People of the (Border)land:The Impact of Territorial Borders, Cultural Boundaries, and Legal Barriers on Mapuche Individuals that Leave the Chilean Borderland

Librería 33, a bookstore the size of a large closet with avant-garde photographs collaged on the walls not occupied by bookshelves, is eerily silent when Alejandro Banda finishes reciting his poem. A short, skinny man in his 40s, he sits next to Silvia Murua and Rosa Alcayaga, two poets who live and work in Valparaíso, Chile. He has a deep, powerful voice that he uses to introduce me, his student, to the other poets in the room. Everyone knows Alejandro well, and they smile when he walks up to them and kisses each one on the cheek.

On the surface, Alejandro looks like anyone else on the streets of Valparaíso. Everyone that passes him in his loosely fitted grey suit is unaware that he belongs to an indigenous group, a culture that is invaluable to Chile’s roots. He is the son of a Mapuche woman whose maiden name is Nahuelco, which translates to “puma water.” Both of his parents are professors, and they taught him to value the Mapuche culture and to love the earth.

The poem he recited is one of his own, titled “Ausencia,” or “Absence.” It describes a man who is disappearing like a beautiful poem burning or someone losing hope. The two of us exit Librería 33 and head for the winding streets of Cerro Alegre. As we ascend a hill, we pass by elaborate murals painted on the sides of buildings, street vendors selling handmade jewelry, and a view of the full moon over the bay.  

“There is no real destination for the Mapuche in Chile now,” says Alejandro. “‘Civilized men’ forced the Mapuche off of their land and later resold it to them in a manner that they saw fit.”

Alejandro Banda reading.

 Many Mapuche removed from their lands were relegated to poblaciones and comunidades (reservations) in the Aruacanía region. The cities of Temuco and Padre las Casas, the most populated, mixed-ethnic poblaciones in Mapuche territory, clutter a hilly landscape and end at rural Mapuche comunidades and industrial forestales (forestry plantations). In these poor, rainy poblaciones, colorful graffiti covers concrete walls alongside makeshift horse pastures shoved between buildings. Discrimination against Mapuche peoples and their despondent living conditions in these areas have provoked intense rural-urban migration and a robust critique of Chilean development policies among Mapuche writers, activists, and artists.

 Sitting on a bench overlooking mismatched rooftops and ominous cargo ships crossing the bay, Alejandro explains that he is one of those activists. Residing in Valparaíso, a thriving port city with a vibrant civil society that is far removed from impoverished Mapuche territory, he works as a poet and professor to preserve a vanishing Mapuche culture.

The Mapuche peoples of South America trace their roots back to pre-colonial times, when they were free to roam from the southern tip of the American continent to the Inca Empire in the North. In the Mapuche language, “mapu” means “land” and “che” signifies people, which speaks to the group’s strong ties to the natural environment. In Alejandro’s view, the Mapuche strongly feel  that “the land does not belong to us. We belong to the land.”

 Today, “Mapuche land” is restricted to the Araucanía and Bio Bio regions in central-southern Chile. Araucanía, an area called the “Bronx of the Mapuche,” bears the reputation of a  frontera, or cultural borderland, and claims the highest proportion of residents living below the poverty line. The term “Bronx of the Mapuche” alludes to the intense poverty and police repression in different areas of rural Araucanía. The region offers abundant raw materials for weavers, potters, and woodworkers practicing traditions that earn meager wages. Daily life in the borderlands relentlessly underscores the dominant presumption of the Mapuche as racial and cultural inferiors.

 “I know someone who thinks the Mapuche are lazy, poorly raised, aggressive, alcoholics, and cheap,” mutters Alejandro. “He says they leave lands uncultivated—they waste the land they are given.”

 These stereotypes are popular among Chilean elites. Although it is sometimes the case that Mapuche leave land uncultivated, elites rarely delve into why. Mapuche often lack the capital needed to invest in seeds and equipment necessary to plant crops, including Mapuche that receive land through the Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena (CONADI), the national development agency with a mandate to protect indigenous lands. Many are obliged to seek out day labor or other sources of income while attempting to cultivate the land they are given. In addition, Alejandro says that Mapuche are intentional about not overexploiting the land. “We prefer to let it recuperate before we cultivate it again,” he says.  

 “When I was a kid in school, the first thing we were taught about the Mapuche is that they are an aggressive people,” he continues. “But Mapuche do not participate in the conflict because they are aggressive. They do it because they are strongly attached to the land.”

