On Oct. 18, as protests against a proposed metro fare increase escalated, Chile’s billionaire President Sebastián Piñera was spotted eating pizza in the wealthy Vitacura neighborhood. The next morning, he ordered a military crackdown. Soon, tweets (or, in Chile, tuits) and memes calling Piñera “El Pizza” flooded feeds, appearing alongside images of police brutality and trending hashtags of #RenunciaPiñera (resign, Piñera) and #ChileDespertó (Chile woke up).* It’s just one example of how the rapid linguistic incubator of social media has combined with Chileans’ own renowned vocabulary to spread inventive and hilarious protest slang that has defined the movement.
The protests in Chile have now lasted for nearly two months. English-language coverage has, understandably, focused on their political ramifications and violence. Piñera canceled two major summits, offered a package of improvements with the Nueva Agenda Social, and most recently began a historic path toward a new constitution. On Nov. 19, the local Prosecutor’s Office reported 26 dead. The National Institute of Human Rights documented 7,259 arrests and 2,808 hospitalizations, and it has filed 499 lawsuits against the Chilean State, of which 369 are for torture and 79 for sexual violence between Oct. 17 and Nov. 25. Almost 300 people have suffered severe eye trauma from rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, and the image of a bandaged eye has acquired symbolic importance.
Examining this human toll is critical. But looking solely at suffering ignores what ignited Chilean social will, mobilizing the largest social movement since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Its longevity stems from many factors: cross-cutting frustration at economic inequality, the administration’s use of violent force, the decentralized nature of the movement, and chilenismos—the unique and constantly evolving vocabulary of Chilean slang, which has thrived online.
Adapting to Chilean Spanish can be a challenge even for fluent Spanish speakers because of its rapid speed, accent, and chilenismos. Chile’s geographic isolation is one factor in its distinct vocabulary: A thin strip of coastline along the Andes*, it’s the longest country in the world. Chile’s demographics are another. Indigenous people make up 9 percent of the population, and it’s reflected in Chilean Spanish, which contains words from Quechua (Santiago was the tail end of the Inca empire) and Mapudungun (spoken by the politically organized Mapuche in the south) as well as German and English. All of this has created perfect conditions for a diverse, flexible, and evolving vocabulary that has also translated online.
Chileans’ brand of super bacán protest-cool, inspired by folk leaders Violeta Parra and Víctor Jara, works in tandem with adaptable Chilean Spanish to churn out an ever-changing array of protest slang and imagery on social media. The vocabulary of the protests speaks to the people: Neighbors are discussing solutions at cabildos, or town hall–style meetings, and on Oct. 25 more than 1 million peaceful protesters marched in Santiago, the largest demonstration in Chile’s history. Those who are Very Online can also take to the streets and gain a citizen-led path toward a new constitution.
Though it’s opaque, the slang is crucial to understanding the unmistakably Chilean movement. For curious gringos and other uninitiated readers, here’s a glossary of 10 key words from the Chilean protests.
Since we started with El Pizza, let’s look at El Sandwich, a nickname for Andrés Chadwick Piñera, the (now former) minister of the interior, who said he has no political responsibility for the protests, was a vocal supporter of Pinochet, and is also Piñera’s cousin. He’s been removed from the Cabinet and is now under investigation for not taking measures to avoid human rights violations during the state of emergency.
Many Chileans say that the country is “owned” by seven families whose wealth is 17 percent of the national GDP. Chileans’ frustration with inequality and acute awareness of class differences is on display in the movement’s language: Twitter and protest imagery are filled with mentions of cuico, or fussy/rich, and flaite, or lower-class/trashy. Although the protests are centered on the unaffordable cost of living for average Chileans, people in wealthy neighborhoods like Vitacura and Las Condes joined the protests when they first broke out.
Some of the protest slang originated outside of Chile but took on an entirely different meaning there, like chalecos amarillos (yellow jackets). While the French yellow jacket movement was a populist economic justice rebuke to President Emmanuel Macron, Chile’s chalecos amarillos are mainly upper-class people donning the safety vests to indicate that they are there to stop property damage from the protesters. The founder of the yellow jacket movement in France has disavowed the Chilean version, stating that “they have betrayed the essence of the movement.”
A mashup of Chile and Venezuela, Chilezuela was originally used by the right wing to express fears of becoming a poor country under socialism. Now it is being used ironically by the protest movement to point out the fragility of Chile’s hypercapitalism, in tweets “thanking” Piñera for the #Chilezuela or showcasing empty supermarkets reminiscent of Venezuela. This is especially pointed because Chile has received about 288,000 refugees from Venezuela.
At the start of the protests, audio was leaked of first lady Cecilia Morel attributing the unrest to an “invasión alienígena.” Almost immediately, cheeky protesters began dressing up as aliens and making mocking memes of the first lady as Ripley from Alien. Another co-opted gaffe is patipelado, a chilenismo for the barefoot poor. Right-wing leader Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe used the term to describe people who “insult public servants.”
A glossary of the Chilean protests would be incomplete without mentioning pacos, a term for Chile’s militarized police force the Carabineros, and milicos, slang for the military. In the early days of the protests, Piñera said that Chile was “at war with a powerful, implacable enemy.” Though he eventually apologized, long-standing anger at police violence, corruption scandals known as Pacogate and Milicogate, and videos of pacos allegedly looting have increased anti-police sentiment. During a demonstration protesting the curfew, a projection of “No estamos en guerra” illuminated the Telefónica building.
Our last word isn’t a chilenismo by definition, but the cacerolazo defines Chile’s and other social movements across Latin America. Roughly translated to “casseroling,” cacerolazo refers to loud, pot-beating protests. Cacerolazo is both an action and a rallying cry. Ana Tijoux, a French-Chilean musician, embodied the movement with the viral video #CACEROLAZO. In just one minute, the video captures the unique energy of the protest movement: Along with police violence, the video is interspersed with children dancing and beating pots, Mapuche flags, and moments of joy.
Although Chile’s adaptable idiomatic language has generated protest slang for years, social media has increased the velocity of creating and spreading words, uniting a mass movement and imbuing an uncertain time with winking humor. Now, as Chile moves forward with an April plebiscite on a new constitution, billions of dollars of infrastructure damage, and grave human rights violations, the question is whether chilenismos can be harnessed to heal. ¿Cachai?
Correction, Dec. 19, 2019: This article originally misstated the translation of #RenunciaPiñera as “renounce Piñera” and #ChileDespierta as “Chile woke up.” A more accurate translation is #RenunciaPiñera (resign, Piñera) and #ChileDespertó (Chile woke up).
Correction, Dec. 23, 2019: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled Andes.