Politics, Culture, and Space in the Construction of Identity in Chile


A review of Imaginarios y Representaciones Nacionales en el Frente Popular Chileno: Política, Cultura y Espacio en la Construcción Identitaria, by Barbara Kirsi Silva Avaria

Barbara Silva’s dissertation addresses the nationalizing policies of the Chilean Popular Front and the interplay between politics, culture and space through which these policies sought to reimagine Chile as a nation; all while at the same time asserting some major historical continuities. In this endeavor, Silva’s utilizes a flexible theoretical framework, which heavily relies upon authors such as Benedict Anderson and Anthony Smith, joining the demystification of the otherwise loaded concept of “nationalism”, a concept that – as the author points out – must be seen as constantly being reconfigured and reinterpreted. This theoretical approach is accompanied by a discursive analysis of presidential speeches and various newspapers, which allows Silva to understand how the Popular Front – and the Chilean middle classes and workers the party aimed to represent – imagined and understood Chile and its place in the world.

Beginning with an analysis of the creation of the Popular Front, Silva’s analysis of the coalition is novel in at least two ways. Rather than presenting a conventional, linear political narrative, Silva offers an understanding of what the coalition represented in political and cultural terms. Secondly, instead of presenting the party as a development solely influenced by international events, the author also grounds it on regional and domestic developments. Heterogeneous in nature, the Popular Front consisted of a mix of moderate and left wing parties – as well as intellectuals –enjoying an even broader support from the middle classes. Led by Pedro Aguirre Cerda, affectionately known as the “Father of the Poor”, the Popular Front intended to do away with the “traditional” politics of the oligarchy and to narrow the gap between politics and the nation, hence presenting a new “mesocratic” national project. Achieving this change, however, was also informed by a volatile international context, characterized by the rise of Fascism and the fear of Communism. The Popular Front, therefore, offered both change and stability insofar as it promised to broaden political participation while insisting that change would occur within the existing legal framework – an emphasis also supported by the Communist Party, which was part of the coalition. This emphasis on “reform” allowed the Popular Front to see and present itself as inaugurating a new moment in Chilean history but at the same time as the defender of a historical institutionalism, which made Chile exceptional when compared to its neighbors.

For reformism to be successful, a political discourse that would reconcile the existing divisive forces in Chilean society was deemed necessary. This was the purpose of “unity and diversity”, a discoursed the Front aimed to embody since it included different political parties representing equally different ideologies. Likewise, the reformism represented by the Popular Front did not limit itself to specific legal changes and material improvements, which would incorporate the lower classes into Chile’s political life and advance their well being. Reformism ultimately aimed to change the imaginary of what meant to be Chilean and the understanding of citizenship and citizenry – previously vertical, now horizontal – all in the context of the rise of popular mass culture and within the framework of institutionalism.

When analyzing the national imaginary, Silva skillfully uses a cultural approach to understand the nation-building project of the Popular Front. Drawing heavily on the work of Clifford Geertz, the author focuses on a cultural project that offered both continuity and the ability to reconfigure and reinterpret the nation through the use of mass media and educational policies. “To rule is to educate” not only became the battle cry of the Front, but also of subsequent Chilean governments. Education also attained the goal of making citizens more “Chilean”, and while this was not a novelty in Chilean history it was the first time that such an effort was carried out by a “coalition that described itself as popular” (p. 89), and which linked being Chilean with the unquestionable acceptance of liberal democracy.

This nationalizing educational effort, political in nature, endeavored to bring together different cultural elements.  Silva focuses on two of these, the first one being the Plan de Chilenidad, which was originally conceived as a set of celebrations of Chile’s founding fathers –in particular on Bernardo O’Higgins – and would later permeate the school system. By celebrating the founding fathers, the Plan de Chilenidad contended the Front’s idea of continuity. A new future could be reached by celebrating the country’s renewed historical past while at the same time creating greater cohesion among Chileans. However, as Silva rightly points out, education was not limited to the classroom. Hence the analysis of the Defensa de la Raza y Aprovechamiento de la Horas Libres, a program that sought to regulate the activities of the working class during their free time with the purpose of improving their “racial condition”, in much accordance to theories of “hygienism”. Contrasting other cases elsewhere in Latin America, race in Chile did not have a biological connotation but rather a social and cultural one. Hence, “elevating” or “improving” the Chilean race did not entail “whitening” the nation. Improvement was to be achieved through the establishment of casas del pueblo and various other clubs, which kept the working classes away from bars and brothels, organizing a number of activities intended to recast “racial” conceptions. In doing so, race was “regenerated” and Chilean identity becam reinforced.

These policy efforts were also aided by the rise of mass media, rapidly adopted by the government as a primary mean for delivering its messages. The use of mass media signified an important cultural shift, one that placed greater emphasis on “popular culture” as opposed to the previously preferred oligarchic notion of “high culture”. Certainly, this was not a process solely triggered by state agency, popular culture had experienced an earlier momentum having important representatives such as Pablo Neruda. Nevertheless, the state masterfully integrated these trends into its nationalizing efforts by creating institutions such as the Consejo Nacional de Cultura Obrera. While at times media was perceived as something “foreign”, these institutionalized networks provided radio and cinema – among other mass forms of communications – the space for reaching the working classes and inculcating feelings of nationalism. Silva pays particular attention to cinema, through which films celebrating rural life showcased what the state understood as being “authentically” Chilean, even when the film industry itself symbolized modernity. Such trends were also evident in literature, were criollismo seemed to reign supreme.

The final chapter of Silva’s dissertation addresses the category of territory, not only in a geographical sense but also a cultural one. Territory offered continuity, familiarity, and more importantly, the economic sustenance that would allow Chilean people to regenerate themselves through development. An equally interesting idea stressed by the author emphasizes the importance of visual aesthetics when imagining the nation. The Popular Front allowed for holidays and promoted internal tourism for the working classes. In turn, workers would become more “patriotic” by appreciating the geographical splendor of Chilean territory. In celebrating the natural magnificence of the Chilean nation, geography also served to reinforce the previously addressed idea of unity and diversity. Likewise, by exporting a particular visual image of Chile abroad, it sought to reinforce internal cohesion. Finally, the Front also sought to use the “seismic” nature of Chile in order to reinforce Chilean identity. If this identity could be reconfigured and reinterpreted, tragic events such the Chillán earthquake of 1939 could allow Chileans to reinvent their economic potential through reconstruction, and the state – through agencies such as CORFO – played a leading role in this regard.

By 1941, the very same diversity that the Popular Front celebrated when it came to imagining the Chilean nation brought the coalition to an end, particularly as the Socialist Party left its ranks. Likewise, the death of Aguirre Cerda, who personified the new Chilean citizen envisioned by the party, reassured the expiration of the coalition. Silva concludes, however, that the memory of these years remained in the minds of the Chilean political class. According to this argument, the establishment of the welfare state and the continued emphasis on education after the fall of Pinochet were partly result of reimagining this historical moment. By attempting to present this continuity with a seemingly distant past, Chile’s contemporary democratic parties would be writing a new page in a book first started by the Popular Front.

Gonzalo Romero Sommer
Department of History
Stony Brook University

Primary Sources
El Mercurio
En Viaje
Defensa de la Raza y Aprovechamiento de las Horas Libres
Mensaje de S. E. El Presidente de la República, en la apertura de las sesiones ordinarias del Congreso Nacional.

Dissertation Information
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2015. 396 pp. Advisor: Alfredo Riquelme.

Image: Front cover of “Marcha a la Victoria”. Santiago : Imprenta Casa Amarilla, [1938]. Collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.  Intellectual Property: Common Cultural Patrimony

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