The ongoing conflict in the southern regions of Chile highlights the racism that indigenous people have suffered for years. Chile Today interviewed three members of the Mapuche community. Their stories recount the personal effects of this racism.
On the night of Aug. 1, Mapuche protesters who were occupying municipal buildings (demanding the release of machi (spiritual leader) Celestino Córdova and others whom they consider to be political prisoners) were attacked by counter-protesters. The counter-attack was more than just a response to the occupation of municipal buildings; it was anti-Mapuche. It underscores the racism that indigenous people in Chile have always had to deal with.
Following are the personal stories of three people who have repeatedly faced this racism.
Diva Millapan (59)
- Social worker
- Coordinator of Red de Mujeres Mapuche (Mapuche Women’s Network)
- Leader of the Association of Officials of the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity
“I hope that the fight against racism doesn’t stay in the discourse, but moves to the action. I hope that racism is considered as important as violence against women, because racism is also killing us,” Millapan said when asked about her hopes for the future in the fight against systemic racism.
Millapan currently lives in the Metropolitan region, but she was born and raised in a Mapuche community called Panguilelfun, located in Valdivia, in the district of Panguipulli. She’s a women’s rights activist and she has been working for indigenous women’s recognition since the 80s.
According to Millapan, the subject of racism towards Mapuche and other indigenous communities in Chile has been “invisibilized” because some groups “try to make it seem like there are no indigenous people in the country, like we’re all just Chileans.”
Throughout her life, she has had to fight against constant acts of discrimination. “As kids, our parents prepare us for what can happen [outside the community]. They tell us that we’re probably going to hear people call us ‘indios,’ so we become very aware of the issue from a young age,” Millapan said.
When asked if she had experienced personal attacks because she was Mapuche, Millapan said she cannot count them all. “In school kids used to punch me, pull my hair, spit on me, even provoke me so that I would fight back. There were various groups of huincas [whites] that bullied us, so we had to be careful.”
Millapan said one of the most painful experiences happened to her then-three-year-old daughter: she came home from school and immediately went to the bathroom to wash her face, hands and arms. “She washed for a long time, so I asked her why and that’s when she told me that kids in school had said that she was dirty. Your soul breaks when you hear your little girl saying things like that.”
Millapan said that it was already difficult to be a Mapuche in this society and, it is even more so to be a Mapuche woman. “You see it everywhere. For example, in the professional area where there is already an invisibilization of women, the situation is even worse when those women are Mapuche.”
When discussing what she expected from Chilean society in this regard, she talked about the Antonia Barra case and how that motivated thousands of women to take the streets to protest against sexism. “But now, with the hate and racist events we’ve experienced in the past few days, I don’t see the same women expressing their discomfort. What they don’t realize is that racism is linked to sexism, to misogyny. They go hand in hand.”
What Millapan wished Chileans would understand is that poverty, specifically in the Araucanía region, is not their fault. “For many years people have been told that their poverty is the product of our ancestral fight to gain back our lands. I would like for them to understand that it is not our fault. If peasants don’t have access to education, the greatest responsibility lies with the government and the work of different organizations.”
Daniela Mallileo (34)
- Mapuche singer and songwriter
- Professor of intercultural education and Mapuche history
“I am proud to be Mapuche because it is a culture that resisted a physical genocide, a cultural and a religious genocide. To be able to continue the legacy of spirituality, resistance, nobility, and defense of the land with my daughter, is something I look forward to,” Mallileo said expressing her hopes for the future.
Born in Santiago, Mallileo was raised by her grandparents in the Santa Julia población, in Macul district. Her Mapuche origins come from her grandparents, who emigrated to Santiago due to the Araucanía occupation. They lived in a community called Puculon, located in Cautín province, in the Araucanía region.
From a young age, Mallileo’s grandfather taught her traditions of the Mapuche culture and the native language, Mapudungun. “When I was in school, kids used to bully me because of my last name. There was a boy who [ironically] had darker skin than mine, but somehow I was the one that had a weird Mapuche last name. That’s when my grandfather told me what it meant,” Mallileo said referring to the meaning of their last name: “river of gold.”
