Elicura Chihuailaf First Mapuche To Receive National Literature Prize

SANTIAGO — Elicura Chihuailaf was awarded the 2020 National Literature Prize. The poet is the first Mapuche writer to receive this acknowledgement. He has been recognized for being a bridge-builder between the Chilean and Mapuche cultures, as he writes in both Spanish and Mapudungun.

Every two years, the Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Heritage announces a winner for the National Literature Prize. This year’s winner is a Mapuche poet, Elicura Chihuailaf. It was his third time being a candidate for the prize, but the first time winning it. This also makes him the first Mapuche person to receive the award.

Minister of Culture Consuelo Valdés announced the winner on Sept. 1 after a two-hour deliberation from the jury. In her announcement, she recognized Chihuailaf for being able to “bring the oral tradition and the poetic universe of his people beyond the borders of his culture.”

In a phone conversation Chihuailaf had with minister Valdés, he thanked the jury for their trust and said, “I am not the only one that speaks. The author is just a small instrument to learn the lessons from our ancestors’ words,” El Mostrador reported. Besides the recognition, Chihuailaf also received a diploma, CLP$22 million (US$28,350), and a monthly pension for life close to CLP$1 million (US$1,290).

Who Is Elicura Chihuailaf?

Chihuailaf, age 68, was born in the Mapuche community of Kechurewe, in the district of Cunco, in the Araucanía region. He is an internationally recognized poet that writes both in Mapudungun (Mapuche language) and Spanish.

According to Memoria Chilena – a digital archive from the National Library – Chihuailaf has been associated with authors who began their poetic activity after the 1973 military coup, the generation “of the diaspora and internal exile.”

The Ministry of Culture also notes that Chihuailaf has published 17 literary works. His works have been translated into 20 different languages, including English, Creole, Dutch, and Finnish.

The Mapuche poet has also inspired other artists throughout the years. At least 20 musicians have created musical works based on his poetry, like the band Kalfu and the singer Francisca Valenzuela. In addition, the Ministry of Culture states that six exhibitions and five dance and theater works have been inspired by his writings.

Among his latest works is the book “La vida es una nube azul” (“Life is a blue cloud”). It was published in 2016 and it addresses how the relationship with nature is essential to conserving the world. Another one is “El azul del tiempo que nos sueña” (“The blueness of the time that dreams of us”), which includes poems about environmentalism and astrophysics. 

Reactions To Chihuailaf’s Success

Among others, Universidad de la Frontera and Pontificia Universidad Católica, nominated Chihuailaf for the prize. The dean of the latter, Ignacio Sánchez, said that they were happy to have nominated the poet. “This is a historic day as he is the first Mapuche poet to receive it (the prize) which is undoubtedly due to his great poetry, his permanent dialogue, and the impressive educational and intercultural work that he has developed.”

The recognition comes at a time of unrest in the La Araucanía region (where the poet is from) due to the constant clashes between police and indigenous groups. Some have argued that the acknowledgment made by the Ministry of Culture is both to Chihuailaf and to the Mapuche nation. 

The second time Chihuailaf was nominated but did not win the prize, back in 2018, Raúl Zurita, another Chilean poet, wrote a letter to the then-Minister of Education, Adriana Delpiano: “in this blind moment in our country, where the unrelenting violence exerted against Araucanía has only grown, awarding the National Prize to Elicura Chihuailaf means not only the recognition of a great poet, but also of a nation.”

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