The Mapuche are the predominant indigenous group found in Chile. Though they often speak Spanish, their cultural language is called Mapudungun. In their native tongue, the word Mapuche literally translates “People of the Land”.
Chile is separated into 15 distinct regions that function much like the individual States in the US. Lautaro is located in the center of the IX region, known as the Araucania. This region is home to 50% of the 500,000 Mapuche in Chile. Until Chile colonized this region, the Mapuche culture, like the Native North Americans before the arrival of Europeans, had no concept of private property or land ownership. This communal mindset as it relates to land ownership draws from an inextricable link that the animistic Mapuche cultures sees between the land and the sacred/supernatural.
When the Spanish arrived some 400-500 years ago, the Mapuche in this region actually kept the Spanish from conquering past the Bio Bio river. This represented the southern frontier up to which the Spanish were able to conquer for almost 200 years. This sense of resilience and pride still embody the culture as it exists today. The Mapuche culture is predicated along kinship ties, and most communities maintain a ‘Lonko’, or chief, who is responsible for family and the community as well as a ‘Matchi’, generally the female spiritual leader of the Tribe.
Unfortunately for the Mapuche, Chilean government interactions have been historically characterized by systemic disenfranchisement and theft of native lands. To this day, there exists a concerted effort on the part of the Mapuche and human rights organizations to reclaim these ancestral lands which the government claimed and sold off to forestry companies. This government seizure has led to a number of economic problems for the Mapuche.
After the government seized these lands, each family was given a relatively isolated plot of land, called a reduction, on which to subsist. Because these pieces of land have been carved up into smaller pieces by successive generations, most Mapuche subsist on 3 hectacres or less of rocky, semi-arable land that is often very far away from commerce, markets or industry.
The last census found that the Aruacania region had the highest rates of illiteracy and poverty, with 42.7% of people in the region impoverished compared to an average 16% throughout the rest of the country. This poverty is especially concentrated in rural areas where 87% of the region’s Mapuche live. This serves to highlight the particularly racial aspect of Chile’s poverty.
Magnifying the problem is a lack of geographic mobility because Mapuche lands can only be sold amongst Mapuche families, which often leads to depressed property values. Unemployment amongst Mapuche heads of household is a serious problem facing the region and culture of this people group. The majority are considered umemployed because of a scarcity of opportunities to garner a fair wage off the land they work. On average, a Mapuche family makes $92 monthly on their plots. This scarcity of opportunity to even eke out a meager living is compounded by their isolation and taxes on transportation, as gasoline here is $6/gallon and rare is the community that shares more than one car or truck amongst the whole group. A pattern of male figures leaving the community for Metropolitan areas is particularly disruptive for the culture, where in addition to leaving their kinship ties, they find themselves making enormous sacrifice for small gains because they are ill equipped to make much more money due to a lack of formal education and literacy.
Despite the challenges faced by these indigenous communities, they are extremely receptive to the words of our savior Jesus Christ. The local church in Lautaro has made great inroads with this people group, and many have come to know the Lord. Despite these inroads, there still exists much work to be done in these local communities.