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food / travel

Why Empanada Dog Is The Perfect Metaphor For Chile

Chile, not chili! A national deconstructing of that viral video of the hungry Latin American canine stealing the internet's heart.

An empanada thief? A national hero!
An empanada thief? A national hero!
Benjamin Witte

A South American street dog has become an unlikely global internet star after he appeared in a local news segment, ever so slyly stealing an empanada off the grill of a sidewalk vendor. Video of the crafty canine quickly went viral after links appeared on Facebook in Chile, and later on Reddit and Twitter.

The scene is priceless in that homemade kind of way: neither the young reporter in the clip nor the two women he interviews notice the dog, who sneaks into the bottom right-hand-corner of the frame, where we can almost imagine the pooch winking a "shhh..." to the audience. It makes sense, in other words, that "empanada dog" would become an international superstar.

But it's also true that the shady shepherd got his start in Chile, where the episode took place. And there are some specific elements in the video that explain its particular success among Chileans.

THE EMPANADA

From slang words to specific brand names, Chileans are fiercely proud of their cultural reference points. And empanadas, a tasty and convenient meat-filled pastry, are one of them. If the dodgy dog had snatched a slab of steak or hunk of bread it wouldn't have tapped into such a sense of "chilenidad," as the Chilean national identity is sometimes called.

THE TIMING

There's no more important time to celebrate being Chilean than in the days leading up to Sept. 18, national Independence Day, when citizens of all social classes take time off work to gather in parks and backyards and indulge in serious empanada eating and cold beverage consuming. That the video went viral on the eve of the "fiestas patrias' (national festivities) is perhaps no coincidence.

THE STREET

Chile is often hailed as the "economic miracle" of South America. And with good reason. The country's per capita income (just shy of $24,000, according to the World Bank) is the highest in the region. Most of that money, though, is at the top of the income pyramid. For all the shiny new skyscrapers dotting the skyline in Santiago, Chile is still a country of predominately middle and working-class families where street vendors and mangy perros callejeros (stray dogs) are a familiar and not altogether unwelcome sight.

THE CRIME

Petty crime is on the rise in Chile. Or least that's the prevailing perception, one that the political right — which has managed to win the presidency just once since democracy was restored in 1990 — has been careful to project in recent years. Either way, people worry, and in that sense, empanada dog and his feel-good crime may have offered something of a catharsis, a chance to find humor in what is otherwise a source of serious concern for many Chileans.

THE ELECTION

The race to replace outgoing President Michelle Bachelet is in full gallop right now, and the front-runner for the November election is conservative former president Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire who promises to be tough on crime and corruption but has been, er, hounded for decades by allegations of shady business dealings and conflicts of interest. Needless to say, he's not universally loved. But neither are any of the country's other leading political figures. It was, it seems, time for a different kind of hero to emerge. As Chilean artist Philippe Sapiains — who made an illustration of "Empanada Dog" that also went viral — wrote in his popular tweet: "If they're going to elect a thief for president, why not make it an empanada thief."

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