SKETCHES OF A JOURNEY IN CHILE &c. (1849)
by LIEUT. ISAAC STRAIN U. S. N.
Extract from CHAPTER II
CITY OF VALPARAISO
Absence of prominent buildings—Modern theatre: resident company, audience, masked ball—California gold rush—Sama Cueca—Military officers—Police force
The public buildings in Valparaiso are remarkable neither for size nor architecture. This is especially the case as regards churches, in which it contrasts unfavourably with Lima, a city of nearly the same size, and marks the distinction between those cities which grew up during colonial times, and those which have been constructed since the establishment of the Republic.
Within the last few years, a very pretty theatre has been built, about equal size, though superior in decoration, to the old Park, in New York. Upon the occasion of two former visits in 1846 and '48, I found a very respectable Italian opera troupe, which makes its head-quarters at this place, performing occasionally at Santiago, Copiapó, and even at times extending its operations up the coast as far as Lima. Upon the occasion of this visit, as the opera troupe was at Copiapó, its place was supplied by a good dramatic company and "corps de ballet," the latter, I think, superior to any stock company which I have seen elsewhere.
Among the plays represented, which were generally of Chilean origin, and quite recent, numerous allusions were made to California, which invariably produced plaudits from the audience, and illustrated the enthusiasm which has caused so many natives and strangers in this, and other parts of the Republic, to emigrate to that desirable region— an emigration, which, during my stay in the country, amounted to two hundred and fifty in a single day, and by one vessel. This theatre has all the arrangements of a European opera house, and an invariably well-dressed and well-behaved audience.
In the boxes and lobbies, I met with many Chilean officers, both of the army and navy, and was struck, as I have been before, by the contrast in their personal appearance to all South Americans that I have seen hitherto. Their complexions are as fair as the English, while they possess the same healthy colour and rotundity of figure. In uniform, which they wear invariably, that of the army appears to have been copied after the French, while that of the navy closely resembles the English. So closely, indeed, that taken in connection with their personal appearance, I have often found myself at a loss to decide to which navy they belonged until close enough to recognise the button. If there was a difference obvious to the superficial observer, it was that the Chileans were better dressed and more polite in their deportment, and less frequently under the influence of strong drink than those they have adopted as their prototypes.
To gratify the public fondness for dancing, the theatre is frequently fitted as a ballroom, by extending the stage over the orchestra and parquette, and upon these occasions the scene is gay and novel to one unaccustomed to the Spanish masked balls. I attended one while in Valparaiso, there, in common with some hundreds of others, and cannot but commend the order and good behaviour of all present. The women were generally very well dressed, and they, as the men also, in opera or ball costume. The music was excellent, and the dancing of course good, as all Spaniards and their descendants dance well and gracefully. I can scarcely enumerate the dances, waltzes, and gallops, which I witnessed, but what I enjoyed the most was the national dance, "Sama Cueca'' which has been so frequently described by travellers and voyagers.
There appears, by the way, to be an erroneous impression existing among many who have alluded to this dance, that it is indecent, — an impression arising from the fact of their having seen it only at the fandango and among the lowest class of people. There, it, as well as most other dances, is certainly far from modest, but when the " Sama Cueca'' is danced, as I have frequently seen it, among the most respectable people in Chile and the other side of the Cordilleras, it is as pleasing and more expressive than any other dance I have seen, and tenfold more so than either the waltz or the sensual polka, which has attained so high a degree of popularity in Europe and both Americas. The masked males at these balls, which occur almost weekly, comprise many of the most respectable persons in Valparaiso; for the masked females I cannot say so much, and from what I saw and heard, am afraid that the majority were of that class which so much abound in frequented seaports, and "not so good as they ought to be."
The better class of women, however, do not deprive themselves of the amusements of the evening, being perfectly safe from annoyance owing to the efficient police; and although they do not mask, or join in the dances, are found seated in the boxes, where they enjoy the gay scene which is passing around them, which is more amusing, as every individual, upon adopting a costume, makes the same effort to support the character as if upon the stage performing for an audience. This fact, upon the occasion of the ball which I attended, narrowly escaped being the cause of a serious difficulty, as one of my friends, who was masked, was once or twice partially tripped, while waltzing, by an active young lad, who personified the juggler, and being indignant thereat, took his partner to her seat, and watched for his tormentor. It was not long before he saw him in the act of throwing himself at length upon the stage to trip a pair who were waltzing. My friend had him by the collar in an instant, and gave him a shaking which was likely to drive all juggling tricks from his mind for a season, at the same time explaining his offence to the bystanders in the most fluent but not the most classical Spanish. Fearful of a scene, the terminus of which my imagination suggested would be the watch-house at least, if not the town jail, I interposed, and after some explanation, the whole matter was settled as a mistake, the harlequin kindly overlooking the shaking to which his tricks had subjected him. It had, however, a good effect upon him, as he attempted no more pranks with the waltzers. Though he knew his countrymen would submit to it, as an immemorial custom, he did not feel certain, that as all the dancers were masked, he might not rouse another foreigner who might treat him even more roughly than the first.
The police of Valparaiso has deservedly received the encomiums of all recent travellers. Its organization assimilates to the military, and its members are armed and distinguished by uniform, though entirely independent of the army, and under the control of the municipal authorities. The uniform and arms have given offence to some over sensitive writers, who mistake the shadow of liberty for the substance; but for my own part, should I wish to exercise my prerogative as a free and independent citizen by making a row in the streets, I should infinitely prefer a collision with a police force armed with swords, which are never used except in cases of emergency, than with the batons, maces, persuaders, etc., of our own country, which are used unsparingly and unnecessarily. The effective force, independent of the staff, at the period of my visit, was thirty-four foot and twenty-eight horsemen.
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