I had woken at 7am to pick up Juan in central Temuco and ride to Isabel’s house, downtown and across the river. As we approached our destination, Juan asked me to stop so that he could ask a police officer the exact location of the street we were looking for. The officer looked us up and down as if to say “Are you sure you boys want to go down there?” We got back on the bike and rode on for another five minutes, Juan finally motioning for me to cut the engine in front of a small, “one-and-a-bit-story” house. It was the only wooden building on the street and the garden was bursting with all manner of plants. I would later learn that the brightly coloured flowers were used to dye the wool needed for Isabel’s artwork. However, at first glance, the garden looked awfully out of place amongst the graffiti-riddled concrete buildings that surrounded her home.
We were welcomed at the door by Isabel, who had a kind face with a glowing grin stretched across it, a grin that at no point during my stay at her home entirely disappeared. Breakfast was waiting for us - coffee, warm bread, and homemade jam. Isabel sat proudly in what was clearly her chair, positioned purposefully under a collection of photos of her three children that hung on the wall. She slowly sipped matte (a traditional South American tea) through a long straw as she told us about each of her children, the eldest having recently graduated from military college.
This was my first time visiting a home in Chile, let alone the home of a Mapuche woman like Isabel, who was a single-parent, having raised all three children alone, surviving entirely from the money she had made selling her weaves. I hadn’t really known what to expect. I always try to refrain from expectation or judgment. And yet, whatever preconceived notions I had were entirely shattered by the ease and normality by which we conversed.
As we sat and spoke for several hours, Juan acting as my translator, I was gifted a unique insight into her world, and the livelihood she had forged, the circumstances that saw her weave, and the prejudice she had endured her entire life. At one point she told me the story of why she had first started to weave – in order to buy her first pair of shoes. She was sick of being the only one at school without shoes, her family unable to afford them. If she wanted shoes, she’d have to earn the money herself, as an eight year old. What an incredible story I thought. How incredible the challenges she had endured had been, things I have entirely taken for granted. I mean, school shoes. I used to hate my school shoes. I used to get a new pair every couple of years. And yet, despite this, all the while, she sat there with that glowing grin. Happy. Content.
Mapuche is the most recognized indigenous group in Chile. Around 10 percent of the Chilean population are Mapuche, and half of them still live in the regions surrounding Temuco. The indigenous Mapuche identity still has a large presence in the country, and this can be understood primarily through the lens of their proud history, having never fallen under Inca control, and having successfully fought and resisted the Spanish invasion. When one walks through Temuco, and even Santiago, Mapuche flags, music, and jewellery are commonplace. However, whilst Chile proudly presents this as a cultural icon, the overwhelming treatment of Mapuche communities is negative. Many indigenous people face discrimination, have little access to a stable income, and worry that their culture is slowly slipping away as the world and its population grows bigger, and their ethos slowly begins to fade into history. This is the reason why Chol Chol Fundación, the organization that Juan works for and who I was visiting Temuco, operates; to help indigenous people access a fair market in order to sell their goods and achieve economic independence.
After finishing breakfast, Isabel escorted us upstairs to her studio. Here was a single, cosy little room that could be mistaken for an attic. Soft light shone through a window cut out of the roof, and against one of the walls that sloped to the side of the house was her loom, the machine she used to weave. She explained to me how she collected the wool from fences where local sheep had scraped against the barbed wire and left remnants of their coat. She then took this and created bundles of string, then dying the wool by using the plants in her garden. After this, she would spend up to 20 hours producing weaves to be sold in the Fundación Chol Chol store – everything from jackets and blankets, to hand puppets and dolls. After 50years weaving, she had perfected her art and was now offering lessons to any young Mapuches who were interested in learning her craft. She saw it as an important part of her culture, a means by which she could help keep the Mapuche spirit and community alive.
For me, my time with Isabel begged a number of questions that transcend the Mapuche context. Preserving indigenous culture is indeed a challenge that is experienced by the Aborigines of Australia, Indians of North America, and the indigenous people of Mexico. How best can local, indigenous culture best be preserved in an ever-changing, globalising world? Inclusive public policy, educational reform and cultural events are often where we start. They definitely help. Indeed, the very weekend I was in Temuco, a music festival called Nomade was being held, which focused exclusively upon Mapuche music and culture. In New Zealand, economic policy has empowered Maori people to build businesses that celebrate and incorporate their culture. There are many success stories. They exist. It can happen.
And for Isabel it was through her art. This was her language, her means of communicating Mapuche culture. Not only to those who purchase her goods, but also to the students she now hopes to guide in preserving this craft. The reasons for doing so are clear; aside from the important societal, cultural, and even economic values to be learnt from the past, indigenous cultures are generally an innately beautiful thing. They are ways of living, lifestyles that have grown and developed, separated from the globalised world we now live in. Surely our new world, the one that I love, the one that has produced incredible technologies, allowed me to travel the globe, and solved some of medicines greatest mysteries, can better embrace indigenous cultures. Surely we are not so arrogant as to pretend that there is nothing they could teach us. Isabel and her unwavering smile certainly taught me one important lesson. Perspective.
I'm George and this is my blog.
I'm currently exploring Latin America on my motorcycle, traveling to some of the world's most remote communities to work with local nonprofits and share their stories through Grassroots Collective.
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