Bits of Background
T he Orthodox Chilean histories honor Pedro de Valdivia -- the Spaniard who led an expedition of conquistadores into Chile from Peru, founded Santiago and several other Chilean cities, and was the first colonial governor -- as the founder of Chile. A massive statue of Valdivia stands in Santiago's historic square. the Plaza de Armas. A city and countless avenues and streets are named after him.
But to Pablo Neruda, whose Canto General flashes with the pithy insights of a great poet into Latin American history, Valdivia was an "executioner" who divided up Chile among thieves as though it were a dead jackass, returned Indian prisoners with their noses and ears cut off, and left the country full of death, solitude, and scars. To Neruda, Lautaro, the young chief who led bands of Araucanian Indians in guerrilla warfare against the Spanish intruders and defeated Valdivia in a battle in which the hated Spaniard's head was cut off and passed around on a pike, was "our father." No statue of Lautaro stands in Santiago, no Chilean city bears his name.
Chileans have been taught to see their origins in Valdivia and the Spaniards, but the Chilean people are not simply Spanish. They are mainly mestizo -- a mixture of Spanish and Indian. Only