Mapuche people participate in the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Rancagua. (Wikimedia Commons)

The recent social unrest in Chile has largely taken place in cities, where thousands have been protesting, demanding economic and political reforms. But there is another aspect to the estallido social (“social outburst”): the indigenous Mapuche people’s fight for political recognition. Although nearly 40 percent of the Mapuche people live in major cities, their efforts are concentrated in the southern region of Araucania, where the Mapuche live more traditional, rural lifestyles. In the past few months, Mapuche activists have renewed their protests, engaging in hunger strikes and occupying government buildings.

Last month, Fr. Carlos Bresciani, a Jesuit missionary and co-author of a book about the Mapuche, was arrested while trying to mediate between the carabineros (Chilean national police) and a group of Mapuche activists who occupied a municipal government building in the southern city of Tirúa. I spoke with Bresciani a few weeks after his arrest about the Mapuche protests, the estallido social, and the Jesuits’ relationship with the Mapuche. The interview has been edited for clarity.


SANTIAGO RAMOS: How did the Jesuits first arrive in Anillen, a Mapuche territory?

FR. CARLOS BRESCIANI: We arrived twenty years ago, after the Chilean Jesuits discerned a desire to work with the indigenous population, in particular the Mapuche. In Latin America in the 1990s, the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish inspired a resurgence of indigenous struggle. In this context, we wanted to help make life more dignified for the indigenous in our province. We found a place where several factors came together: in Tirúa, seven hundred kilometers south of Santiago, in Mapuche territory, many interesting things were happening. There was a new mayor who was Mapuche, and a very strong local indigenous movement. There was also a scarce ecclesial presence—they did not know Catholic priests in the region since the Spanish conquest, with all the good and the bad that that implies. We arrived without projects, only with a desire to help. The Lonko [Mapuche tribal leader] Teodoro Huenuman, the head of a nearby Mapuche community called Anillen, received us on his land. He allowed us to live and build a house there. Our residence depends on him and his family. I think this is a different way of arriving in a territory—you don’t come in as an institution, but by asking for permission.

SR: What do the Jesuits do in the community?

CB: We have three priorities. First, care for the environment—in particular, sustainable agriculture. Second, strengthening the Mapudungun, the Mapuche language. Language is culture and behind a language there is knowledge, spirituality, and political power, which might be lost due to the discrimination suffered by the older generations of Mapuche, who were encouraged to abandon their language. Third, we work to enhance the spiritual life of the region for both Christians and non-Christians.

Behind a language there is knowledge, spirituality, and political power, which might be lost due to the discrimination suffered by the older generations of Mapuche

SR: Why were you arrested? Was this the first time a Jesuit was arrested?

CB: Yes. One gets to know the people of the area, and I knew the people who had seized the municipal building. In fact, the [Mapuche] community held a meeting a few days earlier where they discussed ways that they would express solidarity with the hunger strikes [Mapuche protests taking place elsewhere in Chile]. They decided to occupy the municipal building in a peaceful manner and without damage to the place—in fact, many of the people who occupied the building are also employees of the municipality and work there. So they took it without violence. The next day, three hundred police, three or four blindados [small tanks that shoot tear gas], a big water cannon, two busloads of carabineros, a drone, and a plane all arrived in a town of about twelve thousand people. We never felt so taken care of!

The previous day, the activists who took the building had asked us if we would let them use a small stove to cook for those occupying the building. We said yes. One of the people inside the building called us and asked, “Could you come down to be a witness or mediator?” I said yes. I went down there immediately. I saw that the place is full of carabineros. I stood in front of a picket line. I tried to tell the carabineros, “Can we solve this some other way? Can we look at this some other way?” The truth is that the order had already been given. I stayed there to see what would happen. The activists had only been there for two days. They were already in negotiations with the mayor. This was all out of proportion and ridiculous. The sergeant or subofficial gave the order to enter the building—and they grabbed me, threw me to the ground, and took me to a holding cell in the local police station. I was held with two Mapuche leaders.

SR: Did they know you were a priest?

CB: No, no. I wasn’t able to tell them. The police were all from other towns. Once I arrived at the police station, the local police raised their eyebrows, as if saying, “Uh oh...” because they recognized me and knew I am a priest.

SR: Did they treat you well?

