“Brothers and sisters, Iquique is a land of dreams (for so its name means that in the Aymara language). It is a land that has given shelter to men and women of different peoples and cultures who had to leave everything behind and set out. Setting out always with the hope of obtaining a better life, yet, as we know, always with their bags packed with fear and uncertainty about the future. Iquique is a region of immigrants, which reminds us of the greatness of men and women, entire families, who, in the face of adversity, refused to give up and set out in search of life. In search of life.”
These words were spoken by Pope Francis as part of his homily during the open air celebration of the Eucharist on January 18, 2018. The Mass was celebrated near a desert beach outside the city of Iquique on a hot, sunny morning. As a visiting priest, I did not appreciate fully the importance of his words. At the end of November 2020, I returned to the diocese of Iquique to work in our parish, Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. Since then, I have come to realize the truth of the Holy Father’s words. I am ministering in the desert, in a land of dreams.
The Columban parish of Sagrado Corazón de Jesús is located on the “pampa” (desert plains) above the port city of Iquique in a municipality called Alto Hospicio. When the Columbans first came to the diocese of Iquique more than forty years ago, there were only a few scattered temporary wooden dwellings, a couple of truck stops and an explosives factory. Today, it is estimated that more than a 150,000 people live in Alto Hospicio. There are fourteen tomas (squatter camps) located in our parish. There is plenty of empty space in the huge Atacama desert. Groups of people organize and invade empty sectors of Alto Hospicio. They take a piece of ground and build a temporary dwelling. In time, these makeshift dwellings are replaced with something more permanent.
In the beginning, the families must live without electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection or paved streets. Over the course of a few years, the municipality and the Chilean government will provide those essential services. However, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to settle permanently. In some cases, the families are relocated to apartments built by the government, while in other cases they are allowed to purchase at a very economic price their piece of land.
Northern Chile has a long history of mining. During the Spanish colonization, there were gold and silver mines here. In the nineteenth century, workers from Chile, Perú and Bolivia came to work in the nitrate mines. Today, they come to work in the copper mines as well as in the salt, iodine and lithium mines. Iquique is a duty free port and also a center of trade and commerce with Bolivia. So, men and women flock to this “land of dreams” in hopes of building a better life for themselves and their families. And many of them are able to achieve their dreams, although normally it is easier for Chileans.
It is a different story for the immigrants from Perú, Bolivia, Colombia and, most recently, Venezuela. There are a series of challenges which they must face and resolve. If they want to get employment, they must have a temporary work visa. To get a temporary work visa, you must enter the country legally. Up until a couple of years ago, all you had to do was enter as a tourist, and once you obtained a work contract, you were eligible for a temporary resident visa. New immigration laws require that in order to get a temporary resident visa you must have a work contract before you enter the country. Most of the Peruvian, Bolivian and Colombian immigrants entered before the changes in the immigration laws and have managed to find work.
Recently, a huge influx of thousands of Venezuelan immigrants have entered Chile. They have travelled from their homes in Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia to the borders of Chile. A favorite place to enter illegally is northern Chile. There are dozens of mountain passes in the Andes mountains where they can enter without detection. If they enter the country illegally, as thousands have done, they must register with the pólice and accuse themselves of having entered illegally. A legal process begins which could culminate in expulsión. However, in practice, the Chilean government has been sympathetic to their plight and is therefore reluctant to expel them.
However, they continue to live in a legal limbo. They are undocumented and that means that it is very difficult for them to get regular jobs. Instead, they become part of a network of informal work: street vendors, day laborers, washing windshields, selling candy or begging on the streets Most of these immigrants are young couples with small children. Without documents, most schools will not accept their children. However, the local primary health clinics and the hospital will take care of them if they are sick. They can also get vaccinated without any problem.
The parish of Sagrado Corazón de Jesús has always welcomed the immigrants and tried to provide some material help for them. A soup kitchen has functioned for many years. Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, a delivery system was set up to bring food parcels to the families. Last year, we teamed up with the Daughters of Charity to provide assistance in a new toma known as El paso de la mula (the mule´s trail). This squatter camp is located on the southern boundary of the parish, and it is huge. Immigrant families from Venezuela and Bolivia continue to pour into the toma.Families take over a plot of desert land, put up some sort of fencing and a makeshift dwelling. Sometimes, they just pitch a tent until they can build a better shelter.
The Daughters of Charity were able to get a cement truck to pour the foundation of floors for some dwellings. There is no electricity nor water or sewage; “aljibes” (water tank trucks) come several times during the week. But, there was a problem! The plastic water containers are too small for the hose of the water truck. With a donation from their congregation in France, the Sisters bought ten plastic water tanks with a capacity of a 1,000 liters of water which means that families can fill their water containers. The social apostolate of the parish regularly provides food packets and used clothing. A Christmas supper of chicken, rice and salad was prepared for 280 immigrants. Columban benefactors provided the chicken! Local benefactors donated toys and Caritas Chile donated food.
Some families were lucky enough to get their children into schools. However, they could not buy the school supplies for their children. In a special campaign, parish chapels and Columban benefactors came to the rescue, providing the needed supplies. In the desert, it is warm in the daytime but cold at night. In winter, the temperature drops, and you can feel the cold. Right now, we are distributing blankets to the families. Thanks to close friends of the Columbans, we have been able to distribute 240 blankets.
We hope to continue providing relief to the immigrants who have come to this very unlikely “land of dreams.” However, we know that the most important gift we have to share with them is our faith in the Risen Lord.
Columban Fr. Michael Hoban lives and works in Chile.