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Saying "I do" to Chile

English-speaking foreign wives try to get a handle on their new home.

Tourists look at the Santiago skyline at San Cristobal hill, May 22, 2004. The listserv Chilespouses is no place for tourists, says one of its members. Tourists don’t worry about registering to vote or paying social security taxes. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

SANTIAGO, Chile — When Cathy Casanga relocated to Santiago with her Chilean husband, she needed other women to help her figure the place out. So the lonely gringa started Chilespouses: an online support group for foreign, English-speaking wives of Chilean men.

Ten years later, the 500-plus virtual community is the best virtual meeting place in town to make connections. It's also a reflection of the changing face of Chile.

Lifers — women who have come to Chile to stay — describe Chilespouses as a "lifeline." Following the catastrophic earthquake that rocked the country in late February, Chilespouses redefined the meaning of the word.

Using the same internet listserv they use for shopping tips and cultural queries, members responded to the emergency by organizing aid caravans and searching for missing people. Casanga, for example, tracked down an elderly couple still incommunicado after several days, in response to a plea from a Chilespouse member a continent away.

“They were fine,” she reported. “They reminded me of my parents.”

Surrogate family is a big part of what Chilespouses is all about. So is getting a handle on Chile and easing the immersion process after saying “I do” to what, theoretically, is a lifelong commitment to a Chilean partner and the likelihood of a long residence in his country.

So maybe it wasn’t as strange as it seemed when, just hours after the earthquake, another Chilespouse posted an urgent appeal for waiters in formal dress for a wedding dinner party that no earthquake was going to derail.

“This is no place for tourists,” said writer Margaret Snook, referring not to Chile but to this community of women who followed their hearts — or found them here. Tourists don’t worry about registering to vote, paying into two social security systems or discovering that their Chilean husband’s first wife is the sister of the new boss.

The foreign wives of Chileans can best be described as “new migrants,” in the parlance of recent newspaper articles on the growing visibility and contributions of foreign women.

For the record, the most numerous contingent of foreign women migrating to Chile are not educated, English-speaking women but undocumented Peruvians working as maids. They are often invisible to society despite the invaluable support they provide to the working mothers of Chile, including many Chilespouses.

Maids, and how much to pay them, are a perennial topic on the Chilespouses listserv. Fulltime household help is a privilege that few Chilespouses grew up with back home. The “nana” is a ubiquitous social institution that many find hard to adjust to at first and even harder to do without, given the difficulty of raising children far from family and friends.

The older women in the group know this story well. Some have been here for more than 40 years. This is the generation of women who probably met their Chilean paramour back in the days when he was a graduate student or exile adrift in the U.S., Canada or Europe — intrepid women whose parents must have had to swallow hard when their daughters announced they were following Prince Charming to a country of political turmoil (pre-1973) or military rule (through 1989) and no divorce.