SANTIAGO - José came to Santiago, from Cali, Colombia five months ago. Some acquaintances in his hometown had put him in contact with Carlos, another Colombian who has been working in a cell phone store in the Chilean capital for the past year.
Now José has joined Carlos as a salesperson in the store, where he uses the technical skills he learned at home. And he also earns more money in Chile than he would in Colombia – that’s why he is there.
José’s story is increasingly common among Latin Americans and other foreigners who come to Chile to work. They are much more educated and less poor than a couple of years ago. Various recent studies have disproved the myth that workers who come to Chile are poorly qualified and abused in the work force.
“These are people with a level of education that is slightly higher than the average for local workers, and that makes it easy for them to enter our workforce,” said Jaime Ruiz-Tagle, an economics researcher at the University of Chile.
According to a recent study on migration and the labor market in Chile, the average immigrant worker in Chile has 12.6 years of education while the average Chilean has 10.4 years of education. In addition, 11% of the immigrant workers qualify as poor, while 15% of the Chilean workforce does.
Foreigners in Chile also participate in the workforce in higher numbers: 68% of non-Chileans over 15 work, while only 57% of Chileans over 15 do so. Non-Chileans were slightly less likely to have a contract, but experts say that a labor contract often does not guarantee better working conditions.
In surveys, immigrant workers in Chile express a positive opinion of the Chilean workforce. 60% say they do not feel discriminated against, 76% say they are paid the same as Chileans and 80% feel they have the same opportunities for advancement. Actually, in some sectors immigrants earn more than their Chilean counterparts. Possibly because they work more hours on average: Foreigners work on average 44.7 hours per week, while Chileans work 43.3 hours per week.
This shift is a reflection of the fact that Latin America is starting to reap the benefits of education. Unlike the United States and Europe, educational attainment in Latin America has been increasing. That opens opportunities for Latin American workers throughout the region. All those workers have to do is set out with a strong resume under their arm.
No immigrant wave
Another myth about immigrant workers is that there has been a huge influx of foreigners into Chile and they are putting downward pressure on salaries. Not true, say experts. The supposed flood of foreigners doesn’t exist, and the numbers of foreign workers are not anywhere near enough to influence salaries.
The number of foreigners in Chile has been rising steadily, but it is still less than 2% of the population. “Immigrants have to represent at least 10% of the workforce to produce an effect on salaries,” explained Ruiz-Tagle.
Experts also explained that while the number of foreign workers has increased, many of them are professionals, especially in mining, agriculture and technology who are recruited to come to Chile because there are not enough Chilean experts in those fields.
Between 2006 and 2009 the percentage of domestic workers who were foreigners fell from 16% to 12%, while the percentage of bosses or employers who were foreigners rose from 5% to 8%. There was a similar rise in the number of scientists and intellectuals who were foreign-born, and a similar decline in all low-skilled jobs.
The largest number of immigrants in Chile come from Colombia, where high unemployment rates have led many educated professionals to look for opportunities elsewhere.
In response to these trends, the Chilean government announced in November that it would make changes to the laws regarding immigration, including increasing the number of visas and residence permits available to foreign workers, especially those with specialized skills.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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