I WAS LOST, DRIVING around Santiago attempting to find the freeway. While stopped at a red light, I looked up from the map to see a twenty-something guy standing in the crosswalk chucking knives into the air and catching them.
Forgetting about the map, I grabbed my camera and took a photo. The imprint of the knife juggler stuck, in my mind as well as my camera.
I wondered: how does someone get started as a knife juggler? Can people actually make a living doing this type of thing?
After I was able to build up the Spanish language skills and the courage, I decided to get to know some of the street performers in Santiago and find out what motivates them.
For the Cash
With low wages and a high cost of living, everyone looks for ways to make some extra luca. While some Chileans opt for selling jewelry, food or clothes, others go for a chance in the spotlight. In the case of street performers, many times this ends up being at a traffic intersection.
One street performer I had the chance to talk to is Leo Cartagenas. He had been juggling golo (Chinese sticks) for eight years. As I watched him perform, the sticks seemed like extensions of his own hands. He held two plain wooden dowels and juggled a third that was wrapped in tape like a candy cane. Tiny bud earphones piped in fast-paced music to his ears to help him keep moving in rhythm. Leo tossed the sticks with ease, confident that he would catch them. He ended his routine holding the golo like a trophy.
Leo said he started street performing as a way to avoid the corporate world. One day he wants to have enough money saved up so that he can open his own tattoo shop.
For the Challenge…and the Girls?
Willy Cabello Urrutia and Luis Humberto Mancilla have less than a minute to give the captive audience in their cars a compelling show. The life of the street performer is all about timing: these two have 38 seconds to perform and 8 seconds to collect the money and get to the sidewalk before the traffic light changes.
While Willy threw the juggling knives into the air, focused yet seemingly unconcerned about the blades, Luis juggled with fire. What stood out to me were their hands. Luis’s hands were black with soot, yet unharmed from the flames. Willy’s hands, too, didn’t have a scratch on them.
I found out why when I ran my finger along the edge of one of the juggling knives: it was as dull as a spoon.
They told me they performed to earn extra party money, but after watching them flirt with onlookers, I have no doubt that they enjoy being able to impress the ladies with their juggling skills.
For the Family
Sometimes people don’t have a choice about taking up street performing; it may be a family affair. Such is the case with Francisco Javier Palma, who at age 11, works after school as a chinchinero, a skill his cousin taught him.
Chinchineros carry a bass drum and cymbal like a backpack. A rope attached to their foot works the cymbal while they carry two drumsticks to play the bass drum. The players dance and spin as they hammer out their percussive rhythms.
The bass drum strapped to the back of Francisco was smaller than the adult size, weighing almost 7 lbs. Francisco told me he can make over 10,000 Chilean pesos – about $20 – per day for his family. Though he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up, he was adamant about one thing: he doesn’t want to be a chinchinero.