They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Travel diary (05 of 28): walking the streets of Temuco

Travel diary (05 of 28): walking the streets of Temuco

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]

I really wanted that our journey along the backbone of South America started in the south of the Bío Bío River. Do not ask me why I wanted such a thing. Maybe in my heart there was always an honorary place for Elicura Chihuailaf, one of the greatest poets of the Mapuche people that named that river "blue dream of my ancestors". Maybe because, though it could be historically wrong, I had always considered that river the southern border of the Inka Empire. From that point, Cuzco's armies were not able to go further due to the fierce opposition presented by the tokis (battle axes) of the Araucanian warriors.

Whatever the reason, there we were Sara and I travelling by a night bus towards Temuco. The eight-hours journey would take us to the south, to the heart of the region known as Araucanía, where lakes and volcanoes ornated with gorgeous woods spread up to the end of the mainland; further on, after a narrow passage of water, Chiloe Island rises, with its traditions and its colorful churches. We would not reach that part of the country this time: our journey through the Andean range would start in Temuco, though.

While I had a look at the small map of southern Chile –sat in the first of the long series of uncomfortable seats that would destroy my spine and some other parts of my body during this long journey– there was a song of Violeta Parra ("La exiliada del sur", "The southern exiled") in my mind. Its words flew into my mouth and found myself whispering those unforgettable southern villages' names:

My right arm in Buin was left, people of the audience;
The other one near San Vicente was left, I do not know with what purpose...
My breast in Cura Cautín, I can see it in a small garden
My hands in Maitencillo greet in Pelequén.
My blouse in Perquilauquén catches small fishes...

It is curious how those simple words read on a map can awake so many memories in a person, so many forgotten sensations, so many illusions, so many fantasies.

We found ourselves in the city at dawn; it was really early, its streets were empty and its inhabitants slept. That way we walked the twenty blocks that the bus station is away from the main square, calmly observing the Ñielol hill, which dominated the city and was being slowly surrounded by us. Its slopes are covered with pine and eucalyptus woods, and its summit has a balcony that has become one of the principal tourist attractions of the city (that, to say the truth, does not count with too many). The city raises at the Cautín River shore, which was the historical border between the Mapuche people and their invaders, whatever their names. According to the guides that Sara and I had been consulting, the most noticeable features on the horizon should be a few hills more and some volcanoes, but if we have to be honest, we did not see any of them that morning since it had been raining till recently and there was fog in the upper parts.

The main reason to visit Temuco (apart from the personal ones explained above) was to know the Araucanía Regional Museum and, with a bit of good luck, to meet a couple of colleagues that had developed their work in relation with Mapuche communities. Anyway, there we were, in the middle of a wide area that grouped a high number of indigenous communities. However, and much to my surprise (or maybe to break down a sort of personal preconception that I do not know where it had come from) we did not see more than two or three people with indigenous traits, something that even in Argentina is quite rare if you are crossing regions with native inhabitants.

The visit to the Central Square brought to us the first of the three or four disappointments to come during the morning. The Mapuche Women House ("Casa de la Mujer Mapuche"), the first stop of our tour through the city, was nothing but a small shop of typical handicrafts, supposedly commercialized by women of the nearby communities. Perhaps it was like this (and if so, the purpose would be praiseworthy), but to both of us seemed a gifts shop, with textiles, pottery and wickerwork. We continued towards the Tourist Office, where a smiling young woman informed us that the Araucanía Regional Museum would be closed indefinitely due to remodeling work, but that we probably could pay a visit to the Mapuche Women House, the Railway Museum (something we did not have real enthusiasm for) and the Central Market, where there was a permanent exhibition of Mapuche handicrafts.

To this last place we decided to go next, with the hope of finding, at least, a minimum trait that allowed us to come closer with the reality of a people that I particularly admire with all my heart. However, there we had our last disappointment: the Central Market was only a series of stalls mainly oriented to the selling of souvenirs for tourists. We spent a while there, trying to find at least one musical instrument that was worthy... with not much success. The original ones cost a fortune and the fiction ones –that were also expensive– could only be considered as playthings.

For those who do not know very much about Mapuche music, I will say that it is based on no more than a dozen instruments, percussion ones mainly (kultrun, cake kultrun, little bells or kaskawilla, gourd maraca o wada), wind ones (whistle or pifilka, different kind of trumpets such as the trutruka, the ñolkin or the küllküll, flutes like the pinkulwe) and two more curious strings elements (the trompe or Jewish harp, and the kunkulkawe or musical bow). This list has enlarged, since the Hispanic arrival, with the guitar, the accordion, the bass drum, and from time to time, also with violins and harps. With those instruments, Mapuche people made and still make music, and the rhythms that they play have a lot of strength and charm, though for many they can represent just a mixture of outrageous noises. One of the dances that goes with those instruments (and that possesses a very peculiar rhythm and cadence) is the one called lonkomeo, where the dancer draws the choike (Patagonian ostrich) traits with blue lines on his body and, with several strings of little bells worn over the shoulder like a bandolier, and a poncho with its ends tied in his hands, mimics the pace of such a bird. It is a show worthy of being seen and enjoyed. Maybe for many Western spectators it might seem something quite tribal and primitive; however, I have always appreciated in it a fine and delicate appraisal of Nature, a careful representation of each movement of the bird, and an extraordinary adaptation to the sounds that accompany it, which, with no doubts, have an impressive strength.

If someday you have the chance to see it, please do not lose the opportunity. Or maybe you might be invited to a ngillatún or to a camaruco, the annual rogations celebrated by the Mapuche and the Williche people in order to thank Ngenechén –their Superior Being– for the previous year and asking him to bless the following one. In this celebration, the lonkomeo has a particular role; moreover, the simple fact of taking part in a ceremony that shows how an entire people exhibits its faith and its beliefs (that are the ones of their ancestors) and explains many things about its living culture... is always a worthwhile effort.

