Culture shock: living with the Mapuche

SANTIAGO, Chile — It was the first time this group of eighth-graders from the capital had milked a cow, chopped wood and unearthed potatoes, but what really got them were the bathrooms: outdoor latrines that they only ventured to use two days into their stay.

The 16 students from the Francisco de Miranda school in Santiago spent almost a week living with indigenous Mapuche communities near Temuco, more than 420 miles south of the city. It was their first-ever, day-to-day, personal contact with the Mapuche. There are no Mapuche students in their school or families in their middle-class neighborhoods.

Like most Chileans, the students were unfamiliar with the Mapuche, who make up about 10 percent of Chile's population and are concentrated in the south.

They were received by indigenous students their own age through a program called Ruka Kimun (“House of Knowledge” in Mapudungun, the Mapuche native tongue). A similar program exists for U.S. university exchange students, but it was only offered to Chilean middle schoolers for the first time in November.

Schoolchildren from the Mapuche community Colpanao.
(Courtesy Ruka Kimun)

“They are two totally different realities, and for us, it was fundamental for Mapuche youths to get to know the reality of Chilean students their age in Santiago. Some of our students have never even been to Temuco [10 miles away]. And the kids from Santiago learned what it means to say that 85 percent of the Mapuche live in poverty, because they experienced it themselves,” said Juan Antonio Painecura, director of Ruka Kimun.

The first couple of hours were uncomfortable for everyone. Right off the bus from Santiago at 7 a.m., the students were taken to the local school, where the program organizers had prepared a huge breakfast of milk, cereal, yogurt, bread, cake and juice. But it also coincided with breakfast time for the 200 students of the small, impoverished municipal school: half a glass of milk and a portion of plain bread.

“I wanted to die,” recalled Painecura. “That’s what our children usually get for breakfast, and they were watching the ones from Santiago feasting on all we had prepared. It was terrible, and I think everyone felt very bad about this.”

That was the first contrast and many more would follow, starting with the bathrooms.

“Our students were shocked about the latrines. At first, they would go searching for a bathroom and once they found out it was an outdoor latrine, they couldn’t bring themselves to go in,” said Oriana O’Shee, one of the two teachers who accompanied the group from Santiago.

Amid the native flora on Nielol Hill, a young Mapuche educator taught the children the basics of Mapudungun. Other classes included Mapuche philosophy, history and culture and the importance of biodiversity. The Santiago students became familiar with Mapuche instruments and played palin, a traditional game similar to hockey. They also learned about medicinal herbs and visited a workshop where women weaved and dyed fabric using traditional methods.

One day, the children split into small groups and spent the morning with a Mapuche family, contributing to their daily customs: milking cows, collecting eggs, picking vegetables from the garden for lunch, feeding the pigs, chopping wood, preparing bread or helping clear the land.

“It was surprising for me to see how they lived. They live very humbly, very different from us. But these families were so nice and hospitable. It was the best part of the trip,” said Natalia Gonzalez, one of the students from Santiago.

Another day, the Santiago students rode atop carts pulled by oxen and horses to the house of another family, where they helped level the land for the construction of a ruka, a traditional Mapuche hut made of straw and lumber.

“Everything they experienced and saw, in terms of comfort and lifestyle, made them value what they had. They would talk about it at night, when they all had to write in a diary. They were shocked about what they had and what the Mapuche didn’t,” said O’Shee.

Chileans' knowledge of the Mapuche mostly comes from television news reports about what has come to be called the "Mapuche conflict" over ancestral land the indigenous population claims as its own. There they see images of Mapuche taking over lands held by lumber companies or large landholders, setting fire to farm machinery, protesting on rural roads and being arrested in often violent police raids.

The Santiago students discussed the conflict with their Mapuche counterparts, one of whom was just half Mapuche and didn’t like the means the Mapuche were using to claim lands.

"They started talking about genetics and what it meant to have Mapuche blood. One of our students summed it up saying that in spite of everything, the Mapuche were part of our country, and they were human beings with rights over what they had before the Chilean army occupied their territory and so should be supported,” said O’Shee.

Beyond the land conflict and the economic disparities, what the students learned is simple: Mapuche teenagers are just like them.

“The kids here are the same as the ones in Santiago, the same as any other: We like the same music, we want to do the same things and we like to play just like them," said Alyne Molina, one of the Santiago students. "We ended up friends.”

The author's daughter was one of the students from the Francisco de Miranda school who participated in the exchange.