This is a draft of a chapter of what will hopefully one day be a memoir of the years I spent living in different parts of Latin America, Europe, Israel, and Africa, sometimes attempting to become an anthropologist and other times exploring aspects of myself. It is my first attempt at writing a book. Give me comments, encouragement, insight, criticism, whatever–just help me to keep writing; that’s what I need most.
The sun is setting over the desert; it is toward the end of our hike in the Valle de la Luna. That may have been the day that Albert finally broke free of his anxiety, his constant fear of the world that existed beyond his own subjectivity. He came with me to San Pedro, the northern desert of Chile, to do exactly that; we had to get out of Santiago, its cumbersome yearnings to be North American–“civilized” and “developed”—and its rampant materialism, asking its youth to forget the price their parents had paid for Chile’s strong currency and instead express themselves through fashion; we had to go to a place where we could poke ourselves and know that we were real, look at the sky and remember that it went on forever–beyond Chile–and walk in the desert and understand that we were small beings in a vast world.
San Pedro is an oasis in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on the planet, and one of the most expansive. We had very little water with us that day, the four of us: Albert, Melanie, from Switzerland, Stefan, from Germany, and me; all four of us had come together in Santiago, where Albert lived and the other three had come to study Spanish. Melanie and Stefan had joined us in the North the day before, and Albert and I had arrived before that, on an overnight bus, after first stopping in Ovalle, the town where Albert’s family lived, and after that, in the Valle de Elicura, where we rode horses and did short hikes. In that valley, I had wanted to try peyote but decided not to, because I was worried about Albert’s anxiety.
Albert was an extremely anxious person, which was perhaps why he wanted to be a psychologist—to better understand where that anxiety came from. His real name was Alberto, but he used Albert because he liked the sound of it, perhaps because it was more Anglo-sounding. He was about ten years older than me, very tall, and had chin-length, thick, black hair. He loved the Beatles. It was possible that he was in love with me, but I saw him as something of a big brother, and he was my closest friend in Santiago during the three months that I lived there, when I was twenty, in 2005.
Albert had seen something special in me ever since I had come over to the house where he lived with other students; when I dropped out of the university program I was in, because I felt that it represented everything oppressive and false that I found in Academia, he encouraged me to pursue my own agenda in Chile, and became my partner-in-crime. We took a brief trip to Valparaiso, Chile’s beautiful, bohemian city in the hills, and then we made a plan for a longer trip up north. Albert wanted me to see where he had grown up, and experience Chilean life far from the capital city—but he also wanted to show me off, his very own gringa.
The house was a modest rowhouse, and I was given a bedroom of my own—probably where one of his sisters usually slept. Everyone wanted to give me celebrity treatment. “You’re American!” said one of Albert’s relatives, possibly his uncle. “Oh, I love your culture.” I asked him what he meant. “Oh, rock music, Britney Spears! It’s so free,” he said. The cultural snob inside me flinched. Didn’t he know that Americans had been in collusion with the brutal Chilean dictatorship? Didn’t he understand that Chile was America’s peon, its darling neoliberal child in the Global South? With their relationship to America—with rock music, with “freedom”–Chile got thousands of desaparacidos, they got widening income equality, they got nightly curfews and a military state.
Decorated with the hallmarks of modernity—gleaming skyscrapers, a state-of-the-art subway system, and cafes filled with suit-and-tie customers during their lunch breaks Santiago seems to be the center of an economically prosperous nation. A closer look, however, reveals ghettos on the outskirts of the city, where millions of displaced Mapuches live in limbo between their traditional rural lifestyle and the capitalist world of the city. “Mapuche” means “people of the land.” Without land, a Mapuche ceases to be a Mapuche. Without farming, he can no longer practice his way of life and he loses the relationship he once had with the land and with other people. Yet, there are far more Mapuche living in Santiago than in their ancestral land, the Bío-Bío.
Since the arrival of the Spanish settlers to Chile in the early sixteenth century, the Mapuche have experienced a cultural disintegration that is a response to the exploitation of their land and the loss of its people through processes of assimilation or migration to the cities. In recent decades, Chile has developed a U.S.-style neoliberal capitalist economy, on the counsel of the infamous “Chicago Boys,” economists who studied free-market philosophy under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. The free-market, libertarian Chicago theory of economics was embraced by Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator who ruled Chile for nearly seventeen years.
