Friday, 11 May 2007
Written by Monica Evans

Mapuche peniIvan Melilla Raimil, preserving his ethnic identity in modern Chile.
Photo by Monica Evans

“Oh, I thought you’d be taller. Normally gringos are so tall,” is the first thing Ivan Melilla Raimil, 27, says to me when we meet in Valparaíso’s Plaza Aníbal Pinto. “But you’re like us,” he says, sounding somewhat relieved.

We’ve met to discuss a project that he and other members of Newen Weche Mapu (Fuerza Joven Tierra) – a group of young Mapuche activists from the Universidad de Valparaíso (UV) – are just about to kick off. The project is directed towards Mapuche recipients of indigenous scholarships in the UV, and aims to increase cultural participation and understanding of identity in this group of urban young people.

As Melilla explains, he discovered whilst interning at CONADI (the National Corporation for Indigenous Development) in 2004 that most people who came there to claim the indigenous student scholarships were completely uninvolved in and uninformed about indigenous issues. “They identified themselves as Mapuche just to get the scholarships, nothing else,” he says.

So Melillan and a group of Mapuche friends from the UV formed  Newen Weche Mapu, and began dreaming up ways of trying to get young Mapuche interested in and proud of their indigenous origins. They’ve already held Mapuche New Year celebrations and various workshops on aspects of Mapuche culture.

The current project is their biggest yet. By no means is it a simple task. “Amongst urban mapuche, and the majority of Mapuche are now urban, there is very little participation in the culture,” says Melillan. “I know a lot of Mapuche punks and Mapuche goths... but they never identify themselves as Mapuche.”

He says there is still a lot of shame around admitting one’s indigenous origins. “If you have the surname Rodríguez, you look for the Rodríguez shield, the part of Spain it comes from, all that stuff. But the other part of our heritage, the Mapuche part, is not recognized."

Melilla sees the source of this phenomenon in the vast “exodus” of Mapuche from their ancestral lands. That exodus began with the so-called “Pacification of the Araucaria” in 1883, the battle after which Mapuche lands were reduced to U.S.-style “reservations.” With insufficient land to continue their traditional existence, vast numbers of Mapuche migrated to the cities in search of jobs. Once there they took on the lowest posts in urban society, working mostly as maids and laborers. There were also obliged for the most part to suppress their origins – even abandoning their surnames and inventing new Spanish ones to avoid discrimination.

Melilla’s mother was one of these maids. She left her rural home at age nine to work in Santiago. “I never saw her. I was brought up by my aunt and grandmother,” he says. While his family told him to be proud of his “indian” origins, those who still knew Mapudungun (the Mapuche language) never saw fit to teach it to the younger generations, so devalued was it in urban Chilean culture.

Under the agrarian reforms of Salvador Allende’s 1970-73 government, thousands of hectares of land was to be returned to the Mapuche people. However, in the ensuing dictatorship period, Augusto Pinochet quickly shut down that possibility. Nevertheless, hope remains among Mapuche that their lands will one day be returned. “Mapuche means People of the Land,” says Melilla. “Without land, we are just people, nothing more.”

He hopes that  this and other similar projects will cultivate the sense of obligation among young, urban, educated Mapuche to return to rural Mapuche communities to help out. “We are very lucky to be able to study. The majority of our people don’t have that opportunity. Unfortunately, the Mapuche are among the worst-off in educational statistics in this country.”

Of the government, Melilla remains sceptical. “Sure, there have been Mapuche people in Parliament, but they always become too partisan – they worry about the wellbeing of their party over that of their people.” His only hope is that global pressure on Chile to comply with the various international conventions on the treatment of indigenous people which it currently ignores will have some effect. He’s also crossing his fingers that on May 21, when Chile celebrates the anniversary of the Iquique naval battle, President Michelle Bachelet will, “after spending half an hour talking about military spending,” devote a minute or two of her speech to the nation on indigenous issues.