As a professional singer, Mallileo has experienced acts of discrimination within the music industry. “A lot of times they see me as the indigenous quota of the concerts.” Several times she has been asked to wear her Mapuche clothing for municipality events, but refuses to do so because she believes that will only feed the fetishism of certain groups. “When they look at you with prejudice and expect you to wear certain clothes and talk in a certain way only for the amusement of a group, it’s a form of racism. And I don’t engage with that.”
When asked about the recent attacks on Mapuche people, Mallileo expressed a feeling of hopelessness. “When I saw hundreds of Mapuche flags rising during the estallido social last year I thought ‘wow, they are sympathizing with our fight’ but now, with these things happening in our territory, it makes you stop believing. And that scares you.”
Mallileo has a young daughter and she hopes that the new generations will start to see change. But she admits there is still a long way to go and thinks it is impossible to move on from this issue unless Chileans fully comprehend and recognize the Mapuche cosmovision and history.
“We are people of the land. That does not mean that the land belongs to us, but that we belong to it. Our ancestors’ bones are buried in those lands and ancestors are crucial in the Mapuche cosmovision because we believe they make us who we are, as does the territory. We view our territory as an affective place that shapes us. Taking that from us was a cultural genocide. And that is what is hard for people to comprehend.”
Mallileo added that not only is it hard to fully understand the Mapuche culture if one does not engage with it, but the government and the media have played an important role in establishing that Mapuche people are dangerous or terrorists. “On the TV they keep presenting us as something beastly, barbaric, when in reality we are just like the rest of the Chileans. We have gone to school, we have worked and sacrificed like everyone else. The only difference is we have our own fight and our own ideology.”
Juan Carlos Morales Pailahueque (41)
- Director of the indigenous association Canco Kupayn
“My fight against systemic racism has been to spread knowledge of our culture and try to make people understand that we are a contribution to the society, with our own characteristics,” Morales said when asked about his motivations to fight racism in Chile.
Morales was born in Victoria, in the Araucanía region. He and his family come from a Mapuche community called Anselmo Enef Pailahueque. At the age of nine, Morales moved to Santiago to live with his grandmother but he went back to Victoria every summer. “The connection with my ancestors’ land has never been broken.”
From a young age Morales experienced discrimination for being Mapuche. He recalls stories his mother used to tell him about how, in Victoria, there was a geographical sectorization of the town and if a Mapuche went to the “barrio alto,” people would call the police to complain. “Here in Santiago, when my grandmother went out to buy groceries in her Mapuche clothing, people would scream ‘there goes the indiecitos.’”
School was also a struggle for Morales, where his classmates undermined him because of the stereotypes they had against the Mapuche population. According to Morales, the rest of the kids limited his potential because they thought they were somehow superior. They refused to play with him and called him names like “indio.”
Being Mapuche and living in a big city like Santiago also had its challenges. “There were times when, on the bus, people stared strangely at us and avoided sitting near us. In restaurants, they always offered us the table next to the bathroom,” Morales said.
Morales presides over Canco Kupayn, an association that promotes the Mapuche culture and traditions. It was created merely for the formalities requested by the authorities in order to receive resources and benefits from the state. “As they don’t recognize our way of organizing, we have to adapt to what they say,” Morales noted.
Canco Kupayn participates in provincial and municipal events, offering Mapuche food and crafts and products that represent their culture. Morales’s mother also offers courses on Mapudungun, for anyone who wants to learn the language. “They are like family reunions that benefit from the resources we receive thanks to the association. With those, we acquire Mapuche musical instruments, clothes and typical jewelry that we could not otherwise afford.”
What Morales wishes Chileans would understand is that Mapuche people are different, but these differences are a great contribution to the society as a whole. “We are not a cartoon, we don’t live in history books. There are many of us, we are alive and we are still here. We are not going anywhere.”
Fernanda Gándara is currently finishing her journalism degree at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She’s passionate about writing, environmental issues and women empowerment. You can find her on Twitter as @FerGMarchant