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.