Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Los Mechónes -- Chilean rite-of-passage

For a few weeks now I've young people like these guys walking around the streets of Santiago.  They're covered in what looks to be dirt or ash, with gross, clumpy hair, torn clothing, and bare feet.  They go from person to person in the city with their hands outstretched looking for money.  At first I thought they were just homeless people working way too hard for a few hundred pesos, but last week I found out that this is actually a semi-organized "initiation" activity that takes place in the universities of Santiago and around Chile.

At the beginning of the school year every March, the upperclassmen of the local universities confiscate the school supplies of the freshmen students, requiring them to beg in the streets to make enough money to recuperate their belongings.  The fee for each "mechón" (meaning "tuft of hair") is usually 5-7,000 pesos ($10-$15USD).  As part of tradition, the freshmen cover themselves in disgusting liquids, usually ordinary kitchen condiments (although I've heard of mechónes using body parts of dead animals), and hit the streets to beg for the cash to regain control of their school packback and clothing items.

Rumor is that with the money from all this work all the students get together for a large party to kick of the new school year.

Other rumored initiation activities include the kissing of a slaughtered pig and drinking alcohol along with raw seafood.  Sadly, in the last few years there have been a handful of violent outbursts that have resulted in the hospitalization of a number of students.

I found these guys on a sunny afternoon walking down Alameda, a main street in Santiago centro.  The smell was STRONG, I could barely stand there long enough for the photo.

Guys covered in ketchup, flour, mustard and vinegar.  Horrendous smell.