|SANTIAGO — It is estimated that half a million people lost their jobs in the wake of the 2019 social unrest. The coronavirus pandemic has brought that number close to two million. Amid this economic and social backdrop, Chile Today interviewed 10 people who have taken the brunt of the crisis.
Two Self-Taught Artists Selling Pieces on the Streets of Santiago
Right at the end of José Victorino Lastarria street, almost at the conjunction with Merced, street vendors set up stands. Books, clothes, posters, and paintings are found in the narrow alley. Ángel Castellano (19) and Jean Vásquez (21) sit on the floor, next to a blanket where they show their art.
The two self-taught artists go out every day to the streets in downtown Santiago to sell their artwork. Their preferred spots are between the Lastarria neighborhood and the Museum of Fine Arts.
“Before the pandemic, I was studying. I was already in my fourth year of psychology, but I had to quit school because of this whole crisis,” says Vásquez. His business partner, Castellano, studied art for a semester but was forced to quit as well. Both are now full-time street vendors.
“I have been creating art since I was six or seven years old … I have improved and mastered some techniques over the years, but it’s always been a part of who I am,” says Castellano.
Even though they have painted for years, it was not until recently that they started selling their work. In Oct. 2019, they partnered up to sell their art on the streets.
Both agree that even though the social unrest of 2019 left many people unemployed, it was helpful for street vendors.
“This street was crowded from October on, because of the protests. So we got to sell a lot of paintings and drawings. The shops were closed because of everything that was going on, so it was good for informal sellers like us. The marches also made people aware of the importance of supporting local businesses and buying handmade craft,” says Castellano.
“And also, since the police forces were busy dispersing the protests over at Plaza Dignidad, they didn’t even show up here or ask us to leave like they usually do, so we sold a lot,” adds Vásquez.
The past few months, however, Vásquez and Castellano have not been able to sell as much because of the Covid-19 restrictions.
“It has been complicated because our only source of income is selling our drawings. In my case, my mom is also a craftswoman and she is a street vendor as well, so we weren’t able to sell stuff for a while … We were living off of my grandmother’s pension but, as you probably know, pensions in Chile are not the best, it’s not much money, so we struggled a lot,” says Castellano.
Vásquez says that “it was very frustrating not having any income for months, because this is what we do for a living. But it also had an upside to it. I think the pandemic opened my eyes in some way.”
“Definitely,” says Castellano, “it gave us the time to focus on ourselves, on our art … it helped me realize that this is what I want to do forever.”
A Restaurant Owner Near Plaza Dignidad
The restaurant “Les Assassins” is about 500 m from Plaza Italia, an iconic place of the protests. It has been dubbed “Plaza Dignidad” (“Dignity Square”) by the protesters that gathered there every day for months.
Juan Carlos Cheyre (76) has owned Les Assassins since 1965. The green structure has windows all across the facade. Most had to be replaced after protesters broke them last year.
“This area here turned into a war zone with protesters building barricades and throwing rocks at the police. It was terrible. Demonstrators destroyed the garden I had here in the front, they used my plants as barricades, they also broke my windows … What happened last year was a crime spree, not a social outbreak,” says Cheyre.
For over 50 years Cheyre has been serving food and beverages at his restaurant, but the past months have been different. As Plaza Italia was the center of the protests in Santiago, and some led to lootings of shops and restaurants, Cheyre decided to close Les Assassins in December. But he did not expect the coronavirus pandemic would prevent him from opening again. “I just reopened a week ago. I had the restaurant closed for almost a year.”
According to the business owner, the sales went down almost 90 percent right before he decided to close. “And this has been like a sabbatical year, but negative because there have only been expenses, and zero income. It has been tough.”
During the first week of reopening, Cheyre says there haven’t been many customers. “But it’s getting better than last year. Once the hotels open, I think the neighborhood will reactivate … That’s what I hope.”
In Cheyre’s opinion, the government’s handling of the social crisis and the pandemic has been good. “This administration has done an excellent job. They have helped a lot of people with financial support, for example. The problem is that people don’t appreciate that.”
The future for Les Assassins is rather uncertain, as Cheyre fears protests will resume. “I don’t even understand what these vandals want anymore. It seems to me that their idea is to destroy everything and have fun … If I have to close the restaurant again, I think that would be it for my business. I would try to sell it. If there is any interested buyer.”
