Big Ben’s Little Chile

Our columnist explores a Toronto community united by the mining tragedy-turned-triumph

DON’T GET ME wrong, I like a feel-good news story as much as the next man, but I don’t understand why a wave of civic pride spread among the world’s Chileans just because some of its salt of the earth got stuck in some dirt.


“You’re an idiot,” says my friend Nicolas Araya, whose family is Chilean and who promised to be my tour guide on a journey to the heart of Toronto’s hidden Chilean world.

Apparently,there are three places in the city where Chileans en masse are found: Scarborough, Jane and Finch and Kensington Market. It didn’t take us long to choose Kensington to explore.

“We were screaming, crying, ‘Oh my God!’”says Irene Morales,the 55-year-old owner of Jumbo Empanadas in the heart of Toronto’s Little Chile neighbourhood on the slice of Augusta Avenue that’s closest to Dundas Street. During the rescue of the miners, CBC was reporting live from her storefront, and Morales, who was hosting a meeting of the Chilean Women’s Association at the time, says there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Morales, who moved to Toronto in 1985 and opened her restaurant in 1990, bakes something like 3,300 beef, chicken and vegetable empanadas each week and says she sat riveted to her television watching her 33 countrymen be rescued from their underground tomb.

“Chilean people are always connected to tragedy, but when this happened, there was a national sense of solidarity,” says Morales, whose daughter works the cash register in her bonita restaurante, its walls emblazoned with Chilean maps,flags and stickers that read, “Fuerza Chile,” which translates roughly to “Don’t mess with Chile or we’ll kick your ass.”

“Chile is a long and narrow country at the end of the continent, and somehow I think that connects us,”says Morales,who wears the Chilean flag on her apron and headband. She has big muscles and a big sense of humour and says she felt a spiritual link to the trapped men.

“I always had a feeling that the miners were alive,” says Morales, who has five children, three in Toronto and two that still call Santiago, Chile, home. “I think what makes Chileans so proud of the experience with the miners is that our government didn’t forget them. How would you feel if your country forgot about you?”

I would hate it if my country forgot me in a mine, I’m telling Nic over Morales’s jumbo empanadas and a $30 bottle of good Chilean red wine,but then again,I’d hate it if I were a miner. Nic says he’s proud of his countrymen’s sense of style.

“Not only did the miners insist on having cigarettes lowered to them during their capture, but they also asked for combs,”says Nic,refilling his glass.“These guys are Latin. You’re not going to go on TV all disheveled, even if you are stuck in a mine.”

That Latin machismo and spirit of “Fuerza Chile”is perhaps best represented across the street from Jumbo Empanadas on Augusta Avenue, at Segovia Meat Market Ltd., whose owner, Leonardo S. Segovia,has tattoos of the Chilean islands on his beefy shoulders.

“Irene’s empanadas are good,” says Segovia — who is a butcher and chef and makes 17 different types of sausages, using his grandmother’s recipes. “I know they’re good; [Irene] learned everything she knows from us.”

Indeed, Morales used to work for Segovia. The butcher, who wears his hair pushed back in a tight ponytail and has that dangerous twinkle in his eye of a Miami drug lord, says there’s no animosity in Toronto’s Little Chile. Besides, cheering for the miners unified his block.

“Personally, I felt a sense of national pride,” says Segovia, whose elegantly named Brazilian wife, Graziela, makes a wicked version of Chilean chili where, for three dollars, she combines three types of spicy sausage with three types of tangy beans.

A feel-good news story usually encourages people to let bygones be bygones,but in Little Chile,some rivalries remain.When asked about the quality of El Gordo Fine Foods, the Chilean butcher shop and restaurant located next door, Segovia laughs.

“That dude’s not Chilean. He’s a gringo,”says Segovia.“That dude’s white.” Ouch! But Graziela helps clarify. “Don’t listen to my husband,” she says, smiling. “It’s his brother that he’s talking about.”

Inside El Gordo Fine Foods, I ask Alfonso Segovia what he makes of his brother’s comments.

“My brother and I both left Chile together with our parents. He was three and I was 10, and now he’s more Chilean than I am?” asks Alfonso, who sells 60 different types of empanadas. “You want to see my flag? This is my flag,” he says, pointing to his floor-to-ceiling, red and white Canadian Maple Leaf banner.“My brother can talk all he wants about Chile, but even he knows that I’m the better chef.”

That the Chilean chefs in Kensington Market are as competitive as they are is good news for the empanada-eating rest of us.El Gordo Fine Foods makes a lamb empanada that’s just as fresh and delicious as the beef empanada I had from Morales and the chili that Leonardo makes with his wife at Segovia Meat Market Ltd.

A miracle happened last month in Chile, and for the Chilean community that lives and works in Kensington Market, it could signal a new day. Alfonso Segovia says he used to live in a condo at Yonge and King Streets, but a divorce settlement forced him to move into the Little Chile section of Kensington Market.Where does Alfonso live now? Above his little brother’s butcher shop.

“I used to have a pool and a Jacuzzi — I had everything — but I guess that’s just life,” says Alfonso, smiling. “I’m Chilean, though, and my fortunes will change because today everyone knows what it means to be Chilean: that miracles can happen. We all saw that when those people escaped from the mine.”

Ben Kaplan is a feature writer for the National Post.


Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO