A story of hope and cultural reconnection
FROM THE COUNTRY TO THE CITY
When she was young Graciela Cheuquepan loved playing outdoors, jumping from one tree to another “like a monkey” and rolling around in the fields around her grandparents’ house. Sparkling eyes fill her face when she tells me about that time of her life.
When she was 8 years old, her life suffered an abrupt change though. With her family, she travelled 600 km north to the city of Santiago. The same fate shared with 80% of indigenous Mapuche families in Chile.
Their beloved land has been shrinking in size and they are forced to leave it behind, finding themselves confined in an unknown and unhospitable urban environment.
Graciela’s dad moved to Santiago in 1969, followed by his family the following year. They had to move, because the land was not enough for her and her five siblings to live. “We Mapuche need the land to survive”.
To facilitate the integration in the new society and the learning at the school, Graciela had to learn to speak Spanish, which she has never spoken before. She also stopped speaking her native language -the Mapudungun– because there were not many occasions left to practise it. During the seventeen years of the dictatorship in Chile, in fact, the opportunities for social interaction for the Mapuche families in Santiago were almost inexistent and since the Mapudungun is traditionally an oral language, it can be easily forgotten unless is practised daily.
When the Kiñe Pu Liwen Association was established, in 1997, many of the traditional activities were gradually retaken, in particular, the practice of the Mapudungun.
Graciela was then able to encounter her native language again, and she started speaking it with her daughters for the first time. With the end of the dictatorship, in 1990, the social interaction among the Mapuche community of Santiago returned, and the Indigenous Law in 1993 played a crucial role in it. New public investments and many social projects were launched with the aim to rediscover, protect and promote the living cultural roots of the country. But the creation of the first Ruka of the city, built in the Graciela neighbourhood of La Pintana in 2002, was a fundamental step for the Mapuche community. The social interaction is vital to any culture, and having a physical place helped immensely the Mapuche culture in Santiago to mend itself. Finally, the separated dusty threads, feeling lost and alienated in different corners of the big city, could come once again to the old loom and create a new bright tapestry.
THE RUKA, A REAL PLACE
The traditional wooden round construction, with thatched roof and dirt floor -that should always look to the east- is where you will find Graciela waiting for her guests. This building was not built specifically for the tourists to get to know the Mapuche culture, like it was a museum. It is not a space where a culture is displayed, but rather a living house where the tourists are welcome to join the many activities that happen beyond them. It has been there years before the tourism arrived -in 2006- and it has always been well alive!
It is there where many Mapuche families went to reconnect with their ethnic group members by practising their ancestral language and celebrating their spiritual gatherings. Like the one organised to give thanks to Mother Earth for everything she gives and provides. With the We Tripantu they commemorate the New Year. It is the time many families come from the different regions of the South, bringing their homemade cooked dishes and carefully and proudly display them for everyone to admire and, only later, to taste. Sharing their food with the other families is the heart of the gathering. The act of sharing is one of the central features of a culture, like the Mapuche, with a predominantly horizontal social structure – formed by many small cells rather than restrained in a pyramidal shape – that differently from our modern society, lacks of a strong hierarchical structure of power.
SHARING TO NOURISH THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE
Sharing is also the verb that best defines our host, Graciela and her generous soul. In the last 20 years she has dedicated her life to pass on and share her living culture with the citizens of Santiago and of any other national or international location. She works in schools, as an educator, teaching her language, as well as the traditional recipes of her region. She has been involved in many prevention programmes as a Community Health Worker and Wellbeing Advisor for her community, fighting the discrimination and helping her community to cope with isolation and the lack of information.
Graciela has also been an incredible contributor for the many academic researches of university students and their on-field researches, that have reached out for her help over the years. She has been the main interlocutor of different age groups that have been in the Ruka, to who she has relentlessly told her stories and the stories of her people.
Education is not the only way Graciela shares her knowledge and life experience. She is part of the neighbourhood community association, part of a cultural cooperative, member of the craft union; she proudly participates in cultural fairs, exhibitions organised by the Universities, and she attends secondary school teaching the pupils how to use the loom. She has been working with the children since 1997, when they established the nursery in the Ruka, teaching them to cook la harina tostada (the traditional “toasted wheat” of which I will tell more in another story of mine), providing an healthy option for the diet of the little ones while keeping alive the culinary tradition of their predecessor in the fields.
