On the Streets of Santiago: a Culture of Wine and Empanadas

15 April, 2022
“Memo­ria at Plaza Dig­nidad.” All pho­tos cour­tesy Fran­cis­co Letelier.


I return to San­ti­a­go, Chile in the wake of the glob­al pan­dem­ic and “The Estal­li­do” — a social upris­ing that has changed the nation. A new con­sti­tu­tion is writ­ten as 35-year-old social­ist pres­i­dent, Gabriel Boric, is sworn into office.


Francisco Letelier


On the streets, every­one wears a mask…there are throngs of peo­ple in the late sum­mer sun. What’s hap­pened here since I was here last is staggering.

Out­side the metro sta­tions ven­dors assem­ble wares; they  trans­port goods, con­serve per­ish­ables, sell them in batches.

Things are prac­ti­cal, uten­sils unnecessary.

Dur­ing the social upris­ing that start­ed in late 2019, Chileans would arrive at the bar­ri­cades with food and drink for those who held the line against the police, fel­low pro­test­ers who became leg­endary for their resis­tance against the gov­ern­ment. Empanadas — a type of baked or fried turnover con­sist­ing of pas­try and fill­ing — and wine (one of Chile’s most com­mon and appre­ci­at­ed nation­al prod­ucts) are the pri­mor­dial nour­ish­ment of nomads, work­ers and pro­test­ers. Added to the nation­al menu are lemons and clean water used to soak the ban­danas that help pro­test­ers breathe, coun­ter­ing the effects of tear gas.

I walk through the recent bar­ri­cades, mar­veling at the rebel­lious graf­fi­ti, art and shrines that cov­er any and every­thing along the way. Secu­ri­ty forces lurk in a line of bat­tered riot vans, parked along the avenue, prepar­ing for the protests and gath­er­ings that con­tin­ue even as Pres­i­dent Boric takes the presidency.

Bar­ri­cades in San­ti­a­go (pho­to Fran­cis­co Letelier).

The anony­mous Andalu­sian Cook­book of the 13th Cen­tu­ry describes recipes for empanadas. They are gath­ered from a region that extends from Spain and Por­tu­gal to North Africa, a cross­roads where the west cross-pol­li­nat­ed with the Mus­lim world. Often these recipes were car­ried to the Amer­i­c­as by Moors and Jews flee­ing the Inqui­si­tion of 1492, after 800 years of Moor­ish occu­pa­tion of the Iber­ian Penin­su­la ended.

Latin Amer­i­ca and the Arab world share inti­mate his­to­ries gen­er­at­ed by exile and migra­tion. The Arab com­mu­ni­ty in San­ti­a­go is felt on the streets and in our food, leav­ing an indeli­ble mark on the nation. The empanadas of the Amer­i­c­as are close rel­a­tives of Arab fatay­er or sfi­jas, and across the riv­er in the Reco­le­ta and Patrona­to neigh­bor­hoods and through­out San­ti­a­go, they are wide­ly available.

In San­ti­a­go, empanadas are as Chilean as red wine despite a grow­ing num­ber of migrants from Haiti, Colom­bia and Venezuela, many would be sur­prised that oth­er nations also have a claim to empanadas. In Chile, a pino empana­da is a per­fect mix of onion, beef, olives, eggs and raisins — ingre­di­ents found in Chile were added to recipes brought across the Atlantic, cre­at­ing a hybrid rely­ing on a dish the indige­nous Mapuche natives called pir­ru.

But on the Latin Amer­i­can con­ti­nent many oth­er vari­eties exist; tucumanas, salteñas, the alla­ca, arepa or pacu­ca­pa, to men­tion a few. In Argenti­na it’s a nation­al cult, with many his­tor­i­cal vari­eties and in the Cau­ca Val­ley of Colom­bia there is a mon­u­ment in their honor.

These are worlds not restrict­ed to lines on maps but mold­ed by pres­sure; the rise and fall of eco­nom­ic inter­ests and waves of nation­al­ism and polit­i­cal move­ments, where inequal­i­ties and inequities are joined in an inescapable block chain of eco­nom­ic practices.

Fatay­er or sfi­ha with meat.

I have dreamt about this place since the first com­pelling images of stu­dents protests were spread around the world in 2019. With my son and nephews, we walk through what was known as Baque­dano Plaza, today called Plaza Dig­nidad, where only a pedestal remains on a cir­cle ground to dry dirt. The entrance to the metro sta­tion has become a mon­u­ment of mem­o­ry and a com­mu­ni­ty gar­den. Below, burned out sec­tions of the sta­tion are closed to the mass­es; destroyed by loot­ers, police provo­ca­teurs, or both.

I feel a sense of home­com­ing to be at the epi­cen­ter of a move­ment that brave­ly chal­lenged the lega­cy of the mil­i­tary dictatorship.

But it’s a cou­ple of blocks away when I feel I’ve final­ly come home. We give our orders to my nephew, Jose Miguel, who calls ahead.  As we near our des­ti­na­tion, I can smell them bak­ing and see that some peo­ple are find­ing a place to sit along the street or park. It’s Fri­day and the week­ly demon­stra­tion has start­ed; we walk towards empanadas and my mantra of Chilean free­dom is “una empana­da de pino al horno y una empana­da de que­so fri­ta” (one oven-baked pino empana­da and one fried empana­da of cheese).

“Madon­na Graf­fit­ti,” San­ti­a­go (pho­to Fran­cis­co Letelier).

