To Erase Student Debt, Artist Papas Fritas Just Set It On Fire
In Fight Club, the characters plan to free people from debt by blowing up a bunch of buildings belonging to financial companies. In the show Mr. Robot, characters try something similar, only for the resulting economic disaster to be even worse than the debt ever was. It’s a fun fantasy, though, combining free money with wanton destruction.
In 2014, an artist in Chile came up with a plan to free students of their debt. His name was Francisco Tapia, and he went by the artist handle of Papas Fritas, which either refers to the cigar of the same name or to fries/potato chips.
Over the course of the year, he repeatedly entered the Universidad del Mar, going through its records on some artistic pretext. At some point, the University noticed that various records of theirs related to student accounts had gone missing, but they didn’t connect these disappearances with Fritas. Then, Fritas went public about his scheme. He had been stealing the records, he now burned them all, then he displayed the ashes in his van, in what he called a moving art exhibit.
To understand why Fritas wasn’t immediately arrested, it helps to know a bit about Universidad del Mar. This place wasn’t just any college, educating kids for a price and expecting to be paid. The place was itself a criminal enterprise, laundering money for real estate companies and enriching its board of directors without paying its teaching staff. The students who enrolled in Universidad del Mar often received no real education. The government stripped the place of its accreditation and shut it down.
Generally, stealing a bunch of paper records does not actually erase your debts. In the case of Universidad del Mar, however, the college announced that their records’ disappearance really was interfering with their ability to prove who owed them money. According to Fritas, the debt he burned totaled $500 million.
The defrauded students may have wound up free of their debts even without the transformative power of art. The year after his stunt, a court separately ordered Universidad del Mar to pay compensation to a bunch of students suing them.
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