Feature photo by Fenanov
Already good and stinkin’ drunk, two friends almost got plastered by a car right in front of me. Laughing they said to each other, “Nos vamos a morir!” Near death is never so funny as when one is shit-housed. Ah yes, the five-day celebration of Fiestas Patrias in Chile had begun, and it was only Wednesday. Already the stink of cheap Escudo lager permeated Bellavista, the so-called bohemian district of Santiago.
Saturday was technically the real deal, 200 years of “independence,” so the weekend figured to be a long one. Picture Lincoln Park on St. Patrick’s Day, with tight green shirt-wearing “trixies” escorted along by male counterparts, everybody drunk by 10 AM. Why? Because we can! How many people know what that holiday is supposed to be about, really? Oh yes it’s a good time, but who was St. Patrick? Independence from whom?
Two hundred years ago the colonizers of this country (an oft-repeated tale) effectively shook off their Spanish owners. No more taxes to Europe. The rich could get richer, and make sure they kept more money for themselves. Qué éxito! For some reason, we – and by we I mean us Americans from the south, central and northern Americas – plan big parties to pat ourselves on the back for what we have accomplished, together, in the name of patriotism; in the name of holy nationalism.
Let’s go on an imaginary journey. Say you live on a piece of country land in Montana. You have some cattle, chickens and plants growing. Flowers abound, and your homestead is idyllic. Your family has been here since 1776, perhaps. One day, a band of violent, armed persons decides your land is now their land. What do you do? After defending your family with your stock of rifles and handguns, you most likely remain safe. I suspect you probably have a title to that land, and the government of the country recognizes you as the proper owner according to the piece of paper with your name inked upon it. The marauders are prosecuted, you stay in your home; everybody happy.
But what happens if you don’t have your piece of paper? What happens if you share the land with your extended family, as you have for hundreds of years, and possess a shared identity, but failed to set up a government bureau to clarify that part is yours and this part is mine? What if you have no guns or horses, but the invaders do? Frankly, you’re quite possibly screwed. This is essentially what happened during the colonizing of the Americas the hemisphere over. People who lived here for centuries were wiped out. Not every indigenous group was affected equally, or even fought back necessarily. The Mapuche people did, and still are.
They constitute the largest native group of people in this land area now internationally known as “Chile.” They live in a region called the Araucanía, so named for the statuesque specimen of trees that fills the land. It is an area of extreme beauty, dotted with lakes and abundant vegetation. It has a wonderful climate for agricultural cultivation and raising vineyards. When the Spanish first arrived in Chile, they were unsuccessful in conquering the Mapuche people, but continued to try because the land was of such value. The Mapuche, on the other hand, have been fighting against colonization for 500 years. Two hundred years ago, when Chile was declared a republic, the Mapuche population was actually greater than the Spanish population, and it wasn’t for another 74 years that they were “officially” conquered and placed under the reservation system. Although they once held land stretching across the southern cone, and their reservation land comprises the size of Delaware, this group of Mapuche people, this large extended family, still identifies as its own nation, not as a part of Chile. The government (just like in the USA; AKA big business) has made empty promises and has privatized nearly all of the land that may be useful for building farms, constructing highways or sourcing water.
There has been little accomplished in regards to addressing the wishes of the human beings that are indigenous to this area. An anti-terror law that was put in place in 1984 under the brutal military dictatorship of Pinochet is now being used against the people, as other means of control and purchasing the people are proving ineffective. The law lists arson as terrorism, an extremely serious charge. The Mapuche nation continues its struggle sometimes using arson and property damage as its weapons, but has not harmed any persons. The law also allows the accused to be held indefinitely and be tried simultaneously in both civil and military courts. The only deaths caused during altercations between the Mapuche and the Carabineros (police force) of Chile are on the Mapuche side. Three young activists have been shot dead by police since 2002.
There are 34 Mapuche political prisoners on hunger strike since July 12th. This, along with international pressure coming from the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other solidarity groups of Europe and the Americas are causing the Chilean government to re-assess the application of the anti-terror law. Chile is a signatory of the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention of 1989, which states that indigenous peoples the world over have a right to continue their way of life, language and livelihood of their forebears. This is not being followed, and Chilean President Sebastian Piñera says that it is a non-binding treaty, so it doesn’t have to be followed.
Sitting at a friend’s home recently, I overheard another guest say “Why on earth do they (Mapuche) continue fighting?” Having not brought my soapbox with me, I kept my mouth shut as I wondered to myself, “Well, why not?” Those of us who live and sometimes participate in our partial-democracies are encouraged to espouse a certain form of patriotism. Never the kind that questions the motivations of one’s country, it is a blind patriotism. Somehow it is laughable to refer to the Mapuche as a nation, but the notion of Chile as a formal country is held as nearly sacred.
Here in Chile, corporate-controlled media outlets continue to show images of empanadas, chicha, wine, and huasos and all things typically promoted as “Chilean” during this celebration of country. What they don’t cover are the protests against the oppression of indigenous protestors or the many well-written and performed non-mainstream media sanctioned bicentennial plays and societal critiques that present the history of the pueblo or the Spanish corporate takeover of the Araucanía from another perspective. Everything is white-washed in nationalism and civic pride. But there is no one people, no single history. As much as we may feel united by a somewhat shared culture, there are large class distinctions that separate many people and color their experiences of the past and present. If the myth of one nation under god were true, there would not be such gross inequality.
Throughout the weekend of the bicentennial celebration, I asked many Chilean people if they felt particularly Chilean and proud. Not a single one in my un-scientific study said yes. A few told me they felt patriotic after the earthquake that hit this past February and upended Concepción. But then again, so did I, and I wasn’t born here. Just like the day we found out that the 33 miners are still alive in Copiapó. I had been wandering around La Vega market, perusing bins of vegetables, waiting for my bike brakes to be fixed. Many stalls had television sets shouting the good news about their confirmed safe condition. I jumped with happiness just as everyone else did because they are fellow humans. Their wholeness and happiness matters to me just as the wellness of 24 million homeless Pakistani flood victims. So I ask, what exactly is nationalism? Does patriotism serve a purpose? While a shared vision of a better future is not a bad thing, if we can’t recognize and rectify past injustices and large class differences, how can we ever design a path toward collective betterment?