After decades of invisibilization, thanks to their associations, Mapuche inhabitants of urban areas in Chile are becoming essential actors in local political life. In post dictatorship Chili, democratic governments were interested in a renewal of relations with Indian populations, the Mapuche in particular. Most Mapuche live today in peripheral neighborhoods of Santiago, where they have built up a complex network of more or less ethnic associations. This urban presence had remained invisible for many decades, mainly due to the fact that Chilean institutions had a ruralist and archaic vision of the Indian world. This inquiry intersects with two central issues:
- The transformation of State discourse and public policies relative to Indian peoples;
- Changes in the role and strategies of Mapuche urban organizations in this new situation of recognition.
The ethnography carried out in Mapuche organizations in Santiago is the basic material used in the analysis of politics in a time of interculturality in Chile. This kind of approach, which studies in detail aspects of everyday life, will make possible an inquiry as to the place members of Mapuche associations can have in the political life of a municipality and the role they impose on their ethnic identity to maintain their importance in this political game.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Mapuche people occupied a territory encompassing the entire center-southern region of today’s Chile. Their territory represented the last impenetrable border faced with which the Spanish conquest stopped. For several decades, the Mapuche maintained their sovereignty faced with the colonizers, conducting relations with the latter via political negotiations. With Chile’s independence in 1810 and the autonomy of the territories, the independence of the Mapuche territories became an obstacle to the project of national unification. To resolve the situation, the new Chilean State launched a campaign of conquest, which ended in 1883 with the occupation of the entire Mapuche territory and the extermination of over half its population. Survivors were put on rural reserves that represented scarcely 6 % of their original territory. The disruption of their productive, social and political structures led to a gradual pauperization of the Mapuche population, part of which migrated to the country’s main urban centers. During most of the Republican era and until the end of the dictatorship era (1973-1989), a systematic policy of assimilation, of “invisibilization” and liquidation was directed by the State towards the Mapuche population.
Cacique Cariman et sa famille, 1859.
The policies initiated in the 1990s only proposed solutions based on cultural revitalization and economic development. Without refusing policies of assistance, Mapuche associations were more inclined to challenge the culturalist context, attempting to become discussion partners with the local administration in their own right. Along with the constant task of legitimizing their presence in the urban milieu, members advocate direct participation in political life and management of local services.
Marcela Lincovil: A transition figure
Marcela Lincovil is a 35-year old young woman born in Santiago, where she lives and works. Dedicated to the project of reclaiming and spreading her culture, she is president of the Kallfulikan Mapuche association. Her parents, from the Araucania region, are members of the association and its main referents in regard to knowledge of Mapuche practices, language, and vision of the cosmos. During her childhood, however, Marcela was not encouraged to speak the Mapuche language or take part in traditional practices. Her interest in both came later, on entering into adult life. She is now a recognized figure in the association, in local administration and municipal services, and manages all contacts with civil servants and local government representatives. Her experience and expertise have enabled her to weave a vast network, far beyond the municipality. Her knowledge of the local political milieu and visibility as an Indian representative have been a support on her way to a more direct political commitment. In recent years she has several times been candidate for the municipal council and for legislative elections, and although neither of the two attempts were successful, according to members of the association, they nonetheless marked a significant change vis-à-vis local institutions: she showed that the Mapuche were capable of organizing themselves and of expressing themselves politically, without needing professional politicians as intermediaries. As a member with expert experience in the codes of both worlds, she is, in fact, a figure of transition in the association.
Speech of Marcela Lincovil.