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to know who we are

reflections from a week spent in the south of Chile, living with and learning from the Mapuche community

Morning comes, and I wake up with one single thought: I am so cold. Every single part of me is cold. Despite the three sweaters, two pairs of leggings, fleece jacket, and heavy winter jacket that I slept in, I can feel the cold in my bones. In fact, I’m not sure I even remember what it was to be warm. Still, I drag myself out of bed, switch out my bottom layer for a clean sweater, and head out to start the day.

After a long bus ride through the mountains in southern Chile, our group arrives at a Mapuche community near the mountains. We’re each greeted at the door by a woman named Regina. She hugs each of us as we pass, and ushers us in to a ruka, a traditional Mapuche home with a crackling fire in the middle of the room.

We start introducing ourselves, just going around the circle stating each of our first names. Regina leans over to the interpreter and mumbles a question in Spanish, don’t any of us have mothers or fathers? We all laugh as the interpreter relays the comment, and start over, this time speaking our names and our parents names as well.

We have introduced ourselves so many times before—but something is undeniably different this time around. As I introduce myself (“Me llamo Sonali, soy la hija de Sacheen y Sangini) I can’t help but wondering how long it has been since the last time I actually spoke the names of my parents out loud.

Her young son does not want to introduce himself to this room filled with strange strangers. His nose is wet as he pouts (“Mom stop bothering me!”) and runs out, slamming the door behind him.

His mother only smiles, with the wisdom and grace of someone who has always known exactly where they are, exactly where they are going.

“He has to learn to introduce himself,” she says. “We need to know who we are. Otherwise, we are like flying birds that can fall anywhere.”

There is a long pause after the interpreter repeats this in English. There is no sound but the shuffling of feet and the crackling of the fire. “To know who we are, we need time.”

Smoke billows up from the fire, to the openings in the center of the roof, as we all settle in, rubbing fingers to faces, palms to cheeks, to keep warm.

"People always come and ask me things", Regina says with a laugh "even if they have their own grandmothers".

She tells us about her ancestors, about how they didn't know how to write or read, but still held all of the knowledge that has sustained the Mapuche for thousands of years. She tells us about her brothers and sisters, some of whom have left the Mapu tradition and converted to evangelism. She tells us about the connection of her community with la naturaleza, the sky and spirits, the ground and the river.

She talks, and we listen, and the fire burns.

I forget that I am cold.


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