Wendy Hua on the Neglected Mapuche Identity

By: Wendy Hua

November 2, 2010

With a history of social, political, and religious influence in Chile as long as the nation'’s existence itself, it would be impossible to deny the Catholic Church'’s impact and relevance in Chile. After all, the majority of Chileans identify as Catholic, and the Church’'s power is apparent in every aspect of Chilean society, from its prominence in the educational system to its sway in debates over marriage rights.

What surprises me is that while there is no shortage of information or attention paid to Catholicism and the Church, there is disproportionately little regard for the Mapuche indigenous group and beliefs, which has had arguably just as important of a role in defining the Chilean identity.

One of Chile's eight officially recognized indigenous groups, the Mapuche are the largest and most influential group, with 604,349 people self-identifying as Mapuche in the 2002 census. The other groups ranged from having 1,685 (Yámana) to 48,501 members (Aymara), with all other seven groups together making up less than 13 percent of Chile's indigenous population of 692,192. Certain qualifications are outlined by law for officially being recognized as indigenous, including having an indigenous parent, family history and last name, or traditional way of life. However, in broader terms, almost every Chilean is necessarily mestizo, as the Spanish colonizers arrived at the Southern Cone without women. To some degree, every Chilean is Mapuche, but the way people sidestep any connection with these roots directly contradicts their shared heritage.

The average Chilean in Santiago might acknowledge that some of the words they use are Mapuche in origin or that the Mapuche and other indigenous groups popularized the use of herbal medicines, but open recognition of their own Mapuche identity is limited, if not nonexistent. My Chilean classmates agreed that most Chileans would not know that the Mapuche language's name is Mapudungun and would only be able to recognize it as “el Mapuche;” not surprisingly, they are even less aware of the specifics of the conflicts between the Mapuche and the government, including a recent hunger strike.

The name Mapuche, “people of the land,” hints at the religious roots of historical and present-day conflict. Their lifestyle is based on an animistic belief system that relates the human world to the spiritual world. Plants, animals, and even the earth have spirits; in particular, the land is linked to highly revered spirits of ancestors. During a visit to one community, a Mapuche father told us that because the land is a spiritual base and such an important source of life, they must pass their ancestral lands on to their families. Their identity is so closely linked to the land that once they leave, they are no longer Mapuche; they are no longer people of the land.

The Chilean government has shown blatant disregard for the Mapuche's religious ties to the land for more than a century. In 1880, Mapuches owned 5 million hectares of land, but today they remain with only 5 percent of their ancestral lands. Making a living is increasingly difficult on shrinking plots of land, and Mapuches who were once considered important in their communities are now struggling to survive. The dilemma of allocating ancestral lands will be extremely difficult to resolve, as it involves choosing between sustainable farming and maximizing production. The Mapuches have always taken just the minimum of what they needed from the land, whereas modern society only wants more, more, more.

Since the 1990s, the Mapuche have been increasing efforts to regain land from the government, their struggle at times culminating in violent acts such as arson and assault. In July, jailed Mapuches started a hunger strike that expanded to include more than 30 people protesting against trial under an anti-terrorism act. The act, enacted during Pinochet'’s regime, imposes harsher penalties and restricts due process. After pressure from international organizations and a three month long strike, Piñera pledged in October to amend the anti-terrorism clauses. According to La Tercera, the government also agreed to invest 10 billion pesos, the equivalent of 20 million US dollars, toward the development of infrastructure to support Mapuche communities. The situation seems promising, but given the decades-long tension and the government'’s history of making empty promises, there is still much to be done.

Conflicts between the Mapuche community and the government are nothing new, but the scale of this hunger strike drew important national and international attention to the issue. Still, the strike was neglected by mainstream media—due to political considerations, the Chilean news channels largely avoided the topic of Mapuche solidarity. Instead, they chose to focus on the rescue of the miners, which occurred at the same time as the Mapuche protest, and recently have been reporting irrelevant “stories” like the start of summer and beach season as an excuse to show close-ups of women in bikinis. News of the hunger strike was mainly reduced to distribution by Internet, and its highly political nature resulted in little confidence in the objectivity of sources from either perspective.

Although Mapuche-centered themes are hardly talked about in general society, the social implications of Chile's indigenous roots are undeniable. The colonial legacy of European elitism left behind a social structure of discrimination against indigenous peoples that has deeply embedded ethnic background in socioeconomic inequality and status. Santiago is strikingly divided by class, with the location of each comuna or neighborhood representing the socioeconomic status of its residents. The closer a comuna is to the mountain range on the city's northeast side, the richer and whiter it is. It is astounding to travel throughout the city and see the difference in height and skin tones—lower and middle class people have clearly more “indigenous” features, whereas neighborhoods like Vitacura and Las Condes are home to the white upper class and could easily pass as a well-heeled European town. The class difference is obvious in the university system too: students of Universidad de Chile have a diversity of body shapes and skin tones, whereas the typical Pontificia Universidad Católica student could be a catalog model from a European counterpart to J. Crew.

The premium on appearing “white” is common throughout Latin America and involves going to seemingly-ridiculous lengths to highlight whiteness, from a fellow Hoya'’s host family saying that they like owning a white dog because they are white, to fashion choices. Once while shopping, a darker-skinned friend told a lighter-skinned friend that a certain sweater would be fine as a gift for whiter people but not for darker people, because the style might look “too indigenous” to them. To an American raised to believe in equality and the holiness of political correctness, such statements may seem absurd and inappropriate. However, in a society that clearly privileges the “white,” should it be any surprise that people strive to be as “white” as possible? With inequalities in every imaginable area, from recruiters giving candidates preference by last name and appearance, to social class fueling a lifetime of social situations and interactions, how can Chileans possibly embrace their Mapuche identity?

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Wendy Hua on the Neglected Mapuche Identity