Mari Mari Compuche: Mapuche Culture in Santiago

The identity and expression of Chile's Mapuche population is front and center at the semi-annual Mapuche Art and Politics Fair presented by the organization Meli Wixan Mapu. The fair, held on 2nd September, occupies the spacious courtyard of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) in Parque Forestal just behind the Museo Bellas Artes. The Mapuche are the most populous indigenous group in Chile, and are one of Santiago’s most vibrant, politically complex and, unfortunately, frequently socially stigmatized cultural groups. Although they make up just 4% of the Chilean population, their presence is strong in Santiago, where a large percentage of the country’s Mapuche population resides.

Panel discussion (photo by Sarah Feder)
Panel discussion (photo by Sarah Feder)

The first thing that strikes you as you arrive is the heavy beat of the Mapuche woman’s cultrún, a traditional percussion instrument, which can at first be heard faintly emanating from the side of the Museo Bellas Artes. On rounding the corner of the massive old building, the full, rich sound of the instrument combined with the vibrant colors on the woman’s dress provides a unique and intense onslaught to the senses.

She follows a series of other dynamic Mapuche performers— poets, dancers, storytellers and musicians—who have occupied the same stage. As she finishes her performance, the crowd erupts with a chorus of “ya ya ya ya ya!”, a well-known form of approbation.

Mapuche woman plays cultrún (photo by Sarah Feder)
Mapuche woman plays cultrún (photo by Sarah Feder)

Several food stalls and product vendors form a semicircle around the small stage and its seated audience. The food stalls sell delicacies that vary from melt-in-your-mouth lentil stew, to freshly brewed mate for just CP$500 (US$1.00), to raw macadamia nuts that people are consuming on the spot, using their molars as nutcrackers. The vendors sell traditional Mapuche fare: silver plate jewelry abounds, several stalls exhibit brightly patterned knit shawls and scarves, and wood-carvers proudly display their handmade wares; a few so entirely unfazed by the crowds that they take the opportunity to do some smaller carvings behind their tables.

Several stalls hold up the more political end of the fair, dispersing pamphlets courtesy of the Comité de Defensa del Mar (Sea Defense Committee). The plentiful posters, banners, and signs bearing the slogans of Mapuche organizations or touting information about social and political issues drape the colorful fair with a decidedly more sober background, some of the photos on the banners even bordering on graphic. The stage is now arranged to accommodate the participants of a panel discussion.

The discussion is made up of five werken, or messengers from several distinct territories. These include Daniel Melinao from Wente Winkul Mapu, Jaime Huenchullán representing the Autonomous Community of Temucuicui, José Huenchunao speaking for the Communities of Lake Lleu Lleu, Nélida Huenchunao, werken from the Nicolás Calbullanca Community and Boris Hualme, spokesperson for the Sea Defense Committee.

Traditional silver jewelry (photo by Sarah Feder)
Traditional silver jewelry (photo by Sarah Feder)

The panel discussion serves to address the processes of defense and reconstruction in Mapuche territory. While the speakers focus the majority of their time on the community’s “fight for the liberation of the Mapuche nation” as they strive “to reobtain [their] territory, develop, and live,” not a single speech passes without a nod to the importance of the community’s unique culture.

“Through events like this, you have the chance to exchange knowledge with the people who attend,” José Huenchunao conveys excitedly to the audience, “we can connect with those who sympathize with and share the fight of our people.”

This is a contextually perfect paraphrase of Meli Wixan Mapu’s mission statement. Since the nineties, the organization has worked to bring the social and political stigmatization and issues of the Mapuche people into public discourse through cultural and political programming. An important part of beginning the discussion is to invite others to share in the unique Mapuche culture. Meli Wixan Mapu programming includes the likes of film showings, dance exhibitions, marches, political forum, and art fairs. These events are listed under the “Actividades” section of the Meli Wixan Mapu website.

Nearly every vendor at the art and politics fair — mate, jewelry, and political stalls alike —enthusiastically hands out advertisements for the organization’s next event, a Mapuche March. The march, which promises a wealth of pounding cultrúns, will take place on October 15th, beginning at the Plaza Italia at 11:00 AM.

Meli Wixan Mapu Website:

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