A Dialogue with María Emilia Tijoux about Immigration in Chile: The Cruelty of Racism as a Historical Marker


We spoke with María Emilia Tijoux about why she studies migration, the impact her childhood and living in exile had on her unique perspective, and the dangers of the xenophobic discourse that has become fashionable as of late.  She argues that in order to understand the anti-foreign sentiment in Chile, we must place it within the context of the inherited racism, still practiced, that plagues the indigenous population.  And in order to combat this racism, she adds, we must utilize the tools from all disciplines.  The interviewer and interviewee both agree that the university must not merely be a spectator, and be more actively engaged.

By Ximena Póo Figueroa, Director of Extension and PhD in Latin American Studies

Translated by Anthony Rauld

December in Santiago, Chile, close to La Moneda Palace, where the fate of the Republic is decided.  There, outside the bustle, we spoke with María Emilia Tijoux, PhD in Sociology from the University of Paris 8—with a trajectory that inspires research about migration, the body, racism, everyday lives and the human condition.  A decade ago I read her work for the first time, and from a humanities and communications perspective I began doing research, trying to map the streets to understand how intraregional migration is Chile’s self-reflection, a chance to become aware of itself as an integral part of the region.  As a PhD in Latin American Studies, I had begun my search.  But for both of us, our real search began much earlier—in the cruelty of exile for her, and in the uneasiness of migration for me.  She was in Paris, and I in Madrid, where first and fourth worlds live side by side, contained inside a city.  And it began in Chile, which still resists its Latin American roots, and strives for the whiteness of impossibility.  We are both committed to diversity, interculturality, human rights, and stopping the fascist discourse from hijacking the migration issue.  History has already taught us that, like wildfire, this discourse can end in hate, violence and extermination.

Today we are anxious.  While Trump promises to build walls, here a new immigration law is promised—which should be redacted in August 2015 to replace the law decreed by the dictatorship in 1975—and Europe is hit by a wave of xenophobia that fails to understand the implications of a Mediterranean sea full of death, and a barbed-wire road where thousands of refugees walk towards an uncertain future.

As a child, Maria Emilia Tijoux grew up in a working class neighborhood in Santiago.  Since then, she has never stopped seeing herself in others, as she does today in one of her best friends, an immigrant, with sporadic work, a strong intellectual.  During her childhood, María Emilia remembers, “I would hide my shoes in order to go around barefoot, just like my neighborhood friends did; I always try to think about the calluses that form on your feet, which you get from the direct and repetitive everyday contact with life.  I also think about the Warsaw Ghetto, where people resisted with arms.  The ones who could get out, scurry away, were the children.  It was that suffering that had allowed them to invent and resist.”  In the working class neighborhoods, she learned how to scurry away and explore.  And she has never forgotten that, least of all now, as she investigates racism in Chile—for more than a decade—she is in the field every day, mobilizing PhD, Master’s, and undergraduate students, educating against racism.

The road has been long.  In France, since her exile in 1975, she started to work in the streets “because I was working as an educator in certain immigrant neighborhoods, where the kids living there, wrongly considered second and third generation immigrants, were relocated to a separate area, denied.”  As a Chilean, she got involved right away.  “I arrived as a political refugee, but we always made a point not to see ourselves that way and we integrated ourselves into French society, and that’s how we ended up participating in movements that supported the Moroccan people, Nicaragua, various popular struggles.  We also started to work as immigrants do when they first arrive, ironing clothes, cleaning, washing dishes, singing in bars, tutoring Spanish, working as secretaries for dentists and doctors,” she says, and I tell her that while I completed a Master’s program at the Universidad Complutense and covered the “Pinochet Case”, at night we would put up flyers for an emergency locksmith in every street in Madrid.  This is just one example of the kind of work—and the good kind, we were lucky—that millions of Chileans who have migrated across the world certainly engage in.

María Emilia “had studied Philosophy and that was useless.  I didn’t know what was going on, only that I had to get a job quickly.  I began to focus on teaching, and then I studied Sociology.  Life got more or less normal in France.  I never felt it was a punishment to live there.  I got used to cleaning houses, and those kinds of things, just like the majority of immigrants here, for me it was a job.  The best lesson my father ever taught me was that one has to work in all kinds of things in life.  And that whatever one does, it has to be done right.  I come from the working class and it couldn’t have been any other way.”

Coming back to Chile, in the 90’s, it seemed odd to her that Peruvian immigrants in Santiago spent so many hours, “on the steps of the Cathedral, as if they were looking for a kind of protection from the Church; primarily women, in very poor conditions, who would sell things on the street.”  That’s where she went.  She went to observe in the main square, and took with her a large plastic bag, just like the others on the steps.  “I realized that some of them were professionals, and that most of them had come because of the political crisis in Peru.  The Argentineans had already begun to arrive because of the economic crisis, but they could integrate themselves quickly in one way or another, especially in the sales sector of the economy,” recounts María Emilia.

From there, she started to work on migration, studying the social, political and cultural transformations of immigrant families.  She’s interested in the concept of journey, the unplanned journey, and the fissure that penetrates each life when the decision to migrate is made.  Those who migrate, even if they eventually return to their country of origin, will never stop being a migrant.

“I was interested in how these everyday lives were being transformed as they were abused, ignored, insulted.  And then came my research with girls and boys in the schools of Santiago, and that’s when I started to speak about racism.  What else was it when boys were called ‘pigeon eater’, ‘ugly cholo’.  And there was confusion as to the link between their indigenousness and the history of the war.”  And so, she continues, “looking back at the dawn of the Republic you realize that there is a brutal mark there, and not due to the war itself, but rather because to have indigenous roots is to have roots that are denied, mistreated.  And that goes for those who come from the outside, as well as those who live inside the country.”  She discovered the mark that is imposed in order to whiten, cleanse, and civilize by force, and by withholding humanity.

