The Dieciocho

20 September 2006
5:29 PM

The spirit of September in Chile is defined by the fiestas patrias, the national holidays that center on September 18, the dieciocho. This is the month when Chile becomes extra Chile. People hang flags outside their houses. Kids fly kites bought on just about any street corner you see. The smell of emapanadas and the sounds of cueca, Chile’s national dance, waft through the air. Chileans fire up their grills to cook the giant barbecues that they love.

There is so much to celebrate that you need plenty of time to do it. A few schools give students the entire week of September 18 off. Even the less fortunate get a four-day weekend: Saturday, Sunday, plus the obligatory holidays of September 18 and 19. Never mind that, according to a recent poll, 69% of Chileans do not know what the 18th celebrates.

I began my dieciocho celebration at the Holy Cross house in Santiago. The soup kitchen there normally operates Monday to Friday, but this weekend we prepared a special Saturday barbecue for the usual comers. Meg, Roy, Caitlin, and I, along with a few seminarians, served up the grub. It was a low-key lunch, through complete with the piles of meat Chileans expect. Cueca played in the background, and after the food there was dancing. Most of our guests were men, and though that meant that Caitlin and Meg had to dance overtime to keep up with demand, it mercifully exempted me from most (but not all) of the cueca.

Cueca is danced in partners, and it is deceptively complex. At first glance, it looks like the man and the woman dance in circles, wildly waving handkerchiefs over their heads. That is just how it looks to an untrained eye like mine. Men and women hold the handkerchief differently, for one, and waving it properly demands skill—one which I do not yet possess. The dancing in circles is carefully measured and counted. The couples makes coordinated figure-eights and semi-circles. I am told the dance has something to do with the mating dance of roosters and hens, but I know as little about farm animal courtship as the cueca so the analogy is lost on me.

Monday I went to our neighbor Gina’s house for lunch with her family. Lunch was empanadas, which are kind of like giant Hot Pockets. One person told me, “You have to have empanadas on the dieciocho! September 18 without empanadas is like the Fourth of July without … what do you all eat on the Fourth of July?” The mere presence of empanadas, however, is not enough; there have to be heaping piles of them. Gina’s family made 102. Emily, working with another family, made another hundred. Fortunately, they are tasty. I mean, not tasty enough to eat hundreds, but at least tasty enough for two or three.

Tuesday I went to Los Andes’s media luna, or half moon, which is where rodeos take place. Rodeo being Chile’s national sport, and this being the national holiday in Chile, in conjunction with me being in Chile, made this seem like a pretty good time to see a rodeo. My favorite part was the parade of huasos, Chilean cowboys, that began the event. Two little boys, neither older than three, rode alongside their fathers. After that, when pairs on horseback began corralling wild calves, I found the rodeo just about as confusing as the cueca. The announcer shouted at various intervals, “One good point, one bad point, zero points,” while everything looked the same to me. Too bad I didn’t have a TV commentator to explain the moves.

By Wednesday, I was back to work, having soaked up enough cueca, rodeo, and empanadas until next year. In the meantime, I’ll just repeat what the kids on the streets shout: Chi-chi-chi, le-le-le, viva Chile!