Image: Luis Urzua, center, gestures while standing next to President Sebastian Pinera
Alex Ibanez  /  AP
The last miner to be rescued, Luis Urzua, center, gestures as Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, right, looks on after his rescue from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine where he had been trapped with 32 other miners for over two months near Copiapo, Chile, on Oct. 13.
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updated 10/20/2010 3:56:54 PM ET 2010-10-20T19:56:54

Minutes after a team of rescuers hoisted 33 miners to safety, President Sebastian Pinera hugged the men and gave them a thanks very much a la Chilena — one with a punchline.

Pinera told the rescuers in Spanish that he wanted them to be the ones "who rescue us all on Judgment Day." The rescuers, who had pulled off a harrowing, first-of-a-kind operation to pluck the miners from the depths of nearly a half mile, cracked up.

If it seemed a strange moment for a joke to a foreigner, Chileans didn't flinch. Heck, most probably enjoyed a good chuckle. Humor is all but the unofficial national sport in this Andean nation.

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The saga of the trapped miners, which began when a mine collapsed Aug. 5, was no different. From top officials to the families of the miners, the jokes were a constant, even when it was far from clear that the men could be safely rescued.

There were endless gibes surrounding the double meaning of the word mine, which in Spanish is "mina." In Chilean slang, "mina" also means woman, a translation similar to English's "babe" or "chick."

"No doubt, these guys had never spent so much time with a mina" roared a DJ on a radio station in Copiapo, the nearest town to the San Jose mine, a few days before the Oct. 13 rescue began. "Or so much time underneath a mina," shot back a co-host.

Story: Wedding bells for five of Chile's rescued miners

"You have a Jay Leno and David Letterman in every Chilean," said Patricio Navia, a professor at New York University who is himself a native of the world's longest nation, a factoid sometimes made into jokes related to male prowess. "Every Chilean could have his own talk show."

Like any collective sense of humor or national identity, Chile's is no doubt a reflection of its past: colonized by Spaniards from southern Spain, a region known for its sense of showmanship, and later home to British and German immigrants, people more known for dry wit. Add to that indigenous groups who survived colonization and isolation — Chile is enclosed by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Andes mountains on the other — and the result is a deep sense of solidarity that includes a constant need for humor.

"If we had needed people to pull up the miners, all 16 million Chileans would have been there pulling," said Mario Kreutzberger, who is known as Don Francisco and is one of Latin America's most famous personalities. "That solidarity is part of the Chilean sense of humor."

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During a time of crisis, humor becomes a lifeline — a way to keep people from crying and to recognize that irony, sarcasm and double meanings are part of not just life's joys, but also its pains.

In early September, the Chilean government brought in a team of NASA scientists to help plan the rescue. Health Minister Jaime Manalich told journalists that a team from Chile's space program had met with the NASA visitors.

He paused, looked across the room for effect, and said: "You know, Chile does have a space program."

The comment provoked a ruckus of laughter, and lightened the mood of an otherwise serious discussion.

Family members of the miners, who lived in anguish for months not knowing if they would see their loved ones again, also found ways to laugh while living in tents at the mine.

Maria Segovia, sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, was particularly playful. She would sometimes grab a metal pole and pretend to do strip tease with a mocking erotic face, or take a Chilean flag and run around the campfire yelling as if Chile had just won the World Cup. Her endless energy lifted the spirits of those around her.

"You have to laugh," she said in early September. "There is just so much here we can't control."

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The miners found humor in their situation, too. In several videos, the men could be seen laughing and making playful signs behind each other's heads. Manalich, the health minister, said the men shared "dirty jokes" with families through letters sent through small bore holes. Some were so raunchy that Manalich declined to share them with reporters.

One of the biggest sources of humor came after the visit of former rugby players from Uruguay who after a 1972 plane crash survived months of isolation in the snow-covered Andes.

While they waited 72 days to be rescued, to stay alive they were forced to eat the flesh of others who had died. Their story inspired the book and movie "Alive."

That flesh-eating survivors came to give a boost to miners who had almost no food for two weeks (from the Aug. 5 collapse until Aug. 23, when they were found alive) was not lost on Chileans.

Spam messages with jokes about what the miners were eating raced around the Internet. One of the most memorable involved a supposed note from the miners: "We ate the Bolivian."

Among the 33 trapped miners was one Bolivian, and given the sometimes tense Chilean-Bolivian relations, the joke had a political edge.

"Just wait another week, and there will be thousands more jokes about the miners," said Kreutzberger. "They'll even take old jokes and just adapt them to the mine."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Wedding bells to ring for several rescued miners

  1. Closed captioning of: Wedding bells to ring for several rescued miners

    >>> in chile, the celebrations for those 33 miners have not stopped. last night in fact, at a party thrown in their honor by a millionaire businessman, and note how everybody got dolled up for the occasion. one of the miners got down on both knees and proposed marriage right then and there to his long-time girlfriend. by the way, a total of five have decided decided to marry since that ordeal. and the woman said

Gallery: Miner profiles, first moments of freedom

Read about each of the 33 miners as they are rescued.

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