Discrimination Against the Mapuches in Chile


The epoch in which humanity currently is living is marked by an unprecedented degree of cultural sensitivity all over the world, which is the natural consequence of globalization. In the environment of ever-growing tolerance, any types of discrimination are becoming less and less acceptable, not solely from the moral viewpoint but in legal terms as well. Several states, however, oppose diversity-oriented policies and neglect certain groups of the population, which leads to their underrepresentation in many spheres of social life and, consequently, to their marginalization. Among Spanish-speaking communities, a bright example of an unfriendly structure is Chile, where indigenous peoples remain unable to realize not only their right to self-identification but also to ownership and medical assistance.

Historical Background

The tragedy of the native Chileans traces back to the middle of the 16th century when the active Spanish expansion into their territory began. It eventually produced the “asymmetric social construction,” in which those who had inhabited the land for centuries before the colonization found themselves inferior to the invaders (Pairican and Urrutia 3). That did not occur spontaneously; the occupation of the region was gradual and originally not quite successful.

The locals had to reorganize their usual lifestyles to struggle against the conquerors. However, the lack of relevant experience put them in an invariably losing position. Thus, the Mapuches, who currently make up the biggest group of the indigenous population in Chile, were bound to form military alliances. Political and economic unity was essential as well since hardly any cacique, a chief whose power covered his own village exclusively, was able to resist the Spanish alone. The consolidation was challenging, meanwhile, due to the long distances and underdeveloped communication among the scattered settlements. The separation, in which the Mapuches were living, actually enabled the colonists to gain complete dominance, the beginning is the early 19th century (“Mapuche” para. 4). In that period, Chile acquired its independence, while the indigenous population lost it, having been settled on reservations.

Current Situation

The attitude of the Spanish-originating population of Chile towards the Mapuches hardly changed throughout over two centuries which passed since subordinating the latter. Currently, the country is the only one in Latin America whose constitution does not involve any recognition of the indigenous peoples (The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs para. 1). Even adopting the UN declaration on the rights of those did not influence the situation in reality. Meanwhile, not mentioning a certain group is sufficient for marginalizing it, as it becomes invisible from the viewpoint of the law, not only in people’s minds.

The most apparent consequence of the neglect is the lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity. Simply stated, the Chileans of Spanish origin hardly know who the Mapuches are and how they differ from the rest of the population (Pairican and Urrutia 4). Furthermore, the special needs that the people may have remained beyond the government’s attention, making them especially disadvantaged. A combination of these two factors can lead to the assimilation or complete physical disappearance of the Mapuches.

The main area where the native Chileans are experiencing oppression is their land ownership rights. Up to the 1980s, they had farmed in reservations collectively, but then, the government replaced that system with individual possession (“Mapuche” para. 4). That empowered creditors to take land from the Mapuches in case those were unable to pay debts, which occurred quite frequently, considering the dramatically limited availability of resources.

Language is another direction of discrimination; not recognizing indigenous peoples in the constitution means the absence of their languages from schools, mass media, and others. As a result, less than a tenth of the Chilean Mapuches, who are almost 1,800,000 in total, are native speakers of the Mapuche language (The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs para. 3). In addition, about half a million people have a partial command of it, which makes slightly more than a quarter of the population (“Mapuche Indian Language” para. 1). Learning the language at home, in fact, is the only way of transmitting it to the next generations, which brings it to the list of threatened.

It is also worth noting that, similar to other indigenous peoples in both Americas, the Mapuches are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. The inequality in accessing health services and the general economic downturn they have experienced since the Spanish conquest are not the only reasons. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, the reduction in their territories made the Mapuches reorganize their diet, as they became unable to grow sufficient amounts of plants (para. 6). That determined their current inclination to certain diseases that put humans at a higher risk of not surviving a coronavirus infection, such as diabetes. Nevertheless, the Chilean government did not include any differentiated approaches for the indigenous population in its COVID-19 strategy since those people do not have any special legal status.

To summarize, the position of the Mapuches in Chile remains subordinate, notwithstanding the modern megatrends for equality, diversity, and multiculturalism. Living in reservations, which are quite limited in territories, they have few to no ownership rights and poor access to resources as well as services, including healthcare. Their native language also is under serious threat; in total, only about a third of the residents who identify themselves as the Mapuches can speak at least some of it. These issues result primarily from the lack of recognition of the indigenous peoples in the Chilean constitution.

Works Cited

The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Indigenous Peoples in Chile. IWGIA, 2021, Web.

“Mapuche.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Web.

“Mapuche Indian Language (Mapudungun, Araucano).” Native Languages of the Americas, 2020, Web.

Pairican, Fernando, and Marie Juliette Urrutia. “The Permanent Rebellion: An Interpretation of Mapuche Uprisings under Chilean Colonialism.” Radical Americans, vol. 6, no. 1, 2021, art. 12. Web.

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