Chilean Activist Incinerates $500 Million in Student Debt

'Papas Fritas' performs 'act of love' for students drowning in debt.

Photo Credit: Villa Francia Radio; Screenshot /

When elected officials don’t listen, sometimes people take matters into their own hands.

Last week, Chilean artist and activist Francisco “Papas Fritas” Tapia did just that.

Outside, as students at Santiago’s Universidad del Mar shed clothing during a takeover demanding free public education, Tapia hurried away with reams of student loan debt papers — or pagarés — for a performance art piece.

The performance? Tapia summarily burned the documents, worth an estimated $500 million. He described it as an “act of love” for the students, who enjoyed instantaneous, if temporary, student loan forgiveness. 

On May 12, Tapia’s video explaining his actions went viral:

“You don’t have to pay another peso [of your student loan debt]. We have to lose our fear, our fear of being thought of as criminals because we’re poor. I am just like you, living a s**tty life, and I live it day by day — this is my act of love for you.” [Ed. note: Translation by Santiago Times.]

Even as the soon-to-be-defunct private university prepares to shut its doors at the close of 2014, the Universidad del Mar continues collecting on student loan debt.

In 2011, an average Chilean university student graduated with U.S. $45,000 in debt — among the world’s highest. As a comparison, the average U.S. college student graduated with $27,000 of debt for that year. Unsurprisingly, 2011 marked the beginning of widespread student protests throughout Chile’s institutions of higher education, most of which are privately owned and operated.

Commander Camila” Vallejo, a then-23-year-old student, rose to media prominence as the core organizer of a two-day, intergenerational nationwide shutdown. This shutdown garnered support from and prompted solidarity action by transportation workers and other people employed in the public sector. Vallejo, only the second woman to be chosen as a leader of University of Chile’s student union, had this to say:

“There are huge levels of discontent. It is always the youth that make the first move … we don't have family commitments, this allows us to be freer. We took the first step, but we are no longer alone, the older generations are now joining this fight.”

During the “March of all Marches” earlier this year, Chile’s students again protested the high cost of university education and paralyzing debt facing graduates, renewing their call for free university education for all.

According to research by Chilean economist Marcel Claude, student debt is close to 174 percent of Chilean students’ annual salary upon graduation.

Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first two-time president since the reign of Augusto Pinochet, recently won her second presidential term under the platform of radical constitutional reforms, as well as “promising to raise taxes on corporations [and] to reform education.”

President Bachelet’s father, a former general in Pinochet’s air force, died in custody after being arrested for opposing the 1973 coup that brought Chile’s contentious dictator to power.

In 1994, Bachelet became an elected member of the Partido Socialista’s — or Socialist Party’s — central committee. 

Although she came from a strong activist background, including a former medical career, Chile’s current president’s much-touted reforms-to-come remain, for the moment, inert political rhetoric.


Understand Spanish? You can watch the video of Tapia explaining his actions here.

Soo Na Pak is a writer and artist currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a former Fulbright grantee, and completed studies at Hampshire College. Essays and prose have appeared in, "Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption" (South End Press), Hamilton Stone Review, and Digital Artifact Magazine. Visit her blog at

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