2 November 2022

Movement keeps the Chilean culture thriving in Canberra

| Dione David
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Maria Ramos posing on a bridge in traditional Manquehue clothing

Maria Ramos, the oldest member of Canberra’s Chilean community, decked out in a traditional Chilean folkloric dancing costume. Photos: Paola Mendez.

Lorena Kanellopoulos’ childhood home was always filled with music.

It was thanks to her mum, Maria Ramos, a hard-working “perfectionist” almost as passionate about singing and dancing as she was about her family and Chilean heritage.

“If I close my eyes and picture my mum when I was young, she was always working and cooking,” Lorena says.

“But when we were home the music was always on, she was dancing in the kitchen, dinner smelled amazing and the house was pristine.”

Even today at 81, the founder and oldest member of Canberra’s Chilean community club is still on the move.

“You would never think she was 81, she still does it all,” Lorena says.

“And when you think of the Chilean community in Canberra, she is one of the first people who comes to mind.”

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Born in 1941, Maria hails from the Chilean capital, Santiago. In the unrest that followed the early-70s coup d’état, the then mother-of-one migrated with her husband to Canberra in pursuit of a better life for their young son.

But the blood in Maria’s veins remained Chilean. And a few years later she was instrumental in organising the club’s Chilean Independence Day celebrations La Fonda and establishing the local Chilean folkloric dance group.

Born in Canberra, Lorena was two when her mother began teaching her Chile’s countless dances.

They varied from the country’s northern styles to the Easter Islands dances with their distinctly Polynesian flavour. When she was about seven, Lorena joined the ranks of club members representing the Chilean community in live performances at all manner of events.

From the La Jota through to her personal favourite, La Cueca, the dances stayed with Lorena, embedding a kernel of her cultural heritage.

But it wasn’t the only aspect of her community that made a profound impression.

Anytime Fitness owner Lorena Kanellopoulos wearing traditional Chilean dancing costume

Like mother, like daughter – Lorena Kanellopoulos.

“Whenever there was an unfortunate occurrence for someone in the community, everyone rallied around that person,” she says.

“Once, a Chilean woman was diagnosed with a brain tumour and the community got together and held a fundraiser for her family.

“Another time, someone’s daughter was in a head-on collision in Gungahlin and was confined to a wheelchair during recovery. Again everyone banded together to retrofit the house for accessibility.”

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The Griffin Centre was the meeting place of choice for the Chilean community back then, a place Lorena says became the backdrop for the fond formative memories of many young Chilean-Canberrans.

“We would gather there every Saturday night,” she says.

“The mothers would cook and chat, the men would play dominoes, and all us children would be outside playing tips or games. We grew up together.

“That went on until we started reaching our late teens, early 20s, then the club started to fizzle. The elders like my mum, who were the glue holding it all together were stepping back, and the younger generations didn’t want to step up to committee roles.”

Group of Chilean Canberrans gathering

Times have changed but Canberra’s Chilean community remains close-knit.

Life goes on. Lorena now has daughters of her own and is an ACT business owner.

But in 2002, there came a renewed interest in showcasing Chilean folk dancing and Maria, along with three other Chilean community members, formed the Manquehue Chilean Folkloric Dance Group of Canberra.

Today, the tradition is kept alive and well by Lorena who continues to pass the torch to Canberra’s young Chileans as a volunteer teacher, along with fellow Chilean Jacqueline.

The group has performed at events across the region, including folk dance and multicultural festivals, school fetes and national days.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure growing up in such a strong culture and a privilege for me to teach Chilean children our traditional dances,” Lorena says.

“Dancing and music is a major part of my life. If I’m having a bad day, it all falls away when I see these kids’ joy in the movements.

“I also know many of their parents feel if they didn’t have this, that connection to the heritage might fade away.”

Manquehue Chilean Folkloric Dance Group of Canberra classes run Friday nights at 7:30 pm in the Rainbow Room at the Southern Cross Club Woden.

Chileans aged four and up are invited to join – email@manquehue.com.au or reach out via Facebook.

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