Friday, April 10, 2009

Semaforeando- The stoplight street performances in Chile

One activity that seems to capture the attention of many foreigners in Chile is an activity referred to as “haciendo semaforo”o "semaforeando", or street performances at stoplights with the aim of winning tips from their audience of anyone passing in traffic. In most areas of the US this is not permitted (and such restriction enforced) so it is fairly new, or generally just interesting as often one’s exposure to the whole activity is limited to a few seconds whizzing by out the micro window.

Some routines artists perform at the stoplight are:
  • Juggling
  • Spinning pins, flags or fire
  • Contact ball (one hand sized ball and body movements used to create illusions)
  • Diabolo (an hour-glass shaped spool spun along a string between two sticks)
  • Clown
  • Mano a mano (one person lifts the other into the air and they do stunts/show force)
  • Unicycle
  • Soccer tricks
  • Cheerleading shows
  • Breakdance
  • Magic shows
  • Acrobatics
  • Shows on stilts
  • Creative shows- For example the marionette [above] and upside down man [video at bottom]
  • Also, a common character is the old man that marches with stuffed animal, recently, a teletubby, and cane, (who is rumored to be rich but marches around like a nut for alcohol money)

So, a little about how it all works. This is all subjective, and these are my interpretations and gatherings of how it works in Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. I am well aware that there are tons of variations, exceptions, etc… but I wanted to take at least a stab at covering most aspects the best I could. People who do this do it for a wide variety of reasons, some because they enjoy the activity, like the flexibility of that type of work, maybe they need a relatively easy way to make money, etc... There is no good generalization, but many seem to form part of a sort of alternative crowd that like to practice different aspects of circus talents.

First of all, the key is a good stoplight. A good intersection has space for people to walk and the necessary space for an uninterrupted routine. They don’t want people cutting in front of them or to have to pause or limit movement. Cars must arrive on time every time, its wasted time to be at an inconsistent light. A good intersection will have minimum of one normal car at the front of each lane every time, and ideally 4 or 6 cars will have an unobstructed view. If a truck or micro is in the front, the cars behind them won’t see the show, and the drivers (older males doing their jobs, who are on the road all day) probably wont give anything.

The ways people react vary. If the act is pretty stationary and common, like juggling, most people in the crosswalk won’t give a second glance. Generally, people on foot won’t give a tip unless the show is really unique. The people in cars sometimes give. Hopefully a couple cars stopped at every light will give something, but sometimes just 1 or 0 will. Some people will smile, congratulate for a nice show, and enjoy it. Others will pretend not to watch, or deliberately avoid watching. Some will stare blankly. People from all 3 categories might tip for it though; so its possible they give because they appreciate the show, give out of habit, or give out of an assumed obligation or uncomfortably.
100 pesos is standard, 50 is ok, giving less or a handful of change… well it adds up. The artist will be really pleased to get 500 or above from a person or car. I would estimate that most probably go home with at least one “huevo frito”, but anything above more occasionally [Oh, and as in the picture, sometimes other random things or foreign money. Though, the picture is not representative as that's almost 30 mil in coins.]

As an audience member: If you take a picture, its pretty much acknowledging you like the show. You should pay something worthwhile, in my opinion….maybe 500, but more likely 1 or 2 mil. Same thing if you smile and enjoy it and whatnot. They are performers trying to entertain you to make money. If they entertain you and don’t make money… well, it happens and that’s the gamble an artist takes in showing his or her work, but hopefully its not just because you are a tightwad. In most aspects of society you pay money for things that entertain you, in this case you are even left the option to pay after. If you don’t have money on you, etc… that’s OK. Though, don’t bother explaining “Sorry, I only have a 20,000…” because that might be almost taken as a smug insult.

Not as easy as it seems: Think about it…. Most lights run every 30 seconds to one minute. If its every minute, they'd have to do your show for like 50 seconds (usually something at least mildly physically exhausting), then run through the lines of cars where they may or may not receive money. Having only a few seconds to relax, then they do it all over again. Meaning in an hour they'd do the routine 30 times… if every time someone gives 100, they'd get 3,000 in an hour. But they wont be able to last too many hours at that pace, most shows have a large physical element, and street performing requires a lot of mental strength and motivation.

