On Monday, we met with Pedro Meriman Quemenado, a Mapuche leader and lawyer. He explained to us in great depth about the Mapuche history in relationship to the “huicas” (the White mixed/Mestizo Chileans). Contrary to popular beliefs that homogenize the Mapuche, Pedro highlighted that the Mapuches are made up of several distinct groups that each have their own relationship to the land. For example, there are the Mapuche of the valley, the mountains, the river, the forests, etc. Their unique identity with different landscapes really emphasized for me the connection that the Mapuche have with nature and the land. Because of this, when the European colonizers divided the Mapuche land into “Titulos de Merced”, they encroached upon not only their homes, land, and culture but most importantly, stole from the Mapuche a significant part of their identity. I was surprised to hear at the end of his talk, that even though Pedro was not Mapuche (but instead a Chilean Mestizo), he still identified as one of them. This raised the following question for me. What constitutes as belonging to a cultural identity? Is it hereditary, learned, or both?
When we finally arrived to Pucon, I began to understand (even though at a superficial level), why the land brought about such attachment and admiration from the Mapuche, it was spectacular and humbling. The dramatic landscape with its snow topped volcanoes, the Andes, it’s lakes, forests, valleys and wildlife was jaw-dropping. We were welcomed to the “ruka” (a traditional Mapuche home) by our host father, Alejandro, the “lonko” (chief) of the surrounding Mapuche families, his wife and son, Pablo. Alejandro explained to us the importance of being the “wise man” in the town and his responsibility to preserve Mapuche culture, language, and traditions. Through the home-stay they offer to people from all over the world, they are able to raise awareness about the Mapuche by immersing their visitors to their special way of life. Today I learned that part of their unique cultural identity is reflected in their gastronomy, ceremonial practices and daily work.
In more detail and in terms of their gastronomy, I was shocked to learn that horse meat is part of Mapuche diet. Even more interesting is their historical reason for eating horses. A symbol of the Spanish colonizers, the horses were seen as critical weapons against the Mapuche. For this reason, if the Mapuche killed and ate the horses, the Spanish lost an essential tool for the repression of the Mapuche. As a result of this way of shifting the power structure, the Mapuche still retain horse meat as a special part of their diet. Another interesting tradition we learned that occurs every 2 years, is the sacrificing of a cow. Pablo himself prides himself in being the honored man who rips the live cow’s heart from the animal during this important ritual. In addition to his many roles, Pablo is the butcher of the village and the carpenter, builder and architect of his family’s ruka.
Despite his traditional responsibilities and rural background in Araucania, Chile, I was fascinated to learn that as a 28-year-old living in the 21st century, he had had the opportunity to travel to Austria, learn German, and work even at Oktoberfest. More importantly, he chose to return home to his family and continue to preserve his culture bringing back with him new knowledge and strategies for his families educational Mapuche home-stay program.
I learned today that everything for the Mapuche has meaning and a special connection to their culture. Being Mapuche does not have to be born into, it is a culture, a way of life and connection to nature that they are eager to share with any audience so that the Mapuche knowledge is preserved and never forgotten.
Today began with a rather emotional, insightful, delightful speaker named Gabriela Zuniga. Gabriela runs a non-profit that helps families of those who disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship find their loved ones. Gabriela’s deep personal connection with her organization — her husband is of the disappeared — is what really struck me. She candidly, (and often humorously) described her romance and heartbreak-laden story. This candidness is perhaps why I became so emotional during her talk — her friendly tone and openness made it much easier to really connect and empathize with her.
I think I was most taken aback when she described the actual process of uncovering the remains of the disappeared. She said that often, bodies were found in pieces. She knew of cases where a dismembered body would be found, assumed to be one person, and then later identified as several. She mentioned a friend who’s husband’s leg was found with the remains of another person, and so on. She also described one particularly shocking, awful story: she had another friend whose husband’s remains were returned — but all he consisted of at that point was one finger. I can’t even imagine the pain that woman experienced; she spent years searching for her husband and yearning for closure, and then to have him returned in that state? I have never experiences anything so awful so perhaps that’s why I had a hard time with that particular story.
I also found it both interesting and impressionable that Gabriela spends most of her time either searching for her husband or working with her organization. She experienced such horror and loss during the dictatorship, but is constantly surrounded by remnants of it. She is an incredibly strong woman to be able to handle all that! I know that if I had, in any way, been affected by loss during the Pinochet dictatorship, I would probably have moved far, far away from Chile and any remnants of such terrors. I guess that just shows how people have different ways of dealing with loss and closure. Gabriela even emphasized that she’s not sure if she ever wants to find her husband — but then why keep looking? I suppose it can be very difficult to full move on without knowing, but at what point do you stop looking?
