SANTIAGO – Sitting at the center of Santiago, Plaza Italia acts as a kind of symbolic boundary between the upper and lower classes of the Chilean capital, two diametrically opposed socioeconomic realities whose contrast only increases the farther one gets to the north or south of it.
At this strategic point, the square is the setting for social protests and celebrations of sporting triumphs, and where people from all levels of society come together. It is also an important transport hub for the capital.
In everyday life, however, the square plays a symbolic role full of historic, economic, cultural and racial references, being the epitome of the capital’s well-known “classism.”
Those who live south of the invisible boundary of Plaza Italia are popularly known as “flaites,” pejorative Chilean slang for low-income people, particularly young males.
Meanwhile, those who reside north of the imaginary line are considered high class, or “cuicos” – rich snobs – about whom it is often said that many would never deign to take one step south of Plaza Italia.
This is a circumstance present in “many cities of the world,” which in the case of Chile goes back to the origins of Santiago, Emmanuelle Barozet, a sociology professor at the University of Chile, told EFE.
“Specifically, at that time Providence provided a more stable residential district to the north, separated from a poorer, more political one to the south,” Barozet said.
Such developments can also be seen in other parts of the world like Europe, he said, but in Latin America they are even more noticeable due to the lack of urban planning – unlike the Old World, which “saw its cities structured and restructured throughout the 19th century.”
“Growth here has been anarchic, which produces districts embedded with certain social groups, with little access of one to another, owing to the lack of subway lines and bus connections. But that doesn’t mean there have to be areas where all the wealth or all the poverty are concentrated,” he said.
Another factor cutting across this phenomenon is the decentralization of the 1980s – under the Pinochet dictatorship – when the provision of social services went from the central government to local communities, especially education and healthcare.
“There is little distribution of funding by the central government, and municipalities largely depend on the resources that they themselves can raise. Therefore, areas where the upper classes dwell or that have additional income from specific activities like a port (the northern city of Iquique) or a casino (coastal Viña del Mar), can offer greater social benefits,” Barozet said.
Such conditions, the sociologist said, have the effect of “perpetuating social differences” and impeding economic mobility.