By Romina A. Green Rioja
When I enthusiastically opened my social media apps the Sunday morning after Pedro Pascal’s SNL performance to read articles and comments from the U.S. and Chilean press, my heart sank seeing the overabundance of right-wing comments. “You should thank Pinochet for what he did for you and this country.” “Typical communist.” “Why didn’t [his family] go to Russia?” As a Chilean American raised between Santiago, Chile, and Los Angeles, California, the meaning of those comments hit home. But the comment that stood at the top with 1.5 thousand likes questioned Pascal’s Chilean-ness, a sentiment shared by conservatives and progressives for different reasons. The commentator stated he was Chilean on paper only and “to be Chilean is something he could never feel.” I have heard those words before in Chile from friends and random acquaintances. While they hurt on a cultural and familial level, they unearth something else about Chile.
Chileans know that memory is resistance. During the military dictatorship (1973-1990), Chileans at home and abroad shared stories of trauma privately and publicly to counter the global silence. Since state violence was conducted hiddenly, all we had were our stories. I cannot recall a time when I did not know about Allende and Pinochet. I also learned from my Chilean grandmother that when she shared her stories with me about the day of the coup, the military raiding our home, and the torture and murder of family friends, she was teaching me to resist and one day share those stories. As a Latin American history professor, I do this when I can. That is also what Pedro Pascal did during his SNL monologue. He shared his familial trauma about his family fleeing Pinochet when he was 9 months old, a Chile he would be forced to learn about from a distance in his early years. Pedro’s act of memory resistance did not go unnoticed by Chilean supporters of Pinochet.
Yet Pascal’s SNL performance was radical for another reason: he was unabashedly Chilean. For a U.S. POC audience, Pascal centering his Chilean-ness (read by some as Latinx-ness) on live national television was a challenge to white supremacy. His “Protective [Latina] Mom” skit, primarily performed in Spanish, perfectly captured that challenge. For a Chilean audience (in Chile and abroad), Pedro’s defiance and willingness to be unabashedly Chilean hits harder in light of the rise of xenophobic and racist politics in Chile that seeks to exclude those they categorize as undesirable. While their target is primarily migrant populations – Peruvians, Haitians, and Venezuelans – the Chilean population living abroad is also lumped into the category of undesirable. For example, we typically vote farther left due to our political legacies and only received the right to vote abroad in 2014.
Racism and xenophobia are not confined to the right-wing sympathizers but a broader-held opinion that became apparent in the September 4, 2022 plebiscite for a new constitution. Most Chileans voted rechazo (to reject) the proposal for a new constitution that would have replaced the 1980 Constitution passed under military rule. While Chilean sociologists debate the underlying reasons for xenophobic and anti-Mapuche sentiment (Was it xenophobia? Was it classism?) that motivated a portion of the population to vote rechazo, there is a long history that tends to be ignored. Chilean immigration historiography is marked by the preference given to German-speaking populations, while Arab Chileans experienced discrimination. Yet the stories of discrimination against Chileans who demonstrate “foreignness” through speech, dress, or social interactions are less spoken about due to feelings of shame. Alejandra Saéz, who spent her childhood in exile in Mexico, explained, “For decades, I felt it was necessary to hide my origin because Chile is a discriminatory country. I have been able to honor my history and of many because the result is a choral history of childhoods that survived the exile of their fathers and mothers and the exile of their return.” Saéz was interviewed in the documentary Villa Olímpica (2022), directed by Sebastián Kohan, about the South American exiled community living in the Mexico City neighborhood. While the experiences of Chilean descendants do not compare with the experiences of mixed-race Chileans like Rafael Taud (Arab Chilean), Jean Beausejour (Mapuche Haitian), and migrant populations and their Chilean-born stateless children, it underscores a confined definition of Chilean-ness that excludes the Mapuche, looks at suspicion at the Arab, demonizes the migrant, views the Chilean who lived abroad as tainted but welcomes and elevates the European. The 1.5 thousand likes that questioned Pascal’s Chilean-ness reflect a cross-section of the Chilean population that continues to strangle Chilean identity both legally and culturally. As a global public figure, Pascal (maybe even unexpectedly to him) is opening discussions on these issues for the first time.
During the closing SNL sequence, Pascal wore a t-shirt with a fist painted as a Chilean flag, an image that has come to symbolize the 2019 Chilean uprising: a “come at me” move to Pinochetistas (Pinochet supporters) and conservative Chileans who see him as undesirable. This was thrilling, considering Chile is entering another contentious constituent assembly process. Placing himself with the objectives of the 2019 revolt and his support for Gabriel Boric during his presidential run ignited the wrath of the Chilean right. The purpose of their social media trolling on every Pedro Pascal SNL-related post is to spread their memories of Pinochet as their savior. Pinochetista memories are meant to justify the torture, killing, and exile of thousands of Chileans. But Pedro is as unrelenting as those Chileans unwilling to be silent about the crimes committed under military rule. He’s part of that unrelenting fire that was also felt during the 2019 protests, which made our once-impossible dream to replace Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution possible. We inch closer and closer to a new constitution y sabemos que Pedrito está con nosotres.
Is José Pedro Balmaceda Pascal chileno? Yes. Unabashedly and unrelentingly so. And I am here for it.
Romina A. Green Rioja is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Washington and Lee University. She researches race politics in 19th century Chile and the feminist movement in Argentina in the 1990s and early 2000s.
You can follow Professor Green Rioja on Twitter @rakemi and read more about her work on her website.