Politics are Always There, Even at Fish Fries & County Fairs

¡Hola! September 18th & 19th are official Chilean holidays. The 18th marks Chile’s independence from Spain in 1810, and September 19th is a celebration of the armed forces (dating from 1915, so it’s not connected to the 1973 Coup). In fact, it seemed to me in asking several Chileans, that people weren’t all that clear or committed to either day in terms of national holidays, but rather as days off from work. And this year, they fell on a Wednesday and Thursday, and you know what that means…yes, it was a 5-day fiesta, at least, with schools and government offices in Valparaíso stopping at noon or so on Tuesday. For that matter, a number of people told me that Chileans (like us in the US) don’t miss the chance to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the break and take the whole week off.

In Valparaíso, we’re lucky enough to be on the Pacific Ocean and despite over-fishing, water pollution, climate change, and more, fish—and pescadores (fisherpeople)—are part of the life blood of the city (the privatization of Chile’s fishing is driving out these artisanal pescadores; to learn more, check out this video). Chile has more ocean coastline then the US and has the sixth largest fishing industry on the planet. The pescadores are not only an integral part of the life of the city, bringing fresh fish to the market everyday, but they also throw a hell of a party during fiesta week.

I went with a couple of friends on the night of September 18th to the event at the la Caleta El Membrillo, which is a small fishing cove located on the coast of the city in a downtown neighborhood. The event is a huge fish fry, public gathering, and enormous bonfire (la fogata) to be lit on fire by popular Mayor Jorge Sharp at the appropriate time. We ate delicious fried merluza (hake), one of Chile’s staple fishes, and extremely popular and delicious. Served in a small cardboard box with a roll and a paper cup of early-produced white wine, the fish was scrumptious and is eaten on the spot, with delicate balancing acts and no plastic fork included…

Fried merluza
…and the people who fry it for you!

But it wasn’t just fish. It was music, people dancing and singing along, and above all, waiting for the fogata to be lit. The music ranged from popular music (the Valparaíso city song, or so it seemed to me), to cueca (national dance of Chile), to a purple-suited crooner who belted out cheesy love songs and stalled and stalled until the mayor finally arrived to light the match, so much so that a bunch of impatient women behind me started chanting basta (enough) after his songs. But true to the political nature of everything in Chile, there was also a group who sang Samba Landó, an anti-racist song supporting Black liberation, that was written by the famous Chilean group, Inti-Illimani, of the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement—and it got great applause.

Of course, the highlight was the bonfire, and finally, when the young, popular mayor arrived, after all the selfies people, young and old, took with him, and after I watched as people doused the pile of wood with more and more kerosene or whatever was about to ignite, he put the match to the branches and up it went…to my surprise, a lot more timidly than I anticipated because I was already thinking to myself that these people were crazy and about to light themselves on fire, which, luckily, was not at all what happened…

La fogata before the match…
… and after it!

The next day, Thursday, the 19th, I went to the equivalent of a county fair in the US (I have been to many in my life). Las Ramadas, which is a multi-day event stretched out on Cerro Playa Ancha, the largest of Valparaíso’s 45 or so Cerros. Las Ramadas was loud, spirited, and filled with people. Families, elders, couples, vendors of all kinds, and plenty of churros (fried donuts, filled or not, with and without powdered sugar), anticuchos (skewers of mainly meat)plates of chicken, empanadas (filled with meats, cheese, shrimp, and other foods), choripán (grilled sausage, of various types, in a baguette-like bun), and plenty of beer. 

Las Ramadas

There were large music and dance areas, with people dancing the cueca, children’s games (knock down the pyramid of blocks in just three throws and walk away with a prize), and big beer and food tents. There was even a food tent advertising Salvador Allende and the fight for the 40-hour work week (yes, in Chile, teachers work 44 and others 45). All in all, Las Ramadas felt familiar on many levels, but still, as in the case of the Inti-Illimani song the night before, politics are always there, even during Fiesta Week.

Fight for 40!

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