The 'Sacramento' of the Southern Cone

Note: The following essay was written by Sacramento native and longtime Santiago resident Haley Moncrief, an outside contributor to Revista Revolver.

Twelve years ago I stepped hesitantly onto a plane at Sacramento International Airport. The plane was heading to a country inexplicably beckoning me to its elongated and mountainous terrain, isolated at the southern tip of the Americas. Excitement turned to fear- I was 22 and moving abroad. Seventeen hours later I landed in the Chilean capital of Santiago, and I've been here ever since.

Sacramento, California. Photo courtesy of the City of Sacramento.
Sacramento, California. Photo courtesy of the City of Sacramento.

One may assume that this act of leaving my home, friends and family was a sign of aversion toward my hometown of Sacramento. At first glance, the South American metropolis appears to be a stark contrast to the farm-to-fork capital, lying at the extreme end of the continent with its Spanish-speaking population of seven million. In reality, however, in leaving home I found that in many ways I hadn't all along due to the many similarities Santiago shares with Sacramento.

Terrain

Sycamores along Ricardo Lyon, Providencia. Photo by Haley Moncrief.
Sycamores along Ricardo Lyon, Providencia. Photo by Haley Moncrief.

From a geographical standpoint, both cities are conveniently situated in river-rich central valleys between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and less than one hour from hilly wine country.

Each city has marked seasons characterized by brisk lows in the 30's and sweltering highs exceeding 100 degrees. Sycamores, oaks and palm trees brighten the abundant parks and streets of both the intermittently drought-stricken capitals.

Immigrants

On a cultural level, immigrants are driving population growth and enriching the societies of both cities. Santiago has seen a steady growth of immigrants from Peru, Argentina and Bolivia, among other Latin American countries. And more recently, the city has seen a spike in the number of immigrants from more distant lands including Spain, the U.S., Haiti, Mexico, France, Germany and South Korea.

Meanwhile, the number of foreign-born residents in Sacramento rose by 22% between 2010 and 2014, compared to just 13.1% for the entire United States during the same period. The breakdown of immigrants living in the city is diverse in terms of their country of origin, with the largest groups hailing from Mexico, followed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Ukraine and Laos.

Mural in Sacramento. Photo by Haley Moncrief.
Mural in Sacramento. Photo by Haley Moncrief.

Food

One of the most noteworthy impacts this swelling assortment of cultures has had on both cities can be seen in their respective restaurant industries, which have become much more diversified. In Santiago I have grown to savor my periodical "curry nights" with friends, taking advantage of Santiago's greater offering of Indian restaurants.

'Sacramento' restaurant in Providencia, Santiago. Photo by Haley Moncrief.
'Sacramento' restaurant in Providencia, Santiago. Photo by Haley Moncrief.

U.S. food chains Ruby Tuesday, Denny's and Applebee's have also emerged throughout the city's more affluent areas, while Peruvian, Korean, French and Japanese restaurants now outnumber the Chilean ones in the more bustling parts of the city. And believe it or not, a new hamburger joint downtown called Sacramento was recently opened, which I'm guessing will become my new favorite restaurant.

In Sacramento, while the city has fostered a hearty variety of international cuisine for some time, its growing immigrant population, as well as the hike in international students attending nearby U.C. Davis, has driven the growth in local demand for more global gastronomy from Mexico, Japan and Vietnam.


Similar yet different

Aerial view of Sacramento and the Sierra mountains.
Aerial view of Sacramento and the Sierra mountains.

Of course, these two cities do have their differences. Santiago is jam-packed with sprawling 30-story apartment buildings and skyscrapers protruding through dense smog, compared to Sacramento's clearer and more humble skyline.

Stray dogs are abundant in Santiago, seemingly delighted by their freedom despite the shortage of animal welfare organizations like the SPCA. One jubilant hound even hopped on my bus to howl in harmony to a cheerful tune being played by local musicians soliciting coins from passengers.

Santiago. Photo by Haley Moncrief.
Santiago. Photo by Haley Moncrief.

Turning to transit, traffic takes on a new level in Santiago compared to that of Sacramento. At rush hour, its streets are filled with ferocious horn honkers that abandon all courtesies; though passing a lavish Catholic roadside memorial offers a peaceful respite from the madness, albeit temporarily. Regarding sports, 'futbol,' as opposed to basketball and baseball, is the glorified game of Santiago, and across the whole of Chile, where locals cram into stadiums chanting their team's mantra amidst roars of intimidating name-calling.

Embracing diversity

Fortunately, I have been able to embrace and adapt to such charming yet chaotic differences as a result of my exposure to highly diverse environments while growing up in Sacramento. I was immersed in a melting pot of assorted cultures, races and social statuses while attending public schools Bret Harte Elementary and C.K. McClatchy High School. My nickname in elementary school was "Barbie," being the only person with blonde hair in my class. A few of my friends at Bret Harte hailed from a lower-income part of town, the closest of which was a Ukrainian immigrant. In high school, the busy hallways were constantly chattering with a blend of languages ranging from Spanish to Hmong.

Curtis Park neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Karol Moncrief.
Curtis Park neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Karol Moncrief.

My neighborhood Curtis Park was another means through which I became more familiar with diversity. Once a week my family would be greeted by the "Tamale Lady" selling her noteworthy Meso-American treats in highly accented English. Our next-door neighbor from Guatemala introduced my family to unique and authentic dishes, and she helped me refine my rudimentary Spanish. Down the street, Sierra II Park served as a medium that transcended prejudice and enabled children of all races and social statuses to play together as equals.

No place like home

In the end I've come to realize that Sacramento's diverse and colorful culture is what planted a seed of desire within me to build on this exposure to multiculturalism. And in my efforts to satisfy the desire for such difference, I found myself the closest to home one could be while living in another country.

Cheering on the Chilean national team at Copa America.
Cheering on the Chilean national team at Copa America.

Today, as a permanent resident in Chile, I have embraced the elements that comprise life as a Santiaguino, and have no doubts about the direction my life has taken. I have definitely learned to speak (and drive!) like a citizen of Santiago, and have on occasion been mistaken for one... especially when rooting for Chile's national soccer team.

While there are days when I miss my hometown, I am always comforted by the uncanny site of the now-familiar Andes protruding from the city's periphery, and a quick WhatsApp call to mom (along with yearly visits to Sacramento).

Reflecting on that moment of fear and anxiety on that runway 12 years ago, I can say with candor and confidence that the decision to get on the plane and start this journey was the best I have ever taken and a risk well worth taking.

View of east Santiago and the Andes mountains. Photo by Haley Moncrief.
View of east Santiago and the Andes mountains. Photo by Haley Moncrief.

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