Thursday, September 18th was Chile’s most-adored holiday: Fiestas Patrias. A celebration of Chilean independence from Spain, the day tends to seep into the surrounding week or so to allow for ample celebration. Since the holiday fell on a Thursday this year, there was plenty of time for partying.
On an errand to Sodimac (Chile’s equivalent of Lowe’s or The Home Depot) during my first week in the country, red, white, and blue signs hung from the ceiling announcing huge sales on grills, outdoor furniture, and anything else you’d expect to see on sale at home superstores during the 4th of July back in the US. The spirit building up to the holiday was very much the same; nearly 1.5 million Santiaguinos were preparing themselves for a long weekend on the coast, in the country, or otherwise outside of the metropolis. Chicha was popping up on supermarket shelves across the city and it was selling for ridiculously low prices.
After our excursion to Curicó and Lontué on Tuesday, September 16th, the ten of us in my program were set free until the following Tuesday. The break allowed us to spend time with our host families and take part in the celebrations that abounded throughout the city and country. This also meant we had zero qualms about going out til 4AM on a Wednesday night — side note: it was like the United Nations on the dance floor: a Turkish-American girl from my program, A British guy, two Germans, a South Korean girl, and myself.
That said, I forced myself out of bed at 8AM the next day on the 18th to head down to Santiago Centro with my host aunt and uncle to bear witness to the Te Deum processions. Completely foreign to me before that morning, the Te Deum is a special service of thanksgiving at the Catedral Metropolitana in Santiago Centro every year on Fiestas Patrias. Along with a variety of Chilean religious superstars, the president and every other important person in the government attends the hour-long service that’s broadcast live across the nation. However, the spectacle starts beforehand as la presidenta Michelle Bachelet makes her way from La Moneda (the presidential palace) to the Catedral Metropolitana.
Having seen various VIP motorcades in the US, I didn’t expect anything very interesting; just lots of cars with tinted windows zooming by too quickly to see anyone inside. This was different. Much different.
After parking several blocks away since so many streets were closed, we walked towards La Moneda through the deathly silent streets that would be bustling with activity on any other Thursday. The temperature was struggling to make it out of the high 40′s, a light drizzle kept my camera sufficiently moist, and there was NOBODY downtown. Even on the streets that weren’t blocked off by Carabineros, every business was closed and cars were nowhere to be seen. We arrived at La Moneda and stood against a barricade at the edge of the building. What I would consider Imperial Guards were idling on their well-manicured horses as TV and radio crews eagerly awaited la presidenta‘s exit from the palace. When she came out a few minutes later, the Escuela de Aviación’s (Chilean Air Force Academy) band played the national anthem as she boarded a classic Ford convertible, standing in the back seat.
With the president in position, the horses, interspersed with secret service agents, proceeded towards La Catedral. Bachelet waved to the small but adoring crowd as even more secret service agents around her convertible kept an eye out for anything suspicious. And so began my first (of five) Chilean military parade experience.
As soon as the president passed, my entire area along the parade route vacated (there were more government ministers passing, but not in open-air vehicles) and a river of spectators followed the parade, a behavior that I observed at each of the subsequent parades over the holiday. We joined this mass of people and walked past the bands of the Carabineros, Carabineras (female Carabineros), Escuela de Aviación technicians, the Army, the Escuela Militár (Army Academy), and others that were stationed along the parade route, each playing a military march or two as the president passed by. Upon reaching a roadblock of sorts along the sidewalk, we couldn’t continue any further so just walked around the streets for a while. Two businesses in the area were open: Bravíssimo Gelateria and Dunkin’ Donuts. Nothing like donuts and ice cream at 10AM (I didn’t indulge in either, thankyouverymuch).
Following the Te Deum service, the whole thing happened again in reverse. While waiting in front of La Moneda for the return of the procession, a Chilean man probably in his late 60s saw my camera and started asking me questions about it. Having been extremely cautious with my camera in Santiago, I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. However, with nearly 30 Carabineros in the vicinity, I figured I didn’t need to be overanxious about being robbed. We ended up having a great conversation about photography; turns out he used to be a photographer himself but hadn’t made the transition to digital. What struck me most was the openness with which he approached me, especially since I’m obviously not Chilean. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal, but it brightened the otherwise dreary morning.
Over the next 36 hours, I attended three more parades, all of which were distinct, but relatively similar in their offering: sharply dressed soldiers playing all kinds of instruments and chanting while marching in the only way soldiers march.
The last of the five parades I attended was one in the Las Condes comuna of Santiago at night on Friday (Glorias del Ejército, or Armed Forces Appreciation Day). It was here that I got my best glimpse at the Chilean perception of the military.
Starting well before 6PM when I arrived, crowds gathered along a long stretch of boulevard as vendors walked past selling all sorts of food, including peanuts prepared a billion different ways. Lots of families with small children sat on the curb, sucking on popsicles and waiting for the action to begin. As my groupmate Kathleen pointed out so well, the atmosphere was like it is at Disney World before the Main Street USA parade starts. This time, however, Mickey was nowhere to be found.
Instead, pack after pack of soldiers marched soberly and strictly past the cheering masses. Interestingly, a delegation from the Argentinean Army headed up the parade, and they were received with a huge ovation. Following that group of about 30 soldiers and another pack with delegates from throughout Latin America, the rest was Chilean. Spectators cheered and clapped fervently, as if they had to outdo their neighbors in showing their appreciation for the military. Earlier in the week, someone mentioned the following: for a country with no enemies, Chile has a pretty serious military. I had no doubt of that, especially when some members of the navy started marching with a waist-high kick that was all too eerily reminiscent of footage I’ve seen of Nazi German or North Korean troops.
The military as an institution in Chile seems to play a much more serious and integrated role in the lives of the typical citizen than it does in the United States. To my knowledge, the US doesn’t have an event, much less an annual holiday, devoted to appreciation of the armed forces. Memorial Day is as close as we get, but even then, the overarching theme isn’t one of military power, but rather of proud remembrance.
Military appreciation aside, the holiday is Chile’s party time. Those of us from the group who stayed put in Santiago for the long weekend went to a fonda (a festival of sorts) at Universidad Católica. We apparently needed Católica student IDs to get in, but the security guards waved us in as soon as they saw one of us pull out a copy of our passport. It’s not often that you receive preferential treatment abroad after you identify yourself as a US citizen. On the campus, students were laying around on the grass drinking beers, while a livelier bunch was dancing the Cueca, the national dance of Chile, to live music under a tent. Fortunately it was dark enough that we didn’t attract too many weird looks, seeing as how we were definitely the only foreigners there. We put our meager Cueca skills to work and danced mostly among ourselves, but occasionally with Chileans looking for dance partners, as well.
Back at the host family’s apartment, I partook in an asado (barbeque) with my extended host family as we all engorged ourselves with various types of meats and other foods. It was a seriously satisfying combination of Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Asado leftovers showed up at every meal for a few days afterwards, and later in the weekend, I went to even more asados at other people’s homes. I’d say a good three quarters of the weekend was taken up by either a) eating, or b) being in a food coma. What a holiday.
Below is a slideshow of the weekend’s photos. It’s interactive and linked to my photos on flickr, so click around and discover its features.