Letter Home from Chile

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Human Rights Fall 2014 program:

Dear IHP Family,

¡Hola y mari mari de Chile! We write to you bearing stories of transitional justice in Santiago, volcano-hiking and Mapuche struggles in Temuco and Curarrehue, and flailing our way through ordering empanadas in Spanish … everywhere we go.

We started our adventure in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Santiago is a sprawling city nestled right up against the mountains, which glow over the sweeping parks and wide streets. It has a vibrant street art culture and a million tiny shops and restaurants. You could wander forever and never stop seeing something new.

We are living with families all around the city center and we swarm the metros and “micros” (buses) every morning to explore. Our families are made up of a vast variety of people. My host Mom is an investigative journalist, and my father is an activist and musician. Every morning I wake up to the mountains – the cordillera of the Andes – outside the window of my house.

Food in Chile is “rico,” which translates directly to “rich” and is oh so very accurate. Empanadas are an obvious highlight – fried bread filled with cheese and meats. And ceviche. And frac cookies. And terremotos. And more bread. And, and, and. We walk around in a constant state of bloated glory.

(Don’t worry mom – remember, we hiked a volcano.)

During our first week in Santiago we got a comprehensive history of the Pinochet regime – a military dictatorship that replaced the democratically elected, socialist President Salvador Allende – and this history allowed us to understand transitional justice. Transitional justice is a framework for understanding how a society moves from an era of oppression to a well-functioning democracy. Or, in Chile’s case, a problematic and inelegant democracy.

We visited places where political prisoners had been detained, tortured, and sometimes killed, sitting in rooms where the echoes of a violent history can still be heard. We explored the radical La Victoria neighborhood, where a priest had been killed during protests against the dictatorship. Hanz, my host dad, led us all in enthusiastic protest song as we said our thanks to its current steward.

We had guest speakers who outlined the ways that catholic colonialism and the military regime have left Chile with massive power imbalances based on class, gender, and ethnic identity. A couple of student leaders we met made sure we understood that. We left Santiago with our minds firmly planted in the historical context that frames modern Chile.

If our weeks in Santiago can be thought of as the thick slices of bread, Temuco and Curarrehue are the slabs of meat and home-grown vegetables cooked over an open flame.

Located south of Santiago and about an hour drive from both the sea and the mountains, Temuco is situated firmly in historic Mapuche territory. Wallmapu, the Mapuche name for the land, stretches South of the Bío Bío River and from coast to coast. In Chile the area is called Auracanía, after a type of tree of sacred value to the Mapuche.

We’ve picked up some Mapudungun, which is even more shaky than our Spanish – still, we know now that “mari mari” is hello and Mapuche is “people of the land.” This is important because land, and all the history, culture, and autonomy that comes with it, is exactly what’s at stake in the South. Both in Temuco and in Curarrehue we witnessed hundreds of years of colonialist efforts to rob the Mapuche.

The methods have changed – where once Spanish soldiers and colonialist lords waged war with rifles, now international hydroelectric and forestry companies threaten to strip away the land. And boy, it’s some pretty incredible land. When I woke up in the morning, to warm sopapillas and farm-to-table eggs, I came outside to this:

The rivers are fast and thrilling, cold from the snow on the mountains. The mountains themselves stretch across all skylines, tall enough that from the top you can see Argentina. The Mapuche have lived here since time imemmorium?, literally – they rubbed shoulders with the Incas.

This means that the rivers, valleys, and volcanic fields here have a lot of cultural value. Put a hydroelectric dam in and you flood sacred ground, cut down the forest and you kill an ecosystem integral to indigenous understandings of spirituality and self. My host grandpa told me once that the soul of the Mapuche is in the trees.

There have been protests – we got wrapped up in a pretty big one back in Santiago – and some of them have been successful. The women’s groups in Curarrehue and Santiago have got some kind of crazy power. “Querer es poder,” my Curarrehue host mother told me as she cheerfully built an actual bed. “To want is power.” The students march with their elders and the elders organize and educate their youth.

What you should take away from this, dear extended family of ours, is that Chile’s a beautiful country full of wonderful, resilient people up to their necks in political and economic oppression.  And fighting it. Like they say in Chile, “no exista sin resista.”

No existence without resistance.

Much love,

IHP Human Rights




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