Chilean Mapuche: Life in the Vicious Circle

Dylan Gaffney

October 16, 2013

My biggest goal at Georgetown is to be a balanced bilingual. It is nearly impossible to speak a second language as well as one’s native language because the latter was apprehended during the critical period, a time early in life when the brain is geared to learn a language. I signed a contract with my study abroad program that requires me to speak Spanish at all times, even in the company of other exchange students, and even if anyone in my host family speaks English. When I call on my English abilities in instances like the writing of this blog, I feel that my vocabulary and eloquence have diminished noticeably. I cannot be sure if I am experiencing the first-language attrition that I learned about at Georgetown last semester, or if my mind is merely playing tricks on me. The idea is this: by interacting exclusively in Spanish, the shine is wearing off my ability to interact in English. 

The English language has been a cornerstone of my identity from the moment my parents first spoke it to me. I see a parallel between my diminished usage and ability with English and the most salient societal issue that one learns of in their first few days in Chile. The ongoing conflict between the Chilean state and the largest remaining indigenous group grabs headlines, sparks protests, and captures the attention of even the most disinterested tourist. The mere nature of the headlines made by the Mapuche would seem to indicate a breach with their traditional values. The Mapuche ideology ties their people to the land, not to the Chilean flag or a globally recognized border. They would prefer to live inwardly in peace than to engage the modern world so desperately. Unlike my pursuit of bilingualism, these indigenous did not seek this new, publicly recognizable existence. Rather, they were thrust into the jaws of state-sanctioned persecution. 

The Mapuche revere the Earth for the sustenance which it provides them. The land that the Mapuche have traditionally inhabited is among the richest territory in Chile in terms of natural resources. Nevertheless, they seek only life, not profit, from their terrain. Since the 1973 coup d’état, neoliberal economic policies have facilitated the takeover of Mapuche territory by industrial and agrarian enterprises. When this displacement first occurred, the Mapuche were paid for their land under the pretense of just compensation. This transaction was like speaking an entirely new language for the Mapuche. The mere idea of currency would have seemed even more foreign than the government who claimed power over their ancient lands. More recent displacement policies have exchanged Mapuche land for other territories, but their new homes lack the natural resources off of which the Mapuche thrive. 

The return of democracy brought apparent dignity for the Mapuche in the 1990s. The new government created institutions, both to celebrate the Mapuche role in Chilean heritage and to recognize the Mapuche right to participate in the political process. Unfortunately, vertical intervention undermined these institutions in the most decisive moments, as the president removed from office two representatives who opposed a dam project that would eventually submerge an ancient Mapuche community. With their democratic voices silenced, the Mapuche have no choice but to seek other means of influence. Protesting emphatically while forming global alliances with other indigenous groups and human rights organizations, the Mapuche have become an active player in global civil society. Their demonstrations often put them at odds with the authorities. Despite the national police’s integral role in the dictatorship, our exchange organization has assured us that they are trustworthy and reliable. Sadly, their savage handling of the Chilean territory’s most ancient inhabitants has provoked the latest wave of human rights scrutiny in the region. 

The Mapuche do not fight to become a vibrant part of the Chilean state; they just want to return to being themselves. The Chilean state somehow sees in the rise of Mapuche influence the opportunity to erase them even further from the national agenda. Recent policies have argued that a Mapuche who participates so actively in the dynamics of the modern world has departed from his or her authentically indigenous identity, thereby justifying the government’s failure to respect Mapuche claims to land. Just like my immersion into a Spanish-speaking society, the Mapuche engagement with the modern world has caused a fundamental change in their existence. Unlike my voluntary transformation, the Mapuche have no other choice but to speak out for their dignity.

Source: Berkley Center, Georgetown University

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