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The Alien Resident Part 2

Valdivia, Chile 1960 after earthquake

I wrote in last week’s blog about being sent to Chile as a missionary when I was 24. I lived there over five years, got married and had two of my three daughters there. My first year was a humbling learning experience. I was affectionately referred to as the stupid gringo. I could barely speak Spanish, I made lots of mistakes, I didn’t understand their food, dress, construction methods, economy, history or culture. This was the south of Chile where the weather was cold, very wet and very windy. The people were kind, patient, even loving, but very shy and private. (Leviticus 19:34 again!) As an alien resident and foreigner, I had a lot to learn.

When I arrived, they were building a two story church. The most powerful earthquake ever recorded (9.6) hit here in 1960. Consequently, the structure had to be steel and reinforced concrete. It was all done by hand with wooden scaffolding and wheelbarrows, pulling them up ramps up to 30 feet high. I was amazed at the ingenuity of the system and the brute strength of these men that were head and shoulders smaller than me. I worked with them, learned their methods, and joined in the backbreaking work with them. I had to learn about their electrical system, with its different voltage and wiring methods. Even in a nice home, there was only one outlet and one light per room. But that was their way and I wanted to learn it.

They mixed concrete by hand combining the Portland cement, sand and gravel into specific proportions. They knew when to make the mix rich or weak. I watched as they used hand tools almost exclusively for any kind of construction work. They would gladly have used power tools except they were very expensive. The average wage was about $80 a month. So, I too, learned to do many things by hand. Wood stoves in the kitchen were very common because they were also used to heat the house and dry the laundry. Stucco was a very common exterior finish applied to concrete walls. I would watch in amazement as skilled workers would apply it high on walls and ceilings. Their forearms were huge, like Popeye the sailor. I struggled to imitate their methods. While everyone spoke Spanish, there were many idioms that were not in the dictionary. I tried to learn as many as I could. I learned about their humor and watched the one TV channel with a Mexican comedy show that everyone seemed to watch. I can still recite some of the funny lines to this day. Transportation was a challenge. Very few had automobiles. I learned to get around by walking, local buses and later, a secondhand bike.

Because I was an alien resident, many looked on me with suspicion. I learned what discrimination was like. I was different. I looked different. I talked different. I dressed different. I must be a rich gringo. Maybe I was CIA or an American spy. Many times I was approached by bored but suspicious police asking me for my papers, only to find out they had no idea what they were looking for. They were curious about me, and used their authority to grill me. I would wait my turn in the queues only to be ignored or bypassed. University students especially were aggressive, convinced that I was there to subvert their way of life. Many were still angry at the military takeover and believed I had something to do with it.

Once I was on a bus traveling to visit a friend in a remote community next to a hydroelectric plant. The bus was stopped at a checkpoint, and two young policemen entered the bus with machine guns slung over their shoulder. Walking down the aisle, they came to me and asked for my documents. I handed them my local identity card. They looked at it for quite a while, then said, “We need more documents.” Confused, I asked, “What documents do you need. They are all I was given.” Flustered, they talked among themselves a moment, handed back my identity card, and said, “Next time you need more documents.” They spoke to no one else and got off the bus. Everyone on the bus was looking at me.

I’ve learned empathy for the alien residents here in our country who may have experienced similar frustration or discrimination. “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:34) Chileans modeled this for me and now I get to apply it to resident aliens here.

(1)Photo attribution:By Pierre St. Amand - NGDC Natural Hazards Slides with Captions Header, Public Domain, Earthquake damage to good quality, wood-frame houses in Valdivia, Chile, 1960.

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