||Issue Date: 9 / 2006
Dieciocho: Chile's Month-Long Independence 'Day'
When Chileans wake up on Independence Day (September 18), chances are many of them have already celebrated some parts of this holiday on previous days, or even as far back as the beginning of the month of September. Dieciocho (pronounced dee-ay-see-OH-cho) comes from the words diez (ten), y (and), ocho (eight) and is the name of the national holiday on September 18 that commemorates Chile's first moves in 1810 towards winning independence from Spain. Chile celebrates the day when the country began to be governed only by people from Chile, although Spain continued as overseer until 1818, when complete independence was won.
Cueca singers Mario Rojas (left) and Roberto Parra (brother of
Chilean folk legend Violeta Parra) performing in Plaza
Echaurren, a working class neighborhood in Valparaíso.
(Courtesy of www.cuecachilena.cl)
Nowadays, Independence Day is encased in a whole month called Mes de la Patria, (Month of the Nation). Patriotic activities start on September 1 and continue until the end of the month, with the nucleus of the celebration in a five-day period from September 16-20. During these five days, the events of the whole month of September are highlighted, and most Chileans participate in some form of the celebration, both at home and in public places. The most popular events and activities in September are asados, fondas, and cueca: dancing, kite-flying, and, of course, flag-waving.
Good company, good food
Ask any Chilean if he or she has ever gone to an asado (pronounced ah-SAH-do) and you'll probably get a guffaw as an answer. In Chile, asados are as common as hamburger and hot dog roasts in the U.S. Whenever the weather is nice, and even when it isn’t, people get together with friends and family, make a fire on the grill, and cook beefsteaks, pork chops, sausages, chicken and whatever else seems good to eat that day. The whole preparation of the asado is a kind of ritual, with the men standing around the fire chatting, laughing and preparing the barbecue. Meanwhile, the women put together the accompanying salads and set out the dishes, and the children play outside with their cousins and friends. Before they eat the main meal, Chileans will usually have some empanadas (pronounced em-pah-NAH-thahs), pastries filled with beef, cheese or shellfish); or choripanes (pronounced chor-ee-PAH-nays). This colorful word literally means “sausage (chorizo) and bread (pan).” It comes from the ingredients of a treat that Chile adopted from its neighbor, Argentina. The asado consists of the preliminary preparations and appetizers, the actual sitting down to eat the barbecue, and the table conversation afterwards. It can go on for several hours and will be followed up by another meal later on: tea or coffee with the asado leftovers, or maybe some cakes and pastries. The asado is a standard Chilean social event, and most people fully enjoy its simplicity as well as its wealth of good eating. During the Dieciocho celebrations, many folks stay home after the asado, while others head for a nearby fonda.
Five nights of fun
The word fonda (pronounced FOAN-dah) is believed to come from an Arabic word, fondac, which means an inn, a place to stay. In all parts of the southernmost nation of the American continent, Chileans set up fondas a few days ahead of Dieciocho. Fondas are held in large gathering halls or in small temporary sites in the cities, towns and rural areas of Chile. The fondas in small towns and rural areas are often roofed with branches from eucalyptus trees and have sawdust-covered floors. Usually the fondas operate for five or six nights during the Dieciocho celebration. Every afternoon and evening, Chileans visit the fondas and eat shish kebabs (anticuchos in Spanish), empanadas, French fries and other Chilean favorites. Some of the favorite drinks to accompany the food are soft drinks, pisco (PEES-co: a west coast South American liquor made from grapes, with a taste similar to Mexican tequila), chichi (CHEE-chah: fermented grape or apple cider), or a cup of tea or coffee. While the fondas are filling up in the evenings, musicians start to tune their instruments on a makeshift stage. When the music begins, people dance Colombian cumbias, Mexican norteños, and their own Chilean cueca.
The cueca: The heart of Dieciocho
There is a wealth of Chilean music, but the cueca (pronounced QUAKE-ah) represents in many ways the essence of the Chilean character. It was proclaimed the national dance of Chile only three decades ago in 1979, but has been sung and danced in all regions of Chile for several centuries. People in other South American countries, especially Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, also dance cuecas, but the Chilean cueca has a special verve and personality all its own. After gaining its independence, Chile experienced an outburst of celebration of its own national personality for many years. The energetic cueca aptly represented the new, fresh persona of Chile. However, with the invention of the radio, and perhaps because of Chile’s desire to break away from its geographical isolation (the long, narrow country is hemmed in on the west and south by ocean and the Andes Mountains on the east), after several decades of celebrating its independence, the cueca and other Chilean folk music faded into the background and international music became more popular.
In the 1950s and 60s, when nations in many parts of the world were again reaffirming their unique personalities, in Chile there was a rebirth of folk music in general and the cueca in particular. Singers such as Violeta Parra, one of the great folk voices of Chile, (her daughter Isabel, son Angel, and various relatives and descendants still influence Chilean music), put their own folk music-based compositions, including cuecas, in the forefront. And, as an extra impetus to increased appreciation of Chile’s own musical heritage, in 1971 President Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government introduced cueca competitions, which continue to this day. Even international cueca competitions take place now outside of Chile because Chileans in other countries also want to keep their native culture alive.
