Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.


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According to the 2006 census, there are approximately 10,909 Chilean-born people living in Sydney, and they have also settled in many other parts of Australia. With their children, there are some 33,525 Chileans or people claiming Chilean ancestry in Australia. Indeed, Chileans are one of the largest groups of immigrants from Latin America. However, before the 1960s, Chileans had not ventured very far from their home shores. Australia seemed like a very far away place, but things have already changed.

Waves of migration from Chile

There have been three distinctive waves of Chilean migration to Australia, all during the latter half of the twentieth century. Approximately 2,000 Chileans came to Australia between 1968 and 1970 as a result of the economic crisis that occurred under Eduardo Frei's presidency. Then, when socialist candidate Dr Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970, a number of Chileans felt increasingly worried about what the economic and political future would bring, and decided to leave, some of them arriving in Australia. The majority of this group identified with the middle class that had traditionally associated itself with the wealthy Chilean oligarchy; their fears and the upper class's fears consequently merged into a shared ideology based on rigid class interests and divisions. Australian records show 3,760 Chileans came to Australia during that time. The third wave, and the greatest in number, came after the military coup of General Augusto Pinochet on 11 September 1973. This wave of migration was for both political and economic reasons, and consisted mostly of Chileans of working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds, a largely homogenous population of skilled workers.

In general, Chileans seem happy to remain in Australia – and Sydney – despite opportunities to return to their homeland, including the lure of a stable and prosperous Chilean economy. The desire to return seems ameliorated by regular holidays in Chile, and the homesickness is also deflected by Chileans' ability to appreciate Australia, a traditionally generous country, and the Australian way of life.

More recently, after those three waves of migration, younger Chileans are arriving in Australia on working-tourism packages or to complete their postgraduate studies at university, most of them living in Sydney. This new generation of young Chileans are not migrants strictly speaking, because they will return to Chile, and they may or may not get in touch with Chileans living permanently in Sydney. What distinguishes them is that they already have English as a second language and are not here for political reasons. Interestingly, these younger Chileans are not all from the wealthy upper class, previously the only one able to afford to send their children overseas during the 'gap' year in their education. This new generation of Chileans belongs to a new middle class that enjoys privileges denied to the previous generations. They are articulate and well-educated young people, and curious about the world.

But the Chilean community exists not only in the imagination of its people but for all the other communities that share the city's unique tapestry of cultural colours. In many ways, Sydney is multicultural because it is imagined that way by its people but, as with other aspects of life in a multicultural place, being Chilean and belonging to a Chilean community is not a simple thing to explain. It elicits inescapable contradictions that are part of the migrant condition as a whole, very much extending to what becomes the Australian identity. The complexity of migration reverberates during the process of adaptation in the new country, touching Chileans' own relationship with Chile, looked at with a new perspective. Being a migrant is also about becoming part of a minority group. This shift seems to invite serious reflection on the challenges experienced by minority groups in Chile.

Anecdotally, the encounter with Aboriginal people in Sydney opens up questions regarding the situation of the indigenous peoples back in Chile. There are similarities between the two countries in this respect. In Australia, 2.5 per cent of the population is considered to be Aboriginal, in Chile, 4.6 per cent belongs to what are called ethnic minorities. Both numbers are low as a proportion of population, but the question is not about quantity, but quality of life and visibility, and for indigenous people in both countries these are lower than for the rest of the population.

Chileans, traditionally, have not been well informed about their own indigenous people, and the experience of migration seems to act as an incentive to make up for past omissions. Things have changed, and the younger generations of Chileans living in Sydney may be better informed. If some embarrassment overcomes Chileans when asked about their own 'Aborigines' because it may expose their ignorance, it is a welcome topic because it offers them an opportunity to refer to the history of the conquest of Chilean territory by Spain, where the real heroes became the Araucanos as recorded by Alonso de Ercilla y Zuniga – a Spanish aristocrat and poet who accompanied the Spanish conquistadores. Primary schools in Chile teach about the bravery of the native people of the land (today called Mapuche), though what is missing is what happened afterwards and what is happening today.

Latin American connections

While Chileans may feel they belong to a Chilean community in Sydney, they can also feel they belong to the larger Latin American community. Some prefer to live close to other Chileans and participate in social events that bring this community together, while others may avoid all that. Most Chileans however, are not exclusively seeking to be with Chileans but with people who share their interests. Their friendships with other Chileans as well as with Argentineans, Peruvians, Brazilians, Cubans and people from all Latin American countries testify to that. Those friendships satisfy needs all migrants have of feeling they belong to a past of shared cultural roots, that their origin still lies somewhere.