During the 1980s, Pinochet began selling off Mapuche land to multinational logging corporations. Over the past few years, people within Mapuche communities have been accused of, and to me openly admitted to, torching the property of multinational logging companies, in protest of their use of traditional Mapuche land as well as their disrespect of the environment. The Chilean government, in turn, employs a post-9/11 “anti-terrorism” law that considers arsons enemies of the state, and therefore terrorists, and throws suspected Mapuche arsons in prison at will and at random, without charge, for many months at a time.
Today the Mapuche make up twenty percent of the Chilean population and is by far the poorest and least-educated group. Chile relies on its export economy for national prosperity, and logging is one of the country’s central export industries; overreliance on logging has meant that the land the Mapuche call home—and have, for thousands of years—is being stripped of its native forests and sold to contractors who plant water-sucking pine trees for paper-making. The industry is detrimental to the soil, because removing trees causes erosion—and the Mapuche, an agricultural people, are increasingly unable to sustain their way of life as their means of sustenance becomes impossible to continue.
As the Chilean government continues to allow and support the oppression and imprisonment of Mapuche who protest against the treatment of the forests, the Mapuche pueblo is quickly fading into non-existence. It is not just “globalization”; it is a cultural genocide. As Mapuche youths leave home to go to cities to work, or are removed from the community because of legal charges, the Mapuche community structure falls apart, breaking the chain of knowledge-passing that fuels their culture. Without the passing of knowledge through family ties, the traditions and language of the Mapuche are disappearing, and the Mapuche are being assimilated into Chilean culture—which is not easy to do, as they face systemic racism in a society that desires to see itself as European, as white.
Albert’s family doted on me, feeding me more than anyone else. In fact, we did very little besides eat. Ovalle was a sleepy, working-class town. One afternoon, we walked down the street to a bar and had a few beers. Albert loved beer, and was probably something of an alcoholic; I had seen him get cranky and nervous if he couldn’t have beer when he wanted it. After we drank the beers, we returned to Albert’s family’s house. That was it. We also took an expedition with the entire family, to an archaeological site of some sort. But mostly, we stayed at home, and watched TV. What we watched, I have no idea.
Finally we left, for the more adventurous part of our trip. In the Valle de Elicura, Albert and I stayed in a campground, where we met a couple who were also traveling and had a bonfire with them in the evening. The man in the couple was a Mapuche, from the South, and I think the first one that I had met. He had long, thick, dark hair, which he swept over his shoulder in a ponytail. As we drank wine in front of our campfire, he poured a little into the ground—“For the pachamama,” the mother earth, he said.
The community of Temulemu in southern Chile has received the attention of the media, human rights observers, and the Chilean government for protests against foresting companies and land-holders.
I visited Temulemu for one day while I was staying in a nearby Mapuche village. I was met by a community leader named Juan, who at that time was twenty-one-years-old, and who I had met in Santiago at a conference at the University of Chile’s law school on the subject of the Chilean state’s treatment of the Mapuche. Juan arrived in a pick-up truck driven by an older man, and another younger man was in the back seat. That afternoon, they gave me a tour of their community–as they wanted me to see it.
First they took me to the outskirts of the community, where they pointed out the carabineros (police) who were patrolling the fenced borders of the village. They encouraged me to take pictures of the two carabineros, police dog, and paddy-wagon. We drove a bit further, passing by large plots of land that seemed like they had been burned. I asked how they had been burned and Juan only answered vaguely that they didn’t know how it had happened.
The truck stopped and we got out and walked up a hill to a semi-circular structure of ten or so adjoining huts made from sticks. There was a shrine made of tree branches in the center. Juan explained that this was the site for the Nguillatún ceremony, a traditional Mapuche rite that ensures a bountiful harvest. During the ceremony, which lasts for twenty-four hours, families from the community occupied the huts. Standing there in front of the ceremonial structure, with the police in the near distance and the village in sight, I interviewed a thirty-seven-year-old resident of the village named Victor. He spoke about the community’s history of problems with the forest company and the land. He explained how the community had realized a “recuperation” of lands, including the very land we were standing on. In 1999, he told me, the younger members of the community had consulted with the elders and decided that in order to save their community and culture they would have to take back lands that had been, in their view, occupied by private, foreign owners. Victor explained to me that he was a part of that group of younger people who organized and carried out the recuperation. He detailed how, at that time, the community had become tired of watching their youths leave to go to the cities; they saw their migration as more obligatory, stemming from a lack of resources in the village, than voluntary. They decided that in order to stop losing their youths, to save their culture from disappearing, and to create a better community for their future children, they had to take back the land.