Since the cueca is first and foremost a song, it begins with a poem that can be about love, or about some geographical area of Chile, or about some event in life, and is then sung in a unique way. By way of example, let’s imagine that the old American song, “You Are My Sunshine” is a cueca. The “poem” would be the words of the song, as they were written:
You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine,
You make me happy,
When skies are gray…
In the United States, the song would be sung just as the “poem” is written. But, if this were a cueca, it would then be sung quite differently, with the repetition of various words:
You are, you are my sunshine
My dear, my only, my only sunshine
My dear, my only, my only sunshine
My dear, you make, you make me happy
My dear, when skies, when skies are gray…
In a genuine cueca, the entire poem is sung this way, with repetitions and additions of words. There are three separate parts to the cueca (cuarteta (a four-line stanza), seguidilla (which literally means a happy and lively Spanish dance), and remate (closing verse). The song is accompanied by guitars, harps, sometimes drums, and other musical instruments.
The cueca is traditionally danced by a male and a female. There are specific steps (sliding and stamping) and movements in circles and semicircles. These movements change according to the three parts of the sung cueca, so the dancers’ steps have to coincide with each section of the song. The dancing is very mathematic and geometric but also very engaging and personal. Each dancer has to end each part of the dance in the spot where he/she began. The man and woman can join arms and talk in the preliminary promenade before the singing begins, as well as when the singers have finished. However, during the dance, they can’t speak, touch each other, or take their eyes off each other, except when they make turns.
Both dancers carry handkerchiefs, which act as silent but expressively integral members of the dance. The handkerchief conveys festivity and, since the cueca is basically a dance of courtship, it acts as the “language” of the people who are dancing. The woman keeps her handkerchief near her face or at shoulder level. The man can wave his handkerchief over his head, at waist level, or around the woman’s feet. Occasionally the dancers hold their handkerchiefs with both hands. If the cueca is done correctly, what looks to the uneducated eye like a dance floor full of people just whirling around happily waving handkerchiefs is a very precise performance with a flirtatious and joyous spirit.
During Indpendence Day celebrations, those who really know how to dance the cueca will come to the fondas or appear in presentations dressed in traditional dance clothes. Men wear riding pants, chaps, spurs on their boots, a short jacket, a short poncho called a manta, and a flat-brimmed felt or straw hat. Women wear either a long black skirt, white blouse, and short jacket, with the same type of a hat as the man’s; or a flowered dress with an apron, and no hat. The other people visiting the fonda join the experts on the dance floor, even if they aren’t sure of the cueca steps. The bottom line is that the cueca is an expression of joy, and national independence is something to celebrate happily.
One amazing departure from the cueca in pairs took place in the years of the military dictatorship in Chile (1973-1990) when many men were kidnapped, tortured, and literally disappeared from their families. Chilean women, as a form of protest, danced the cueca alone at public events, with their son’s or husband’s photo pinned to their dresses.
British rock star Sting witnessed this public demonstration of grief in Chile during his participation in the Conspiracy of Hope tour on behalf of Amnesty International during the dictatorship years. What he saw led him to write the song “They Dance Alone,” known as “Cueca Solo” in Spanish. Because the cueca is ordinarily such a joyous form of celebration, the dance of the solitary women spoke louder than any fiery protest speech could have done.
Do all Chileans learn the cueca at some point in their lives? Sort of. The Chilean Ministry of Education requires that students learn the cueca in elementary and high schools throughout the country. But what happens after the young folks go out the door when the cueca lesson ends? Most of the time, the dance gets swallowed up in the rush of life. Some young people, however, make it a priority and keep the tradition of the cueca alive all through the year, especially in September. Rolando Moraga Hernández is part of this group.
A sixteen-year-old high school student who lives on the central coast of Chile in the town of Isla Negra, Rolando had his first cueca lessons years ago in kindergarten. They got him started in a challenging and entertaining activity that he keeps up today. Why does he like the cueca so much?
“It represents our culture and our country so well," he says simply. “Also it makes me happy to see people enjoy my dancing. And it’s a privilege to be among the five or ten percent of students in Chile who stay involved in the cueca beyond the lessons they give us in school. At school, we learn the basic cueca steps and, if you stick with it over the years, you start to refine, or ‘prune’ your dance. It gets to be more and more natural to perform the steps with precision, give them new flavors, and be able to communicate emotions while you’re dancing.”
In Chile, the cueca can be danced in different ways: humbly, timidly, elegantly and mischievously. How does Rolando describe his version of the national dance?
“Elegant and mischievous,” he laughs. “The clothes give the dance its elegance and establish my status in my partner’s eyes. That leaves me free to dance with a mischievous and playful spirit.”