CB: Yes. Inside the cell, yes. They asked us if we were hurt. “No, no, we don’t have anything.” Later I overheard them, “Do you think the priest is lying?” [Laughs.] They didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t hurt.

SR: How did you pass the time in your cell?

CB: It was quite easygoing. They [the carabineros] showered us with pepper spray. We were tearing up, we couldn’t see. My clothing was even worse. It still smells like pepper, and washing it makes the smell worse. I heard from someone in the National Institute of Human Rights that pepper spray has not been regulated internationally, and we don’t know all of its effects. I have had burns for three days. But in truth, we were quite calm—we weren’t there for bad reasons, but for a just cause. Plus, let’s not kid ourselves. Chile is very classist: a non-indigenous priest, who looks like he comes from a posh family, is not going to be mistreated by the police.

SR: Why were you allowed to leave so quickly?

CB: People from the community started arriving in Tirúa. The communities blocked all the roads leading out of the area. This allowed us to be freed, because the procedure would have taken us to the nearest big city—which in this case was eighty kilometers away—to have our charges formalized by a judge. But now everyone was shut in, and so the carabineros started saying, “Let’s just get rid of this problem.” We were let go, and there were people outside waiting for us. We went to our church where we have a large hall, so that people could feel more comfortable, and there the altercation began.

The carabineros started guarding the municipal building and taking posts throughout the town, and this generated a lot of noise—rocks go in, tear-gas bombs go out, water cannons started shooting, and this was met with sticks and stones, for a long time. The carabineros were focused on protecting the municipal building. At five p.m. the fighting died down, because the occupiers decided that their political objective was met: to make their issue visible and to create noise. Not in the way they wanted to, but they did it. Occupying a municipal building is certainly illegal, but it is also a political act, and the government should have found a political means to resolve the conflict. Instead, they came into a small town and poured gasoline on the fire.

SR: In your book, Chilean Myths about the Mapuche People (co-authored with Fr. Juan Fuenzalida, SJ; Nicolas Rojas Pedemonte; and Fr. David Soto, SJ), you mention two obstacles to finding such a political solution: an economy based on extractivism and the excessive centralization of the Chilean state. You also claim that Chile does not recognize the Mapuche as a “political subject.” Could you say more about these problems?

CB: Extractivism has to do with the origins of all these problems. It harkens back to colonial times. The great problem of the indigenous peoples is that all those who arrived from outside always had one principal motive: the appropriation of natural resources. In colonial times, it was precious metals. Now it’s water, timber, and subsoil. Extractivism is the logic of a system based on consumption, which requires a lot of raw materials. Our country is a great exporter of raw material. To justify this, we once imagined the Mapuche to be “savages.” Now we say: “No one is using that land, anyway,” in the non-Mapuche sense of “use.”

It is the government of Santiago that founded Chile, and its system was reproduced throughout the land. It’s the same last names from back then that still govern Chile, those of the political class. They do not recognize the Mapuche as a genuine political subject.

The great problem of the indigenous peoples is that all those who arrived from outside always had one principal motive: the appropriation of natural resources.

SR: What does this recognition imply? You write that mere listening is not enough, that appreciating and preserving Mapuche culture is not enough.

CB: The recognition of the collective rights of a people. The Mapuche activists who today are on hunger strike are asking to be able to sit down with the Minister of Justice. This is their way of saying: we are not a trade union. We are a people. And this implies certain rights—territorial, linguistic, rights of association, of self-determination.

SR: Self-determination in this case would not be something new: the Mapuche’s independence was once both recognized by both Spain and Chile.

CB: Of course. The Spanish made a pair of treaties with the communities, where they were recognized as a nation without using that term. And Chile in its beginnings—Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the founders of Chile, recognized the Mapuche as a nation. “Let us treat each other like brothers.” Chile once recognized Mapuche independence. This changed in the nineteenth century. [Ed.: the Chilean government annexed most of the Mapuche territory between 1861 and 1883.]

SR: Everything we have been talking about is taking place on the eve of a referendum on a constitutional convention. Could a constitutional reform help the Mapuche obtain their goals?

