By Patricia Nieto Mariño
Santiago, Mar 16 (EFE).- Chile’s Croatian community didn’t find the gold it was looking for in the late 19th century, but its members have made great strides in many walks of life over the years.
Prominent Croatian Chileans can be found in the worlds of politics, business, the arts and sports and include the newly inaugurated president, one of the country’s wealthiest business magnates, dozens of current or former lawmakers and National Prize recipients in the arts and humanities.
Though not Chile’s largest community (numbering roughly 400,000 people, or 2.4 percent of the population) nor the first immigrants to arrive in those remote lands, that population has left its mark since first settling in the far-southern city of Punta Arenas and the northern port city of Antofagasta.
Prior to former student leader Gabriel Boric’s ascension to the presidency, other Croatians had gained entry into elite circles.
They include Andronico Lukcic, whose family’s holdings include powerful copper mining group Antofagasta Minerals, banks, bottling companies and large media outlets.
Other prominent Croatians have included Pascual Baburizza, one Chile’s wealthiest individuals a century ago; the 2014 winner of Chile’s National Prize for Literature, Antonio Skarmeta; the former president of Chilean soccer club Colo-Colo; and renowned architect Smiljan Radic.
Leading political figures have included former Cabinet ministers Hernan Buchi and Ingrid Antonijevic; a member of the Chilean Constitutional Convention, Elisa Giustinianovich; lawmaker Vlado Mirosevic; and a former presidential candidate and senator, Carolina Goic.
“Unlike the English and the Scottish, the Croatians arrived in Chile on a mass scale,” economist Marco Antonio Barticevic, director of the Croatian Club of Punta Arenas, whose members include Boric’s family, told Efe.
The outbreak of phylloxera (a grapevine disease) battered that European country’s wine industry, while the inability of the shipbuilding industry to adapt to the transition from sail to steam impoverished thousands of local inhabitants and forced them to migrate at the start of the 19th century, the expert added.
Most of them settled in Punta Arenas, a small port city located on the Brunswick Peninsula north of the Strait of Magellan, and left their mark there: a Croatian neighborhood, Calle Croacia (Croatia Street), a Croatian firefighting division and several restaurants.
Many stayed in that region after gold was discovered, although that rush lasted just 15 years and later “they had to devote themselves to agriculture, ranching or to opening small businesses.”
Popular radio announcer Vladimiro Mimica, whose grandparents arrived in Chile carrying Austro-Hungarian passports, says the Croatians who crossed the Atlantic “weren’t intellectuals but rather workers who successfully integrated with another community that traveled in large numbers to southern Chile: the inhabitants of the Chiloe archipelago (off Chile’s south-central coast).
“Their symbiosis was crucial. The two communities pushed one another and worked together to prosper,” he told Efe.
Both arrived with the notion that “Punta Arenas was a prosperous and cosmopolitan city” and a passageway for thousands of ships in the days before the Panama Canal, Mimica added.
Ties between Chile’s far south and Croatia remain solid to this day, says Punta Arenas Mayor Claudio Radonich, a third-generation Croatian Chilean.
“We tend to have frequent visits from the Croatian president, and we also have the only other Croatian consulate in Chile, besides the one in Santiago,” he told Efe at his office.
This month marks a new major milestone for the Croatian community – the inauguration of one of their own as Chile’s first president.
Boric was sworn in last Friday, more than 135 years after his great-grandfather crossed the Atlantic from the small Croatian island of Ugljan and arrived in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, one of the world’s southernmost inhabited areas and then a place experiencing a gold rush.
The 36-year-old Boric, who has frequently expressed pride in his migrant roots, traveled in 2010 with his two brothers to Ugljan to meet several of his distant relatives.