The price of books in Chile

Chile, as most anyone who knows the country will tell you, has two Nobel Prize winning writers, poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. But the cost of buying a book is prohibitive for most Chileans: some 40 years ago the Pinochet dictatorship imposed a value added tax (VAT) of 19 percent on books sold in the country, the highest in the region and effectively pricing them out of reach for many Chileans. And until now, no one has managed to get the tax eliminated or even reduced.

But a 17-year old Chilean student, Fernanda Moya, started a petition on  urging the country’s Ministry of Culture to eliminate the tax and has already gotten over 19,000 signatures.

“It’s hard to imagine that in a country like Chile, where the average price of a book is equal to 5 % of the minimum wage, how parents can bring books into their homes to motivate their children to read,” she told El Mostrador.

Stay tuned.



Women on dollar bills and peso bills

This week the U.S.Treasury announced that a woman will appear on a $10 bill in 2020. This is not the first time women have featured on U.S. currency: Martha Washington appeared on the $1 Silver Certificate between 1891 and 1896, Susan B. Anthony was on silver dollars from 1979 to 1981 and Sacagawea (explorers Lewis and Clark’s Shoshone guide) appeared on dollar coins in 2000. And none of these currencies are still in production.

Chile, however, has had a woman on its currency since 1981. Gabriela Mistral, one of the country’s two Nobel Prize-winning poets, appears on the 5,000 peso note.  She was the first Latin America to receive the prize, “for her lyric poetry, which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspiration of the entire Latin American world.”

Here’s one of her better-known poems

Tiny Feet

A child’s tiny feet,
Blue, blue with cold,
How can they see and not protect you?
Oh, my God!

Tiny wounded feet,
Bruised all over by pebbles,
Abused by snow and soil!

Man, being blind, ignores
that where you step, you leave
A blossom of bright light,
that where you have placed
your bleeding little soles
a redolent tuberose grows.

Since, however, you walk
through the streets so straight,
you are courageous, without fault.

Child’s tiny feet,
Two suffering little gems,
How can the people pass, unseeing. 

And a link to the Gabriela Mistral Foundation, with an archive of her work:

The anti-poet

Cristobal Ugarte, grandson of Nicanor Parra, deposits the Chilean poet's old typewriter into a vault at Spain's Cervantes Institute.

For half a century

Poetry was

a solemn fool’s paradise.

Until I came along

with my rollercoaster.

Climb aboard if you want.

Though of course I can’t be responsible if you get off

bleeding from the mouth and nose.

His official web site,, contains only the poem above in the original Spanish, set alongside a childlike drawing with the words, “You’re asking me?? Anti-poetry is you!” He was too fragile to make the trip to Spain but sent his grandson to collect the prize and to hand over the ancient typewriter he has used to write his poetry. That typewriter has just been deposited in a vault in Spain’s Cervantes Institute, which this week awarded Nicanor Parra the Spanish language’s highest literary honor. The typewriter holds an unpublished poem which may not be read until 50 years from now.

Parra is the third Chilean to win this award, following essayist Jorge Edwards (1999) and poet Gonzalo Rojo (2003). And Chile has two Nobel Prize-winning poets, Gabriela Mistral (who became the first Latin American winner in 1945) and Pablo Neruda (1971).

Parra, who turns 98 this year, was born into a family of folklorists and musicians in southern Chile, but distinguished himself as a scholar, studying physics at Brown University and cosmology at Oxford.  He counted San Francisco Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allan Ginsberg as friends and influences, and on this site there’s a photograph of him with Ginsburg at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York:

And here’s one of his best poems, “The Last Toast.”


Whether we like it or not,
We have only three choices:
Yesterday, today and tomorrow.

And not even three
Because as the philosopher says
Yesterday is yesterday
It belongs to us only in memory:
From the rose already plucked
No more petals can be drawn.

The cards to play
Are only two:
The present and the future.

And there aren’t even two
Because it’s a known fact
The present doesn’t exist

Except as it edges past
And is consumed…,
like youth.

In the end
We are only left with tomorrow.
I raise my glass
To the day that never arrives.

But that is all

we have at our disposal.