After that investigation, she began to dig deep—beyond her research into shantytowns, poverty, the body, and gender, among others—into those Peruvian immigrants who had carved out successful careers.  “We interviewed managers, owners of large companies, restaurants; in the beginning they always claimed that they hadn’t had any problems in Chile, but after insisting about their everyday lives, the issue of racism would always emerge.  Their indigenous roots triggered something in others, even if they weren’t actually indigenous.”  While she searched for answers, we here at the ICEI Media and Journalism School looked at how the media utilizes mechanisms that reproduce discriminatory narratives that create a xenophobic and classist discourse, which facilitates the construction of the Other through criminalization or victimization; from a perspective of inferiority.

Stepping Back in order to See Ourselves

In order to see ourselves, we have to step back, with an interdisciplinary lens that can bring back to academia that critical perspective our society demands.  “We are colonized and we are mixtures from different places, but the most difficult of mixtures is the one from before the 19th century immigrations, which is related to our obsession with whiteness, our European heritage.  We were already in a condition of being denied, and all we have to do is travel around to realize that we aren’t the Europeans we thought we were, and that we are Chileans who also have indigenous roots,” says María Emilia, while we discuss deportations at the airport, and how people are mistreated at the northern and southern borders.  We reflect on how Chile has failed to live up to the international treaties it has signed, and how it should protect those who migrate to the country.

“The arrival of immigrants of African descent, especially those with black skin, invites us to see ourselves in them.  Difference is a political construction”, she emphasizes, which is why we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that “there is a history built on racism, stretching back a long time.  It was built thanks to a racist 19th century Anthropology, and to a philosophy of Cartesian dualism.  When the Spanish arrived here, they spoke of the indigenous as people without souls.  The question of the soul would be resolved by evangelization.  In other words, they are dominated.  But what happens to those who rebel and refuse to partake in what was a very brutal affair—that civilizing game of domination—depending on the region or the type of Spanish who arrived?

Today we are in a globalized context of displacement and movement of people due to poverty, persecution, and wars.  We are currently experiencing a paradigm shift.  People move, we insist, no longer from south to north, but in many different directions.  In the north they move from east to west; from the north of Africa to Europe; there is south-to-south movement as well.  Maria Emilia doesn’t speak about flows; neither do I.

When we deconstruct the concepts that underlie history, it will be possible to figure out what is happening to us today; the academic world, she thinks, must “examine basic concepts in order to denaturalize common sense ideas that have taken hold, even, as scientific, validated and legitimized as part of the instrumentalization of reason, which has even served to justify genocide.”  And this has a lot to do with how punishment against people is legitimized, and with how the concept of “class” cannot be separated from the concept of “race”, or from the concept of “nation”.  “From this we trace how we are situated as persons by the establishment of difference.  And that’s how some people end up below others; and some countries end up above others,” reflects María Emilia before emphasizing that “the other related concept in the storyline of class-‘race’-nation is ‘gender’.  In all of the constructions of racism and fascism we find patriarchy.  If we don’t recognize this as part of the whole, we will not be able to unlock history, and they will continue to kill women, persecuting immigrants and human trafficking will continue to exist.”

Investigate and Take in

As academics, she affirms, and I agree, “we cannot spend our time only writing essays.  I think they are interesting, but when we are dealing with hard problems, research makes much more sense.  And hopefully it’s done as rigorously as possible, whether it is qualitative or quantitative.  I think developing an effective discourse, well argued, solid, is unlikely without research and without fieldwork.  If there isn’t an empirical approach, hopefully interdisciplinary, then efforts to understand the problem will fall short.  In the case of racism and classism, we need interdisciplinary research from medicine, the humanities, the social sciences, communication, education, to the arts.”

And we need it more and more urgently.  We are in a moment of reflection, at a pre-electoral crossroads full of populisms and where the state is still absent.  “The latest remarks by Sebastian Piñera and Manuel José Ossandón, where they link migration to incidents of crime, are very serious.  It’s not enough to just create a few Internet memes and have people make fun of Piñera’s lack of cultural awareness.  What he did was well thought out, it’s something rational that was meant to trigger strong common sense notions, especially in the media, and which later was going to reverberate throughout those sectors of society that are the most abandoned by the state, and which are experiencing isolation, debt, and unemployment.”  All of that anger looks for guilty parties and, we’ve seen it here, in Europe and in the United States, “those guilty parties tend to come from abroad.”

This construction is universal and it has become evident, for example, when Alejandro Guillier speaks of “selecting” immigrants.  “Selecting,” María Emilia pauses, “is a word used by the Nazis.  There is a language of war being used, as if we were dealing with an enemy.”  And we return to the concepts.  For example, why do we talk about a migration amnesty if being undocumented, or without legal papers, is not a crime, but simply an administrative transgression?  Why do we speak about illegals when no human being is illegal?

Another concept emerges from this dialogue, “cruelty”; that fascist cruelty, racist, and I remind her of certain posts in the media, those comments below the news articles, which, in the case of news about immigrants in Chile, are extremely violent.  They should be made illegal, we conclude as we open to some page in the La Tercera or El Mercurio newspaper.  And there they are.  There is torture, there are murders, violations, there is viciousness; they are written in a code of desire.  “They encourage you to be cruel; the brutality of the racism that I saw in France was even greater and that’s why seeing a similar level here worries me,” says María Emilia as we think of resistance, that concept taken up by those who suffer through these discourses, and their effects.  “That desire to annihilate shows up in different places: in a selection process designed to admit only the “good” immigrants, tougher laws, mandatory medical exams to screen for diseases.  That’s where a specific intention is revealed, to see them as the enemy, in a war, and as a contaminant.”

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