 Alejandro believes elites’ view of the Mapuche people as lazy, aggressive, and cheap is a way for them to shirk responsibility for the Mapuches’ socioeconomic position, and to encourage their assimilation into “Chilean” society. He also calls it “a form of domination in which ‘civilized men’ teach the Mapuche rules of behavior.” In response to such persecution, Mapuche organizations have protested territorial borders that do not honor Mapuche ancestral lands, as well as legal limitations and cultural boundaries imposed by the Chilean state.

 “The state doesn’t understand nor recognize Mapuche existence before the arrival of the Spanish and before the dispute with the Chilean State,” he says. “There is no memory of the Mapuche civilization that brought about and existed before Chile’s origin.”

 In the pre-colonial era, the Mapuche peoples lived and worked in land that the Spanish were determined to colonize. They lived in small societies based mainly on hunting and gathering. Initially, the Spanish conquistadors failed to conquer them and the crown recognized territorial autonomy for the Mapuche peoples near the Bio Bio region. But after several hundred years of conflict, the colonial powers dominated and Mapuche peoples were driven out of approximately two thirds of their ancestral lands and forced into subsistence farming lifestyles.

 At the start of the twentieth century, Mapuche citizens began demanding that the Chilean state recognize their rights to their former homeland. After the Mapuche were relocated to reservations, neighboring landowners took reservation lands through violence and fraud while the state excluded ancestral land from the Mapuche reservations. Mapuche mobilization was able to recover some of this land during the agrarian reform from 1960 to 1973, but the oppressive Pinochet dictatorship returned those lands to their former Chilean owners and in 1978 subdivided Mapuche communities into individual plots. Mapuche organizations protested this change in the form of marches, hunger strikes, occupations of public buildings and disputed lands, roadblocks, arson, and sabotage of machinery and equipment, but they could not prevent the subdivision of their communities.

 “Today, the conflict has two important themes,” says Alejandro. “One is to defend Mapuche land and the other is to reclaim Mapuche land that was taken, because to defend land is to defend culture, and to reclaim land is to reclaim a culture that was usurped.” I ask him about the state’s role in the conflict, and he responds by suggesting that we change locations first. I follow him further up the hill, passing street art and graffiti along the way. One does not have to visit a museum to find beautiful paintings in Valparaíso.

At the top of the hill, he points out a large white building with barred windows and an arc of blue bricks marking the entrance. He explains that the building is Valparaíso’s oldest former prison, where political prisoners during the Pinochet dictatorship were held, many of whom were Mapuche. He sighs, “In Chile, human rights for indigenous peoples are not respected, and neither are rights for pueblos originarios (towns that existed at Chile’s origin). The government organizations that were created to protect these towns are ineffective.”


Mapuche peoples continue to actively seek the recognition of their rights, including the rights to lands and resources, particularly water, to which they are spiritually, culturally, and materially connected. This is difficult, however, because the state actively leaves Mapuche individuals out of decisions about their rights. “The problem is that Mapuche peoples don’t know their rights because the government doesn’t include them in the conversation,” Alejandro says.  

The Concertación, Chile’s current ruling political party, created a set of legal channels for citizen input in the 1990s but still reserves decision-making for the top level of the executive branch.  The term “legal reform” became a state-led “authorization” of law and policy making within a faux democratic framework. Within this framework, Concertación party elites considered all indigenous peoples as a marginal sector of the Chilean nation with distinctive cultural traditions, not as separate, distinct peoples with collective rights. The Concertación then consistently supported major industrial and infrastructure projects over the objections of local communities and indigenous peoples.  

 A prime and tragic example is the construction of the Ralco Hydroelectric Power Plant. The Bio Bio region of Chile contains the Tolten River, a sparkling body of water bordered by luscious green trees. In 1997, President Frei approved the construction of the Ralco Hydroelectric Power Plant in Alto Bio Bio, right in the middle of Mapuche land. The power plant, which provides 10 percent of the electricity consumed in Chile, has been a subject of protest because the land was the ancestral property of the Pehuenche Indians, a subgroup of the larger Mapuche indigenous community. The Chilean government favored business interests and a 570 million dollar energy investment at the expense of the rights of indigenous families, as well as endangered species and a unique ecosystem.  

 Concerned members of the affected Mapuche communities held meetings regarding the project’s ominous imposition, but without proper information detailing the project or sufficient knowledge of their rights under Chilean law, some families renounced their land rights to Endesa, the corporation responsible for building the dam.

 The construction of the Ralco Hydroelectric Power Plant displaced many Mapuche families whose lands were subsequently flooded. This colossal grievance led the Mapuche to launch the first guerrilla-like attacks against police and private property in the area, and it continues to be a conflict region to this today. Chilean media tends to focus on the criminal acts of a few individuals rather than the oppression that drove some individuals to resort to this violence.

