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Coffee With Legs’: Inside Chile’s Risque and Antiquated Cafe Culture

At kerbside tables, down shadowy alleys and in underground arcades, coffee in Chile’s capital is still served con piernas – with legs.

Waitresses in short skirts and high heels serve coffee at the street-level joints which form part of a curious, anachronistic hangover from the 1980s. And in exotically named cafes in underground shopping centres, the staff – who are nearly all migrants from other countries – wear swimwear.

“It’s odd that these places which objectify women exist today in the centre of a city like Santiago,” said Amanda Bruna, a 37-year-old teacher from Santiago. “But women have to work, and where there aren’t other opportunities, they will always take these jobs. It’s work just like anything else.”

Marcela Hurtado, an academic at Chile’s Austral University who has researched the cafes extensively, said: “These places often operate on the margins of the law, and the working conditions of the women working there are varied.”

“The feminist wave might have changed how people thought about these establishments, but it’s hasn’t changed their essence,” she said.

Over the winter of 2018, a year after the #MeToo movement took hold in the country, Chile’s universities were brought to a standstill by a series of strikes after a string of harassment and abuse scandals in higher education.

And the country’s women’s movement continues to influence national and local politics: taking power last year, President Gabriel Boric pledged to put gender equity at the heart of his government.

But regulating how the cafes operate has long been a headache for the Chilean capital.

Amid allegations of prostitution and workplace harassment in the 2000s, successive mayors ordered that the cafes be open exclusively during the daytime, banned the sale of alcohol and demanded that their windows be tinted.

Santiago’s current city council, led by the feminist mayor, Irací Hassler, 32, said that it regulates the cafes like any other business in the city.

“Our administration is not against women working in these cafeterias, as long as this implies a fair, legal contract in an authorised establishment,” a statement read. “We don’t want to stigmatise women who are looking for work in order to survive. But we are interested in guaranteeing their safety.”

Many of the waitresses have travelled a long way to reach Chile, and often cannot provide the paperwork they need to work legally.

Less than a year ago, Mandy, 25, was completing a business administration degree in El Tigre, a city in central Venezuela, when friends in Santiago enthused about cafe work.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, she says, to drop out of university and travel alone by bus through five countries, arriving two weeks later at a tiny town high up on the altiplano between Bolivia and Chile, where she began to make her way down through the Atacama desert to Santiago.

“I like the work because it pays well,” said Mandy, who now waitresses at Café Alibaba, one of the below-ground establishments.

“But sometimes men are rude to us and misunderstand what these places are – they expect something else,” she said, perching on a zigzag-shaped bar beside several coffees which sat idle, as her colleagues flirted with clients.

I like the work because it pays well. But sometimes men are rude to us and misunderstand what these places are

Mandy, a waitress at Café Alibaba

Yet as Santiago’s cafés con piernas go quietly about their business, none of the owners say that changing attitudes have affected them, and regulars still shuffle past feminist graffiti in the city centre carrying gifts for the waitresses.

“This was a good business back in the day,” says Marco Peña, 53, who runs Kako’s Express, a city centre coffee shop tucked discreetly down an L-shaped passageway.

The cafes date back to 1982, when an Italian-American coffee chain, Café Haití, announced a new dress code for its waitresses, who wore revealing dresses and stilettos.

Three years later, El Barón Rojo – “the Red Baron” – opened its doors opposite Santiago’s 19th-century municipal theatre, introducing its infamous “minuto millonario” – 60 seconds of topless table service.

Opinion was divided, but with Chilean society still reeling from Gen Augusto Pinochet’s repressive dictatorship, some entrepreneurs thought the opportunity was too good to miss.

Cafés con piernas sprang up across the centre of Santiago with new and increasingly outlandish concepts – in the mid-2000s, there was an Indigenous Mapuche-themed cafe on a major city centre thoroughfare; another with male waiting staff lasted just a few months.

After several decades in the industry, Peña insists that Kako’s Express is not a café con piernas like the underground establishments he used to run.

He concedes that the pandemic forced a rethink for cafe owners when offices were vacated and businessmen stopped frequenting the city centre. Now, construction workers, market traders and even former professional footballers are served lunch by waitresses – who still wear short, floral-print dresses and heels.

Among the regular clientele at Kako’s Express are Luis, 66, and Sergio, 54, who come by most days to drink milky coffees in tall glasses.

They wave away suggestions that growing awareness of gender issues in Chile has made the coffee shops taboo.

“These places are totally accepted,” says Luis, pointing around the cafe – his reflection gesturing back at him from the mirrored walls on all sides.

“We just come here, have a coffee, talk. It’s normal,” says Sergio.

While the coffee shops continue to attract curious tourists and locals alike, the tradition seems unlikely to die away anytime soon.

“They will keep on existing,” said Hurtado. “As long as there are clients, there will be cafés con piernas.”

Source : The Guardian