The teens call their public orgies ponceo. On a typical Friday afternoon in the Chilean capital of Santiago, hundreds gather in a leafy urban park for a few hours of sexual experimentation. Surrounded by passing strollers, they trade partners multiple times—mostly engaging in anonymous rounds of oral sex. When the party is over, no contact information is exchanged. Same-gender interactions are commonplace, as the lines between hetero- and homosexuality are blurred, partly by the alcohol and drugs consumed, but also by shifting social mores held by Chilean youth, in contrast to their conservative parents. "Ponceo is about having fun," says Natalia Fernandez, a 15-year-old with pink hair and a pierced chin. "This time I had seven partners."
Fernandez, like many others in the park, is wearing an anime T-shirt. Drawing inspiration from Japanese anime culture, the teens refer to themselves as "Pokemones." Their behavior, though, doesn't quite resemble that of the cartoon characters that once obsessed young TV watchers around the world. "It's shameless," says Gina Mazzini Aliste, a middle-aged woman in the park that day. "They act like ponceo is a competitive sport."
Not surprisingly, the Pokemones have become the subject of a national debate in the media, as the conservative Catholic society grapples with this new affront to its traditional values. In a country where abortion is banned and divorce was legalized only a few years ago, and where the specter of Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian regime still hovers over political discourse, the Pokemones are at once radical and inevitable. Radical because they are shocking Chilean society to its core. Inevitable because they are darlings of a booming neoliberal economy, which has provided them with all the material accoutrements necessary to be Pokemones. Yet along with sexual rebellion, these teens are also defined by their consumerism, a characteristic that neatly conforms to Chile's free-market ideals.
Indeed, the Pokemones are outfitted with the latest clothing and technological gadgets. Their look is androgynous and exaggerated: clad in low-slung, tight-fitting jeans, both boys and girls wear multiple piercings, dyed and waxed hair, and thick black eyeliner. They have their own Web sites, even their own slang, but what does it really mean to be a Pokemon? Curiously, the teenagers do not seem to hold any particular convictions about their identity in a political or sexual sense. Instead, their movement is mostly about image. "It's basically a fashion thing," says Raul Barra, a tall 19-year-old with piercings down the sides of his nose. "A Pokemon has a certain style and does ponceo."
Despite the group's controversial implications for identity and sexuality in the 21st century, there is virtually no discussion of a common cause at gatherings or on their Web sites and blogs. The Pokemones do not have a political creed, preferring apathy to engagement. Yet their existence as a movement is fundamentally political because of the contrast it marks vis-à-vis the dictatorship, under which freedoms were violently suppressed. "I guess we don't really think about politics or anything," says Valentina Espinosa, a petite 16-year-old whose teased platinum hair adds about six inches to her tiny stature. "We're not for anything, but we're not against anything, either—well, except our parents getting mad at us for being Pokemones."
Sociologists have labeled the Pokemones an "urban tribe," a term they have also applied to hippies, punks, and goths. But unlike those that came before it, this is the first "urban tribe" here born in the Internet age. As such, communication technology is key—Pokemones have hundreds of contacts on instant-messaging programs, and they regularly upload videos and photos to sites like YouTube and Fotolog. But despite the expanded capacity for communication, theirs may be the first movement in which debate about its goals is noticeably absent.
The hippies and their successors stood firmly in opposition to the status quo, but there is only one dimension of the Pokemones that seems to advance an agenda, if unintentionally. The movement has changed the rules that govern the way teenage girls interact with their male counterparts. Girls count up their partners just as boys do, and the bisexual activity, along with the Pokemon aesthetic, suggests that gender roles are not clearly defined. "I'm just having fun. I'm only 16, and I won't get hurt through ponceo because I don't go hoping to find a boyfriend," says Isidora Fernandez, who insisted on being called Frambuesa (Spanish for raspberry).
Still, though the scene may appear egalitarian, community psychologist Juan Bastian, advocacy director at the Chilean Family Planning Association, suggests that it does not represent any significant progress for women. Women here have made considerable advances; more are in the workforce than ever before, having children later in life as access to contraceptives improves. But, Bastian says, "the question still remains whether this is just a different form of the same inequality as before," this time with boys taking advantage of girls in a situation where a premium is placed on looking cool.
Bastian also worries that the teens' newfound sexual liberation has not been accompanied by an increase in information about sexual responsibility and health. Surveys reveal that while many of the teens say they refrain from actual intercourse to avoid pregnancy, they know very little about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. "Sex education in Chile is limited and stigmatized," says Bastian. "These adolescents are rejecting the conservatism of their parents but are also endangering their health."
Strangely, their parents' conservatism may be what holds the movement together. The Pokemones, having inherited the economy bestowed by Pinochet's free-market reforms, are part of a burgeoning middle class with imprudent spending habits. The introduction of the credit card into the economy has translated into staggering personal debt for many Chileans, but the quest continues to own the newest televisions, computers, and cars. Pokemones take their cue from their parents. "'To be' is now interchangeable with 'to have,' so teens measure their self-worth according to how much they've got—in this case, how many partners they can rack up or how many friends they have on MSN," says Bastian. "Sexuality becomes another iteration of the same model their parents follow: identity expressed through quantity."
The group's consumerist tendencies have not been lost on the retail goods industry, which ferociously markets its products to the Pokemon demographic. Commercials for hair straighteners, MP3 players and cell phones run during talk shows that feature Pokemones complaining about their overprotective parents or catty best friends. "This week I bought two T-shirts and a webcam," says Pablo Gutierrez, 18. Sticking out his tongue to reveal a piercing, he adds, "And a new tongue ring. I was sick of my old one."
In fact, one of the Pokemones' main meeting spots is outside the television studio where their favorite program, "Diario de Eva," is filmed. The channel is owned by right-wing presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera, a billionaire businessman who, incidentally, made much of his fortune by helping bring credit cards to Chile. The irony is lost on the Pokemones, however, as they gather on the lawn near the studio's entrance
They truly are rebels without a cause, but unlike melancholy James Dean in the cushy post-WWII boom, the Pokemones seem all too content to lounge about in their glossy cocoons. Back at the park Frambuesa huddles with a group of friends and pulls out a new digital camera from her anime-decorated purse. "Let's take a picture!" she squeals. Immediately makeup and mirrors materialize, lips are reglossed, eyes are relined, hair is reteased. After a long delay she finally asks, "Everyone ready?" The group leans into pose, and Victor Nuyoa, a 14-year-old who is new to the Pokemon scene, makes a peace sign. An older teen pushes down Nuyoa's hand and laughs, teasing, "What are you, a hippie?" For this group, it's only gadgets and ponceo that make the statements that matter.