Where May Day Isn't What It Used to Be

May 08, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

SANTIAGO, CHILE — Santiago, Chile. -- Last Sunday was May Day, and no newspapers were published here. The only other day the press is silent in Chile is the First of January.

"Today is the day of the worker," said Luis Prat who drives a taxi through Santiago's smog, adding with only a hint of sarcasm, "That's why I'm working."

May Day used to be a big festivity in Chile. That was back when Socialists and Communists ran the country, more than two decades ago, and before Sept. 11, 1973, the day the hammer of the Chilean army hit the anvil of the Chilean people.

Before then, there were some ardent Communists in Chile who could march on May Day with the best of them. There still are Communists here, but drained somewhat of their passion by age and the evident success (for some) of the exponents of Chile's new entrepreneurial culture.

There were very few red banners evident last Sunday, possibly a few demonstrations here and there, but nothing at all like the old days.

Still, May Day is an occasion in Santiago. Maybe even a better one. It's softer now, more familial. It is truly a people's day.

Chileans, it is said, have lost much of the communality that used to characterize their way of life. Alvaro Garcia, the economy minister who spent some years in exile in the United States after Gen. Augusto Pinochet's coup of 1973 (he called it the Pinochet Scholarship), recalls:

"It was a very social country. Every single person almost was joined in some group or organization, sports, whatever. There were all kinds of services provided through these groups, all one way or another connected to the government."

Mr. Garcia is not the only one to make this observation. The change is evident mainly to those who went away, who stayed outside the country for awhile, the exiles.

They all seem to agree that some social glue that had held Chileans together had come unstuck. It has become a country of selfish individualists, get-rich-quick hustlers who go about in their ostentatious new Mercedes and BMWs, flashing their cellular phones and Rolexes.

Well, yes, there's that. But one has to remember that the vast majority of Chileans didn't get rich after 1973, quickly or otherwise, and most of them still take the bus.

And on Sundays a stranger might be forgiven for doubting that most of the people in this little string bean of a country down at the bottom of the world have put themselves entirely in the hands of Mammon.


On Sunday, Cardinal Caro Avenue, which runs by the furious little Mapoche River, was blocked off. A band had set up there, shielded from the sun by giant old sycamores. The two principal characteristics of the band were that the average age of the musicians was over 50 and that their music was majestic and serious, even when the tempo was fast. People strolled by. They watched the quick brown waters or listened to the music rising up into the cathedral of the trees.

Across the avenue a soccer game progressed, two in fact, but the shouting of the players and their fans did not reach as far as the river bank and did not disturb the placidity of the scene. A great number of people, drawn by the music, were coming across the bridge from Bellavista, among them a lot of women pushing new babies in carriages.

The mountain of San Cristobal rises out of the heart of Bellavista. The people of Santiago call this their "bohemian" neighborhood because it has so many restaurants, and artists and artisans living and working here. Pablo Neruda built a house on the flank of San Cristobal. Neruda was the second of the two Chilean poets who won a Nobel Prize. The first was Gabriela Mistral.

Neruda was a Communist, and were he alive he would probably have been out in the street on May Day demonstrating his contempt for BMWs and cellular phones. He was a good Communist, by the standards of that fading sect, an obedient Stalinist. But he was a better poet. Here is one of his stanzas, from a collection called "The Stones of Chile":

This I know at great cost:

all life is not outward,

nor is all death from within:

time writes in the ciphers

of water and rock for no one at all,

so that none may envision the sender

and no one be any the wiser.


Down in the center of town, not far from the park along the river, there was another concert, in the Plaza de Armas. It was offered by the police band, the carabineros. The carabineros were smart and polished, and wear tailored brown uniforms, like soldiers. They were tall, and one didn't find a fat one. They must be recruited for their physiques, the way London's bobbies used to be.

The Plaza de Armas was where Santiago was founded back in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia, the equal of any conquistador in courage and superior to most in poise and intelligence. So it is an old place, and it looks it. On Sundays, every Sunday, it is crowded. It is a small, overworked lung in a choking city. But it is gay on the weekend and always full of color.

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