(First published in Instituto Manquehue)
Mapuche poetry has been a consistent trajectory expressing resistance against the oblivion and discrimination enforced upon the indigenous population through colonisation and subsequent governments targeting the community with oppressive laws. The literary realm attempts to connect the historical struggle against colonisation to the social problems constituting the enforced oblivion faced by the Mapuche people.
It is difficult to speak of ‘vestiges’ of oppression in the allegedly democratic era following the fall of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, as subsequent governments have embarked upon a more refined replication of the ethnocide and displacement characterising Mapuche history.
The Mapuche resistance against Spanish colonisation creates a backdrop against which the population has been able to reconstruct the dynamics of resilience against governments who have marginalised the indigenous population. Following the declared independence of the Chilean State, the colonisation of Mapuche territory through land purchase and expropriation led to the alleged pacification, which in reality accelerated defeat through military conquest. Restricting Mapuche communities was a step towards attempting assimilation of the indigenous population within the state, thus eliminating any references to territorial reclamation. In 1979 during Pinochet’s dictatorship, laws decreed that “the divided lands will no longer be considered indigenous lands, and the people living on those lands will no longer be considered indigenous.” The Mapuche people remain incarcerated within practices of oblivion, including the repression of history and culture in education and other forms of social exclusion leading to poverty and restriction of basic services including health and education, to prevent any possible reclamation of rights.
Oblivion, therefore, has been managed by the Chilean state through repressive laws capitulating to the proven violence of neoliberalism – a relic of Pinochet’s dictatorship which has been endorsed by the Concertación governments. This is particularly evident in the manipulation of anti-terror laws enacted during the dictatorship – now utilised to target Mapuche communities in order to annihilate resistance. The official divestment of identity required the rethinking of Mapuche resistance with regard to territory – the preservation of the indigenous subaltern memory of a community whose ancestral ties to land have been severed by colonialism, the emergence of the Chilean state and the application of Pinochet’s anti-terror laws. Despite the tenacious collective memory, the Mapuche struggle is marginalised through the dominant narrative which continuously strives to obscure the dynamics of resistance embedded within a community which has not relinquished its definition of nationhood.
It is pertinent, therefore, to assert that Chilean governments are committed to obliterating indigenous identity in order to deconstruct the struggle for recognition into terrorism which is erroneously justified by the application of the anti-terror legislation, upholding historical injustice while displacing the atrocities and violence committed by the state upon Mapuche activists. As is evidenced in past struggles, the state attempts to foment further division by differentiating between Mapuche activists and the rest of the community in political rhetoric; a tactic to dissolve unity which, authorities hope, will ultimately lead to a permanent dissolution of identity.
Recognition of the Mapuche demands remains fragmented, with post-dictatorship governments embarking upon deliberate compromises to enforce oblivion. Political participation remained marginalised and the New Indigenous Peoples Act (1993) did not recognise ancestral claims to land, thus the Mapuche remained estranged from the geophysical dimensions of their struggle. The ambiguity enforced by colonisation and subjugation is entrenched with legislation that seeks to create alienation from the ramifications of historical and contemporary memory. Thus, political autonomy, the recognition of the Mapuche as a nation, land reclamation and control over natural resources remain confined to a struggle which governments have sought to oppress, through eradication of the socioeconomic framework. This led to a rise in Mapuche social and political activism that has been criminalised under the anti-terror legislation. In pledging allegiance to the neoliberal framework endorsed by Pinochet, subsequent governments have modified discourse to depict the plunder of natural resources and destruction of landscape as progress and improving infrastructure. Governments, therefore, have opted for neutralisation policies that would further oppress the struggle for recognition and rights – a strategy that backfired in a renewed struggle for autonomous indigenous identity.
Mapuche poetry encompasses the collective struggle in a manner which displays the connection between language and land. For the Mapuche, language serves as a medium of expression in which historical memory is amalgamated with the ongoing social struggle, always in relation to land. Hence, through language and metaphor, the recuperation of culture occurs through countering the marginalisation enforced upon the population; a marginalisation occurring through the authorities’ tenacity to adhere to and manipulate the oppression inflicted by colonisation and legislation pertaining to the dictatorship.
Mapuche poet Jaime Luis Huenún describes literature as “creating a more visible culture” and marked by the anti-colonial struggle. Since the anti-colonial struggle is part of the Mapuche collective memory framework, Huenún insists that the idea of individuality that is cherished in the West with regard to creative work does not apply to Mapuche literature. Literature becomes the medium of articulating the community’s struggle. The same collective expression was expressed by Mapuche poet Leonel Lienlaf: “More than a representative of my culture, I come from it. I am an expression of it.” Collective memory, therefore, transcends the confines of individual expression to encompass a unified struggle against the neoliberal economic reforms that attempt to instigate assimilation in order to neutralise the reclamation of land, cultural and historical expression.
Mapuche poetry is a fluid expression of the contradiction between the restrictions placed upon the indigenous population through colonialism and the dynamics which have enabled a constant struggle against the dominating neoliberal political framework prevailing in Chile. While colonialism and neoliberalism have desecrated the Mapuche conservation of land, the indigenous struggle and its portrayal through literature has promulgated both the ancestral legacy and the affirmation of history – elements that override the external and hostile definition of what constitutes the indigenous. The political and socio-cultural aspects remain central to land reclamation and Mapuche identity, challenging continuous policies which elaborate upon allegedly inclusive rhetoric while increasing marginalisation through the criminalisation of Mapuche resistance.
The challenge within collective memory is best portrayed in the incisive poetry of David Aniñir Guilitraro, an urban Mapuche whose work challenges the imposed obliteration of history. In an interview which I carried out with Aniñir, it is explained that the poetic concept of identity incorporated within the book harbours “revenge against everything”. Aniñir explains, “My construction of the subject should be read within the context of discrimination and deprivation. We are the children of dispossession, of the exile suffered by our parents … Mapuche people have suffered as political prisoners, been subjected to murder, flawed trials and judicial assembly, militarization of communities – all these things are undeniable in our history. That’s my poetic art – corrosive, foul, crude. It is a poetic revenge against everything.” Fragmentation and retention of identity are exacerbated through the dynamics of nostalgia, experiences which accumulate and remain in constant conflict between fluidity due to the evolution of culture within the urban landscape and the imagined nostalgia which, nonetheless, retains significance within the collective experience of forced eviction.
Poetry exists as a collective expression despite the individual artistic articulation. For Aniñir, poetic expression is synonymous with experiences of the indigenous population and the importance of identity reconstruction within the urban framework. Expressing the collective identity is also important in the rewriting of history; the necessity to challenge official historical discourses which fabricate the memory of the oppressed in order to retain the hegemonic narrative. The trend is not solely confined to academia; it infiltrates official policy in order to discover the means of diminishing atrocities committed against the Mapuche people by distorting the dynamics of force to portray a conflict as opposed to systematic oppression.
The fragmentation expressed in Mapuche poetry incorporates a passion incumbent upon reflection wrought by distance and a lack of documented memory which is indicative of the turbulence associated with a permanent homecoming. In the absence of inscribed history, Mapuche poetry reveals the magnitude of nostalgia as a political testimony of forced displacement, a documentation of silence as collective memory in its various dimensions continues to assert its relevance within the wider context of the social and political struggle.