A Venezuelan Stuck in Chile
Strawberries, oranges, bananas, and lettuce are exhibited in Robert Paredes’ stand, on a street in downtown Santiago. The 48-year-old comes from Venezuela and has been living in Chile for a year, but not by choice.
Paredes left Venezuela 20 years ago and lived in Europe for 14. “I am a certified cook. I studied the culinary [profession] for three and a half years in London, so that’s what I was doing in Europe, working as a chef … I lived in England for eight years, then Spain for three, and then the Netherlands.”
He went back to Venezuela in 2013 because his mother and grandmother still live there. But as the situation in his country worsened, he fled again to support his family. He spent a few years working as a chef in Colombia, then Peru. He arrived in Chile in October 2019. Right before the social outbreak.
“I planned to come to Chile, work for a few months, and earn some money to go back to Europe. I was helping at a restaurant in Viña del Mar when they burned everything. Protesters destroyed the restaurant … I came to Santiago, but the chaos was everywhere.”
Paredes says that, due to the crisis, violence soared in the streets of Santiago. He was robbed at Estación Central. “They took my personal effects and passport. And since Venezuela has a dictatorship, if you leave the country, they don’t give you a new passport as a way of punishing you for leaving. You go to the embassy and all they tell you is to wait until further notice, but that can take years.”
Unemployed and undocumented, he says the only thing he thought of doing was report his situation to Chilean authorities. “I went to the investigation police [PDI] to report myself and let the authorities know that I’m here. I have been waiting ever since for the regulation that the government said it was going to do for illegal immigrants like me.”
While he waited for an answer from Chilean or Venezuelan authorities, the coronavirus pandemic hit the country. Being unemployed since October, he had to spend the money from his savings.
“I ended up spending all my savings and was forced to move into a shelter for Venezuelans where I spent part of the quarantine, but the problem is they have a lot of restrictions. For example, you can’t go out once you’re in, otherwise you lose your spot. So I was unable to work and I really needed the money to support my family in Venezuela … I decided to leave the shelter and ended up on the streets.”
Paredes says he started looking for a job immediately but, in his experience, the Chilean working regulations are tough for immigrants. “I had no idea that the working permits here were this slow to process, they can take up to a year. And if you don’t have a permit, nobody gives you a job because they risk fines … So you’re forced into precarious jobs.”
He has been working at the vegetables stand for a couple of months. The owner of the business provided a room for him to sleep in, that Paredes pays with work. “Now I don’t earn much, but it’s better than nothing.”
As soon as his immigration situation gets solved, Paredes would like to carry on with his plans to go back to Europe. “I would get a regular job that pays more to try and process my passport. All so I can head to Europe until the situation in Venezuela stabilizes.”
A Street Performer Hoping to Go Back to School
Tachana Joseph (20), a full-time street performer, has been living in Chile for two years. Her parents are Haitian but emigrated to Venezuela before she was born. Two years ago, she was studying language at a university in Venezuela.
In a corner of Lastarria neighborhood, Joseph holds a microphone while she sings “I don’t want to talk about it” by Rod Stewart. There is a small bag on the floor where passers-by can drop some money.
“I come to sing here every day so that I can pay rent because everything has become more expensive … there are days that I do well and I earn like 9 or 10 lucas [US$12; luca is slang for CLP$1,000 ], but there are still not many people on the streets because of Covid.”
At the beginning of the year, Joseph only sang as a hobby, as she had a full-time job as a babysitter. But due to the pandemic, she lost that job and says she has been going out to sing on the streets every day since.
“Aside from helping my family with the basic expenses, I’m trying to save some money so that I can pay for my visa paperwork and go back to school.”
She also has “relatives living in Venezuela, so we always try to send them some money to help out because the situation there is terrible.”
When asked about how she experienced last year’s social outbreak, Joseph compared it to the Venezuelan situation. “It’s inevitable to think that Chile is heading down the same path. It’s surreal. As a foreigner, I came here to work and have a better life … I hope things get better. Chile is a wonderful country that has opened so many doors for me.”
Two Women Found a Job During the Pandemic
The health crisis had a huge impact on the economy. According to the Santiago Chamber of Commerce, Chile is the third most affected country in the world employment-wise due to Covid-19. According to the report, Chile registered a 21 percent drop in employment between March and July.
