September 18th, septiembre dieciocho, is a big day- it’s Independence Day! And, seeing as Chileans will snatch any opportunity to have a party, they made no exception. Between Sept. 13th and Sept. 22nd, there is no school and many businesses are closed. It’s a 10-day holiday.
The entire town is covered with the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag. Part of it has to do with the forced patriotism (you can get in a fine if there isn’t a flag displayed on your property during the week), and part of it has to do with the fact that when Chileans celebrate, they go all out. There have been mini-flags on every car and sleeves of red, white and blue on side-view mirrors. Plastic banners everywhere. Balloons. Pretty much anything you can think of was Chile-ized.
For the families that didn’t travels, the city hosts fondas. Traditional celebrations, fondas are fair-like gatherings with food, rides and shows. Booths are scattered around, selling everything from hand-knit sweaters to wood carvings of Chile’s natives. There are animals on display and a “petting zoo” section for the children. Everyone drinks, dances and cheers on the performers. Many people walk around in traditional Chilean clothing, which includes broad-brimmed hats and wool ponchos for men and frilly dresses with ribbons for women.
Celebrating their roots, there are many traditional Chilean demonstrations. Some have to do with dancing, some have to do with ancient stories. And some have to do with hitting cows.
Rodeos are the big traditional homage, and they are nothing like rodeos in the U.S., other than they include horses. The Chilean identity has a lot to do with ranches and cowboys. Cattle would graze in vast fields and the roundup would always be a big event. Some would be branded and kept, and others would be released to graze again until the next rodeo. To keep the tradition alive, many present-day cowboys do a mini-round up during the fondas. But instead of branding the cows, the men on horses run the cow around the pin and then shove them roughly against a lightly padded side of the pin.
But this “hitting” of the cow is a game with an actual point system. Each cowboys gets to hit the cow three times, and points range from 0-3 depending on where the animal is stuck. Zero points if you miss the cow altogether and three points if you hit the back/rump area. Everyone in the area loves watching and the Chileans passionately cheer or boo each time the cow goes down. It’s the favored activity of the day.
I was mortified and extremely uncomfortable during the show. I couldn’t bring myself to cheer- I did all I could to wipe the look of horror off my face. One cow’s back was bleeding, and another one’s nose started bleeding. I heard tales from my Chilean family of times when the animal’s legs were broken or were stepped on by the horses. I fake-laughed along with them and focused on the suddenly interesting color of my drink.
It almost goes without saying that this would never fly in the states. Animal rights groups work so hard to be relevant and to be heard, and they do a good job- the majority of Americans don’t have any tolerance for animal cruelty. That’s why stories of underground cock fights or dog fights are so frowned upon (something I’m sure Micheal Vick won’t forget).
But this isn’t America, this is Chile. And I’m a gringa who has only been here for a month. I’m not familiar with Chilean history and don’t understand the values and views of the country. Chilean traditions are lost on me. To force America’s standards of what is normal or right/wrong on Chile is unfair, yet the issue of animal cruelty is a worldwide problem that doesn’t have a nationality.
In short, I haven’t completely formulated an opinion on how I feel about the rodeo, other than the fact that I was the most uncomfortable I’ve been in years while I was experiencing it. But was it wrong? Was it acceptable under the circumstances of a fonda? Is this a trait of a developing country and therefore has lower standards than the U.S.? Some cultural boundaries can be easily broken, while others are walls that have to be scaled in sections. I think this is the latter.