Few have wanted to answer or even hear this question since the time of the colonization of Chile by the Spaniards, and it seems even more after its independence in 1818. But the Mapuche, people of origin having already lived in what is today ‘ hui Chile, have never given enough to raise their voices and assert their demands, despite the fact that few of them have listened.
After centuries of domination, usurpation of their lands, depletion of the natural sources in which they lived, and attempts to end their language, Mapudungun, the Mapuche of Chile have finally achieved an important political place for the taking decision-making in the country. By 96 votes, the militant leader and doctor in linguistics Elisa Loncon, 58, was elected president of the Constituent Assembly, which will write for a year the new Charter of Chile. The one that is now in force, promulgated by General Augusto Pinochet, in the midst of a military dictatorship (1973-1990), has not even recorded the existence of the Mapuche, as well as 9 other original peoples living in the country. And he did not grant them any kind of territorial or cultural sovereignty.
When young people took to the streets in 2019 and continued to leave for months and months, until the Constituent Assembly was a reality accepted by mainstream power, one of the banners they carried was recognition of the peoples of origin.
After the historic moment of last Sunday (4), however, many may wonder who the Mapuche are and what do they want?
The Mapuche, roughly speaking, inhabit the central and southern regions of Chile, as well as part of Argentina. They are concentrated in what is Chilean Araucania and part of Argentine Patagonia. In Chile there are currently 2 million indigenous people. Argentina’s Mapuche community is smaller, with around 600,000 people.
Their objectives and the way to achieve them differ, but their objective is to save the sovereignty of this indigenous nation, and to be able to live according to the customs, the language and the political organization according to their traditions.
Loncon is a moderate Mapuche leader, campaigning primarily for the maintenance of the language and the celebration of culture. So much so that he devoted himself to teaching and promoting the speaking of Mapudungun. However, in the early days, she also looked into a more controversial issue, that of the so-called “political prisoners” of Mapuche, whose release she is asking for.
The natives believe themselves to be political prisoners because the current government, led by center-right Sebastián Piñera, is hostile to the Mapuche cause and persecutes the natives, for example by using the anti-terrorism law against certain militant groups. In the south of the country, the majority of the white population also thinks this way, in particular the landowners who find themselves confronted with the Mapuche who demand the restitution of the lands which they claim to belong to them. Some groups, in their demonstrations, are violent and attack farms, even setting fire to properties with owners inside.
The theme is sensitive and divides the Chileans. After all, these are serious crimes. It also divides the Mapuche. So much so that Elisa Loncon, along with other leaders, opted for the democratic path to participate in politics and be heard. But there are groups, like CAM (Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco), which use violence. Some even defend violent crimes against whites whom they regard as invaders.
There are also other ways that the Mapuche use to make their voice heard, such as organizing peaceful protests and demonstrations, trying to get elected to municipal positions in the communities in which they live. Although some act violently, most Mapuche make decisions collectively in large assemblies.
Land ownership is a central theme. The CAM, for example, defends a delimitation of the Mapuche territory, including the Argentine part, and that it be an independent, non-capitalist country, living with respect for ancestral culture. Other groups think that it could be something more flexible, that they are Mapuche, but also Chilean. And they would just like to integrate the idea of “living well,” as the concept of “sumak kawsay” is called, into their country’s political system. The “good life” is an ideology which adopts the indigenous point of view on the questions of society, and was incorporated, for example, in the constitutions of Ecuador, by Rafael Correa, and of Bolivia, by Evo Morales. Sumak kawsay will certainly be a very heard and debated expression during the constituent assemblies.
Other subjects of interest to the Mapuche will be highlighted during legislative sessions and during Mapuche events in the coming months. Indigenous peoples want an end to segregation marked by prejudices against them. Chilean elitist culture tends to place the Mapuche in an inferior position, and for a long time they were virtually invisible. The 2019 movement carried the Mapuche flag to the center of Santiago. In recent years, white youth have adopted other Mapuche symbols and clothing as a sign that they are awaiting a new hour in their country.
The environmental agenda is also important for the Mapuche, and defended by the young demonstrators. The struggles of the Mapuche to guarantee their access to water and natural resources on the land where mining companies have settled which have dried or poisoned them are historic.
The Mapuche also ask for recognition of their suffering since the arrival of the Spaniards. Between 1861 and 1883, the Chilean state ordered the “pacification of Araucania”, which removed the Mapuche from their richest lands to more inhospitable places, where they knew the poverty in which many still live. This 19th century military campaign also murdered many people. And there has been no historic redress for these abuses. This reparation would perhaps help in a process to achieve a more egalitarian society. Nowadays, a person of Mapuche origin in a well-paid job earns 60% less than whites.
There are also more recent cases of violence against the Mapuche, for which explanations are still lacking, such as the murder of activist Camilo Catrillanca, 28, who was shot in the back while fleeing a clash during event.
The list of articles is long and the historical differences. Once again, it is inspiring that Chile channels its problems and its differences in a democratic way, through dialogue, towards the drafting of a new Constitution. The other alternative would inevitably lead to more polarization and violence.