancient cultures or connect with community. This certainly resonated with established consumer interests, in areas like slow food and Indigenous art. But it did not connect with the picture of Chile as streetwise, making do’ with what it can find. Only one group touched on this. Toda se transforma was a display of Chilean goods that were essentially the from the global market, including Barbi dolls and Bart Simpson. All, however, slight alternations to make them ‘Chilean.’

The position of Chile in the South is complex and deserves a separate post. But this workshop exposed a contradiction in Southern identity. To the North, the default image of the South consists of roots—nature, tradition, community, Indigeneity. But to the South itself, what is most salient is often inauthenticity—backwardness, laziness, and general inability to reach the standards of the ‘developed’ world.

One challenge is to consider whether the ‘inauthentic’ identity of a county like Chile is something that is more meaningful on the world stage than the sentimental romance about a grounded culture down there. The market needs someone behind the scenes who gets to know the vendors, helps fix the stalls and lets people know what’s up.

A popular Chilean film at the moment is MirageMan, which depicts an ordinary man in Santiago who attempts to become a superhero by sheer hard work—cutting out and assembling his uniform by hand and working on this physique. He jumps from tall buildings, and hurts himself. Gets up, dusts himself down, and limps on. In the end, he is shot, and dies. It’s a brutal realism, but somehow MirageMan manages to make a small difference for the better in his world. In the Pantheon of Superheroes, MirageMen looks fairly ridiculous alongside SpiderMan or SuperMan. But in relation to life as it is lived on the street, MirageMan towers above them all.

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