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Chile; La Voluntad de Ser

Pope Francisco just visited Chile. As you might expect of an Argentine trying to provide spiritual guidance and comfort to Chileans, he made a couple of missteps and was only mildly well received.However, he did hit the proverbial nail on the head when he invoked Chilean Nobel poet laureate Gabriela Mistral’s reference to her native country as having the “voluntad de ser“: the will to be.

Mistral was possibly comparing Chile’s “will to be” to Brazil (“a cornucopia”) and Argentina (“a place of international harmony”), leaving a wide opening for interpretation, and disagreement, as poets often do. She often had the concept of struggle in mind with respect to her Chilean homeland.

The Pope seemed to be referring to Chile’s will to be in the context of the long struggle to escape poverty and underdevelopment. He likely also had in his very political mind the country’s perseverance to revert to democratic rule in the face of dictatorship, a struggle Chileans have undertaken more than once.

The Chilean will to be has often and most recently been demonstrated in her insistence to recover and build anew after suffering devastating disasters. This blog, daveschile, was created because of the horrendous earthquake and related tsunami that struck the central coastal region of Chile in 2010. Experiencing the earth shake like it did that day can make believers out of non-believers, drinkers out of non-drinkers (but not the reverse), and apparently writers out of non-writers. For seven years many of the postings herein have focused on the slow but sure recovery of the affected areas and their valiant people. This author was circumstantially near the epicenter of the quake that early morning of February 27, 2010, having passed in my car through the coastal towns of Chanco, Loanco, and Dichato just hours prior to the quake that virtually destroyed them all. Since then, we have followed closely with heartfelt interest their struggle to recover from this terrible event.

Loanco after tsunami (2010) Photo: DJoslyn

Loanco after tsunami (2010) Photo: DJoslyn

Although this 2010 disaster was huge (second largest earthquake ever!), it was only one in a recent stream of deadly natural events in this seismic country, perched precariously on the western coast of south America. Within two years prior to this quake, the Chaiten volcano further south, dormant for nine thousand years, erupted and totally wiped out the nearby town of the same name. And before that, of course the “big one” in Valdivia in 1960, and there have been several smaller but disastrous earthquakes in northern Chilean towns, like Tocopilla in 2007.

Please take a moment to return to this blog’s account of the 2010 disaster , and the several subsequent postings which describe the effects of that disaster on coastal central Chile, especially Dichato, and the process of recovery.

Many public institutions have been involved in Dichato’s struggle, in fact the national government has changed twice since the disaster, and a third routine change is about to happen. Early in the Dichato recovery the Harvard supported David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, through its Santiago office, established a community recovery project they named Recupera Chile. Over the past several years, the program has brought specialists from the US together with Chilean professionals to provide effective solutions to Dichato’s recovery. The Recupera Chile project has supported several different aspects of community development in the context of disaster recovery, but there are two initiatives I believe stand out, and two women who for me are the face of Dichato’s will to be.

I met Pilar del Canto in Dichato in 2013, and Jessica Cabrera in 2014. Pilar is a sociologist; it was during my visit in 2014 that she told me “In ten years Dichato will be reinvented, more attractive than ever and with better services for visitors and townspeople alike.” At that time, Pilar was working with women’s groups to put their lives together after the disaster, and her prediction seemed quite possible. Jessica is a fisherwoman, and after spending a day visiting her aquaculture project in Coliumo bay, we were about as optimistic as could be about the future of Dichato. If you revisit this daveschile posting on that visit, Dichato and Jessica’s Mussels, you will understand and share our optimism. Since then, I have kept in touch with Pilar and Jessica, as well as some of the Harvard folks involved in their Recupera Chile project.

Pilar has invited me several times to visit her during the summer school for children she runs every year in January, and Jessica kept me informed of her attempts to form her farmers-of-the-sea aquaculture business. We planned a visit for January 2017, but it was canceled due to the extensive wild fires affecting the area last year. This year we finally returned to Dichato to visit Pilar and Jessica, about eight years after the earthquake/tsunami disaster. 

On the surface, it appears that Pilar’s prediction of a ten-year “reinvention” of the town may be coming to fruition. The impressive physical structures that now house the townspeople who lost their homes in 2010, the extensive and functional sea wall that protects the town along the beautiful beach, the new fire department now situated safely above the town in one of the new neighborhoods, two new schools, and a new impressive health clinic located on the hill out of reach of future tsunamis, all attest to Dichato’s recovery.

Dichato is no longer a sleepy coastal retreat. The center of town is a bustling vacation spot, replete with all types of restaurants, small stores, and rooms to rent for the summer. Water sports provide entertainment and exercise for vacationers, and jobs for local residents. The yearly music festival, begun right after the quake as a fundraiser and spirit-lifter, is now one of Chile’s most appreciated summer festivals. It is really quite impressive what they have been able to accomplish in a few short years.

However, when I reminded Pilar of her ten-year “Dichato reinvention” prediction, she sheepishly admitted that she might have been a bit ambitious; “We’ll need more time” she explained. Pilar and her colleagues see the superficial physical recovery of the town as only one part of the reinvention process. To be sure, comfortable though simple homes, good water and sewage systems, freshly paved streets, new school facilities, and a new health clinic are all good, and necessary. Vacationers are now flocking to Dichato as a result.

But the ability of Dichato to rebuild the community in which the residents of Dichato live, work, and play every day is a more difficult and longer term task. Pilar believes this complex community rebuilding process must focus more on the children. The children who were directly affected by the frightening effects of the earthquake and especially the tsunami harbor within themselves a level of fear and insecurity which, if not attenuated, will stunt their progress and limit their lives forever. This is the next level of disaster recovery Pilar is working on, and her progress is heartwarming.

Pilar with her kids

Pilar’s summer school for Dichato kids attempts to turn their fear of the water into a comfortable seaside coexistence that can include aquatic sports, the main activity of vacationers to Dichato. So Pilar has led an effort to create a physical meeting place on the beach, a place where the children can gather for their summer school courses and where the parents, who must work long hours during the day, know their children will be safe and cared for. They call this new center the Centro Aquatico, and have made sure that this center is formally associated with the public school, hopefully lending some permanence to the program and sustained support.

Centro Acuatico

A mostly volunteer team of Pilar’s colleagues provides instruction in diving and sailing, along with activities which help the children become more comfortable with the ocean’s threats and aware of its benefits.

Sailing lessons

The trauma of a tsunami can be deep and take years to overcome. The day I observed the group, they were building sand castles near the edge of the beach. The tide was coming in, but the children had not yet noticed this. One instructor was trying to get the kids to make sand walls around the castles, to hopefully protect them from the sea. However, as the tide advanced, bit by bit, the kids grabbed their clothes, the plastic shovels and pails they had been using to make the castles, and moved back up the beach, away from the advancing sea, and away from the sand castles. Some went on to other activities, like beach soccer, while some simply watched as their castles were destroyed by the waves.

Pilar with kids, building sand castles

The experience of watching children react to the destruction of their carefully built sand castles by an advancing sea that just eight years earlier did the same to their town and their houses, gives meaning to the whole experience Dichato displays; its destruction, and now its recovery. Loss, and hope.

Programs begun with outside resources and energy often suffer when that outside support wanes. Pilar has received considerable support, both financial and programmatic, from the Harvard group and many others. Hopefully the program will continue well into the future; it is a long term deal. She certainly has dedicated herself to Dichato’s children and to the town’s recovery. She and the program deserve continued support, especially from local officials and regional social development funds. 


Around the bay from Dichato to the south are three small harbors where artisan fisherman keep their boats. Collectively they are named Coliumo, and it is where Jessica Cabrera operates her Granjeros del Mar project. Since we last met with Jessica in 2014, the new pier in the middle harbor has been finished and serves as the center of fishing activity in Coliumo.

New Coliumo pier

I arrived to meet Jessica a bit early, so I explored the pier and surrounding area. The pier houses a series of stalls and services used by the Algueros de Coliumo, the women algae collectors, who operate their businesses from here. These women not only collect three different types of Algae, they also plant the algae in designated sections of the bay where they have been awarded concessions, a sort of algae farming to make the process more productive and predictable.

Sorting pelillo alga

Most of the algae are dried, processed, and sent off to Asian countries where they are highly valued for their culinary and cosmetic attributes. The day I was there, several women were sorting a string-like alga called pelillo, highly valued by the Chinese they told me. They were preparing trimmings of the alga to be replanted in the bay. Besides pelillo, they also harvest for export two other types of algae they call luga and cicoria.

Salon Gastronomico of the Algueras de Coliumo

The algueras also have the concession for a new cafe and restaurant (Salon Gastronomico!) perched on the pier with a striking view of Coliumo bay with its colorful fishing boats. Jessica had arrived, and it was lunchtime, so we ordered the daily special of merluza (hake) with boiled potatoes and salad.

