CULTURE History of Chile

The Aymara in Chile: All about surviving

Most people in Chile are familiar with its largest indigenous group, the Mapuche, but they have trouble naming any of the others. The Aymara are Chile’s second largest indigenous group. A look at the Aymara in Chile, then and now.

Some argue Middle Eastern and North African explorers sailed west to the Americas from the Muslim parts of Spain 300 years before Columbus reached them in 1492. Others argue the Vikings beat the Muslims by an additional 200 years. And still others argue Basque or Bristolian fishermen, or any number of others, beat them all.

Despite the debate as to who from the “Old World” first reached the “New,” there is nevertheless a general consensus that the first inhabitants of the Americas arrived at least 20,000—and possibly as many as 40,000—years ago, and that the population of the Americas exceeded 50 million by the time Columbus arrived.

In what is now Chile, more than 15 culturally distinct groups existed prior to the arrival of Columbus; and these groups spanned the length of the country, north to south, and from the Andes in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west.

The Aymara (or Aimara) occupied, and still occupy, the far north. They are indigenous to the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America.

The Aymara are believed to be descendants of some of the earliest inhabitants of South America and, possibly, the founders of one of the highest urban centers ever constructed, the ancient city of Tiwanaku, located in Bolivia, near Lake Titicaca, almost 4,000 m above sea level. The city reached its peak between 500 A.D. and 1000 A.D., but people first started settling there at least 4,000 years ago.

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Major populations in Bolivia, Peru, and Chile

The largest populations of Aymara exist in Bolivia and Peru. According to the most recently-available census data for Bolivia (2012) and Peru (2017), the Aymara population there is at least 1.2 million in Bolivia (and includes Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales) and 435,000 in Peru.

As for Chile, the most recent census data (2017) indicates that the number of Chileans who self-identify as Aymara is about 157,000, second only to the number who self-identify as Mapuche (nearly 1.75 million).

A recent history of subjugation by others

It is believed that the first Aymara villages in Chile were built in the Andean highlands in the 1100s.

About 300 years later, the Inca subjugated the Aymara, and then in the 1500s Spain did likewise, in some instances dispersing the Aymara and ruthlessly exploiting them by forcing them to work in the mines of the north.

After the Spanish American wars of independence in the early 1800s, the Aymara became subjects of Bolivia and Peru.

Then, through the War of the Pacific in 1879, Chile acquired portions of southern Peru and western Bolivia, and the Aymara population there became Chile’s subjects and effectively cut off from the rest of the population beyond Chile’s borders.

In the meantime, European diseases ravaged the population. A recent anthropological investigation indicates that the decline was as much as 27% among the Aymara and other Andean groups—relatively modest compared to lowland population declines that exceeded 90%, but still significant.

More significant than a population decline was a shattering of the cultural spirit of the Aymara. Subjugation and disease generally had the predictable effects, but an especially pernicious component to all this was the effort to “Chileanize the Aymara population: a deliberate effort by the Chilean government to erase all autonomous cultural traits through public education, military service, cross-border traffic control, and missionaries to “civilize” the Aymara—an effort that started after the War of the Pacific and picked up momentum during the Pinochet regime (1973-1990).

As Charlotte Sutton reported for the Washington Post, “textiles traditionally have been more precious even than gold as a form of cultural expression” for the Aymara, and “carefully preserved ceremonial pieces were passed from one generation to the next and used only on important occasions,” but even as late as 1983 (the date of her article), there were “strong pressures against this proud tradition.” The Aymara had been discouraged and ridiculed to the point that many of them no longer wished to identify with their cultural heritage.

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A resilient culture reblooms

The arrival of representative democracy post-Pinochet has brought with it a greater openness to the indigenous populations and the implementation of public policies that seek to incorporate them as actors on behalf of their own destiny. These include the creation of a fund to purchase land and water rights, as well as bilingual intercultural education programs.

If the practical effects remain to be seen, the cultural shift away from erasure is significant and hopeful.

In present day Chile, most of the Aymara live and work in the Chilean cities of Arica and Iquique. This follows major migrations from the highlands to the coast, as a result of the efforts to “Chileanize” the Aymara, the practical reality of jobs in these urban areas, and rainfall variability in the highlands.

The Aymaras who didn’t migrate to the northern coasts still live in the altiplano of northern Chile, where many of them work in sheep and llama herding in small villages, called ayllu.

Traditionally, the houses of the Aymara are made of stone and mud with rough roofs made of mud and straws; they have extended families, which consist of a man and his brothers, their wives, sons, and married and unmarried daughters, living in a compound full house; they believe in Mother Earth, where they celebrate their beliefs with ceremonies that involve singing and dancing; they believe that the mountains surrounding their villages have spirits that protect them, their animals and crops; Aymara men wear conical, ear-flapped, knit wool gorros; and women wear round, native-made wool derbies, with wool wimples in cold weather.

More and more, the Aymara culture is merging with modern Chilean life, especially since the effort to Chileanize them. But many of their traditions have survived and are reemerging, as the Aymara, like other indigenous peoples, find their voice in a country, and in a wider world, that now (at least ostensibly) values them for their heritage and uniqueness.

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