Hellenes are scattered across the globe; we are the Diaspora, yet we rarely think of a country like Chile. Yet there are almost 4,000 Chileans of Greek descent here, making Chile one of the largest homes for the Greek Diaspora in the Americas.

Ancestral bonds and cultural connections

I had the privilege of meeting a range of Hellenes who opened their doors to me, a glimpse of local Greek history. Journalist Veronica Rabb Saitis showed me that Greek hospitality is the same everywhere. Visiting Veronica’s casa for Greek and Chilean food, I was welcomed by her charismatic husband, Francisco Vicencio Castro and their two children, and of course, the matriarch of the family, María Eugenia Saitis Triantafilo.

I connected with this Greek-Chilean household, especially after being offered dolmades, Greek sweets and Chilean delicacies. Maria Eugenia explained how she came to speak and feel Greek, with her father being born in Athens. Her mother, born in Chile from Antofagasta, had a Greek heritage. Her parents met in Bolivia, where she was born, and she is one of five children, all speaking Greek, before moving to Santiago in 1972.

She keeps mementos from her parents in the type of “bolo” my parents keep, and their parents kept in the villages of Lesvos. Veronica’s Greek is rusty, yet she loves her culture. Whenever the Greek community hold a panegyri, Veronica is one of the people who will dance Greek all night. Veronica learnt Greek dancing, saying, “It’s in my blood”. Her connection to Greece, via her mother and her grandfather, Geraldo Saitis, began almost a century ago, and Geraldo Saitis’ journey originates in Krokilio.

Iglesia Ortodoxa Griega de los Santos Constantino y Elena, in Avenue Grecia, Ñuñoa, and Father Ignatius, Πάτερ Hγνατιος. Photo: B.Cotsis.

Veronica’s teenage children can speak and understand basic Greek. As someone who speaks un poco de español, conversations regularly veered from Greek to English to Spanish with the addition of hand signs and back again.

Navigating the Greek Diaspora in Chile

After meeting Veronica’s lovely family, I met the Greek Consul to Chile, Manolis Andreasson. The Consul is no stranger to the Americas, with Chile being his third posting in the region after Brazil and Argentina. The Consul meets and engages with Greeks and is very much a part of the local community and the Greek representative. There are times when he has also given talks on Greek history and mythology.

The Consul explained that there are over 1000 Greek passport holders and about 3000 descendants, with 80 per cent in Santiago. While less than 100 Greeks are in Antofagasta, there was a peak between 1920 and 1935 when there were about 4,000 Greeks in the city. Andreasson also pointed me towards one of the best local historians, 90-year-old Nikolaidis, who has written a study about the Greeks of Chile.

Greek Consul to Chile, Manolis Andreasson. Photo: B.Cotsis

The Greek language, my passport to the world, as I usually find Greeks in the 80 countries I’ve been to, is declining in Chile. One Greek language teacher is at the Greek Community House, and most students are adults. In 2011, authors Alexandros D. Zorbas, former director of the Centre of Greek, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies of Universidad de Chile and Nikiforos Nikolaidis, SAE Coordinator in Latina America and businessman, released a book detailing how the Greek presence has survived for centuries. Their meticulous 15-year research revealed that Greeks landed in Chile in 1536. Just like Maria’s parents, many families from Greece, especially Crete, emigrated to this part of the world, specifically Antofagasta.

Xrisí Athena Tefarikis, journalist and professor, has identified that some early settlers were Kytherian. Consul Andreasson also alluded to, Greeks came looking for copper, nitrate, gold and new beginnings over the last century. It was a golden time for the Greeks and Chile as it was a low-tax period, and Chile was booming. Greeks have a historic allergy to taxes.

Dolmathes at Veronica’s house. Photo: B. Cotsis

A local newspaper in the era, El Mercurio, said the Greeks in Antofagasta established Sociedad Helénica de Socorros Mutuos. The association was led by Geraldo Triantafilos, Jorge Katevas, vice-president, Ramón Chilovitis, Stilianós Balabanos, Jorge Karayanis, José Sclabos, Teodoro Jaramis, Jorge Galanakis, Menelao Franciskakis, Gerardo Kasaneva and Angel Adamopoulos making up the board and committee.

In 1926, a Greek Ladies Association named Filóptoxos was born with Xrisí Almallotis as its founding president. The professor, Almallotis’ granddaughter, mentions that the Greek community is the fifth or sixth generation, though few speak Greek. Antofagasta celebrates its anniversary on Valentine’s Day, and the Greek delegation is well-represented with Greek food, stalls, traditional costumes and the Greek flag.

Journals and texts of past Greeks in Chile. Photo: B. Cotsis

Unraveling myth and history

While there is no doubt Hellenes have been in Chile for centuries, there is one far-fetched claim from art professor Cesar Navarrete that Hellenes arrived between 800 and 600 B.C. as Spartans circumnavigated the world. Navarrete published a book in 1974,” El Origen Griego de los Araucanos. However, this is fanciful because Spartans were not seafaring people.

In his History of the Incas, the 16th Century Spanish adventurer, author, and mathematician Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa suggests that ancient Hellenes settled in Chile, influencing the Araucanian people and language. An unbelievable claim, born of European arrogance, that the civilisations in the Americas must have been Hellenes.

The Greek Orthodox church, Iglesia Ortodoxa Griega de los Santos Constantino y Elena, in Avenue Grecia, Ñuñoa, is far more tangible. There, I spoke with Father Ignatius, Πάτερ Hγνατιος, who talked to me in Greek and gave me a gave me a tour of the church, making this my first spiritual stop on my America voyage. I must say it has been a blessed journey since.

Avenue Grecia, Ñuñoa. Photo: Bill Cotsis

At the Grecia metro station, there is a tribute to ancient Greek civilisation. The Réplicas del Friso del Partenón Griego replicates the Frieze at the Greek Parthenon in 16 carvings of the sculptures stolen by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and his cronies, who are prisoners of the British Museum. The tribute at Grecia station is a joint effort from the Greek government and local authorities.

Seven associations represent Hellenes in Chile. Hellenic Studies have existed in several cities, such as the Centre for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Santiago.

Greeks like Veronica and her family and the Consul have a warmth that melds Chilean and Greek spirits. With such history in Chile, it is incumbent on all of us to engage with our Chilean Diaspora and do our best to support the Greek language in this outpost of the Greek world.

* Read The Aegean Seven Take Back The Marbles! Billy Cotsis is the author of The Aegean Seven: Take Back The Marbles