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Casa Ursulina

The Dianna Ortiz Ursuline Center for Women

Chile and Chillán


The "long string" of Chile stretches almost 3000 miles
along the western coast of South America — from Peru
on the north to the Pacific Ocean on the south. The
longest north-south country in the world, Chile is wedged between the Andes and the Pacific, with a maximum
width of 150 miles. Its climate varies from the arid heat of the Atacama desert in the north to the cold mountain
lakes of Patagonia in the south. From almost anywhere,
one can see the snow-topped Andes, which form Chile's entire eastern boundary. There are more than 50 active volcanoes.

About 90 percent of Chile's 16 million people live in the temperate Central Valley, with 40 percent in and around the capital, Santiago. Snowmelt from the mountains provides irrigation for the rich, volcanic soil of this region, where grains, fruits, and vegetables abound. Among Chile's most important exports are copper, timber, wine, and fresh produce.

Vineyards between Santiago and Chillán.

The history of Chile is a tale of war and conquest. In the 1540s, Spanish invaders began pushing back the indigenous Araucanian people and establishing a European colony. Since the early 1800s, Chile has been a democracy, except from 1973-1990, when the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet brought repression and suffering. In January 2006, Chile elected its first woman president, Michelle Bachelet. One of the most stable countries in Latin America, it is nevertheless marked by extreme social and economic inequality.

Traffic in downtown Chillan. Relatively few people own vehicles, but public transportation is abundant
and reasonable.

Chillán is a city of some 150,000 about five hours south of Santiago and a couple hours from the Pacific coast to the west and the snowcapped Andes to the east. The capital of Ñuble Province, it is the commercial center of a rich agricultural region. Founded in 1594, Chillán is the birthplace of Chile's liberator, Bernardo O'Higgins. It was badly damaged by earthquakes in 1751 and 1939. Many are attracted to Chillán because of the great outdoor opportunities nearby: skiing, hot springs, and hiking.

As in other Chilean cities, much of Chillán is characterized by sprawling poblaciones — "neighborhoods" which to American sensibilities might seem to range from merely tolerable to primitive. Casa Ursulina stands in the midst of the Población Vicente Pérez Rosales. Here, for some 17,000 people, poverty and struggle are a daily fact of life.

vendor market
Views of Chillán. Houses like these (left) can be found within a few minutes' walk from Casa Ursulina. Most residents here share a common source of water and sanitary facilities with their neighbors. Old ways (middle) persist alongside modern advances, as street vendors trek daily through the poblaciones, chanting their offerings through loud speakers. At right, the city market displays the abundance of fruits and vegetables from Chile's fertile Central Valley.