Jessica Cabrera

Jessica is always optimistic and forward looking, and she had told me in an earlier communication that she had received a grant from the national development corporation, CORFO, so I was very much looking forward to hearing how she was doing. But artisan fishing in Chile is in crisis; it seems that is the natural state of this struggling sector. A fisheries law passed several years ago was aimed at the large industrial fishing operations, leaving the artisan sector, according to Jessica, pretty much out of the better fishing concessions along Chile’s extensive coast. The general state of artisan fishing is not healthy, due to that law, negative effects of Chile’s “development”, lasting environmental impact from the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, and climate change.

But in spite of this generally negative condition of artisan fisheries in the coastal area where Jessica lives and works, she had worked very hard to obtain financial support for a project that would turn fishermen into aquaculture farmers, in the program called Granjeros del Mar. Some business management specialists from Harvard helped Jessica design the large project which included technical assistance from the nearby University of Concepcion. The ambitious project would include many of Jessica’s fellow fishermen from five different fishing villages, and cost about 4 million US dollars. The regional authority set up to finance this type of project had indicated that it had a good chance to be funded.

But these negotiations take time, and over time the priorities changed in the region. The wild fires a year ago created losses which apparently seemed more urgent to the authorities, and the funding was not awarded to Jessica’s project. In the meantime, the fishermen who were interested in joining her aquaculture project were forced to move on to another activity.

But Jessica, like Pilar in Dichato, is a determined woman, and very committed. Instead, she presented a personal project of about 500,000 US dollars, this time to CORFO, to upgrade and expand her own aquaculture project in Coliumo bay. This time she was successful, so she is constructing a new office and operation center right across the street from the new Coliumo pier, where she will base her sea farming of several types of oysters, mussels, and maybe abalone.

Location of Jessica’s new facility, across from Coliumo pier

Jessica proudly showed me her new facility, offered me a big, juicy oyster recently pulled up from one of her “farms”, and explained her new system for growing her shellfish in cages and on lines in the 11 hectares of concessions in the bay she has obtained from the government.

Jessica’s cages for growing oysters

She also explained how she plans to catch the next thief who dives under the darkness of night to steal her oysters, a problem she had recently. Besides the stolen oysters that showed up on the menu of a now out of business restaurant in town, Jessica’s shellfish are being offered in a couple of local restaurants. Jessica is a scientist, and will continue to test new species and new methods. But what seems to be really needed is an update on the controversial national fisheries law, hopefully with better conditions for the artisan fishermen like Jessica, and more financial support for small businesses like hers. 

One of Jessica’s plump oysters

Before leaving Coliumo, I walked along the new seawall and walkway that is being built between the new stilted homes and waters edge. Several of the quaint palafitos, as these stilted homes are called, have been turned into small restaurants, and even B&B type rentals. The area is terribly attractive, especially in the summer, and the folks who live in these fishing villages certainly need income to complement what fishing they can eke out. Coliumo, in my imagination, could be like the small fishing villages along the coasts of Greek islands, or the Adriatic coast of Croatia. However, the livelihood of these small treasures depends upon two very fickle activities: fishing and tourism. Increasingly Chile’s fisheries are coming under pressure from over fishing so stronger and stronger vedas, or seasonal bans, are being applied. This trend will continue until Chileans figure out how to manage and harvest their fisheries sustainably, if they ever do. And if Chile continues to develop at the pace it has over the past couple of decades, tourism will rise as a result of a growing middle class with normal desires for vacation and leisure, and the means to satisfy them.


Then, back in Dichato, I visited the sea front walkway with the massive seawall built to discourage the next tsunami from wiping out the newly rebuilt Dichato town center. The day before I had heard someone say that this seawall was built so fast after the disaster, mainly to show progress to a very depressed and anxious town, that it actually will provide little defense should another large tsunami occur. It’s possible that everyone in town has heard this; I doubt I am the only beneficiary of this gratuitous, disturbing information. But how do you know for sure? It surely will help, won’t it?

Dichato’s new coastal seawall and walkway

I talked with the owner of a seafood shop right on the street facing the seawall, and he is anxiously awaiting permission to build his home on the second floor above the shop. Approvals are slow, because this is in the “Red Zone”, where no residences are supposed to be built. But the police station is in the Red Zone, and so is the school they rebuilt rapidly for the kids so they could get back to school soon after the disaster. Many temporary rental residences are being established in the Red Zone. Do they have approvals? The woman who owns the restaurant where I had a fabulous dinner of locos, Chilean abelone, is back in business and plans to build several more cabins behind her sea level restaurant.

Chileans know where they live. They know that their land, besides being absolutely beautiful from the Andes to the sea, from the Atacama desert to the Straights of Magellan, occasionally exacts a price in terms of natural disasters. If you live with the uncertainty of a very active seismic land, you don’t look back too far, nor can you look very much into the future. Maybe that’s why Chileans seem to live so much more for today than for yesterday or tomorrow. When I recently mentioned to a friend, who lives on this coast of central Chile, that it was already 8 years since the big earthquake and tsunami, he calmly retorted,”Yes, and I think we are closer to the next big one than we are to the last one!”  

I have been drawn to Dichato and Coliumo since the day I unwittingly chose not to be with them when that awful wave engulfed their town in 2010. After such a disaster it is simply amazing that life goes on as it does in these brave towns. And it goes on because of heroes like Pilar and Jessica, and many other unheralded women who put their heads down, and simply get to work. Dichato and Coliumo are prime examples of Chile’s will to be; Pilar del Canto and Jessica Cabrera are the faces of Chile’s voluntad de ser

If I’m in Chile for the next “big one”, Dichato and Coliumo might be the best place to be.

Posted in Santiago, Chile. February 20, 2018

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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8 thoughts on “Chile; La Voluntad de Ser”

  1. Jacque Lytle says:

    Thanks again, Dave.

    1. David Joslyn
      David Joslyn says:

      You are very welcome.

  2. John Hager says:

    A great testament to the gritty and resolute will of the average Chilean to overcome the obstacles put in their way resulting from natural disasters in order to forge a better life for themselves and future generations. May the people of these communities be spared “the next big one” for some time to come.

  3. David Joslyn
    David Joslyn says:

    I received this message from Jessica Hidalgo, that I want to share with the readers of this blog:

    Estimado David:

    Junto con saludar, solo quiero agradecer tus palabras hacia mi persona.
    Creo que el tsunami destruyó muchas vidas, sueños, proyectos, etc.
    pero soy una convencida que cada vez que estemos en el suelo, por el motivo que sea, debemos pensar que esta vida solo tenemos que vivirla, volver a ponernos de pie, continuar nuestros sueños y disfrutar cada dia como si fuese el último.

    Muchos cariños

  4. david mather says:

    Very informative, perceptive, and enjoyable as always. I wonder, though, can you (at our well-attained age) possibly remember all the new vocabulary you glean from your wanderings–‘palafitos,’ ‘vedas,’ ‘Granjeros Del Mar,’ ‘algueras,’ ‘pelillo,’ ‘luga,’ ‘cicoria.’ I still read a lot, but retention is sketchy these days…The ‘vedas’ may be tough on the fishermen, but I believe it also says something about Chile’s stature in the world by monitoring their seas and having these controls…I also realize the importance of tourism–whether eco (like Patagonia) or otherwise–to the future and well-being of Chile’s economy and peoples. However, as a VERY selfish traveller, I’d hate to see all the quaint fishing villages become postcard pretty with their bays and beaches full of rental kayaks and paddle boards…I loved the picture of the oysters because, well, I love oysters. Being ‘farm’-raised is always a plus because it reduces much of the anxiety of getting a bad one and worrying about liver damage (I figure many of us have done plenty of damage in that arena and don’t need more.). I wonder if Jessica’s small oyster business might benefit from some flashy logo. Lindy and I just returned from Australia. Towards the end of our trip we rented a camper van and did a quick tour of Tasmania. We ferried out to Bruny Island where we visited a little oyster farm. Delicious, perfect size for me (I prefer smallish over very large oysters), and creamy. They were wonderful. Anyway, we left with a few of the farm’s bumper stickers with all the pertinent business info. However, we mostly took the stickers for the logo: GET SHUCKED….Please keep blogging. Abrazos, Dave

    1. David Joslyn
      David Joslyn says:

      The main vocabulary words worth remembering are “tinto” and “blanco”.
      Dave J.

  5. Bart Givens says:

    My friend Dave Fisk forwarded this to me and I very much enjoyed it. I served as a Papal Volunteer for Latin America at the same time Dave was working in Peñalolen, a barrio on the outskirts of Santiago. Your blog so aptly describes the spirit and character of Chile and its people that I know and love. I shared this with some colleagues here in Colorado Springs who espouse the same philosophy of the individual efforts of people in the community taking action to solve its problems rather than waiting for help or permission from afuera (government). The homes on stilts are an example of what happens when that occurs. Although outside resources are sometimes needed, the decisions and solutions need to emanate from the community. Thanks for reviving some wonderful memories and please add me to your blog list. And yes, “Tinto” y “Blanco” are the most important words to remember!

  6. Ernesto Sahr Muranda says:

    Hablando de Dichato qué pasó con Zafrada, el niño símbolo del terremoto y maremoto?

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