There are many kinds of exile. My fam­i­ly was forced to leave, while oth­ers escaped dis­tant lands to arrive here. San­ti­a­go is home to one of the largest Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ties in the world, and hosts a notable gath­er­ing of Arabs from oth­er coun­tries, includ­ing Syr­ia and Lebanon. Con­sue­lo, mar­ried to my cousin, describes how her extend­ed Lebanese fam­i­ly exchanges love and mem­o­ry through food. Uncles argue about how to brew the best cof­fee, using car­damom and fin­jan cof­fee pots. Boil­ing points, ves­sels and the addi­tion of cool water to cool and tem­per the brew become metaphors for the con­stant­ly shift­ing con­di­tions of exile and cul­tur­al legacy.

I am cry­ing and it’s not the tear gas waft­ing towards us from Plaza Dig­nidad. The sound of sirens and chants blends into the din of the city, as peo­ple casu­al­ly stroll through the park. Street ven­dors and musi­cians ges­ture towards those who sit along out­door din­ing patios that have appeared all over the city dur­ing the Covid era. 

Across the table, my Amer­i­can son, Matias, bites into an empana­da. When I bite into mine, it’s more than forty years since I have felt this pos­si­bil­i­ty, a sud­den and over­whelm­ing wave that assuages years of loss and exile.

In 1971, before the US gov­ern­ment col­lud­ed with the Chilean armed forces to over­throw his gov­ern­ment, Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Allende promised us that we would build a cul­ture of “empanadas y vino tin­to” (red wine). It was his way of say­ing we would address inequal­i­ty. Today’s Pres­i­dent, Gabriel Boric, was inau­gu­rat­ed last week and he has promised to con­tin­ue that soci­ety we once dreamt of.

When we come home, we sit up the street on an apart­ment bal­cony over­look­ing the site where the upris­ing began. Small hawks chase pigeons among the tree­tops of Arau­caria and Ori­en­tal Plane trees. Flock of par­rots squawk across the park and the Mapoc­ho Riv­er. In the dis­tance, the sur­round­ing Andes glow in the approach­ing night.

A few miles west, street ven­dors are unhap­py with demon­stra­tions by high school stu­dents. The Nation­al Con­fed­er­a­tion of Stu­dents has called for a mobi­liza­tion because of gov­ern­ment food grants for high school­ers. For ten years, stu­dents have received the same amount of 32,000 pesos a month — rough­ly 1,600 pesos a day or around $2 dol­lars for nour­ish­ment while in school. That amount hard­ly buys an empananda.

The gov­ern­ment clos­es metro sta­tions on Fri­day nights when protests are planned in fear that sta­tions may be van­dal­ized or destroyed. Ven­dors count on the crowds at Cen­tral Sta­tion, but tonight there is no one to buy their offerings.

El vende­dor de empanadas, San­ti­a­go (pho­to Fran­cis­co Letelier).

When the line of stu­dents approach­es, ven­dors bar­ri­cade the street, armed with long sticks they turn crowds away with vio­lence. On social media, some attack­ers are seen hold­ing firearms, oth­er wear­ing the black head cov­er­ings often equat­ed with polit­i­cal pro­test­ers. Ear­li­er a police­man has shot a protester.

As San­ti­a­go returns to life in the streets after two tumul­tuous years and Pres­i­dent Gabriel Boric, 35, installs a fem­i­nist cab­i­net promis­ing reforms and action, new chal­lenges arise that might keep us from quick­ly real­iz­ing the cul­ture of empanadas and red wine that Allende strug­gled to achieve over the course of many decades.

I have returned to per­haps say good­bye to my moth­er, who is 91 and in poor health after los­ing her eye­sight and mobil­i­ty in the long Covid lock­downs that were put in place as the coun­try reeled into the glob­al pan­dem­ic. Each drink of wine, each empana­da, each pis­co, mote con hue­sil­los, mara­que­ta or pas­tel de choclo, eas­es the grief, giv­ing the com­fort only food can bring.

My father was 42 when he was killed by the Chilean secret police aid­ed by agents trained by the CIA. It has tak­en forty-six years for me to taste the empana­da promised to me by Sal­vador Allende and now shared with a liv­ing piece of evi­dence and his­to­ry, the piece of exiled heart that is my son. Monarch but­ter­flies take many gen­er­a­tions to com­plete their cycles of migration.

That night at the sparse and clean tat­too stu­dio of my niece’s part­ner, I watch my son and nephew get twin tat­toos writ­ten on their arms, Pre­sente , Aho­ra y Siem­pre (Present, now and for­ev­er), a slo­gan from Chile’s fight against the dic­ta­tor­ship, repeat­ed often when we remem­ber all those we have lost; bar­ri­cades and loves, empanadas and har­vests of grapes, transformed.

The needs of street ven­dors is acute, many work ille­gal­ly while new immi­grants from Haiti, Venezuela, Colum­bia and Peru work the streets to sur­vive. The smell of mar­i­jua­na mix­es with that of toast, while smells of food from oth­er places blend with those more familiar.

It seems iron­ic that stu­dents who march for food are beat­en by street ven­dors who may suf­fer in the short-run but will sure­ly be reward­ed in the long run by buy­ers with more to spend on what is sold.

 In some places tonight there will be no exchange. Weary and impa­tient for change, some believe that it can hap­pen through decree, only a mat­ter of will by those who hold the reins of gov­ern­ment. Oth­ers who like me have seen things come and go, know that tak­ing things apart is eas­i­er than putting them back togeth­er and so we will reach for com­fort and nour­ish­ment as we always have. Cre­at­ing our own ver­sion of a cul­ture based on the free exchange of ideas, empanadas and red wine, we con­tin­ue to believe in pos­si­bil­i­ty and know that we must work hard to find recipes that work.



The author’s son shows his tat­too, “Present, now and for­ev­er.” Fresh empanadas on the streets of San­ti­a­go (pho­tos Fran­cis­co Letelier).
An Arab empo­ri­um in San­ti­a­go (pho­to Fran­ciso Letelier).

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