On a typical evening at Rincón Chileno, a Chilean restaurant and delicatessen on Melrose in East Hollywood, the doughy aroma of fresh-baked empanadas wafts through air. In Chile, the savory stuffed pastries are considered a national dish. In fact, when Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970—just three years before being ousted in a bloody coup—he called for a revolution “flavored with red wine and empanadas.”
Chile’s recent history has been marred by political violence. In the years following Allende’s overthrow on September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship sent thousands of exiles fleeing the country to escape torture or death at the hands of the brutal regime. For many Chilean refugees arriving in Los Angeles throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Rincón Chileno was their first stop in a strange new metropolis. “This was the second consulate,” says owner Ricardo Flores. “We had to tell them how to go to the social security service to get their social security. If you had to get a driver’s license and didn’t know how to drive, we knew people in the Chilean community who could teach you.”
In addition to helping new arrivals navigate the city and locate friends and family, the restaurant was one of the few places where immigrants could enjoy empanadas de carne, hear traditional Chilean music, and otherwise enjoy the comforts of home. “All of the Chilean community gathered here on weekends,” Flores says. “They came to buy the newspapers because it was the only way to find out about our country.”
Flores and his wife first came to L.A. as newlyweds in 1969. The couple had planned to stay for a just few years before returning home to raise their two young children and pursue careers as teachers. But when they arrived back in Chile, the country had plunged into a depression, in part due to U.S.-led economic sanctions aimed at crippling Allende’s Marxist administration. The two decided to return to the U.S. six months later, followed shortly by Flores’s mother and stepfather, who opened the restaurant in 1973.
Rincón Chileno quickly became a hub for the local Chilean community, serving both immigrants who left in opposition to Allende’s government as well as refugees escaping Pinochet. Flores, who later opened a second location in Lawndale, says the bitter political divisions still exist for some in the community. It’s important to him that the restaurants remain places where both right- and left-wing Chileans feel welcome. “I tell my children and my wife, we don’t talk politics here,” Flores explains. “We have to serve this and that side.”
Macarena Gómez-Barris, author and professor of cultural studies at the Pratt Institute, says that unlike the Bay Area—where churches and grassroots organizations took in refugees during Pinochet’s more than two-decade-long rule—L.A. was never a stronghold for Chilean exiles. “L.A. was not the primary destination for Allende supporters,” she says. “So that’s why you have a more mixed community there.”
According to the most recent census data, just upward of 10,000 Chileans live in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan area. Gómez-Barris herself immigrated to L.A. from Chile in 1974 when she was four years old. Her mother had served in the Allende administration and escaped persecution by receiving a fellowship to study at UCLA. Gómez-Barris remembers how, as her parents and grandparents struggled to assimilate to a new culture and language, Rincón Chileno was a refuge for her family. “My mother was seen as a subversive, both in Chile and by the U.S. government,” she says. “She had a very strong animus toward being in the U.S. [for its involvement in Allende’s downfall], but Rincón Chileno provided a little corner in L.A. for us. There, it felt like it was OK to be who we were.”
Flores and his brother Sergio, who began helping run the restaurant after immigrating in 1977, say they are proud to have served three generations from refugee families, with whom they’ll celebrate the upcoming Chilean Independence Day on September 18. “They like to come and eat empanadas and have the traditional drinks like wine and pisco sours,” Sergio says. “We’re going to going to have two events this year because the place is small and most of [the community] wants to come over.”
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