A World of News and Perspective February 2011
All in the Family
Chilean Mother of Six Brings Whole Clan to Experience D.C
by Gail Scott
Carolina Santa Cruz Fermandois, the delicate-looking wife of Chilean Ambassador Arturo Fermandois, is not afraid of hard work and long days. In fact, the only thing delicate about this strong mother of six and the wife of a first-time ambassador is the delicate balancing act she performs every day between work and family. But Carolina takes great joy in cheerfully juggling a houseful of children ages 10 to 21 while getting to know Washington, participating in diplomatic life, and advancing Chile’s new “sophisticated agenda.”
“This is a very special moment in history for Chile,” she told The Washington Diplomat. “With the healthiest economy in Latin America, an established, strong democracy, and as a new member of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], Chile now has the opportunity to work with the U.S. and the international community to emerge as the developed country of our dreams. This is a big challenge and responsibility. It is truly an honor to be here, especially at this time.”
Her husband echoed that sentiment in a recent profile, telling The Diplomat: “We have tripled per-capita income during the last 20 years, from $5,000 a year to $14,000…. We’ve been able to reduce poverty from 36 percent of the population to 13 percent, and extreme poverty from 12 percent to 3 percent. We are very proud of our achievements.” (Also see “For New Envoy, Miners’ Rescue Showed Sky’s the Limit for Chile
” in the January 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat.)
On a cold and gray winter day, as Carolina talked about their life here and in Chile, where it is summer now, she admitted that the balancing act between home and work can be tricky.
“Some days, I just don’t have enough time to do what I want — both for our children and our country. I want to tell everyone about Chile and our warm, kind and friendly people, but I also want to be a very good mother. Our children are very self-sufficient and help each other, but I can’t always attend diplomatic events at night with my husband. That’s when I have to go to parent-teacher conferences or help with homework. Of course, we often entertain at home and, when it’s appropriate, we include the children,” she explained.
“Chile is such a great country — we have everything from the world’s driest desert to Antarctica, but we are like an island,” she added, her enthusiasm for her homeland quickly emerging. “With the Andes on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, we feel more isolated and other countries seem farther away.”
In fact, the New York Times just named Santiago, Chile, the number-one travel destination on its list of “The 41 Places to Go in 2011,” saying the Chilean capital — despite being struck by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake less than a year ago — “seems to have only briefly paused a cultural shift that had begun to take hold in the city.”
“Known as a buttoned-up place, Santiago has in recent years added modern museums, smartly designed hotels and sophisticated restaurants. The city has become decidedly more vibrant,” the Times wrote.
Carolina certainly isn’t shy about promoting Chile as a tourist treasure. “You know, we have a saying that when God created the world — with the forests, glaciers, lakes, farmlands, rolling hills, mountains, deserts, islands and oceans — he had a little of everything left over, so he threw it all together and made Chile!”
Of course, late last year Chile attracted worldwide attention for a different kind of miracle. Only a few months after their mid-summer arrival, this handsome diplomatic couple had the spotlight cast on Chile in ways they never expected when 33 Chilean miners trapped 2,000 feet below the earth’s surface for 69 days, at first with little prospect of making it out alive, did just that — stunning the world with their dramatic story of survival.
“We kept asking ourselves, ‘What can we do from here to help?’ Carolina recalled of the ordeal. “And that’s when we thought, ‘What would happen if we called NASA?’ After all, astronauts are prepared to live without air, water and light in very cramped, confined quarters for long periods of time.
“Especially in the beginning when we didn’t know how we were going to rescue them, Arturo worked until 2 or 3 in the morning, receiving and answering hundreds of offers to help. At school, the children briefed their teachers and classmates and at home, we prayed a lot,” she said.
In the end, not only did NASA help but so did many American corporations, including UPS, which delivered — overnight and at no cost — the massive drill made by a Pennsylvania company that successfully bore the shaft to reach the miners. That initial half-mile-long lifeline allowed food, water, medicine and even sunglasses (for the miners’ eventual return into daylight) to be delivered to the miners before each entered the famous capsule for their victorious voyage back to the surface.
Not only were those exultant images beamed across the planet, Washingtonians has their own special view of the unfolding events. The ambassador had a giant billboard-size television screen set up in his embassy’s front yard along Massachusetts Avenue to project a live feed from Chile of the nail-biting rescue, taking public diplomacy to a dramatic new level. Not knowing the outcome, Fermandois had sparkling Chilean wine on ice and his family at his side. But the optimism — and the nervy move — paid off, allowing Washingtonians to revel in the celebrations directly with the ambassador while also demonstrating Chile’s transparency. It left an early and lasting impression both of the country and of Fermandois that reached far beyond Embassy Row.
Looking back, Carolina believes that Chile’s tragedy-turned-triumph also gave this first-time ambassador and his family an “instant bonding experience” with the embassy staff, as everyone worked together in crisis mode. “We inherited a great team at the embassy and we quickly got to know and trust each other,” she said. “They help me so much in everything I do.”
But ending up in Washington was quite a surprise for Carolina and her husband, a well-established lawyer who in 1996 founded Fermandois, Evans and Co., a law firm specializing in administrative and constitutional law.
It was late last spring when her husband first heard from a friend at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that recently elected Chilean President Sebastián Piñera might appoint him to be the country’s representative to the United Nations. Arturo Fermandois immediately shared the news with his family. “He told me and the kids at the same time,” Carolina remembered. “The kids were ready to go immediately — they thought it was exciting and amazing. I told him, ‘I will follow you because we have to work for our country. They are trying to put the best person in each position so we must not hesitate.’
“But the next day when the foreign minister called him in, he said the president wants you in Washington, not New York,” Carolina recalled. “When he called to tell me, I was driving to the beach with all the kids for the beginning of the Easter holiday. I decided not to tell them right away. That night, I told our oldest son Arturo because he was my ‘partner’ on this trip and I had to share the news with someone. He thought it was great and from then on, we made our plans.
“Originally, I thought the job at the U.N. would be better for Arturo because of his background in the law, trade and [international issues],” Carolina noted, but says that now she understands how important the bilateral work is in the nation’s capital and “that Washington is a better city to live with a family.”
The couple already experienced living in the United States briefly with their growing family during two stints in the Boston area. In 1993, they spent a year in Cambridge with their first two boys, then ages 3 and 4. The ambassador, already a lawyer, had won a prestigious national scholarship for graduate studies and came to earn his master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as a Fulbright scholar.
Then in 2004, the whole family returned, even though it was only for six months while Fermandois spent a semester as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. “Wherever we go, we always go as a family,” explained Carolina. “Then we had everyone with us, five children who were 15 to 3 years old.”
It was during that fall semester at Harvard that the Fermandois family first spent time in Washington. “We were invited to have a typical American Thanksgiving with a former college classmate of Arturo’s who now lives here. They showed us all around town and we toured the museums and monuments.”
In preparation for their move this time, Carolina arranged for friends who were visiting Washington to drop by the vacant Chilean Residence, take pictures, and report back on the number of bedrooms (six) and bathrooms (five). She was relieved to learn there was plenty of room for their growing family and “the kids were excited that we had a patio and [little] swimming pool.”
“Since we didn’t learn until April that we were coming here, it was too late to enroll everyone in schools,” Carolina said. “But we decided to come with all the kids even if they would lose some time in their education. To us, this is a family experience. After this first year, if the kids want to go back home, they have more information about the United States and the experience of living here, to make a better decision. And they will have improved their English and we all will have opened our minds.”
Their eldest, 21-year-old Arturo, named after his father, is now studying full time at Catholic University and is interested in becoming an architect; 19-year-old Agustin started at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Md., but after finding that many of his fellow students were older, he switched this semester to the George Washington University in D.C.
“He was so excited,” Carolina said. “I took him and his roommates to Target to buy everything for their dorm room. Then he left here last night at midnight. He couldn’t wait to move in.”
Pedro, 15, “the most social one who was president of his class in Chile,” is now at St. John’s College High School while 12-year-old Clara and 10-year-old Anibal attend Little Flower, a Catholic elementary school in Bethesda, Md. A second daughter, Catalina, died at nine months from SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome. “I still consider myself the mother of six,” Carolina told us. “Catalina’s picture is in my cell phone and I know she is with me. I feel her presence.”
Although Carolina appreciates that their residence is elegant for entertaining yet cozy and roomy for her family, she does miss having more sunlight. In their modern Mediterranean-style home in Santiago, the light pours in from large windows.
Already, Clara has been back to Chile for more sunshine. “Since it is summer vacation at home, Clara went back with Arturo this time for a week with all her friends at the beach. My mother-in-law will be there at our beach house in Zapallar, where all her friends’ families have their beach houses,” Carolina said.
When in Chile, the Fermandois family also enjoys spending time together in their “very, very small two-room cabin in the mountains, just 40 minutes from Santiago and only five minutes away from the ski slopes. We have fit in up to 12 kids’ sleeping bags, making room for our children and their friends.”
Obviously, family is everything to the Fermandoises.
Carolina was a junior in high school and only 17 when she met her future husband, who was in his third year at university. “It was summertime and we were at the beach. I came home and told my cousins, ‘Today I found my husband.’ They thought I was crazy!
“That first time we met, he talked about how when he has children, he will not tell them fairytales like Cinderella but stories about real people from world history like Napoleon and Alejandro Magno [Alexander the Great],” she recalled. Today, the ambassador does tell those true stories to their children “at bedtime, and sometimes at dinner and on car trips,” Carolina said.
After exchanging our own stories, we moved to the family dining room for a healthy lunch of pumpkin soup, tilapia and Chilean berries. As Carolina offered me Chilean wine, I noticed that she didn’t join me in either a glass of red or white — curious given that Chile is world-renowned for its fine vineyards and wine production.
When asked why, yet another interesting side of this disciplined diplomatic wife emerged.
“Chocolate is my love,” admitted this trim mother. “So when I was 18, I decided that I was not going to try wine so I could have my chocolate instead. My whole family loves wine and my sister Paula studied winemaking and my father always had a vineyard in Talagante, one hour away from Santiago. Now since we are here promoting Chile and our wonderful wines, I thought about it but I’ve decided that I’m too old to start trying wine now!”
But as dessert arrived, I immediately noticed there were only strawberries and blueberries on this chocolate lover’s plate. “I’ve given up chocolate,” Carolina said. “I am now eating no processed foods, just natural. No sugar, no flour and no chocolate — just vegetables, grains, meat, fish and a huge amount of fruit daily. It’s much healthier.”
Is the rest of the family as self-disciplined? “I’m the only one,” she said. “Everyone else eats a regular diet.”
Along with healthy food, Carolina tucks in about an hour and a half of exercise into her weekday routine. Up at 6:45 a.m. with the kids for a family breakfast at 7:10, she leaves the residence at Sheridan Circle promptly at 7:30 to get Pedro to the school bus stop near the Washington National Cathedral. Next stop is Bethesda for Clara and Anibal.
“Then I go to the gym. I joined Curves but I do the half-hour routine several times for about an hour and a half. At home in Chile, I used to walk four miles a day but there I had a regular routine with old friends and good weather. I would like to start doing that here in the spring,” said Carolina, who also enjoys tennis, skiing, bike riding, sculpting and painting.
With the children growing up, Carolina is already thinking about starting the next stage in her life. “Growing up — also in a family of six — I was always ‘the dramatic one’ and I love theater. As a mother, I have always been active in my children’s schools with fundraising and leadership programs. I would like to study theater and then use my training to help children express themselves and become leaders.”
But for now, her hands are still full. As difficult as it may be some days to juggle family and newfound diplomatic demands, Carolina thinks that bringing the entire family to Washington has been a priceless opportunity.
“All the children are still with us so we have been able to experience this time in our lives together. The children are happy here and proud of what we are doing. The chance to live in another country, learn the language and, as a family, work for Chile is a precious gift.”
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.
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