Terremoto or Temblor: Notes on Chilean Earthquake Culture

By | Hannah Lussier

Just last week, the song “Shaky Shaky” by Puerto Rican music artist Daddy Yankee was featured on Spotify as one of Chile’s Top 50 singles currently reaching ears country-wide. The song emphasizes the word “terremoto”, or earthquake, in order to describe the powerful shake of a woman’s hips. Shaken up another way, a sweet mix of white wine, pisco, pineapple ice cream and grenadine can be found on menus in all of the country’s 15 regions as a signature drink: the terremoto. This drink is quite pleasant, unlike the powerful seismic events from which it receives its name, but take care not to underestimate its power. In the same way that what Chileans might call a “temblor” (tremor) ends up leaving your body unstable, too many terremotos will do the same.

It is obvious that the earthquake is a cultural feature which permeates the Chilean lexicon, food and musical culture. And for good reason. As one of the most seismically active countries in the world, Chile lies along the fault lines of the so-called Ring of Fire, an area of around 25,000 miles where one can find a large number of the world’s volcanoes and oceanic trenches. It is said that Chile experiences imperceptible seismic activity everyday but if that is not enough evidence for you, you may research the Validivia Earthquake of 1960 which still stands as the strongest earthquake ever recorded.

Days in Chile are not spent fearing the next natural disaster. Its people have earthquake safety instructions ingrained in their memory from birth. In the case of a big rumble, move away from windows and towards an interior wall. Once the vibration has stopped, and only if there is a tsunami warning issued, calmly seek higher ground at the nearest point of elevation. Only return home once sirens have stopped, and be prepared for the possibility of aftershocks. These instructions were given to me by my program director upon entering the country but I was assured that, within my 5 month stay, it was unlikely that I would experience any earthquakes requiring evacuation. My program director was wrong.

On April 24, 2017 at around 6:30 p.m. Chile time an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.1 struck off the coast of Valparaiso. When it happened, I was sitting in my university’s library writing an essay. It felt like the world was taking quick, little, forceful jumps. Books fell off of the shelves and a Chilean classmate held onto my arm to steady herself. Immediately afterward, everyone in the library was ordered to evacuate the building and climb the hill because of a tsunami warning. Once outside, I began to realize that this was not just a regular temblor. People were running and yelling while many cars drove through red lights en route to families at home. The panic that occurred after the earthquake was more troublesome than the earthquake itself.

In the end, no one was hurt and there was only minor damage. Some windows were broken and a lot of my friends lost power, but it did not amount to much more than that. I am thankful that my first experience with a high magnitude earthquake was minor and that only a few hours afterward I was back to writing my essay. As my host parents told me, now I really know Chile.

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