Victor told me about the consequences of the recuperation, including persecution by the Chilean police force and the label of “terrorists” that had been slapped upon suspected revolutionary Mapuche individuals. The community continually saw police forces come to take people to jail, and then return to patrol the community’s borders with police dogs and tanks, he told me. Even in the cities, Mapuche feel watched, discriminated against, and unable to walk freely. Victor told me they had believed that the recuperation of lands would signal a fresh beginning for the community, a means toward repairing their broken structure by working the land. Instead, they have been even more damaged by the jailing of their leaders. The children, he said, were getting “mentally sick” by seeing police surrounding their communities and by the absence of their fathers. The community had not been able to work the land to the extent that they wished, due to a lack of people and resources. This is the way Victor explained Temulemu’s recent past and its current situation as we stood on the land that they had fought for and converted into a Nguillatún site.
I was then taken to meet two more men who both told stories of being taken from their houses in the middle of the night and brought to the jail in Angol, a nearby city. They both attested to having been mistreated by the police, staying in jail for months without charge or receiving a lawyer, and then suddenly without explanation being let free and told to go home. They explained that they were still being persecuted, and that they had been visited by the police various times. The details of their stories were not clear enough to understand exactly what the sequence of events was. They both referred to the “recuperation of lands” as the reason for the police coming, but claimed that they had not individually done anything that could be called a crime. They listed the cause of their detention as the supposed “threat” that they posed for the land-holders living nearby who sold their land to the foresting companies. The last person I visited was Jaime, the seventeen-year-old brother of Juan. Jaime recommended that I visit the prisoners in the jail in Angol, and said that he goes to visit often. Nobody invited me into their home; the first interviewee came to the edge of his garden to speak with me and Jaime brought me to his woodworking shed. No women were presented to speak with me. After the day was over I was dropped-off at the bus stop where I was to wait for a bus ride to Temuco. The driver tried to charge me the equivalent of thirty dollars for driving us around, and I gave him a few dollars. I left feeling like I had been whisked through a tour of Temulemu as these men wanted me to see it, but not as I would have liked to have experienced it had I been more welcomed and had more time with them.
An overnight bus carried Albert and me toward San Pedro. When a blazing sun came through the bus window and warmed my cheek, I opened my eyes to see a vast expanse of sand dunes that went on imaginably forever. Later that day, we arrived to San Pedro, and found a campground to stay in, which was actually someone’s backyard.
In San Pedro, the day Albert broke free, after we had finished our hike through the drastic landscape of the desert, called Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), I stopped to talk to the two people, who looked to be no more than eighteen-years-old, who ran the visitors office at the entrance to the park. They had contradictory feelings about tourism: it brought in needed revenue and jobs for the indigenous community, but it also disrupted their lives and made them feel like they were selling a packaged version of their culture to outsiders. The indigenous heritage in Northern Chile, as well as throughout western Bolivia, is principally Aymara—they tend to wear wide-rimmed hats and have leathery skin; the women wear long, swooping skirts and endless braids down their backs.
Engrossed in the conversation, I was not keeping track of the time. My three companions and I, thirsty and weary, began the eleven-kilometer ride back to San Pedro on the bicycles we had rented just as daylight was rapidly disappearing. Soon, there was not a single form of illumination around us, except for the vibrant mass of stars above us, as we cycled along the road. Only one of us had a headlamp, Stefan, and he went ahead, illuminating just a few feet of the path we rode upon. All of us felt a little nervous, but we also knew that this ride, under a clear desert night sky, after walking in caves and along elevated dunes, was probably one of the most beautiful moments we would experience in Chile. And it was not a moment that had been sold to us: no one had advertised the long, empty road as a quiet and spiritual adventure; we had not bought tickets for a nighttime escapade. In that moment, we all, as Albert had, broke free of our core anxieties, that consistent chatter of voices telling you not to be too free, to stay on course, to mind the hour, to be prepared.