California and Chile are Complementary and Connected

Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection
Edward Dallam Melillo, 2015

Fueron las cordilleras, begins the Introduction to Ted Melillo's new book, using the words of Pablo Neruda. Cordillera is what Spanish speakers to our south call the sharp backbone of the Americas that stretches north to south, connecting the two Mediterranean regions of Melillo's study. In Chile, the cordillera is more visible than in much of America. At its widest, the country is only about 110 miles east to west--so the Andes are always over your shoulder, delaying the sunrise. The tallest mountain outside Asia, Aconcagua, is sometimes visible through the smog of the capital, Santiago.

Melillo's book, drawn from his dissertation, basically argues that Chile and California are connected by a shared history, which has largely been erased by a commitment (in both places) to exceptionalism. Melillo says the two places are "complementary zones," and that cultural "links between complementary zones are likely to produce profound ecological effects because these sites offer elevated potential for long-term integration" (6). He also suggests that the cultures of the two places are very similar. For example, "neither Chile nor California has ever functioned as a self-contained entity." Rather, "such assertions of autonomy conceal the ecological and cultural border crossings that have historically linked both places to countless displacements, exchanges, and influences from beyond their boundaries" (183). Displacements, exchanges, and influences are three analytical categories Melillo employs to trace contacts that (respectively) affect one party but not the other, affect both parties, or represent the deliberate attempt of one party to alter the other. He shows ample examples of each of these types of contact, in both directions, between Chile and California from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century.

One of the things I admire about good histories is that in addition to arguing a new interpretation of known events or re-framing a debate, they uncover new material and tell us things we didn't know about the past. Melillo does this several times. I didn't know, for example, that the ubiquitous fodder plant, alfalfa, entered American through California. Known for decades as "Chili clover," alfalfa was introduced by Chileans around 1849. This fact illustrates two of the important themes of
Strangers. That we see something different if we look at American history from West to East. And that the connections between Chile and California that would have seemed so obvious to people 150 years ago have become largely invisible today.

Strangers isn't really a history of either place. It's a revelation of the connections between Chile and California that are missing in the histories of either place. These connections include the fleet of Chilean merchant ships that form the foundation of the San Francisco waterfront. The experienced Chilean prospectors and miners who taught many greenhorn Forty-niners how to get gold out of the Sierras, and then were harassed and frequently lynched by jealous Yankees. The Chilean wheat that fed both San Francisco and the gold country before commercial agriculture was established in California. The Chilean nitrate that fed California's citrus groves at the beginning of the twentieth century. The plantations of Monterey pine that replaced native Chilean forests.

The book touched on many topics I'd like to read more about. For example, Melillo devotes considerable attention to the career of Henry Meiggs, whose activities in San Francisco and Chile contributed much to the development of both places. Discussing the predominantly east-west character of Chile's early, extractive railroads, he calls them
venas abiertas (after Eduardo Galeano's famous history). It would be interesting to contrast the organization of these lines, designed to carry raw materials to ports, with some other development scheme. Melillo suggests there's an environmental history of railroads waiting to be written; I agree. Similarly, the passages on the wine industry mentioned names it would have been interesting to follow. I realize the book seeks to look less at the people than at the environment, but Chile more than most places is a land of elite families. So when you mention names like Errázuriz or Larraín, you're opening big storybooks.

The one topic I thought would have improved
Strangers is copper. Melillo told me he had a chapter on copper, but it ended on the cutting room floor. I think a little more attention to the early copper industry would have helped explain how Chileans journeying to California happened to be so experienced in prospecting, mining, and smelting metals. A description of the differences between Spanish and Anglo ideas about ownership of mineral resources would have been valuable. And the post-Pinochet copper boom would have offered an opportunity to reinforce the Chilean-Chinese connection -- but maybe that would have expanded the book's scope to a trans-Pacific triangle rather than a trans-equatorial duality.

Melillo introduces topics that will certainly be expanded on by himself and others. He produces an interpretive frame others can use to explore the Pacific world and transnational interactions. And he uncovers things we didn't know, but should, about the past.