The Myth of Nationalism

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?

7 thoughts on “The Myth of Nationalism

  1. Interesting article. Nonetheless, I don’t believe nationalism to be a myth, just like racism or sexism is a myth. Yes, they are all socially constructed and some say that the more we recognize their power through labeling, the more we empower them to influence the institutional structures that guide our lives. However, we have to be smarter than that. Just ignoring something exist as an individual or a group of individuals do not instantly make the issue go away or removes race, for example, from being the focal point of our lives (in the context of the U.S.). We must find ways to chip away at the different forms of oppression. The same goes for nationalism. Well, I wouldn’t say we should find ways to chip away at nationalism – there are many positive things about embracing a collective destiny defined by shared historical trajectories. Nonetheless, we must search for a more democratic nationalism that includes the histories of oppressed peoples, like the indigenous populations of this continent while simultaneously practicing an ethic of solidarity, i.e. an “American” (in the context of the Americas). Just as our individual identities are multiple layers so are our collective identities.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful comments, Xavi.

    I would only like to add that the reason I chose the word “myth” instead of fabrication or fiction, as the term is often construed, can best be said by Merriam-Webster:

    Myth –
    a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.

    Be well,

  3. I have to agree with Sharlene on this one. Sorry Xavi. I believe Nationalism has a nasty habit of hindering movement and progress. I’m not a bandera wielding Mexican and by association I’m an estranged Cuban. My pride comes from a cultural and familial connection to my families migrant history. I don’t believe the Mexican government has done all it can to protect it’s people from the U.S. economic choke hold of the wester hemisphere. I believe Mexico should and could do better to resist the U.S. imperial controls of it’s South and Central American sisters and brothers, as a gateway to the majority Spanish speaking America. On the other hand my heritage and connections to Cuba are largely mythological, in the same ways, my roots to Mexico can be construed. I have lived in Mexico only 6 months (one semester of college) and in that state of mind, my identity was constantly challenged. I’m feel and am more American than Mexican. I am and never cold be Mexican. I never lived the immigrant experience. I was born in this country. I have the privileges and responsibilities of a US citizen. So do you I assume. Nationalism is mythical in nature, it presumes a uniformity that is grossly exaggerates universalism among a body of people from varying ethnic, economic and social casts. An impoverished light skinned Mexican farmer worker is not the same as an elite, though darker skinned Coca Cola executive in D.F. Their nationhood is negotiable to the privileges and denies set before them.

    My grandmother is Mexican. My mother was an anchor baby, thus raised in Mexico until she was 14, but solidly a US citizen and more American identified than me. I’m a gay, beige US-America Citizen, but my nation is the queer of color community of artists and cultural makes and breaks.

    Furthermore, the Nationalism we’re used to from ethnic-minorities in the U.S. is more reactionary than the patriotism inherent to or created in the motherlands. A Puerto Rican in the U.S. over-compensates (sorry Xavi) his pride and ego, through nationalism, as a reaction to the nationless reality of the territory. Mexicans bolster their flag as a cultural stance, of defiance and difference from the hegemonic mainstream identity that denies and defies their existence.

    I’m not saying, nationalism, patriotism, and cultural pride are strictly reactionary, but It would be interesting to reference bi-nationals in other countries. What do Mexicans in Canada feel and look like?

    (disclaimer) I am not a Nationalist and never will be. I’m quite apposed to nationalism as cultural identifier. And this stance does come from my own sense of isolation and insecurity as a “Cubexican-America.” I’ve grappled with nationalistic identifies such as Chicano, Xican@, etc. But, none fit and none ever will. I prefer to be part of the queer nation. The queer of color nation. The nationless-state.

  4. LOL

    No over-compensation here, just another form of resistance.

    If you believe you are an “American” in the context of the U.S. then you’re already lost. 🙂

  5. One thing that is important to note though is the following: “A Puerto Rican in the U.S. over-compensates (sorry Xavi) his pride and ego, through nationalism, as a reaction to the nationless reality of the territory. Mexicans bolster their flag as a cultural stance, of defiance and difference from the hegemonic mainstream identity that denies and defies their existence.”

    Puerto Ricans are actually very similar to Mexicans in that sense of using nationalism and ethnic pride to jump-start political struggles or use a form of resistance to assimilation and discrimination. What are you referencing to justify saying that it is about overcompensation and ego just for Puerto Ricans and not about Mexicans? Is it solely because Puerto Rico is a colony and there exists a definite Mexican nation-state? If that is the case, then what are Chicanas/os practicing? According to your logic, they would be overcompensating through cultural identity for the fact they lost their land and are forced to live in a cutural limbo or as Alzaldúa would call it, a Borderland? (That is not true of course, just as it is not for Puerto Ricans). How do you define a “nation” especially in this transnational, globalized planet (nationalism is moving beyond traditional political borders an that is the beauty of such socially constructed markers -they can be and should be fluid, every-changing, and molded to suit a particular context)?

    Your statement is actually offensive to Puerto Ricans, especially since it is not based on a keen socio-historical and cultural analysis of a collective experience. It is probably from you encountering some Puerto Rican in your life who said they believed they were better than you, which added to your self-diagnosed (and quite unfortunate) insecurity about you own identity. Remember, colonial people, just like other people of color (even Mexicans), translate internalized hatred into gross statements of superiority. However, that does not mean that is the norm, or the standard popular discourse, nor does it justify you ignoring the context in which people operate in.

    Just wanted you to know how ignorant a statement that was, especially since you have had plenty of opportunities in person to dialogue about these issues with me. I have no idea why you feel to do that now (along with you other perplexing comments on my articles on here). In essence, I have no more time to have quasi-intellectual internet conversations when you cannot even convey your ideas properly in person. You probably will say (as you have before) that you really don’t care or its not that important to you anyway. Pues, callete. 🙂

  6. It is certainly true that nationalist projects have involved various forms of erasures and exclusions. The case of the Mapuche people is an apt case from which to probe (and perhaps, protest) the limitations of nationalism. Similar expositions have been done on other national projects. However, I question whether the case of Mapuches is best understood through the lens of class, as if class difference best captured what is at stake or is the foundational difference obscured by nationalism. Or even, how the author implicitly promotes another myth, that overcoming nationalism will lead necessarily to better grounds for collective futures. Unfortunately, it is not that simple and thus that mode of action is unsatisfactory. We live a sociohistorical reality marked by intersecting ‘myths’ (stories we are told and tell ourselves) about the nature of our existence, individual and collective and our relations with the world. Nationalism is no different from other myths (although histories and modes of belonging vary). The question of deconstruction is always attractive, and often useful for uncovering relations of domination implicit in the very categories we use, but it is never enough. The more difficult task, which we also do out of the myths and raw conditions we have exist in, is to construct new myths, myths that are more inclusive (but not on a basis of false universalisms), sensitive to difference (without essentializing them). That is a task, we desperately need, and a task, I believe we can grow from the threads of resistance and critique that are found stubbornly within our contemporary myths. In the case of nationalism, we can find aspects that are valuable, as least in the case of nationalism, I know best, Puerto Rican identity. Thanks for the article and the commentary below for stimulating my thinking and providing forum for expression.

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