“But really I have little hope for the government,” he says. “We have to start off with culture.”

Spreading the Word

Later in the week Melillan invites me to the official launch of the project, in the UV law school. When I arrive he’s handing out T-shirts with the Mapuche symbol for the cosmos on the back. “I always wear T-shirts with Mapuche causes on them,” he tells me. “And whatever class I take at the university, I always push the indigenous position. My classmates get bored: ‘oh, I wonder what Ivan’s going to say this time...’ But you have to kill the ignorance somehow.”

During the launch, Melillan and fellow Newen Weche Mapu member Sergio Millaman explain the structure of the project to the gathered 19 to 22-year-old Mapuche students. They will hold a series of weekly workshops for the next three months, addressing topics such as the Mapudungun language, Mapuche history, cosmology, food, and indigenous law. By the end of the project they hope the young people involved will be sufficiently prepared to run the course for incoming Mapuche students the following year.

Fewer students have showed up than Melillan hoped. He tells those there to talk to their Mapuche classmates and try to get them to come along. One girl speaks: “I tried already. I asked a guy in my class what his (Mapuche) surname meant. And he just gave me the dirtiest look and wouldn't answer.”

A man in the audience wants to know why the project is only open for Mapuche – and only Mapuche who can prove their origin, thus being eligible for the scholarships, at that. There are lots of non-Mapuche and “uncertified” Mapuche, he says, who might also be interested in the issue.

Melillan explains: “We’ve always said that discrimination is a product of ignorance. But we can’t reach everyone at the same time, so we have to start with and focus on Mapuche descendants first. From there they can share the information with everyone else.”

He doesn’t see this as a negative form of discrimination. “I say, well, maybe its OK for Chileans to feel discriminated against for once. The Chilean constitution says we are all Chileans. But there are a lot of indigenous people who don’t feel Chilean,” says Melillan.

Despite Melilla’s disappointment at the turnout, one middle-aged Mapuche women remains impressed with the number of people at the launch. “Back when we started this kind of work in Valpo, you’d be lucky to get two or three people in this room. We had to go from door to door, telling people ‘Guess what? You're Mapuche! Do you want to come and meet with other Mapuche and learn about your origin?’ So make the most of this occasion, of all the interested people you have here.”

Globalized, but Grounded

On Saturday, the group meets in the Mapuche Cultural Center in the Botanic Gardens on the outskirts of Viña del Mar. There’s a ruka (a thatched teepee-style house), some wooden tables sheltered by an awning of branches, and the remains of a campfire, on the edge of a large flat expanse of dirt with a wooden carved figure in the center.

While Melilla’s mother and sisters cook sopaipillas (fried flour fritters), the rest of the group starts to play with the Mapuche instruments that have been brought along – drums, seed rattles, a coiled horn. No-one is an expert. “I can only play PVC pipes,” laments one girl, trying and failing to make the horn sound.

“Hey, but we don’t have a trompe (Jew's harp),” says someone. Melilla pulls out his cell phone – the ring tone is a trompe – and people start playing in time with it.

“We’re more globalised now...We can never go back to living exactly the way our great grandparents lived. But we can keep the culture alive and moving,” he tells me, laughing.  Melilla says there are now several Chilean bands that play popular music styles – hip hop, dance hall, reggaeton –  using Mapuche lyrics, instruments and messages. “I think it’s a good thing. It’s a way of reaching people.”

Millaman agrees. “Culture is not static. It’s always changing, evolving. We want people to come out of this course with some new habits, some everyday things that take their indigeneity into account. Not something for tourists to take photos of.”

As the bus pulls out of the cultural center, Melilla jumps up and plays tour guide. “To your left you can see a settlement of the Mapuche, a people who used to live in Chile. They are now extinct. If you (pointing at me) had gone there, they would have eaten you,” he grins cheekily, tossing me a handful of piñones (toasted Araucaria pine seeds) for the ride home.

By Monica Evans (