Not many Australians know that the Chilean-Sydney connection goes both ways. John Christian Watson, third Prime Minister of Australia and first Labor Prime Minister, was born in Valparaiso, a port in Chile, in 1867. In 1886, he migrated from New Zealand where he grew up, to Sydney, where he took work as a stable-hand at Government House, after which he was briefly a compositor on the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald.

Michelle Bachelet, the first woman to become President of Chile, an office she held from 2006 to 2010, lived briefly in Australia during 1975, after the Pinochet regime came to power in Chile.

Chileans and the poetic spirit

Migrants of the third wave arrived in Australia without English, and without the prospect of returning to their homeland, at least for a while. This made the experience of migration a difficult one, similar to that of migrants of other nationalities. The isolation of that generation of Chileans found solace in the poetry of songs, and music marks the experience of this forced diaspora. The poetry of songs written by Violeta Parra and Victor Jara, among others, softened a life disrupted in this way. When referring to these waves of migration, it is important to look at the texture of everyday language and recognise the poetic dimension that accompanied it. In the Chilean imagination, the two countries are separated by a vast ocean, the Pacific; however, the same ocean that separates them is the one that connects them. Water, waves, and the ocean are elements close to the spirit of Chilean migrants, and Sydney's beaches display an unreachable horizon like a steel-blue line: it is all that separates the two countries. Looking at the sea brings currents of thoughts and emotions that circulate as if in between. The ocean invites the illusion that Chile and Australia face each other, at the distance, and that the same waves touch each country.

Chileans are perhaps one of the least visible groups within Sydney's Latin American communities, recognised at first glance only by the colourfulness of their dance, music and food. Most Chileans living in Sydney came from the capital, Santiago, and most Chileans tended to concentrate in two main areas: Fairfield in the western part of Sydney, and Maroubra in the eastern suburbs, although today they are spread around Sydney, with Bondi Beach being a popular place.

'Chilean Fiesta' – a yearly celebration in Sydney

Every year, over 18 and 19 September, Chileans celebrate their day of independence from Spain, traditionally dated as 18 September 1810. In 2010, the bicentenary of Chile's independence from Spain was celebrated, and the Sydney community joyously joined in the celebration. At the official level the bicentenary gave an opportunity to strengthen ties between Australia and Chile.

In Sydney, due to the city's geographic spread, such celebrations occur at various places. Traditionally the biggest celebration happens in Fairfield, one of the places where the Chilean community, particularly of the second wave of migration, is concentrated. Chileans celebrate with empanadas, wine and plenty of Chilean traditional live music and dance. It is a colourful and well-organised event that welcomes people from all nationalities. Chileans have a traditional dance, the cueca, reminiscent of the colonial epoch when the picardia of the Chilean man, the huaso, was expressed in his ability to win the woman. The dance includes the waving of a handkerchief in a coquettish manner by the woman, while the man follows her in a more forward manner, circling her as they dance. Eye contact and smiles are part of it, as well as the display of the 'gala' clothing of the man that includes the silver espuelas (spurs) attached to his tall leather boots. It is a beautiful and original choreography, based on the courting rituals of some birds.

Chili, wine and poetry

Chileans are used to being asked about the date of their arrival in their new country. The question is meant to help Australians discern to whom they are speaking. People who arrived before and after 1973 are assumed to hold diametrically opposed political views. As a result, Chileans think that Sydneysiders' manners show a high degree of sophistication, because once they get hold of this critical piece of information they engage in animated but tactful conversation, asking informed questions. Anecdotally, the date of arrival rates second place after the first and most common question: 'Where do you come from?' Both are accepted as inevitable, and the consequence of living in such a multicultural city as Sydney.

Chileans appreciate the natural curiosity of the current generation of Sydneysiders. Things may have been different in the past, but today, Sydney's Chileans don't seem to encounter a blank face when they name their country of origin, and welcome this. Sometimes, there is the amusing association between Chile the country and chili the spice. Chileans are often asked if their food is spicy, or if they like to eat lots of chili. The answer is a definite 'no': Chilean cuisine derives from a combination of Spanish and local Indian cuisine that doesn't have much chili in it, with the exception of a summer dish called porotos granados con aji verde, that adds a whole hot green pepper, cut fresh, to an earthy soup made of freshly peeled beans and corn, sprinkled with fresh basil.

Chileans living in Sydney have favourite topics of conversation that always return them to Chile. One of them is wine. Chile is the fifth largest exporter of wine in the world, after Australia in fourth place. This is no small feat, considering the importance wine has in the social practices of most cultures. Another topic certain to attract the enthusiastic attention of Chileans living in Sydney is nature, the environment, and the mountains.

