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
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.
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.
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.