Saying "I do" to Chile

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.

But times change, and so has Chile. Politically, the country has come out of the shadows and into the limelight. “There’s certainly a lot more interest and curiosity about Chile now than when I announced that I was moving here,” said Casanga. Chile has a reputation (deserved or not) for being a prosperous, orderly country where you can go about your business without the political and social unrest that characterizes many of its Latin American neighbors. It's the regional leader in per capita internet connections. Email, Skype and webcams are now high on the list of essential household appliances for the foreign wife.

More recently, Santiago and Valparaiso have lured a steady stream of U.S. and European university students to learn Spanish and “experience” life in a foreign country. The year-abroad romance has ushered in a new generation of young women who meet their Latin lover here, go home to finish their studies and later return to Chile to hitch up and stay on.

As the Chilespouses membership criterion expands from spouse to partner, the group has also spawned a growing subset: the "De-spoused, Spouse-less, Newly Single, Separated, Divorced." Divorce finally became legal in 2004, in response to the dwindling marriage rate and high number of broken unions.

As with other virtual communities, in Chilespouses, the action takes place online. Each day, dozens of emails are exchanged concerning the ex-pats’ eternal quests for foods from home or the universal quest of women everywhere for a good haircut. "Datos" (tips) for recommended doctors, schools, handymen and the like are so popular that member Eileen Shea, a comedian from Canada, immortalized them in a song she performed at the group’s annual dinner.

“We started out with datos on where to get your shoes dyed, hear Mass in English and pick a kindergarten,” said Shea. “Now we're trading info on the best places for gays, including where to get picked up for a one-night stand. We've come a long way, baby.”

Members meet occasionally for coffee, happy hour or a “JapyJane” (pronounced “Happy Jane”) party — a house party in the Tupperware model, only featuring sex toys. It's one of the many business ventures that Chilespouse members have tried out on the group before going mainstream.

The group has no dues and no rules, just one unwritten code: no husband-bashing or Chile-bashing. Wise counsel for anyone who plans to stick around.