This opportunity was a great way to not only learn about how the Mapuche people live, but to also fully engage and help in their daily activities. I got the opportunity to cook with Doña Benita, the mother of the household, and talk to her about what it means to be a woman in the Mapuche community. She herself being the wife of the Lonko, one of the chiefs in the Mapuche tribe, gives a very unique perspective to the Mapuche outlook on life and the role that women play in the community. Doña Benita demonstrated a level of independence and strength that was very refreshing and inspiring. She seemed to have an influential role in the household, and proved to be very opinionated about current national politics and the issues present in the Mapuche community. Right before leaving to Chile, I wrote a paper delving into how feminism fits into the Mapuche community. My research showed a tendency for feminism to come secondary to the advocacy for the broader Mapuche cause. I then assumed that because of this imbalance, there really weren’t many instances of women activists that pushed for significant reform for the women’s movement. Having the opportunity to speak to Mapuche women, including Doña Benita and Conny, a college student who also identifies as a strong feminist, showed me how wrong my assumptions had been. Women in the Mapuche community are not weak or subdued; they are pioneers in the education system and entrepreneurs in the business sector. They have goals and ambitions, and recognize how institutionalized systems have presented obstacles on the quest of achievement.
The day continued on to include fun activities, from learning to carve wooden structures, to playing some good old futbol! The dinners were amazing, not only because of the scrumptious food that was prepared, but because of the insightful conversation that was always so present. Both groups had the opportunity to learn so much about the other through a continuous exchange of questions and answers. There was one specific point that especially resonated with me. One of the daughters in the house, who was considered one of the most influential women entrepreneurs in the area, warned us that the Mapuche lifestyle that we had experienced was far from the reality for most of this community. I am thankful for being made aware of this truth, as it allowed me to put into perspective how our privilege as tourists will always make it difficult to truly experience the lives of the people we are hoping to learn from.
“Fear pilots the state of terror.”
Hauntingly true words said by Patricio Lanfranco on our last night in Tinquilco.
A man whose work pushed him to face horrifying realities about human nature, about the rationale of justification, about the ways in which stories are told and silenced.
During our time in Chile, we heard personal accounts from those who suffered during the dictatorship and encountered a depth of detail that went far beyond our readings from class.
We listened to passionate explanations of the systematic restructuring that has lead to the “false democracy” in Chile today, even though it is often hailed as one of the most successful and stable democracies in Latin America today.
For us, this history grew into a breathing reality as we stepped out of Arturo Merino Benitez and into the spring air of Santiago. As we saw the ways in which public spaces had become canvases. As we witnessed interactions between people. As we walked through the buildings.
We saw the remnants.
And the history that they carried.
In thinking about the atrocities that took place, one must not think only about the victims but also the people who committed these crimes.
And many of them are still walking in the streets without having faced justice.
In human rights discourse, there is this image of a red line that cannot be crossed.
But what are the motivations behind someone crossing it? How can that person justify those actions to him or herself in order to continue to commit such acts? How can doctors defend the use of their knowledge to calculate the amount of torture a body can receive before going into shock?
Fear twists conscience in something unimaginable. Something uncontrollable.
Something that weighs the world on a different scale.
It amplifies the past and erases the future.
And although fear may not be the entirety, it’s what keeps such savagery alive.
Reflecting upon fear, it is important to see the ways in which it plays a role today. What rights are currently being abused? Why is the NSA tapping phones and communication lines? Why has the U.S. tortured and abused prisoners in Guantánamo?
How can we prevent this fear from justifying actions taken by our own government?
How do we bring this back?
Yesterday was our second day in chile and definitely an intense, busy one. Luckily we’ve had the opportunity to reflect every night in order to better process our thoughts about everything we have been learning.
The day started off early with us going to Villa Grimaldi, a former torture center where the Pinochet regime kept the disappeared peoples. Our tour guide, Pedro, was a former prisoner there, and it made the experience that much more difficult to bear. He went into detail about all of the atrocities committed during the regime, yet managed to stay completely professional. Many of us were wondering how he was able to come back to a place that was so emotionally traumatizing. The most heartwarming moment of the day for me was when I gave Pedro a duke hat we had brought for him, and he was definitely touched by it.
The second stop of the day was for a lecture on Mapuche identity. We’ve been studying them in class so it was really interesting to add to our knowledge. The Mapuche are marginalized in society and aren’t given the rights they seek as an indigenous group. Throughout the past two days it has been emphasized that Chileans think of themselves as a single nation, however the Mapuche are currently not a part of this national identity.
Our third visit was to the museum of memory, a government sponsored museum about the thousands of people killed when Pinochet took power. The museum has only been open for a couple of years, demonstrating the power of the attempt to cover up these atrocities committed. One theme that was prevalent throughout the day was the importance of memory and spreading the story of the disappeared peoples in order for something like this to never happen again.
The last stop of the day was to londres 38, another former torture center located in the middle of the city. The house was kept exactly as it was, and not turned into a museum, because they wanted it to be a place where people would bring their own memories. We also heard about an organization working to seek justice and hold those who killed all the people responsible. Up until 2006 they were still collecting evidence and confronting those who had yet to be prosecuted for their crimes.
Even though it was an emotionally intense day I was glad to be able to hear from so many different people about the things we have been studying in class the past few weeks. It was also encouraging to know that Chileans didn’t just accept the killings, but instead have been constantly protesting and seeking reparations for the families of the deceased.