But, to keep the cueca both elegant and mischievous means lots of practice. The cueca outfits, especially for the man, require some getting used to--chaps over long pants and spurs on boots in a crowded room are not only heavy but hot, and maybe a little clumsy.
“We have to practice every week in our folk groups (Rolando belongs to two groups, one at school and one in Isla Negra) from April or May until September,” he explains. “And if you don’t keep dancing after Dieciocho, you'll have to start training all over again in just a few weeks!”
Obviously, this teenager has learned to carry off a great cueca despite the obstacles. He’s a five-time county champion and twice snagged the provincial title in San Antonio, Chile. To top it off, in 2003 he and his partner were the regional first place winners in Valparaíso. Rolando and the other members of his folk groups are in demand at the opening of fondas and at other events throughout September, as well as during the rest of the year.
What about combining this rigorous schedule with schoolwork? Not a problem. “We meet in the folk groups just a couple of nights a week, so school and dance practice don’t interfere with each other,” says Rolando. “And, since I’ve danced the cueca for so many years, it isn’t as hard or tiring for me as it would be for another person who might have started just a couple of years ago.”
Cecilia Nuñez and Esteban Ahumada, Chilean residents of
France, were the second-place winners of the initial
international cueca competition in Toronto, Canada in 2003.
This competition is held annually. Toronto has been designated
by its Chilean residents as the "Cueca Capital of the World.
(Courtesy of www.cuecachilena.cl)
Click image to enlarge.
It’s evident that the cueca is an important part of Rolando’s life and he’ll continue to belong to folk groups, enter competitions, and participate in Dieciocho events. In the future, would he want his children to learn the cueca? “Definitely! And not just the cueca, but other Chilean dances, too, and as many aspects of Chilean culture as they can. Our national culture gives us a sense of our place in the world, who we are as a people. Through dance, art, and music, my children will be able to learn to develop their self-esteem as Chileans, just the way I have through the cueca.”
And then the interview ends. He’s off to an appointment with his dance partner so they can polish their steps just a little bit more. After all, Dieciocho is just around the corner.
Colors in the sky
If you tell someone in English to “go fly a kite,” you're trying to get him or her to leave you alone. If you say it to children in Chile, though, most of them will be out the door in a minute to enjoy one of September’s greatest delights. September, which is just on the brink of spring in South America, is a pleasantly breezy month in Chile. Ideal for flying a kite! And, as in some other countries (The Kite Runner, for example, describes the same passion for kites in Afghanistan), in Chile kite flying is supreme. In the past, most kites were homemade, but now more and more are commercially produced and more elaborate than those that come out of the family workroom.
Nevertheless, homemade kites still, and always will, have a charm that will keep them flying. As everywhere else, the idea of kite flying is to see who can stay up there the longest and the highest. At the same time, however, the person controlling the string can experience a good run on the beach, through a soccer field, or in any open space in the neighborhood. All through September in all parts of Chile the kites fly, and sometimes besides the person flying the kite, you can still see groups of youngsters who run with long poles, gladiator-fashion, after the kites that take a nosedive and get caught in telephone wires and on tree limbs. On Dieciocho, there are kite-flying contests all over the country, with the bright colors of the airborne paper dotting the sky. One of the most popular designs for the kites is the Chilean flag.
Chile’s national emblem
Chile’s flag is very similar to the flag of the state of Texas: a lone star on a blue background in the top left corner, complemented by wide stripes of red and white. On Dieciocho, flags fly all over Chile, not just on houses, but also on carhoods, as well as up in the sky in myriad paper versions. Before Dieciocho, there are announcements on the radio and TV about how to fly the flag properly, and, on September 18, a homeowner could be fined for not having a flag displayed in the yard or hanging on the house. This may seem quite a rigid requirement on the part of the Chilean government, but in the meantime the thousands of flags make a spectacularly colorful scene in every town and city of the country.
All good things must come to an end
Dieciocho is a full-spirited festival that people start to talk about and plan for during the cold, rainy winter months of July and August. It’s a national observance that stretches out through the whole month of September. And, it’s a joyful time that everyone is sorry to see come to an end. But when it does, the memories are still there. And another plus: Dieciocho will be back again next year!
--Galvez, Jaime A. La Cueca Chilena. Primera Edición, Santiago, 2001. Printed in Chile by Grafic Suisse. ISBN: 956-291-059-8
Doris Hamilton is a freelance writer presently based in Chile.
She has taught Spanish, Latin and ESL on both coasts of the
U.S. She holds an M.A. in Adult Education and was twice named
in Who's Who Among America's Teachers. She has written
for the City College of San Francisco publications, Union
Action and ESLETTER, and for Cuadernos, the
official publication of the Pablo Neruda Foundation. She works
in the Pablo Neruda Museum in Isla Negra, Chile, and cares for
abandoned animals in a home-based shelter.