Graciela has chosen to sacrifice a portion of her family life and of her role as a mum, which, she admits, gave her daughters reasons to complain in the past. But they soon understood that their kind mother had also chosen to assume an higher mission: to be there for the bigger family of the Mapuche which had required her full presence in one of the most crucial times in its recent history.
Graciela’s energy and determination are admirable and seem endless. I honestly wondered where they are coming from.
She said that she had to attend the meetings at the school where she teaches. She had to be there to discuss and battle in order to secure the space for the cultural history of the Mapuche in the Chilean education system, “because when I was at school my teachers taught me a lot of lies”.
YOU WILL FEEL LIKE A WITRAN
She fills her work with joy, affection, a lot of passion and knowledge too, but not of a technical kind. “I have never studied tourism, you know!” she points out, “but I had the luck to meet good people, like Travolution Travel, along the way who gave me orientation and supported me to learn”.
However, her hospitality skills were not learnt in a course. The basics of what she knew came from her granny Rosa.
“Hurry up, prepare the house: visitors are coming, my granny would say, and then I knew that was the time when we would tidy up the house, clean every corner of it, cook up special dishes, making sure that everything was ready to receive the witran, the visitors”. There were preparation steps involved, but, above all, it was about how to do it: “We were doing it with care (“con cariño”). This is how my grandma Rosa taught me how to receive visitors, and this is the way I keep doing it with our tourists”.
TIMES GO, TIMES COME
Two, three, four hours, or even an entire day, won’t be enough to graduate you in the Mapuche culture, but entering the gate of the Ruka Kiñe Pu Liwen at the sound of the cultrum (the traditional drums) it would be an exhilarating starting point.
This place is not a museum, and it did not build itself up overnight either.
The fire that is burning in the middle of the room is the perfect symbol of the liveliness of the place, kept by the strenuous and caring work of pillars like Graciela.
Those walls contain stories that a lifetime won’t be enough to grasp. Stories of memories, of losses, of many sufferings, of changes, abandonments, and struggles. But also stories of much laughter, of the annual celebrations, of the joyful meetings with old friends and of the encounters with new visitors. Stories of the children eating the same meal prepared by their great-great-grandmothers. Stories of hope for a future that can be different from the past.
But isn’t this life? Loss and hope, struggle and joy, all combined together.
From the yin, the yang flourishes. From the suffering, hope will grow.
The Ruka is full of life, indeed, and it keeps flourishing, even in this sad time of closure and funeral wakes.
Through Graciela’s words, I was able to feel the pain of the loss, the deep fracture that forms in every Mapuche’s hearts when they are separated from their land.
I feel sadness in Graciela’s words when she talks about her blissful childhood in the countryside with her grandparents. “Without a doubt, that was the best time of my life, ever!”. Her voice breaks up and I sense strong emotions creeping in the pauses that divide the words.
How to blame her? She was taken from her land, when she experienced total freedom and felt the pure elements all around. She was placed in a small flat in a peripheral area of the biggest city of the country, where she grows up far from the soil, the air, the wind and the wild nature she got used to. She forgot her native language to adapt and survive in a hostile urban environment which had probably seemed to her pretty sterile as well if compared to the fields of the South.
Nevertheless, the connection with those first eight years of her life was so strong that she was somehow able to bring it back, cultivate it, let it grow slowly, nourishing it, for herself, her family and her people, and also for the lucky tourists that decide to meet her.
During the pandemic, she has suffered a lot for the lack of social connections. However, she admits that the one she had with me was her first virtual interview and she didn’t hide her scepticism. Her initial resistance, though, didn’t get in the way and vanished while her stories were unfolding and my heart opened up to them.
“Well, don’t get the idea that I haven’t done anything during this pandemic, right?” she jokes, winking at me from the screen. She might have not been able to attend her weekly meetings or deliver her classes at the secondary school, but she has spent time designing the traditional handcrafts she loves creating on the same loom she teaches the tourists how to use. She also made fruitful use of her free time by looking after her vegetables in her backyard garden, especially of the chilli (el ají), her favourite one.
She has also had the time to strengthen her contact with the little amount of soil she has access to in Santiago. A calm smile of hers informs me that she has been planting new varieties of flowers at the entrance of the Ruka. so that when it will be safe again for the community members, and for the tourists, to come back to the Ruka, the warm welcome they will receive from her will have a renewed colourful scent too.