SANTIAGO — On her first night in Santiago, 20-year-old Julia Chavez slept on a bench in the capital’s main square, her suitcase by her side. She had arrived that day, and although she had enough money to rent a room, there was one little problem: She was Peruvian.
No one would give her a place to stay. Peruvian? No way, too many of you here already, Chavez heard from potential landlords. “People looked down on me and I felt so bad," Chavez recalled of that night in 1998 when she moved to Chile from Trujillo, Peru (where she worked as an asparagus peeler) to try to make a living for her siblings and widowed father.
But though her entry into Chile wasn't smooth, Chavez would soon join the ranks of what has become a virtual institution in Chile: Peruvian nannies.
Chileans love Peruvian nannies. They are polite, respectful and hard-working, and they pronounce Spanish infinitely better than Chileans, who are by far the most incomprehensible Spanish speakers in Latin America. In fact, some Chilean women say their children have learned to speak well thanks to their nannies.
And the popularity of Peruvian nannies has to do with more than their skill in the nursery.
“I’ve had two Peruvian nannies and both were excellent cooks," said Lucia Concha, a public relations officer. "The first one was practically gourmet. On Saturdays, she would go all out in the kitchen; everything was delicious. Chileans don’t cook as well."
Some nannies take the jobs with clear financial goals in mind.
For Concha’s second nanny from Peru, Ester Loyola, that goal was higher education for her son. She wanted him to go to university which, although free in Peru, comes with numerous other expenses. “Ester understood perfectly well that it was the only way to break the vicious cycle of poverty,” Concha said.
Loyola left her two children with her husband in her hometown, Chimbote. She kept little of her salary for herself, instead sending most of it home. The distance, however, weighed on Loyola. Her employers insisted she not lose sight of her objective, and they used the mileage they accumulated from flights to get Loyola plane tickets so she could visit her family twice a year.
Loyola's dream was eventually realized. Her son is now studying at a university in Lima, and she is back in Chimbote, where she opened a restaurant, Concha said.
Like Loyola, many of the nearly 80,000 Peruvian immigrants here — the majority of whom are women — left their families behind to try their luck in Chile, hoping to make enough money to send home, or to eventually bring their children. For many, it’s a difficult separation that becomes indefinite when they aren’t able to save enough to either return home or bring family members.
According to the Consulate of Peru in Santiago, most of these immigrants send home an average of $100 to $150 a month — which comes to a total of at least $60 million a year.
What can that sort of money buy in Peru? Milagro Leon, who sends $150 a month to her two children and mother, says that amount can pay rent in a wealthy Lima district. She would never be able to save that kind of money back home.
The massive influx of Peruvians began in the early 1990s, as they fled then-President Alberto Fujimori’s economic policies and political persecution.
The avalanche of illegal Peruvian immigrants — Peruvians today make up the second largest immigrant group in Chile, after Argentinians — became so unsustainable that in late 2007, the government issued a general pardon and allowed some 15,000 of them to obtain legal documents. Men usually find jobs in construction, while about 80 percent of women work as live-in or daytime nannies.
Chavez’s first job here was as a live-in nanny. It was also her worst. “My boss treated me so badly," she said. "She shouted at me and abused me verbally, accusing me of stealing the things she couldn’t find or keeping her house dirty. I worked around the clock seven days a week, taking care of her boy and the house, but everything I did was wrong."
Eight months later, after obtaining legal residence, Chavez moved on to better jobs. Since then, she says, she has learned to win respect. Her bosses, all Chilean women, have helped her in many ways. She hasn’t been able to return to Peru — not even when her father died last year. But she doesn’t regret it. She now has a Peruvian husband, a small child, and a generous employer.
She thinks Chileans prefer Peruvian nannies because they are honest, responsible, and don’t complain about everything like Chileans. They work harder, especially those who are illegal, she said.
But the illegal status of many Peruvian women makes them easy prey for exploitation, including sexual harassment. Many illegal Peruvians who were promised work as nannies have ended up working for free.
And despite the high esteem in which Peruvian nannies are held here, there's still plenty of racism toward Peruvian immigrants.
Chile is an insulated country with an indigenous population that was decimated, and Chileans aren't used to cultural diversity. Chile received an important flow of European immigrants in the 19th century and later after World War II, but it wasn’t until the end of military dictatorship in 1990 that Chile began attracting immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America and the world.
“Chileans are just now learning what Latin America is about,” said Jorge Alvarado, a Peruvian from Trujillo who has been here 10 years, and who works in construction. “Thanks to us immigrants,” he said, “Chileans are beginning to recognize themselves.”
Felix Boulangger, a 33-year-old Peruvian laborer, described the relationship: “Chileans think we are dirty, lazy and idle. But there are also dirty and lazy Chileans, and good and bad Chileans. We just have darker skin."
As if it were carefully synchronized, while Boulangger was speaking, a cab driver passed by and yelled out the window: “Get out of Chile, damn it!” None of the more than 30 Peruvians sitting nearby — in an area of Santiago that many now call "Little Lima" — blinked an eye.
"Little Lima" is the meeting place for Peruvian immigrants here, a spot where they can make inexpensive long distance calls, eat their own food, send money home and, if they're lucky, find a job — possibly as a nanny.
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