Wondering what all those loud, smelly students with shredded clothes were doing out on the streets this past March? The tradition is known as "El Mechoneo"- a student initiation which started out as joyful hazing experience but has arguably become something much worse- even leading to death.
Photo by Samantha Cambrelen
The tradition gets its name from the word "Mechón," which means a section of hair and is the term used by university students to refer to new freshmen. When this initiation tradition began, students would routinely have a chunk of their hair cut off. It's safe to say things have changed quite a bit.
Freshmen, deprived of wallets, backpacks, and even shoes, must take to the streets to beg for money, covered from head to toe in rotten fish, vinegar and raw eggs; the smell of which is heightened by the harsh summer sun. This money is then routinely used to finance massive annual parties with beer and live music.
Despite widespread criticism, second year students continue to push for Mechones to participate in humiliating activities such as being herded through campus whilst doused in various malodorous substances. Other activities include males being forced to wear lipstick and having their pants cut to look like miniskirts, while girls may get their hair -or even clothes- cut.
Surprisingly, some students claim to enjoy the tradition, seeing it as an honorary rite of passage not to be missed.
Valentina Torres. Photo by Samantha Cambrelen
Valentina Torres, a student at the Universidad de Chile (UChile), considers her El Mechoneo experience as positive, describing it as a tradition which emphasizes that getting into university after years of studying for the PSU (a university entrance exam) was the easy part- the hard part is making it all the way through school.
Although some students such as Valentina find El Mechoneo to be normal, others do not feel the same way. In her article, Mechoneos: Una Peligrosa Tradicion (Mechoneos: A Dangerous Tradition), Maira Aguilar identifies many situations in which students were injured or killed as a result of the tradition.
Aguilar describes a situation in which Paula Vivanco Torres, a student at the Universidad Católica de Valparaiso, was hit by a train while playing on the tracks. Another situation occurred in 1999 when a student ended up in the hospital after suffering from alcohol poisoning.
Although students do not always get hurt, their professional images could also suffer as a result of this tradition. "Soy Concepción," an online news source, reported an incident this year involving images of Mechoneo students watching a female Mechon perform what appears to be a sexual act on another student. Even if the act were merely a simulation, such photos could clearly negatively affect future career opportunities.
While it may seem easy to judge students who participate in these activities it is important to take into consideration the immense peer pressure to participate in "El Mechoneo." At the Universidad de Chile for example, there were wanted signs posted all over school for the students who skipped participating in the activities. Another tactic is for second year students to find out which classes the freshmen have together and just drag them off to participate.
Photo courtesy Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez
Many universities in Chile have begun to launch the "Mechoneo Social" campaign, which aims to replace the silly and sometimes dangerous activities with others centered on more constructive practices such as field trips or community work.
The campus of the Universidad de Adolfo Ibáñez (UAI) in Viña del Mar has already reached out to the community by performing tasks such as planting trees and repairing playgrounds. The dean of UAI, Claudio Osorio, has expressed support for "El Mechoneo Social:"
"This activity is part of the personal development encouraged by the university, not only because we want students to be formed as excellent professionals, but before that as people. A person should have a contact with reality and what we are living today in [the neighborhood] Manuel Bustos is a reality in our area."
Next time you run into these foul-smelling students begging for coins on the street, it's important to take a moment to think about the activities these students are participating in. Is the traditional "El Mechoneo" worth continuing or should universities collectively promote the "Mechoneo Social" as a fun alternative that's also beneficial to the community?