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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.

“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.