For Devora (40) and Sandra (54), however, the circumstances have been different. Both women found a job at the beginning of October and are now working as waste collectors in Bustamante Park.
“It is scary, though. You never know what you’ll pick from the trash … You could easily get infected. You have to be very careful with everything: what you touch, who you’re with. It’s scary being out here,” said Sandra.
Before, Sandra worked in construction, but lost her job due to the pandemic. She is happy to have found a new job, but repeated her fear of contracting the virus. Devora, on the other hand, was a homemaker. From March to September, she quarantined in her house.
Both women agree that the government’s response to the pandemic has been slow and insufficient.
“The government reacts when the numbers are already too high. They have not been very tough controlling what citizens do. No one is checking the temperature, doing identity checks to see if people are spreading, or simply checking if people are wearing masks or not. I think they have cared little for regular people like us,” said Devora.
“At least this company [where they are currently employed] has given us all the necessary equipment to stay clean and avoid getting infected, so they have handled it very well,” added Sandra.
Living on The Streets of Santiago For 45 Years
Near the intersection of Diagonal Paraguay and Avenida Portugal, in downtown Santiago, a man is sitting next to a tent. Only his upper body is visible while his legs are covered in blankets.
He lifts the blankets and shows a wheelchair. “I have to hide it here so that it doesn’t get stolen while I sleep.”
Jorge Pacheco (62) was hit by a car three months ago and has been unable to walk ever since.
“I was walking on Diagonal Paraguay when a car hit me. I fell to the ground and my friend took me to the Posta Central [public emergency hospital] where doctors put my leg in a cast and gave me medicine. Then I got transferred to several hospitals, but none of them treated me properly.”
Pacheco was born in Osorno, in southern Chile, but has been living on the streets of Santiago for 45 years. “I came here when I was a teenager because my parents died and I was all alone. I don’t have any siblings, I don’t have grandparents, aunts, uncles, nothing. I moved here and started over, on the streets.”
For Pacheco, being homeless and dealing with the pandemic has been a challenge. He was never able to “stay home,” as health authorities suggested. Even when a strict quarantine was in place in the district where he lives, he remained on the streets. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“I have not taken the necessary health measures to ward off the coronavirus, because I don’t have the means to do so … But I don’t think I have been infected, and at least the government has shown up a few times to give me food and blankets.”
He adds, “my problem right now is that I can’t apply for any financial aid from the government. I don’t have a bank account, I don’t have anything. On top of that, I literally can’t move, so I need someone to help me out with the necessary paperwork to see if I can get some money from the state during these times.”
Health Workers Facing Covid-19
María (55) and Eugenia (53) are nurse technicians and have been working in the field for 34 years. Both work at Hospital del Trabajador, in Santiago.
“This year has been hard. Very demanding. It has honestly been tough in every respect: emotional, here at work, in our houses … it’s been daunting, and it still is until this very day. There is still a lot of uncertainty,” said Eugenia.
They have worked non-stop since the pandemic hit the country in March. “We don’t get any days off. We were never quarantined at home like most people. On the contrary, it’s been non-stop working all year long,” said María.
They have had many Covid-19 patients in Hospital del Trabajador. As nurse professionals, they are in charge of examining the patients and accompanying them in every procedure. “We’ve been exposed every single day. And it is scary,” said María.
“It’s scary. Exposing ourselves and our families … and it’s infuriating to see people that have not become aware of the severity of this. The least they can do is wear a mask, and they still fail to do that. We need more awareness and self-care from the population,” added Eugenia.
Recently, millions voted in a historic referendum and decided to replace the Constitution that was written during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Many changes are expected to occur in the country.
“What we want, and what we have been fighting for, for a long time now, is the recognition of our profession in the health code. We hope the new Minister of Health can help us get that recognition,” said María.
“When people refer to healthcare workers they refer to doctors and nurses, but never to us TENS [nurse professionals], and we are the ones that have to be by the patients’ side 24/7, giving them psychological and physical support,” said Eugenia.
Edited by Claudio Moraga
Photos by Alisha Lubben
Fernanda Gándara is currently finishing her journalism degree at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She’s passionate about writing, environmental issues and women empowerment. You can find her on Twitter as @FerGMarchant