In general, Chileans are resourceful people, able to find quick and clever ways to adapt and overcome difficulties. If they have blended easily in the adopted country, it may be in part due to the similarity found in the Australian attitude that values a healthy dose of 'critique', including a critical attitude to authority. They can also be seen as a quiet group, although they tend to mix with Australians of all backgrounds, not feeling the need to remain close as a community although links remain through friendship and the occasional activities. When required, they come together as a community. Examples are found in the many cultural events organised in Sydney to collect money to help countries affected by natural disasters, Chile included. Capable organisers as well as enthusiastic and generous with their time, it is easy to find Chilean Australian artists at events all around Sydney.

The constant return to poetry still lies at the root of the less public aspect of Chileans, even in Sydney. The following piece is published with permission of its author, a Chilean-Australian woman living in Sydney. It is part of the written memoirs of both her past and her new life in Australia:

This is a simple story. It refers to Eucalyptuses in Australia and in Chile.

One day in Sydney, noticing them, perceiving its aroma and, seeing its fruits scattered on the soil - like beautiful domes, sprinkled with icing sugar – it triggered in my mind memories of my childhood, my mother, my brother and I, promenading along the gardens at Santa Lucia Hill.

This rocky hill is a visited place on weekends; it has a fortress, built when the city of Santiago was founded in year 1541. It is in the middle of the city. Mother, sitting down on a long seat, reading, and we, collecting eucalyptus' fruit from the ground plus leaves, and playing with them.

When leaving the garden, our pockets full with the little 'domes' and leaves, we were so happy with our treasures. The eucalyptus leaves taken to grandmother who was very pleased; she used to boil them and its aroma filled every corner of the house, helping to relieve unpleasant colds.

Eucalyptus in Australia… this land is not a foreign landscape. Eucalyptus in Chile are printed in my mind and its memories. [1]

If we understand that this creativity is an inherent quality for all human beings, irrespective of their origin, it can be said that Chileans celebrate, incorporate and practice this aspect of human creativity in their everyday life. It is in the cultivation of the imagination and the freedom that comes with it that Chileans may have something unique to share with their Sydney neighbours.

Sydney's Dance for Chile

The whole world shared with Chile the horror of the Chilean earthquake of February 2010: with an intensity of 8.8 on the Richter scale, it was the fifth biggest in world history. The 'Dance for Chile' fundraising event took place on 27 March 2010. The intention was not only to raise money to help the people of Chile, but to find ways to express the strong feelings of solidarity experienced. It was a gesture typical of Sydney, where the emotional and cultural ties are recognised and celebrated by all. They originate in one group, one community, but they become the excuse to get together and share the good things in life as people of Sydney.

On the day of the event the list of artists participating grew, and included Aboriginal musicians and dancers as well as people from all over the world. It was a display of generosity and beauty. The Chilean spirit expressed itself comfortably within the walls at one of the most important venues of the city, the Sydney Town Hall. The solemnity of the place was momentarily affected by the people attending, who in a spontaneous gesture moved chairs aside to make room for dancing when the Brazilian and Colombian big bands took to the stage.

Another event that shook Sydney's Chilean population was when a wall collapsed at a gold and copper mine in Copiapo in northern Chile on 5 August 2010, trapping 33 miners 600 metres underground. But in a unique display of the indomitable spirit that resides in most Chilean hearts, the trapped miners joined other Chileans around the world singing the national anthem to mark the 200th anniversary of the country's independence. Sydney's Chilean community joined with other parts of the Chilean diaspora in offering support to the miners, their families and friends.


DE Hojman, 'The Political Economy of Chile's fast Economic Growth' in Public Choice, 111, Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands, 2002, pp 155–78

I Strodthoff, La Huella de un Salto: Un Ano en Australia, Editorial Forja, Providencia, Santiago Chile, 2007

G Mistral, Antologia Poetica, EDAF, Madrid & Buenos Aires, 1999

P Neruda, Antología Poetica, Publicacion Losada, Buenos Aires, 1988

CL Núñez-Duran, 'Evocation', from 'A Memory From Another Place', unpublished manuscript reproduced with permission of the author, 2009

CV Quinteros, 'Letters Home: The Story of Chilean Migrant Women in Australia', BA honours thesis, University of New South Wales, 1996


[1] Carmen Núñez-Duran, 'Evocation', from 'A Memory From Another Place', unpublished manuscript reproduced with permission of the author, 2009