Also, street performing may not be encouraged in some areas. For instance, in Vina street shows are prohibited without applying for a permit, and police officers that are feeling in the mood can fine a street performer or take them to the station. Offenders might receive a UTM (Unidad Tributaria Municipal?), which is a fine upwards of $30,000. (Last I heard, $38,000)

Last of all, the money. The amount someone makes really varies a lot on a lot of the factors mentioned above. In Vina, many artists go out and stick at it until a specific goal is met. $6,000 might be an attainable goal on an average day for about 2 hours. A great show, really good traffic flow, or a generous commuter might send someone sailing above that. A bad day might come short. Tourist vans might be jackpot though, as sometimes they are more likely to hand over a bill. A friend once had a tourist bus hand over $40,000!


Mamacita Chilena said...

How do you know all this?!?

I always feel incredibly guilty when I don't have any monedas or anything to give. The minute S. and I see a street performer we start scrounging around the car to make sure we have something and if we don't we open the window to say sorry compadre, we don't have any change. Is that considered rude? I always felt like at least we were acknowledging that we liked the show.

I definitely feel it's shady to target tourist vans in hopes that they'll get their currency confused and hand over 40,000.

lydia said...

Many friends and conocidos have done it. I think in Vina and Valparaiso if I see somebody's out during the day there there's probably a 50/50 chance I know them. Plus I'm really nosey!! When I see something interesting I'll ask 4 million questions, given that they are conocidos I can do that without being too much of a bother.

About not finding change... no, I dont think it is rude nor that most would, though perhaps if you call them over to your car just to say that it might be kinda a letdown!

It also depends, one thing I didn't get into too much is "whos doing it"... if its someone that does it because they like the art, that person is probably practicing what they do even when theyre not performing on the street. They are probably prepping for shows or events or festivals, etc... They would probably enjoy the compliment. However, some people are obviously doing a crappy show just because its something thatll give them some extra change and they could care less if they do it well or if you liked it, just if you fork over money.

I dunno if it changes anything, but the thing with the tourist bus was that everybody on the bus pooled together, (40 people, mil each??).
If a tourist mistakenly gives too much money, like doesnt know the conversion rate, etc... Then yes I think that's kinda sad. BUT, I don't think that's usually the case. The thing is a tourist doesn't know what the going rate is to tip that kind of thing and is(and if they knew, would find it ridiculously small) and is thinking in terms of foreign tipping standards. They also, probably really find the situation and show fascinating!! I think they feel that its worth tipping 1 mil (~2 US dollars) or above.

I don't think people "target" tourists because really...the cars come to them. But I think areas where tourists go might also be areas where wealthier Chileans go... though really I dont know how much this matters. When people I know have mentioned the really rich famous Chileans came through their stoplight, they usually don't give any more than the other cars anyway.

I saw on another site you'd taken pictures too of an upside down man in Santiago.

Lauren said...

:O No!! Is he really rich??!! I ALWAYS give him money! He's sooo comical!

Girl.Meets.Chile said...

Great post! We always try and give them at least a few monedas if they're really good, I saw a fire juggler yesterday, he was pretty awesome. Have you seen the one in Viña who dresses up as the Pied Piper of hamlet with the mice following him? I find that one hilarious...and so random!

Matt said...

I love the jugglers. I also like the acrobats. Jugglers and acrobats get 200-400 pesos from me if I have the change. I'd love to be able to do both of these activities (I can juggle a bit but not very well).

On the other hand, I detest clowns. Clowns get nothing. Jugglers dressed as clowns get 50 pesos max... and only because my liking of the juggling part
just about overcomes my hatred of clowns.

Gah. Clowns.

lydia said...

hahah matt- i love it, and that you have a price list. i've never liked clowns much, but my boyfriend enjoys being a clown for any event possible so i have to go with it. that said, there are two brother clowns (one is juggling in the picture) who are seriously some of the funniest guys ive met, and it kinda has changed my opinion a little. they won a contest a few years back where they told jokes for 7 hours straight (they go back and forth rapidfiring one-liners). clowns at a semaforo though.. well yeah sounds lame unless they've got a second talent.

lauren- rumored! i dunno if its true. the rumor is that he and his son, who is said to be in the military, are really rich..which surprised me too because i could've sworn i've seen him sleeping on av. brasil. seriously he cracks me up though. his new routine includes just walking up to a car and shaking a teletubby in the windshield.

girl.meets.chile- i havne't seen him but my boyfriend has and said everyone says hes kinda crazy. sounds creative though!

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