Class Structures in the US vs. Chile

This weeks’ group blogging topic was Racism/Classism.

Classism exists in both the US and Chile. However, there are vast differences in how it is dealt with. In the US, from a very early age, not only are we taught how to distinguish between socioeconomic classes, but also that it is politically incorrect to acknowledge these differences. For example, I remember as early as second grade I could tell which of my friends was “rich”, which was “middle class” and which was “poor”. Because I went to public school in a well-off rural town in Vermont, there were people of all social classes in my school, except maybe the extremely wealthy. However, in many parts of the US, like in Chile, schools are segregated by classes. For example, my friends who went to college in St. Louis have told me that the high schools there are extremely segregated by class (and race) and that natives of St. Louis simply have to ask where one attended high school to more or less figure out their socioeconomic standing.

In Chile, especially in Santiago, the education system is strictly divided along class lines. For the most part, the poorest sectors of the population attend Municipal schools, funded and run by the municipal government with very little federal monies (in the form of vouchers) to support them. The comunas (barrios) of Santiago are divided along socio-economic lines. This means that in the poorer comunas, the schools are horrible because they don’t have enough funding. In the richer comunas, the schools are much better. The middle sectors of the population attend subsidized private schools, which are school funded by the vouchers (i.e. federal money) but administrated privately. These schools are allowed to charge tuition, so unless a child receives a beca (scholarship), the poorest sectors of society are not able to attend these schools. The richest sectors attend private schools (particulares), funded completely from private tuition payments. Not only are the class divisions much clearer in Chile, but it is okay to acknowledge them and define people by their socioeconomic level, something that in the US would be viewed as politically incorrect.

The main difference between the class systems in the US and Chile, in my view, is their fluidity. In the US, there are ways to “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” and make a better living for yourself than your parents did. I’m not saying this always happens or that it is easy, but it does happen. For example, at Colby, some of my friends were first generation college students. Through financial aid, hard work and perseverance, they were able to attend a small, private liberal arts college, thereby bettering their chances at getting a better paying job.

In Chile, the class system is very rigid. If you are born poor, you will die poor, as will your children and your children’s children. This is because from the get-go, the education system, paired with Chile’s inherent classism, does not give the children of poor people a fighting chance. If they graduate from high school, it is very unlikely that they will be able to attend one of the traditional universities (or any university for that matter), and there are employers who literally will not hire anyone unless they have attended La Catolica or UChile. This means that the same small percentage of well-off Chileans are getting the good-paying jobs, while the vast majority of the population continues to just scrape by.

So far I have only touched upon what you could call systemic classism, but this definitely plays out in day-to-day life as well. Literally on my second day in Chile, I learned how intolerant some Chileans can be when it comes to people of a lower social class. My host mom told me about another gringa she had hosted that started dating a Chileno from a barrio bajo. She discouraged the gringa from seeing him and would not let him in the house because she was afraid that he would steal from her. In her eyes, the gringa was a “princess” and was too good for this flaite. (Some other time I will tell how this story hit way close to home for me.) Chileans date and marry and are friends with other people in the same socio-economic class, and to stray from this norm is strange and not socially acceptable. What is interesting though is that I find that “middle class” Chileans don’t want to associate with the flaites of the lower classes or the cuicos of the upper class. Although I haven’t done any research on it, I get the impression that no one really aspires towards social mobility at all.

I didn’t really touch on racism in this post, although class and race are intricately intertwined in both the US and Chile. Chileans claim that racism doesn’t exist because it’s such a homogeneous country, but that claim in and of itself ignores the 10% (or more) of the population that is Mapuche and the small percentage of other indigenous groups, not to mention Peruvian immigrants. I’m hoping someone else will have addressed this more thoroughly because I don’t want to make this post any longer!

Some other views:



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