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Facing discrimination, Chile’s Mapuche youth speak out

© UNICEF Chile/2006/Mac-Pherson
Jonathan Herrera Melillán, 15, attended a UNICEF Chile event that brought Mapuche children together to explore issues related to their culture.

By Soledad Mac-Pherson

TEMUCO, Chile, 8 March 2007 – On the outskirts of Temuco, the capital of Cautín Province, UNICEF recently organized a meeting to provide Mapuche indigenous youth an opportunity to meet, discuss and exchange ideas with their peers from communities in different parts of Chile.

“The event enabled us to show our knowledge of Mapuche traditions through our dance display, and to share with children who are not Mapuche,” says Jonathan Gonzalo Herrera Melillán, 15.

Jonathan, who lives in the city of Viña del Mar, is proud of his indigenous origins. “I’m Mapuche on my mother's side, and my surname, Melillán, means ‘four stones’,” he says.

Strong sense of exclusion

Mapuche children and adolescents in Chile say they are targeted for discrimination mainly because of their physical features and surnames, which indicate their ethnicity.

In settings that are largely non-Mapuche, many of them feel excluded, looked down upon and rejected. They also sense that because they are Mapuche, others may believe they are in a lower social class than the one they really belong to.

In rural areas, Mapuche families have little or no access to important economic resources. And even when they move to the cities, they are forced to live in poor districts.

These problems were highlighted by the results of the ‘Voice of Children’ survey conducted by UNICEF Chile late last year and detailed in a report, ‘Identity and Discrimination among Mapuche Adolescents’. According to the survey there is also a strong sense of exclusion from access to good education, employment, new technologies and health care.

© UNICEF Chile/2006/Mac-Pherson
Daniel Quelempan Antinao, 12, says he has faced discrimination as a Mapuche but is still proud of his heritage.

Overall, Mapuche youths feel they have to work much harder to achieve success than non-Mapuches.

Pride in Mapuche origins

Despite the bias they experience, many Mapuche teens – like Jonathan – feel proud of their origins, the survey showed. These young people refuse to disown their Mapuche identity, although it can sometimes be very inconvenient.

Only 7 of the 1,700 pupils in Jonathan’s school are Mapuche, for example, and the school does not teach topics related to his culture. But he is able to participate in a ceremony called the ‘choike purum’ in which the Mapuche people reaffirm the bargain their ancestors made with the gods to protect nature and maintain natural balance and harmony.

“I used to be ignorant of my ethnic origin, but I’m becoming more and more interested in it,” explains Jonathan. “As I learn about it, I feel increasing pride and desire to learn more. I realize that it’s worth teaching the culture.”

‘I’ll have to try harder’

Adds another indigenous boy, Daniel Quelempan Antinao, 12: “I’m proud to be Mapuche, and if someone makes a comment to me in the street I ignore them and pretend to be deaf.”

Daniel remembers facing discrimination while he was in kindergarten. “They called me ‘Indian’,” he says. “This made me angry. I wanted to hit them, and once I did hit one of my classmates.

“I speak very little Mapuzungún, the Mapuche language,” he continues. “My father and the teacher at school taught me, but the only person who can speak it in my house is my father. I’d like to learn much more. There are no Mapuche activities or ceremonies at my school, nor in my community or family.”

As for his future, Daniel knows he faces disadvantages. “I’ll have to try harder to stand out more than the rest,” he says.



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