Chile celebrates “El día del Encuentro de dos Mundos,” to commemorate Christopher Columbus landing in the Americas in 1492. The date has been designated to symbolize the encounter between the indigenous and European worlds. Indigenous groups, however, reject the neutral-sounding “meeting” narrative; in an interview with Chile Today, Salvador Millaleo explains why.
October 12 is variously named and commemorated in the Americas in recognition of all that followed Christopher Columbus landing in the Americas in 1492. In Chile, the day was legally designated “El día del Encuentro de dos Mundos” in 2000 to acknowledge the significance of the meeting of two worlds, the so-called “Old World” and the “New World.”
For some, however, the name still affirms the supremacy of the colonizer. October 12 represents not a mere “encounter” of two worlds, but the domination of one over the other. Themes of “discovery” also rankle because they presuppose the viewpoint of the “discoverer,” Europeans, as opposed to the “discovered,” indigenous populations, as well as the simple fact that the “New World” already existed and was as old as the “Old World.”
In conversation with Chile Today, Salvador Millaleo, who some have called, “one of the most recognized legal experts in indigenous affairs,” argues that “[w]hen we talk about the encounter, we must remember it was not peaceful, but it was violent. The result of this ‘encounter’ was colonization, that is, a subjugation of the native peoples. There were even peoples who became extinct or almost became extinct. So, it’s a very complex date and has a very painful meaning; that’s why it is important to reflect on the meaning of what we say.”
In Chile, where the nationalistic sentiment is very strong, the meaning of this date is a sensitive topic, as Chile has thus far only provided limited space within its institutions for its original peoples. Millaleo argues that the change of the holiday’s name in 2000, still hides the date’s negative side. He says, “There was not a discovery, an encounter, but, there was an invasion, a subjugation of one world over another. The idea of a “union” does not describe what really happened.”
Moments of reflection
The Mapuche, the most numerous group of indigenous inhabitants in Chile, traditionally have protest marches in all the country’s major cities, including the capital. They demonstrate against the historical injustice that indigenous peoples have suffered in general. The marches are generally peaceful, marked by Mapuche music and dances.
Millaleo believes the day should be remembered as an “espacio de memoria,” an occasion to reflect on history rather than a mere celebration. He says:
“On the one hand, the matrix of all genocides is the violation of human rights. All the genocides that have been victorious, have had in common what happened to the “original peoples.” Hence, this must be advanced as a terrible common denominator due to the consequences that it brought to humanity. But, on the other hand, we must think about history as an opportunity: it could be seen as an occasion to learn how to coexist with this diversity and generate forms of reconciliation, reparation and coexistence between the indigenous and non-indigenous people.”
Although el Día del Encuentro de dos Mundos has been celebrated in Chile as an occasion to solemnize the colonization of the Americas that started in the 15th century, Millaleo suggests a different approach: the day could be an occasion for indigenous peoples to express their voices and discuss the spaces they occupy in Chile, figuratively and literally.
Millaleo notes that history cannot be changed, but Chile has a great chance “to create a democratic and effective horizontal relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people.”
Carmen Critelli is an intern at Chile Today. She has recently completed her bachelor’s degree in European Studies from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. During her studies and journalistic experience, she specialised in migration/immigration issues, poverty and sustainability.