The population distribution is complex, both regionally and in urban-rural terms. Nearly 87 percent of all Chileans live in cities or towns, almost 39 percent of them in Santiago and its suburbs. Santiago’s metropolitan population is at least 10 times greater than Valparaíso–Viña del Mar or Concepción–Talcahuano, the next largest urban areas.
At the other extreme, about 91,000 people, barely half a percent of the population, live in the remote Aisén region (about a third of the country’s territory). In the desert north, almost everyone lives in a handful of large cities, such as Antofagasta, Iquique, and Arica; in the heartland and the Sur Chico, rural population density is high.
Chile’s population is largely mestizo, of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, but over 900,000 Mapuche inhabit the mainland south of the Biobío as well as Santiago boroughs such as Cerro Navia, La Pintana, El Bosque, Pudahuel, and Peñalolén, where some community leaders are concerned that the younger generation is losing contact with its heritage.
The Mapuche constitute about 90 percent of Chile’s total indigenous population. About 5 percent are Aymara in Region I (Tarapacá), with smaller numbers of Kolla (Quechua) and Atacameños in Region II (Antofagasta), Rapanui on their namesake island, and remnants of Kawéskar (Alacaluf) and Yámana (Yahgan) in the southern fjords and rainforests of Patagonia.
Eighty percent of the indigenous population lives in cities and towns, only 20 percent in the countryside, but urban indigenous populations are getting less assistance in buying property than those who remain on the land. Still, some feel optimistic about developments in the country—in the words of one Aymara woman, because of the sympathetic Concertación governments, “it’s a good time to be an indigenous person in Chile.”
The surnames of Chile’s nonindigenous populations suggest a potpourri of nationalities—Spanish, Basque, Italian, German, Anglo, and many others—but they do not form such obvious ethnic communities as, say, Italian Americans in New York or Irish Americans in Boston.
Chile has a small Jewish community in Santiago and Viña del Mar, and a somewhat larger population of Palestinian origin; the two appear to live without animosity. In the Norte Grande, once part of Peru, there exists a small but increasingly vocal Afro-Chilean minority in the rural communities of Azapa, Lluta, and Camarones, who have formed an organization called Oro Negro (Black Gold) and are trying to determine the number of Chileans with African ancestry.
Spanish is the dominant language, but English is widely spoken in business circles and the tourist industry. The next most widely spoken language is Mapundungun, the Mapuche vernacular, followed by Aymara, Kolla, Rapanui, Yámana, and Kawéskar.
Several languages have disappeared since the arrival of the Europeans: Chango, Atacameño, Diaguita, Selk’nam, and Chono. Both Yámana and Kawéskar have only a handful of native speakers and may disappear; there are, however, projects to preserve Kawéskar and Yámana, including the creation of alphabets and dictionaries and studies of their grammar.
Rapanui is at risk because of the island’s curious demographic history, which has caused it to be mixed with Tahitian, French, English, and Spanish (which is now universal). Only about 800 people speak the language fluently, but a committee is working on a dictionary and also promoting language use among island youth.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition