Mechoneo: March Rite of Passage

Sí, llegó marzo… and despite all the problems that March brings with it, it has its upside as well. Fall has always been my favorite season, and in Chile, March IS autumn; there’s not much in terms of colorful falling leaves, but it IS harvest time (uber cool for wine geeks, but we’ll leave that, too, for another day)… AND, it’s back to school time. Ok, so I’m a not-so-closeted nerd at heart. I grew up in the country after nearly 3 months of forced tranquility, I was always VERY glad to go back to school!

Mechones from U. Finis Terrae- Santiago

Mechones from U. Finis Terrae- Santiago

In Chile, March is also the month of mechones and mechoneos… and in Chile, mechoneo, or hazing, is not just a frat rat stunt. First year students at just about every university in the country are subjected to a few days of “fun-spirited” abuse.

I do admit that things seem to be much more subdued than in the past, when it was not uncommon to hear of some poor soul who had died after being forced to chug Clorox or undergoing some other ridiculously absurd thing they were required to do in order to enter the realm of the socially accepted.

I’ve been on the watch for mechones this year and have made a point to ask them what they’ve been subject to. The first pair, 2 shoeless ick-and-gook-covered young women from Universidad Finis Terrae, were very timidly standing a bit too far from the entrance to the Manuel Montt Metro station, not very successfully attempting to appeal to the mercy of passersby to help them out.

Mechones beg for money to buy back their shoes

Shoeless mechones, Santiago de Chile, 2009

I asked what they had to do: “They won’t give our shoes back until we bring back $13,500 pesos and a cigarette.” $13,500?? That’s like $22.50 in USD… Each. That’s a lot of money here, where most people will walk past them feigning oblivion and those willing to help fork over $100 pesos (that means getting 135 people–each–to reach into their pockets!) Mom & Dad more likely.

Two mechones with chicken foot

Mechones with chicken foot, U Mayor, Santiago de Chile

A couple days later I ran into another dirty duo at the Santa Lucía Metro. They were just as covered in crud, but far more into their game. They were playing it up and raking in the change. They, students of Universidad Mayor, were required to return with $8500 each–plus a chicken foot, which they proudly dangled from a string.

I generally see this behavior as harmless bonding behavior–as long as it stays within the boundaries of face painting and flour throwing, without getting into the category of nasty, denigrating, or dangerous. Chilean culture is very much group oriented and sharing initiation experiences provides opportunities for bonding. These students will sit in the same classrooms and share the same curriculum for the next 4 years and struggle through a group thesis for at least another year. They are entering into a social networking system that began long before Facebook and will be a vital part of their careers for the rest of their lives. In a culture that places such great importance on contacts, being part of the group is essential. And that requires a rite of passage: mechoneo.

10 responses to “Mechoneo: March Rite of Passage

  1. I love the pictures.
    I think chilean people actually hand over a lot more money on the street than most would think. ;though during the week its so saturated that I wonder if people back off.

    In valparaiso some of them smell like fish. Its absolutely disgusting and even walking by has made me feel nausious

  2. Fishy freshmen! Poor things!
    It would be interesting to know how much money these kids actually collect and how much they en up putting in themselves. I definitely feel a contradiction between giving money to college students vs the mother trying to feed her kids standing next to them!

  3. I don’t like how they often smell like vinegar…eww. The other day I gave some monedas to one guy and he said “Ahh, ahora has ganado un beso” but I declined on account of the vinegar smell.

    I’m surprised by how much money they have to get! That’s way more than I ever imagined! I guess I should have been a little more generous with my monedas.

  4. Lucky you-a pickle kiss! (ick!!)

  5. Congratulations! I came across this blog on a random day at University, and I loved reading it. I’m Chilean, and it’s been so fun to read how Chile is seen through the eyes of foreigners (I had fun reading about sandwiches). I have already shown this blog to all my foreign friends and acquaintances interested in Chile, and of course my Chilean friends.

    ¡Muchas felicitaciones y que sigan así!

  6. La Gringa/Margaret

    ¡Un millón de gracias! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog–I sure enjoy putting my 2-pesos worth every couple of days!
    I’d love to get your comments (agree, disagree, different angles,etc.) And thanks for spreading the word!

  7. This is probably the best Chile blog of all. I learn something new every post about the country I’ve lived in now for over a year. I thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

  8. La Gringa/Margaret

    Thank you so much! It’s also very therapeutic for me to sit down and really reflect upon what is going on around me and put into words some of these ideas I’ve been kicking around for ages… It’s so nice to know it’s useful to others too!
    And by the way- I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog too… what different lifestyles we lead! There are days when I really envy you… and others when I wouldn’t trade my life for anything!

  9. Please never give money to “mechones”. Students of Universidad Mayor or Finis Terrae come from very wealthy households. The worst part is that the money is used to buy alcohol and they organize parties where everybody gets drunk. If you give them money you’d be financing booze induced bonding for the privileged.

  10. Hmmm, there’s a point…

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