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The Chilean miners and that wonderful Spanish word ‘hábil’

October 13th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments


The unconfined joy rightly generated by the rescue of the Chilean miners focuses attention on one of the less heralded aspects of Latin America.  Europeans sometimes make tedious jokes about a ‘mañana culture’,  usually when they have forgotten quite how inefficient European services can be.  In fact for me the people of that continent are often distinguished by what can best be described by that wonderful Spanish word ‘hábil’, a word that means ‘clever, skilful, adroit, expert, handy, deft, accomplished’ and the ability to make the best of slender resources.  

From Cuba to Chile I have always been impressed by the ability of mechanics, muleteers, stall-holders and just about anyone you meet to make things work if they possibly can.  Nowhere is this more evident than Chile [see my earlier post when I went there just after the earthquake] ,  and the patience with which they have managed to get the miners to the surface  – and with which the miners have endured unbearable conditions – puts most other countries to shame.  Which is not to say that the collapse in the mine was not due to casual safety standards in the first place, as Mario Sepulveda, one of their leaders and a union activist, had pointed out before the disaster occurred.  As the struggle for the earth’s resources intensifies, mines and oil rigs will have to dig deeper, with all the attendant risks and necessary vigilance that brings. 

But in a crisis situation, when what is needed is both pragmatic ‘habilidad’ and faith, then give me the South Americans every time.  Not least because they also manage to keep a sense both of humour and the surreal:  one of the miners, Edison Pena, apparently ‘kept up the spirits of the other miners by singing Elvis songs underground’.  He has now received an invitation to  Graceland.  You couldn’t make it up, boyo.

  1. June 13th, 2013 at 14:17 | #1

    Beautifully written Hugh and the insight you provide about the tenacity and sensitivity of spirit and cultural endurance shows your understanding for this beautiful culture.

    I remember you from our Ballarat days when you’d recently returned from your first trip to Chile – ‘Viva Chile’ xm

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