For centuries, indigenous peoples have been told how to live, but now it is they who are setting the tone for overcoming the world’s democratic and environmental crisis. On the day that Chile holds a historic referendum to change the Constitution inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship, Veronica Figueroa Huencho highlights the indigenous contribution to change. The renowned Mapuche academic studied her doctorate in Barcelona and worked at the Fòrum Universal de les Cultures. His relationship with the Catalan capital was a crush. As proof of his love affair with the city, his daughter’s name remains: Montserrat.
The indigenous is associated with the rural, but his family has lived in the capital for several generations.
We originally lived in the south, in Curacautín, in the Araucanía region [el territorio ancestral de los mapuches]. My great-grandmother emigrated to work as a domestic worker. Currently, more than 70% of indigenous people live in urban areas.
It was a massive migration.
It was not a voluntary decision, but forced by the policies of territorial dispossession. The State of Chile was born in 1810 and did not respect the spaces of ancestral sovereignty that we call Wallmapu and that extend through the south of Chile and Argentina. Through military force and colonization policies, of the 5 million hectares of Mapuche lands, only 500,000 remain and many are in the hands of companies and landowners.
Were there activists in your family?
No. My great-grandfather lived in a time when the indigenous was synonymous with savage, brute, and illiterate, and my grandfather did not transmit the Mapuche identity to us. The Chile of 1980-90 produced the largest number of requests to change Mapuche surnames.
Our surnames – in my case, my second surname is Huencho – were a source of ridicule and contempt and many people sought this assimilation logic to escape the pressure of the system.
And when does the indigenous identity awaken in you?
In college I took off the blindfold and I was able to look at myself as a Mapuche woman, with my history and my identity. It was like discovering a new way of looking at reality.
“At the university I took off the blindfold and I was able to look at myself as a Mapuche woman, with my history and my identity”
Could your grandfather see how far his granddaughter would go?
No, but that question is super important because for us the figure of the ancestors is vital, they are still present among us. I look back and think above all of the Mapuche women who experienced situations of violence, discrimination and invisibility. When you make the intersection between woman and indigenous, the gaps are tremendous. To occupy those spaces of knowledge and power that were always forbidden to us is like going backwards healing.
Access to university has been key.
It is a space where the reinforcement of indigenous identity has great power. I studied with a scholarship for indigenous peoples, but always under the logic of positive discrimination and even with historians who denied our existence and validity as a people. There we meet young Mapuches, but also Aymara, Diaguitas, Rapanuis … and in a short time we assumed our identity, our clothing, our language & mldr;
Did you speak the Mapuche language?
No. The language is one of the most powerful devices that the State has had. In schools, our grandparents were punished for speaking Mapudungun or for speaking Spanish badly and they were forced to assume the national values and emblems of the Chilean nation. The educational devices were very powerful and that is why the case of Catalan is interesting for us.
At what point do contemporary indigenous movements erupt?
There is a milestone that marks a before and after, which is when the Latin American states want to commemorate the 500 years of the conquest, in 1992. Then the Zapatistas and the movements in Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile emerge against the colonial violence, which persists with the founding of the states. It is then that these movements begin to identify themselves as political subjects of rights that demand from states not only reparation but also transformation, breaking with the hegemonic concept of the nation-state.
Is there an indigenous thought or are they diverse?
Indigenous movements share the ideals of a plurinational state, of the self-determination of peoples and of advancing towards interculturality as a political project, in the face of the homogenizing logic of states that try to design a neutral citizenship. What change are the strategies, there are even those who resort to violence due to mistrust of a State whose project has been disastrous for us.
He affirms that “interculturality is nothing more than an aspiration if it does not question the structures of power.”
Clear. What is the use of applying bilingual intercultural education programs that consist of doing one hour of class a week if the way in which political and economic power is exercised is not changed? From that logic, we continue to be subordinates. There will be conflict until all nations dialogue on equal terms and share power.
“There will be conflict until all nations dialogue on equal terms and share power”
What can this philosophy contribute to the current global crisis?
The narratives regarding democracy and concepts such as government, nation or State have been constructed from a rationalist and Cartesian Western thought, which places the human being at the center, as the axis of all interrelation with the other beings that inhabit this world. These beings are often material, but there are also immaterial ones, such as the ancestors or the energies of the territories. We propose forms of government and economic models adjusted to the cycles of the Earth and respectful of the energies of forests, volcanoes, the sea …
In fact, they are mostly associated with environmental struggles.
We do not defend the environment, but the rights of Mother Earth. It is a much more comprehensive thought that leads to exercising citizenship in a different way.
They speak of “good living” as a constitutional right.
Good living, the rights of mother earth or food sovereignty are constitutional concepts that society should incorporate into its coexistence projects. But many times these proposals are not understood from the ‘winka’ world [occidental o forastero, en mapudungun] because it collides with the interests of national and foreign capital.
Chile was also the Chicago Boys’ neoliberal laboratory since the 1970s.
The most dramatic thing is that the Chicago Boys model has not changed one iota. In Chile the market defines practically everything: the water, the wealth of the subsoil … everything has an owner. Hence, last year a minimal increase in the subway fare sparked a revolution and now we are holding a plebiscite. They said that we were the jaguars of Latin America, an oasis in the region, but people took to the streets to rebel against the state and the market.
Non-indigenous youths fly the Mapuche flag as a symbol.
Faced with the emblems of the Chilean nation that represent rather a model of oppression, for the first time indigenous symbols that represent rebellion and resistance against this model emerge in public space. In the street, the youth wrote the word ‘weichafe’, which means warrior in Mapudungun. The indigenous nations support this movement of the Chilean nation, which seeks transformations that coincide with ours.
You are the woman who has reached the highest position in the legislative apparatus of the University of Chile and you are also indigenous. It is already part of the spaces of power.
And I have used all that repercussion to put the indigenous at the center of the debate, both in the university community –that is why we have the first indigenous peoples policy– and in the framework of the constituent process. We have been educated in the ‘winkas’ institutions and today the indigenous people are present in decision-making spaces and we will continue to dispute them. There is no turning back.
“Chile, which is a mestizo society, sees itself as very European, as if there were no 13% indigenous population”
How is it related to Black Live Matters?
It has to do with these subalternities and violence, in this case racial. The George Floyd case made visible an institutional violence that has always existed. But it is paradoxical that Chilean society empathizes so much with Black Live Matters and instead does not react to the institutional racism that murders Mapuche boys and girls.
In what sense could a new Chilean constitution be a reference?
The constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador were already pioneers in incorporating the worldviews of indigenous peoples and declared plurinational states. But Chile, which is a mestizo society, sees itself as very European, as if there were no 13% indigenous population. There are movements that call for subtraction from this project, but the fact that a constitution written by the citizens can place the indigenous at the center after they have been made invisible, vilified, and erased from history is a historic opportunity.