Indigenous Marginalization in Chilean Society

A week ago, my program had an excursion to Arica and Putre in the northernmost region of Chile by the border with Peru and Bolivia. The focus of this trip was to engage with the indigenous community and culture of the Aymara. Indigenous communities across the world have endured prejudice and marginalization with the rise of modern nation-state and the increasingly inflexible construction of a homogenized national identity. Chile is no exception. The dictatorship of 1973-1990 produced a new constitution that attempts to erase cultural differences and instill a standardized Chilean identity, a process known as “chilenization.” The new neoliberal economic system also further ostracizes indigenous communities and cultures. Neoliberalism promotes free exploitation of land and natural resources for economic growth, participation in a global economy and culture, and forces of modernization and “progress.” The importance of indigenous cultures are often lost in this tide simply because they do not conform to the new national image being imposed by the central government. More recently, there have been concentrated government efforts to celebrate and affirm indigenous languages and cultural practices as a form of cultural patrimony by the state. However, state policies reinforce historical discrimination and Chilean society is marked by divisions between the indigenous and participants in the neoliberal system, the city and the rural, the center and the periphery.

I witnessed the pervasiveness of this prejudice within my own Chilean host family. After returning from our week-long excursion, one of the first things that my host mom said to me was: “Putre is very ugly, no?” I couldn’t believe she said this, because Putre had one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen in my life, with mountains, volcanoes, and incredible sunsets. When I asked her to explain further what she meant, she spoke about how there is “nothing to do” there in a small village of fewer than 2,000 people. Putre’s tranquility and the Aymara’s deep connection with nature are things I greatly appreciated about my time in the north, but the mainstream neoliberal consumer, in Chile just like in the US, prefers to look for shopping malls, movie theaters, etc. It seems to me that this interaction shows the distance, both literal and perceived, between the original communities of Chile and the mainstream, “modern” society. Many Chileans cannot comprehend the distinct way of life of the indigenous communities. This ideological difference is heightened to an implicit prejudice when combined with the state’s negation and exclusion of these communities.

Later this week, we will be traveling to the south of the country to learn about another large indigenous community in Chile, the Mapuche. I will continue to observe the dynamic between the state/mainstream society and the indigenous community and how that manifests itself in people’s daily lives.