CB: Yes. First off, I think that much of what the Mapuche are asking for is what the rest of Chile is also asking for in the estallido social. In fact, a slogan that one hears around here is, “What you are all living now, we have already been living for a long time.” The slogan refers both to the repression of the social movements, and to the demands that those movements make for a more participatory democracy, one that amounts to more than just a vote every four years and is controlled by an elite. The second thing I would say is that the great social demands of the estallido social—in the areas of education, health, pensions—have at their heart a notion of rights. These things are not benefits. They are rights. The term “benefits” give emphasis to the benefactor—the patron. “Rights” brings the focus back to the one who receives. This is what was put in play on October 18 [when the estallido began]. I believe it is a great opportunity to construct a new constitution that would establish a new framework for governance, which would guarantee rights not only for individuals but also for peoples. I believe that what’s needed is a wholly new constitutional assembly where there are seats saved for indigenous peoples—rather than the mixed parliamentary model that is also being proposed.

SR: I’ve noticed two contradictory perspectives on the urban estallido social and its relationship with the Mapuche cause. The first is that there’s distance between them. Many protestors in major cities seem to have modern ideals and are demanding individual rights. Instead, the Mapuche are making demands for a people as a whole—and these demands amount to a rejection of modernity and its economic arrangements.

CB: Good point. I believe that in general the Mapuche political leadership has become more radical, in the sense of going to the root of things. It’s a good thing to become radicalized; what is bad is to become an extremist. Extremists are the ones who break things. The leadership does think in collective terms. Instead, the less-political world of the common Mapuche is tempted to look at itself as the object of a benefactor. So there are some tensions between the more political discourse of the Mapuche leadership and then the common Mapuche who wants to be gifted the goods by the state [Ed. The Chilean government gives an actual box of goods to the most impoverished sector of the population.]

But I think that, from the most moderate to the most radical, the Mapuche will all agree on the same basic demands: political recognition, territory, and autonomy. But the sentimental individualism has entered our minds. I’ll give you two examples. During the dictatorship, there was no barbed wire here. Families would walk freely; their animals would mix. There would be the odd case of a stolen animal, but it would be resolved. People generally got along well. After the dictatorship, the [government-imposed reform] process of “localization” meant that people were given titles to their land, along with the requirement that they install barbed wire: private property was born. If the barbed wire protects what’s yours, it also creates new problems—you start thinking more in terms of what is mine and not of what is ours.

SR: That brings me to the second view I’ve encountered. I interviewed an activist from Santiago who wholly identified with the Mapuche cause. She adopted the traditional Mapuche ideal of “el buen vivir” (the good life) as her own.

CB: That started above five years ago. Before, no one knew about those things. The Mapuche cause has become more visible because there is a lot of thinking about “resistance” going on right now. Why were there so many Mapuche flags [at the estallido social protests]? Because they are a symbol of resistance. Just like in the 1980s when they used the image of Che Guevara. Many who used it did not know who Che was.

SR: Does this bother you?

CB: No. No. Now a few people are saying, “Where were all these people during the hunger strikes before?” and things like that. But not me.

SR: Despite their desire for recognition, you do not seem to think that the Mapuche want a complete separation from Chile. The Mapuche and Chile have a common destiny, at least in some sense. How would you articulate the idea of unity in these circumstances?

CB: As a wise man in our town often says, “juntos, pero no revueltos” (“together, but not scrambled”).

SR: How does the Latin American idea of mestizaje figure into this question? Is it threatening or unifying?

CB: Certainly, Chile is a mestizo country, but it has never recognized itself as such. This is because the political and economic elite has never liked to see itself this way, because in the nineteenth century it was seen as something uncivilized. For this reason, our prototypical ideals have been European. Even today this is the case. For example, we don’t like to be compared with Peru or Bolivia, because they are brown, indigenous, but we do like to be compared to Argentina, because they are more “European.” We associate blonde hair and blue eyes with civilization. But we are a mestizo country as a matter of fact. We cannot recognize this fact until power becomes more democratic and distributed to all people.

For the Mapuche, there is a distinction of nationality that is not contradicted by the fact that we are biologically mixed. This distinction is marked in biological terms and by political ones as well. The Mapuche have a distinct national identity. So long as there is no recognition of the political and cultural rights of the Mapuche, saying that we are all mixed or mestizo will sound more like assimilation than recognition.

Santiago Ramos is a staff writer for Commonweal and executive editor at Wisdom of Crowds.

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