- Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection by Edward Dallam Melillo
Anyone who has been to both California’s Central Valley and central Chile can attest to their similarities in climate and terrain. In Strangers on Familiar Soil, Melillo digs deeply to demonstrate the important relationship between the two places and the lasting impact—often unacknowledged—that each has had on the other.
The book knocks down myths. California and Chile, despite their claims of exceptionalism, are more connected than their leaders like to claim. Each claims an ethos of independence, but each depended on the other for development. Chileans were central to building the highly diverse California metropolis of San Francisco, which was flooded by migrants from virtually everywhere because of gold. A particular sector of the city called Chilecito, for its concentration of Chileans, even became a target for white criminals. But whites also quickly realized that Chileans knew more about mineral extraction than they did and started to copy their techniques. As one miner from Long Island described in 1849, “been diggin with a Chillanian, they understand mining very well” (73). Simultaneously, the concept of manifest destiny gained appeal in the United States and, flying in the face of reality, it denied the importance of any foreign influence.
Melillo shows how this history has become invisible—how Anglos in San Francisco ate bread made with Chilean wheat, planted Chilean alfalfa, and went to work in buildings constructed by Chilean laborers. But within a short amount of time, Californians took such changes for granted, proclaimed progress as U.S.-driven, and forgot their Chilean origins. Chileans (like other foreigners, especially Mexicans) were also harassed, attacked, and lynched, all in the name of civilization. Indeed, the tone of the book reflects such injustices, lamenting that Chile received the short end of the transnational stick. Californians brought [End Page 244] wine knowledge and Monterey pines to Chile, for example, but those gifts had negative social and environmental repercussions. Californian academics in the 1960s celebrated scientific exchanges in which they received more than they gave (though, to be fair, they called for their termination after the 1973 coup). As Melillo notes, “Chile’s landscapes underwent profound transformations to supply the ingredients for California’s increasingly ravenous metabolic cycles” (200).
The biggest drawback to an otherwise fascinating book is that the main argument is sometimes overstated. It is debatable whether Henry Meiggs, who for a short time lived in California, was singularly responsible (as a “human vector”) for completely reshaping the Chilean working class (113). In other cases, like the Chicago Boys, there is really no California connection at all. Melillo concludes with a call for scholars to take transnational connections and diasporas more explicitly into account when analyzing putatively domestic issues. That point is well taken, and the book serves as a potential model for how to do so.