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Culture shock: living with the Mapuche

An exchange program gives middle school students from Santiago their first contact with indigenous 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.