 Al Jazeera has reported on the “eye for an eye” nature of the conflict in the area: Sonia Navarrete, the owner of a small forestry business in Chile, was returning home one day in June 2015 when she and her husband were ambushed by a group of five hooded Mapuche men. The attackers burned the couple’s house to the ground while they were tied up and held captive for an hour. Five months later Belarmino Curipán, an indigenous Mapuche farmer, was plowing a plot of land he had illegally taken over when he saw a drone and a group of 150 policemen approaching. Curipán fled to the forest, and when he returned, his house had been demolished with chainsaws. These events are among more than 20 filed complaints of violence in the region since just the first months of 2016, according to Al Jazeera.

 Alejandro defends the few extremist Mapuche groups that have used violence to demonstrate ancestral land claims. “These groups live in the conflict area and have been oppressed by the Chilean state for years. They live in places where companies are destroying forests,” he says. “We need Chilean society to understand us. The Mapuche culture, language, and identity are intimately attached to the land. If we lose land, we lose our language and slowly disappear.”

 Individuals who burn plantations, occupy land, or block trucks belonging to large corporations occupying ancient Mapuche territory do so because their daily lives are directly impacted by the activities of corporations and government facilities in the area. News stories frequently discuss these acts as “terrorism.” Recently, a Chilean governor in southern Araucanía invoked a Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law after a failed bomb attack targeting regional capital Temuco’s prison on January 15, 2016. Security officials believe it was planted to organize the escape of numerous imprisoned indigenous Mapuche leaders, but Mapuche resistance groups have yet to claim responsibility. The anti-terrorism law allows for higher penalties for crimes, arrests without bail before trial, and, most controversially, anonymous witness testimony as primary evidence. Mapuche groups claim the law will be used to stigmatize protesters as terrorists.

 Francisco Huenchumilla, who in 2014 became the first man of Mapuche ancestry to be appointed as an Intendant of Araucanía, has observed that the conflict will persist if the state continues to manage the situation as it does now. “The first thing that the government must do to solve this problem is to diagnose it correctly,” he says. “They have to believe it’s a political conflict, not a criminal one. Police repression has been used since the 1990s and it has yielded no results.”

 Outside these heated conflict zones, Mapuche people like Alejandro suffer from a more insidious form of oppression. He plays the trompe, a Mapuche wind instrument, writes poetry, and educates youth to preserve the indigenous culture. But despite his efforts, he is only able to do so much as an individual in a society that wants to forget the Mapuche and their customs. The name Mapuche, and the general discourse about them, has come to revolve entirely around the contemporary conflict, ignoring the Mapuches’ connection to Chile’s roots. Even the most commonly used title for the conflict, the “Mapuche Conflict,” leaves out the Chilean state, making “conflict” a defining aspect of how Mapuche are perceived.

 The transformation of the Mapuche image began in the 1850s, when economic and geopolitical interests led the Mapuche to be portrayed by politicians and newspapers as barbarous, uncivilized beings whose “conquest could no longer be delayed.” This developed into today’s assimilationist discourse, which places value on individuals who conform to Chilean society.

 “The majority of Mapuche peoples who live away from the conflict have begun becoming more ‘Chilean,’” Alejandro says in a calm, resigned tone. “However, the Mapuche and the Chilean ethnicities are different, and the state does not support this difference.” Chilean society encourages individuals to leave behind their Mapuche roots and become “like everyone else,” he says.

 To combat these forces, Alejandro works constantly to preserve a culture that is slowly being forgotten. He lives in Bio Bio for weeks at a time educating and working with Mapuche individuals. He has advocated for the Mapuche cause, visited the borderlands, questioned the Chilean state, and educated students for years. He and other Mapuche individuals that live and work in places far away from Mapuche territory carry the burden of keeping their culture visible in a society that would rather see it disappear.

Bando singing.

It is almost midnight, but the streets of Valparaíso are lively—the people here are accustomed to long nights. As we descend the hill, we pass a house with a red door. “Siliva Murua lives there,” Alejandro informs me. Next to the poet’s house is a stone wall covered in street art. One of the paintings is of a woman whose mouth is covered by cloth and whose hair is blowing in the wind. The hand that grips the cloth transforms into green leaves as the wind blows. To me, the painting is of a silent, disappearing Mapuche person whose only solace is the promise that they would soon exist as a part of nature. Alejandro and I gaze at the painting for some time. Nearby, a live Chilean folk band plays slow, sweet songs.


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