The Saving of a Neighborhood: Cueca, Challa, and the Chilean Spirit


When the residents of Barrio Yungay have a problem, they know what to do: throw a crazy three-day party in the center of their neighborhood.

Santiago Chile Cueca
Photo by Matt Dillinger

Worried about the looming prospect of gradual corporatization in their community, residents formed Vecinos por la Defensa del Barrio Yungay ("Neighbors for the Defense of Barrio Yungay") and after a formidable struggle, declared success when the government granted the neighborhood status as cultural heritage site on January 14th. The people saw the approaching Dia del Roto Chileno (Day of the Common Man) as an opportunity to express their solidarity and elation amidst the traditional festivities of the holiday, which celebrates the heroism of the Chilean soldiers in the Battle of Yungay.

Santiago Chile Cueca
Photo by Matt Dillinger

Locals, sympathetic musicians and artists, and those who just love a good party packed into Plaza Yungay for three nights to watch musical performances, hear neighborhood unity speeches and dance the traditional cueca

Near the Cumming Metro stop, Barrio Yungay is an old neighborhood with a stately yet charming broken-down appearance. The apartment buildings and stores, generally built of brick and stained wood, have attractive, gothic-themed balconies and windows bordered with raised guilding. It is therefore no wonder that residents resisted the boxy artificial presence of giant supermarkets, gaudy chain restaurants and office buildings.

The Courtship Dance

Barrio Yungay's charms were in full force for the festival. Day three was impressively billed as a "Night of 170 Cuecas," and by 7 p.m., Plaza Yungay was packed. At one end of the plaza a small stage was set up, where a succession of bands performed song after song of traditional cueca music. Amateurs and a few professional groups stirred up a cloud of dust as they danced.

Santiago Chile Cueca
Photo by Matt Dillinger

Beneath the cloud, couples moved coquetishly as they waved handkerchiefs above their heads. The footwork grew as intense as the music so that, near the end of a song, the air reached a crescendo of dust.

The cueca is Chile's national dance, and a rather curious one at that. It is zoomorphic, an artistic reinterpretation of the actions of animals. In cueca, dancers mimic the courtship rituals of the rooster and hen.

When I explained the dance's meaning to a friend, she pointed out that, in her experience, the "courtship rituals" of roosters and hens tended to involve some rather indelicate advances on the part of the male, an effort culminating in the mounting of the hen. Luckily, the inventors of cueca employed a bit of creative license, as the dances we watched in Barrio Yungay involved no mounting. In fact, after an initial arm-in-arm promenade, the dancers didn't even touch.

Santiago Chile Cueca
Photo by Matt Dillinger

Eye contact plays as much of a role as footwork in this courtship dance. Both the man and woman flash flirtatious looks at each other as the dance brings them closer and closer. When at last close enough to touch, the man delicately lassoes his partner with his handkerchief, and for a brief moment it seems the pair might finally embrace. Instead, at this moment the woman flees and the man is left to pursue her again, making more intricate movements to re-entice her.

Challa Wars

Surrounding the dancers a large crowd gathered, drinking fresh orange juice or beer while pointing out their favorite pairs. Farther away from the stage it was impossible not to notice the women wheeling carts full of small plastic bags and singing out in strangely deep voices, "challa, challa, CHAYYYAAA," as they passed through the crowd.

Santiago Chile Cueca
Photo by Matt Dillinger

Challa, we learned, means confetti. However, it is quite different than the long strips of kinked paper found in the United States. The challa in Plaza Yungay was tiny hole-punched pieces of white, pink, blue and yellow paper, sold by the 100-peso bagful.

At first, the challa scene was rather peripheral. A small shower of challa fell gently on our shoulders and hair as we watched the dancing, and we paid it little mind. However, as the sky grew dim, the park started to transform. The children, some clad in goggles and mouth covers, recognized the change and began stockpiling bags of challa in their pockets.

An old woman of about 65 years spotted me from 10 meters away and quickly closed in on me. Upon reaching me her right arm shot out and from her wrinkled fist came a cloud of challa that fluttered in front of my face. She laughed merrily and retreated quickly into the crowd, while I was left picking bits of paper from my hair.

Santiago Chile Cueca
Photo by Matt Dillinger

By my second challa fight I was ready. My girlfriend spotted the advancing attacker (another aging woman) far in advance; as her arm shot out, I dodged the puff of paper and counterattacked, blanketing the old woman with my own fistful of confetti.

We began to pick our own battles: some with the small bands of goggled boys, some with peers and some with entire families. However, despite the apparent gaiety, the situation was quickly turning serious. As the night wore on, the challa fights grew increasingly intense until we felt like part of a war fought with guerilla tactics. The most vicious warriors launched their handfuls from below the victim's face, a technique which, if successful, could blind the victim for minutes as they picked out tiny papers from their bloodshot eyes.

With the increasingly violent challa war, the crowd continued to grow and swell. As our feet left prints in the delicate, thickening layer of challa covering the plaza, I looked around.

Santiago Chile Cueca
Photo by Matt Dillinger

In front of the stage, with handkerchiefs waving fiercely, were young mohawked punks, grandmothers and suavely dressed professional cuecistas. The dancers, the warriors of challa, the vendors; from 5 years old to 40, from well-groomed families to pairs of drunken revelers--they had all set aside their differences to share this quintessentially Chilean experience with their neighbors.

In this, at least, the festival was a success, and one can only hope that the neighborhood holds on to the spirit that brought them all there.

No votes yet

Other articles you might enjoy

No related items were found.

Leave a comment