The Mapuche people speak a language (Mapudungu, "the speech of the earth") that has been written since the conquerors' arrival (I have worked with an original copy of the first "Art and Grammar of the language of the Kingdom of Chile" by Luis de Valdivia, placed in the Major Library of the National University of Córdoba, Argentina) and it recently succeed in reaching an "Unified Mapuche Alphabet" that allows the use of only one sound per letter and only one letter per sound (something that has not manage to achieve ours), avoiding in that way the use of many diacritic symbols and of an inaccurate graphic system adapted from Spanish. Even though, in many parts of Chile and Argentina this unified alphabet is not known yet, and there are not many places (at least in Argentina) where Mapudungu is taught (especially out of the regions with indigenous people). Anyway, this beautiful language is still alive, and exists an increasing literature written in it, produced by publishing houses, mainly in the Chilean side (you can always have a look at the numerous sites on the web).

Mapuche population in Argentina is estimated at 90.000 people (official census do not exist, hence it is quite difficult to present reliable numbers) and in Chile, at 120.000. The historical struggles of this people in both sides of the Andean range (that gave birth to heroes like Caupolicán, poems like "La Araucana" by Ercilla, unforgettable and sad images as the ones mentioned in "Martín Fierro", and shameful goals such as the Argentinean Desert Campaign) continue at present, as it can be proved if you look for a bit of information in the section "Original Peoples" maintained by Indymedia Argentina.

Mapuche culture drew and colored our southern lands with place names, with surnames (that are born sometimes with dignity, sometimes with shame thanks to five centuries of discrimination), with names of many plants and animals, with names of mythical creatures (such as the invunche, the trauco, Kai Kai Filu, Antü Malén...), with tales and legends. It is not a mere folk culture; its memory is not made of simple stories that are told to tourists or primary school children. It is a proud people, alive, active; it is a culture that resists and fights for its identity and its rights... It is said by a popular song:

Despite the shrapnel
and the law of the tyrant,
the brave Araucanian people
still stands.

Beyond the political claims and positions of many "indigenists" that dare to call themselves Mapuche (whose leaders seem to me absolutely odious and opportunist who almost know nothing of what they talk about), I believe that Mapuche people are one of the peoples that more impact and more barbarity have had to bear (we only have to think about the International Oil Companies profanating their cemeteries in Argentina) and, thus what they demand should be listened to.

The great question that I made myself, strolling along the streets of Temuco, was "How much do we Latin Americans know about our original peoples?" If I asked you, in this very moment, what information might you offer to a user that asked you for any document relating to Mapuche culture... what would you answer? Are we conscious of the cultural wealth and the linguistic diversity that we have inside our own frontiers? Do we recognize forms of treating, processing and facilitating the information, different from our own, but equally valid? Do we recognize other supports, other alphabets, other ways...? And what is more, if we recognize them... do we implement such a knowledge? Are we respectful to it? Have we kept inside ourselves its mean? Or do we prefer to continue looking at what is done in Europe or in the USA, rather than watching what we are losing here? I will leave those questions for you to think about... On my part, I believe that, even after many years of getting involved and working in the direction of knowing and recognizing the peoples that inhabited these lands before the European arrival (among them, my own ancestors), I continue knowing nothing though I have learnt a bit. And that makes me feel sad, because I can see that I am losing an impressive cultural heritage.

Anyway... At 11 am we had already crossed Temuco, and we tiredly looked at each other, a bit disappointed. In a few seconds we decided that the most logical step would be to go back to Santiago with daylight. We wanted to admire and enjoy the south of Chile under the sunny skies that little by little had left the clouds behind, and also to sleep in a bed before setting off for Lima (we would be on a bus for 52 hours). So, we said goodbye to the Cautín River and to Ñielol hill (where we finally did not go because the ticket price for tourists was a robbery), and we sat again on a bus of the TURBUS company, watching with curiosity through the window the immense woods and the green prairies covered with colorful flowers, and the mist near the top of the mountains... and smelling the odorous wood that was being sawed in the many sawmills along the road. "Wooden land" I thought while we were crossing the Bío Bío River before entering the city of Los Angeles. A land whose woods gradually disappeared as we were coming near Santiago.

Santiago welcomed us with the last lights of the day. Shortly after arriving in the city, we went to buy the tickets for Lima (we will set off the following day in the morning). We would make the journey by land, because it was the cheapest option and the one that would allow us to know more about the route we were next to follow, which would take us along the northern coast of Chile up to Arica, and from there, along the southern coast of Peru (Tacna, Ica, Nazca) up to the capital, where we expected to arrive on Sunday afternoon.

But this route will be part of the next post in this travel diary, which little by little is being written by four hands.

Before going to sleep, we still had time to check some of the presents that we were given in the Library Centre of Puente Alto... Among a pile of paper we found a board game, similar to the one called "The goose" ("La oca" in Spanish), in which the people responsible for the centre try to rescue the memory of the community. In this game, you have to throw a dice and count on the board. That way you move from one square to the next one, and in each of them, you find a representative place of the community, which main features can be reviewed in a book attached, beautifully presented and printed. The game goal is to encourage players, in a playful way, to know more about their tangible cultural heritage. It is a wonderful work of cultural recovery that might be repeated (displaying the same model or maybe thinking of others, equally imaginative) in many places of our Latin America, a land where the ease to forget who we are, where we come from and where we go to is really surprising

A big hug from these hot lands soaked in mist. We will see you here tomorrow...