Mussels and Equality: A Chilean village’s specialties

How four sisters empowered women and changed their community

Cecilia Sanhueza and her sisters are owners of Nehuentue’s gastronomical center. Photo: Felipe Andaur

By Joice Biazoto, Communications and Marketing Manager

I never imagined I would have one of my most powerful lessons in feminism from a tiny Chilean village in the middle of nowhere.

Nehuentue is a small fishing community with indigenous Mapuche roots, located by the Imperial River, just before it reaches the Pacific Ocean in Chile’s central coast. For many years, the village’s only economic activity was based on farming and harvesting the choro maltón, or Chilean mussel.

On a cool crisp Spring morning, as we visited Nehuentue as part of the Melton Foundation’s Global Citizenship Conference, it looks just like a regular sleepy, idyllic coastal village. Small, colorful wooden homes line the unpaved streets to each side. By the water is a large, beautiful lodge-like building offering panoramic views over the river bay: The gastronomic center, Nehuentue’s pride and joy and one of its most important economic engines.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

“This used to be an abandoned fishing harbor. Where this building used to be was just a tin roof and no walls,” told Cecilia Sanhueza, who owns the gastronomic center together with her three sisters.

She told us the story of how it all happened. The men spent the day on the water harvesting mussels, and a few women started selling meat empanadas and raw mussels on the side of the road. But people asked for prepared food — steamed mussels, mussel empanadas––and a business idea was born: opening a gourmet mussels restaurant at the abandoned fishing harbor.

But the space didn’t belong to the women, and they were told it was an impossible dream. This didn’t stop Cecilia: she went to Temuco, the capital of Chile’s Araucania province, and explained her plans to a small business incubator. They decided to help her.

“Some of the wives had never left the house because of their macho husbands — they were angry with us because we brought their wives to work with us.”

The gastronomic center was to be divided among four families which would each have their own kitchen and space to serve their food. There was a lottery to determine who would get the spots.

“We couldn’t believe when we saw the results,” Cecilia said. “Each of us sisters got a spot.” The people in the village thought that was a strange result and suggested a new lottery to make sure there was no mistake. “Once again, our four names came out, and the whole village thought we had santo — that we had some supernatural help,” she laughed.

Rubén Nahuelpan, a veteran mussel diver of 55 years and diving instructor, explains the difference in between a male and female mussel. He said Nehuentue is a model to other mussel farmers in the region for its sustainable practices.

So the four sisters, who had never been to college or owned a business, started learning and taking courses on food preparation, restaurant management, and more. At first, everything was improvised. “We brought everything we had in our kitchens at home: from pots and pans to tables and chairs,” Cecilia remembered. “We didn’t have an engineer, we didn’t have an architect. We asked our husbands who knew about construction to oversee the work. The rest we did it ourselves.”

Opening day was a dream come true for the sisters. “We had a full house,” she tells with a beaming smile. “The whole family was working. Grandma was cutting potatoes, our children were serving, the neighbors were helping.”

Before they opened the center, Nehuentue’s only income source was mussel farming and men were the only breadwinners. “Our village men were very sexist,” she tells. “We helped change that.”

The whole group of international visitors at Nehuentue’s gastronomic center.

Most of the women in the village used to stay at home full-time. “Some of the wives had never left the house because of their macho husbands — they were angry with us because we brought their wives to work with us,” Cecilia said defiantly.

“We had to fight against sexism along the way. Getting the women out of the house changed Nehuentue forever.” She mentions one of the women working for her hadn’t been able to take a single step without her husband’s approval; today, she’s working, happier, and empowered. She jokes with her husband, Rubén (the village’s veteran mussel diver) that he also used to be one of the machos. Today, he even helps her around the kitchen when it gets too busy. “His sexism ended when he realized we had to work as a team,” she said.

As they promoted equality in their new business, the entire community started to benefit. “We give a lot of jobs to young people, who would have otherwise left for opportunities in the bigger cities,” she said. “Farmers in the region come here to sell their vegetables with full bags and return with full pockets. Now Nehuentue doesn’t need help from the outside anymore. We are thriving.”