Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Shadows in the Big City

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Shadows in the Big City

Article excerpt

Far from their native region of Araucania, half a million Mapuche Indians live in the Chilean capital Santiago--a place of stigma and segregation

The Mapuche Indians makeup 10 percent of Chile's adult population--almost a million people in total, half of whom live in and around the city of Santiago. In the minds of most Chileans, however, the Mapuche is still thought of as a person with an indigenous surname, living in the southern region of Araucania, belonging to an old-fashioned community and fighting for fights to land. All the rest are ignored and segregated.

As in most Latin American countries, Chile's Indigenous People's Law bans discrimination. Victims of prejudice, however, argue that the law is useless since not even Santiago's police officers believe what an Indian says. "When you complain to a military policemen and tell them that discrimination is against the law, they don't even know what the law is," says Elba Colicoi from the district of Penalolen. "They look at us in amazement, laugh and tell us to 'calm down and go home.' But if one of us hits a naughty child, the neighbours say Mapuches are violent people and the police believe everything the Chileans say."

In the Mapudungun language, "mapuche" means "people of the earth." Until Chile gained independence from Spain in the early 19th century, the Mapuches lived in a 100,000 square kilometre region in south-central Chile--an area as big as Portugal. Between 1866 and 1927, they were forced to live in settlements covering only 5,000 square kilometres, barely five percent of the original area. According to the last census in 1992, 928,000 Mapuches now live in Chile.

Restrictions on Mapuches' property rights, lack of resources and the impoverishment of rural communities set off a huge migration from the land. Following 135 years of exodus--most of it forced--around half the country's Mapuches live in and around Santiago. If children are counted, one in 10 of Greater Santiago's inhabitants are from this community. Some indigenous intellectuals actually refer to the Mapuche diaspora.

Traditional dress unwelcome in the classroom

Although only 20 percent of Mapuches now live in the countryside, people still tend to have a stereotypical view of them as rural peasants which, consciously or not, makes it hard for any of them to feel like full-fledged citizens. The media compound these prejudices with pictures of land occupations in the south and armed battles with landowners near the villages, conveying a negative image of "poverty-stricken" Indians.

Yet after a century of emigration, the Mapuche urban diaspora is here to stay. Over 70 urban organizations have been set up in recent years to fight for their rights and end discrimination. In spite of this, the image of them as a rural folk still prevails. In the city, they are "invisible people" who, as they themselves admit, bear the stigma imposed by a society that regards them as lazy, drunk, culturally backward and aggressive.

This hostility has made most Mapuches renounce their identity, reject their language and change their names, all of which has caused serious psychological problems. To survive in the city, they have to camouflage their origins and try to appear like mere southerners or peasants. As a result, they are helping to make themselves invisible.

Both the discrimination suffered at the hands of society and the difficulties incurred in overcoming their marginal social status prevent Mapuches from integrating. Victims of discrimination lose self-esteem and marginalize themselves. Once they have thus rejected their individual identity, they naturally reject the customs of their own social group.

Most urban Mapuches live in precariously built shanty-towns that have sprung up around Santiago in the past century. Besides poverty and other forms of exclusion, life in the slums also means enduring discrimination from their own neighbours. …

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