CULTURE History of Chile

The People Behind the Place Names

Chile is filled with places named after notable Chileans. It often happens, however, that their original accomplishments are lost in time, and the only remnant is the place name itself. Chile Today explores some of the people behind the names.

Chilean history is packed with a long list of notable people. Some are lauded with monuments, plazas, and other public spaces in their name. As happens everywhere, however, many of these people are forgotten as their landmarks persist, meaning that people frequent these places without knowing who their namesakes were.

Chile Today shines a light on some of these locations and the people behind them.

Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport

Built in 1961, the Santiago International Airport was originally called Pudahuel Airport. In 1980, it was renamed after Arturo Merino Benítez, the founder of the Chilean Air Force and the national airline (LAN), in order to honor his numerous achievements in Chilean aviation.

Born in 1888, Arturo Merino Benítez, joined the military academy at the age of 14. After he graduated, he took part in a conference where he defended the idea of investing in planes, machine guns, and canons instead of cavalry forces. When he was 38, he also obtained his pilot’s license after being named the head of the aviation school, which at that moment was still a branch of the army.

On March 21, 1930, he became the first sub-secretary of aviation, in charge of the newly-created Chilean Air Force. In 1932, he was named Commandant-in-Chief of the Air Force, becoming the first person to hold the title.

He also supervised the creation of the national airline more commonly known as LAN. After retiring in 1933, he would go on to become vice president of LAN from 1952 until 1954, during which he helped expand their network all the way to Antarctica. He died in 1970 at the age of 81.

Baquedano Plaza

Baquedano plaza was originally created in 1875, and had the name Plaza La Serena, which changed to plaza Colón in 1892, followed by Plaza Italia in 1910. In 1928, it officially became known as Plaza Baquedano, named after General Manuel Jesús Baquedano, a war hero whose military career spans nearly 50 years.

Baquedano came from a military family. That’s why when he was 12, he stowed away in his father’s boat to Peru, in order to join the fight in the war against the Peru-Bolivia confederation in 1838. With no way to send him home, his father incorporated him into a battalion, where he managed to reach the rank of Lieutenant at the age of 16, followed by an unstoppable military career.

When the 1851 Civil War broke out, Baquedano’s support of President Manuel Montt meant that he was forced to fight against his father. After Montt’s victory, Baquedano stayed in the army until 1854, when he dedicated himself to agriculture.

In 1859, however, Baquedano went back into military service, becoming heavily involved in defeating Mapuche rebels in the area.

When the War of the Pacific broke out in 1879, Baquedano was Commander-in-Chief of the Army and ran the land campaign in Peru and the occupation of its capital. When he returned to Chile in 1881, he was hailed as a hero and greeted with parades in Valparaíso and Santiago. He retired again that same year.

He was elected senator of Santiago twice, during which he created the Military Academy. After the Civil War of 1891, the defeated President José Manuel Balmaceda gave him the presidency, but, Baquedano not having taken a side during the war, handed it to Navy Captain Jorge Montt three days later. Baquedano died in 1897 at the age of 74.

Besides the plaza, several things have been named after Baquedano, including the following: a subway station, which is situated beneath the plaza; Baquedano Street in Iquique; the Baquedano Mountains, a small mountain range in the south; and two Chilean Navy ships.

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Manuel Montt Avenue

Manuel Montt Avenue is located in Providencia and marks the start of Balmaceda Park. Currently, it is considered one of the gastronomic centers of the city, with various restaurants and bars located throughout the street. It also gave the name to the Manuel Montt Metro station, located at the corner where the subway station intersects with Providencia Street.

It was named after former Chilean President Manuel Montt. Born to an aristocratic family in 1809, he went on to study law in 1822, becoming a lawyer and a professor in 1832. Pursuing his passion for politics, he joined the movement known as the Pelucones  (“Long-hairs”), which consisted of aristocratic conservatives. They received their name due to their use of white-powdered wigs.

In the Pelucones, Montt was a standout due to his intelligence. In 1840, he ran for Congress and won. That same year he was named Minister of the Interior by President José Joaquín Prieto. Montt was then rotated through six different ministries before becoming Ministry of War, a title that he would keep until the end of President Manuel Bulnes’s term in 1851. During this period, he supervised many projects, including the creation of the University of Chile.

In September 1851, Montt was elected president of Chile, becoming the first without a military background. His cabinet was composed of mostly young men, with the average age being 36. During his administration, Chile made great progress in industrialization. His administration created the Chilean Railways and Telegram, supported scientific expeditions to the north, and what would later become known as Banco Estado, the state-run bank.

After Montt left office he kept himself busy by going back to Congress and with a stint as a justice on the Supreme Court. He died in 1880.

After his death, Montt was seen as an authoritarian leader, but with time historians have been able to see that his government managed to transform Chile from a former colony to an industrialized country. His name can be found in schools and medicine centers throughout the country.

Balmaceda Park

Located in Providencia, Balmaceda Park was constructed in 1930 when the Mapocho River was diverted, leaving a large patch of land which was used for the park. Originally called the Japanese Park, after World War II, its name was changed to Great Britain Park in honor of the allied forces. In 1949, its name was changed, again, to Balmaceda Park in honor of José Manuel Balmaceda, who was the first president to divert the flow of the Mapocho.

Balmaceda was born in 1840, and a man of many professions. He first studied to be a priest, followed by a stint as the personal secretary to Montt in 1864, before becoming a journalist. In 1870, he was elected to Parliament, a position that he held until 1882, when he was named temporary minister so that he could negotiate with Argentina during the War of the Pacific.

Thanks to his success in Argentina, Balmaceda was kept as a minister, first in the Ministry of Foreign Relations, followed by the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of War. In 1886, he announced his candidacy for president, six months later he was declared the winner of that year’s election.

From the beginning, his administration was characterized by a deep political crisis that was represented by Balmaceda’s conflict with Congress. The main focus of the conflict was that the president used Chile’s newly-acquired wealth on bettering public infrastructure, like diverting the Mapocho river, but members of the higher social classes did not support this massive spending, which meant that most of the Congress did not support it either.

This conflict came to a head when, in 1891, Congress refused to approve his annual budget. Frustrated, Balmaceda decided to circumvent Congress and use the same budget as last year, which had already been approved. This caused Congress to declare him a dictator and initiate a Civil War which ended in August 1891, when he gave the presidency to General Baquedano, took refuge in the Argentinian Embassy, and killed himself on Sep. 19, 1891.

Initially, Balmaceda was seen as an authoritarian, but with time history’s view of him has softened. There is even a city bearing his name in the Patagonia.

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