Indigenous Peoples and the History of Racism in Chile


By Claudia Zapata

Academic at the Center for Latin American Cultural Studies

Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities at Universidad de Chile

Translated by Anthony Rauld

Rarely have we heard the word racism used so often as during the past two years. It is used in the context of a public debate concerning the current wave of immigration.  Activists have used the term in this public debate, especially migrant activist groups, who denounce differential and vexatious treatment towards immigrants who are looking for permanent residence in the country.

The greater visibility of some migrants over others, reflected in the arbitrary use of this term, is clearly linked to the economic situation of the people involved (their need to find a job in any area, irrespective of their labor skills, which we know are varied), and also with their phenotype. Currently, the most stigmatized people are those of African descent, and in light of recent events (the construction of a “Haitian problem” that links people from the Caribbean to a perceived, even biological, danger, as well as the measures taken by the incoming government, which seek, in practice, to institutionalize discriminatory practices) it looks like we are now fully experiencing a problem called racism.

But is racism a new phenomenon? Considering a more historical perspective, perhaps the only thing that is really new is that, at last, we are daring (or we have been forced to dare) to use the word racism to refer to something that Chilean society has always understood as a serious problem, but a problem that occurs somewhere else.  However, racism as a system of classification, hierarchization, and exploitation can be traced back to the very origins of Latin American nations, whose states conserved the racial practices at the social level, while legally obfuscating them behind a notion of citizenship. Throughout this history, more than one racialized subject has existed, because apart from “indios” and “negros”, a variety of uncomfortable blends has existed, and for which specific denominations were created: cholos, rotos, among others.

Racism is a fundamental ingredient in the hierarchical relations between communities, societies or sectors within these, which should be understood as being colonial, not only when we use the term in a chronological sense, but also when we use the concept politically. Colonialism is a form of social articulation that organizes differences and establishes relationships where some place themselves over others—in order to exploit them or to outright plunder their goods and resources. Racism becomes here an ideological device to legitimize this hierarchy, politically and socially, through: physical, cultural, and psychological inferiorization, constructing stereotypes, and divorcing communities and individuals from their history (without explaining how they got to their present historical condition; in the racist discourse, they are simply “like that” and they will continue to be so).

It is no coincidence that among indigenous intellectuals, the concepts of colonialism and racism are central for their elaboration of a critical diagnosis regarding the relationship between indigenous peoples and national states.  In Chile, Mapuche intellectuals have been particularly sharp in elaborating critical perspectives like these. And this is because the racism that we recognize today in the country can be traced back to the very foundation of the state, which turned the Mapuche into a mirror image of what nobody wanted to be: savages or barbarians, according to the labels used at different times. The exaltation of the mythical indigenous peoples during Chilean Independence failed to establish a parenthesis in this wider process, which was at the root of the contempt felt towards the Mapuche people, and which fueled a military response, a great campaign, ideologically forged some decades before, and deployed as soon as the material conditions existed.  Scientific racism, which reached its greatest expression towards the end of that century, covered that project of dispossession with a layer of scientific objectivity.

The process of inferiorization, inherent in racism, entered a new stage after the forced incorporation of the Mapuche, marked as it was by the political defeat of losing their territory and their self-determination. It continued to gain ground with peasantization, internal migration, and with the proletarianization of Mapuches in the cities. The discrimination based on identity markers, like language, family name, and phenotypic traits (even though this last one is more difficult to sustain) has left a deep imprint in the biographies of the urban Mapuche.  Racialized occupations have also contributed to this (Mapuche women as domestic workers and Mapuche men as laborers in the bakeries are both stereotypes that cannot be understood without reference to this long history), while their usurped lands were incorporated into the agricultural exploitation system.

This process of national territory expansion did not only affect the Mapuche, but also the indigenous communities living in the northern regions taken from Peru and Bolivia. What was known as a process of Chileanization was, in fact, the violent incorporation of the Andean indigenous peoples, who were then stigmatized as foreigners (they were considered for decades to be “Bolivian indios” by the local society, by the police, and by the military). Something similar, though less known, happened with the Afro-descendents in what today is the Arica y Parinacota region of Chile, since the self-proclaimed Afro-Chileans have been denied their identity throughout Chile’s history:  The early “national history” announced their disappearance, during the War of the Pacific they were pointed out as foreigners and expelled to Peru, and today the mere possibility of existence is denied to them by the national population census.

For the most part, this has been the tone of the relations established by the Chilean state (and Chilean society) with the communities it trampled on in order to enlarge its territory. The multiculturalism that began to emerge after Pinochet’s dictatorship has timidly revealed this injustice in relation to indigenous communities, but it has not dared to call it racism, nor has it recognized them as indigenous peoples (the new indigenous law talked only about ethnic groups in the political constitution, only Chileans exist).

Multiculturalism reveals one of its main limits here, since it is unable to recognize racism as a structural phenomenon (at most, it is an expression of individual acts), because to do so would be to question the whole economic system and its historical origins. Beyond the policies of affirmative action, whose importance cannot be denied, the main function of multiculturalism has been to provide a deficient development model with a cultural narrative; as Argentinean sociologist, Maristella Svampa, asserts, a development that advances—just like in all of Latin America—over new territories, consuming their water and displacing their people. The resistance against this extractionist model that seriously affects indigenous communities has resulted in the criminalization of their struggles. The assassination of their leaders, the persecution of their organizations, and the prosecution of their communities using ad-hoc laws are the cruelest evidence that betray the severe limits of this political model when attempting to defend indigenous rights that, supposedly, have been institutionalized.

Multiculturalism mobilizes old stereotypes that are hegemonic: the “cultural” Indio who is not a historical subject, not oppressed, nor exploited, much less a political subject (when that occurs, his “purity” is questioned and then he is criminalized). Therefore, as indigenous organizations and indigenous intellectuals have formulated, we are dealing with multiculturalism that by omitting the existence of racism, and by reproducing racial stereotypes, ends up being racist itself.

I finish this text reemphasizing the idea that racism is not (only) a problem between individuals; neither can it be reduced to the rejection of a certain color. Racism talks about an unequal relation between communities, forged historically according to a model of economic accumulation and of political hierarchy. The current debate regarding immigration could be more meaningful if we were to incorporate this temporal dimension, because the history of racism in Chile is as old as the Republic and any attempt to trace its origins must necessarily include Afro-Chileans and indigenous peoples.



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