A few weeks ago I lived with a Mapuche family in the small community of Chapod. The Mapuche are an indigenous community that reside in the Southern regions of Chile and Argentina. Anthropologists frequently study them because their culture is rapidly disappearing at the hands of global, Western imperialism.
I only experienced the Mapuche culture for a single week, but what I saw and shared was beautiful, and worth saving. The Mapuche view the world through a circular framework. A friend of mine here named Kayleigh pointed this out to me. The traditional home of the Mapuche is a circular Ruka. Family time is spent sitting around a small table packed with friends and family, passing mate around in a circle, sharing stories, jokes, thoughts, concerns, and love with every turn.
Mapuche also believe in reincarnation. You move with your generation in your family in a circle, and you are reborn into your same family every fifty years. You only pass on to the next stage of life and death when all of your brothers, sisters, and cousins have joined you. The cycle of life, and the process of spiritual cleansing, is rooted in cooperation, love, and circular movement. In each new life, your soul grows with the souls of those around you.
In Western culture, we move in a linear, individual trajectory. We see the world through the Judeo-Christian lens, whether or not we subscribe to the specific religious rituals of this framework. We see life as being singular, and competitive. Christians live one life. They work to prove their worth to God. They compete for His favor. We rush forward on a single path towards the afterlife. While there is certainly love within families, the well-being of my soul is not affected by the well-being of my sister’s. For this reason, I only need to concentrate on my own spiritual fulfillment, in order to guarantee my entrance into heaven. We move in a singular, linear direction, and this colors our every decision. And whether or not you are specifically religious, this logic enters the way we live our lives. Capitalism, for instance, is a product of this linear thought process. To succeed as a business, cooperation may be nice, but it is not necessary. We move ceaselessly forward towards an end goal.
This is not a bad way to live. I live this way. I am a product of my individualist, Judeo-Christian culture, and I feel that it has served me well. Learning to see your one life as a gift can create beautiful moments, in addition to the competitive ones. But while this way of life works for me, it is not the way everyone should be forced to live.
In my tiny Mapuche home, I saw evidence of my culture everywhere. My family attended an Evangelical church every Sunday, and there was a small portrait of Jesus on the wall. In the small kitchen that smelled always of fresh bread and campfire there was a tiny TV with three channels. Every night we watched the Simpsons as we passed around a mate cup. The kids asked me to explain the Halloween episode several times. They also asked about baseball. While these moments were fun, they also troubled me. I don’t necessarily feel it’s bad that this small, rural, Mapuche family knew about my culture. It is fun to learn about the traditions of other people–and it is valuable. I felt more troubled that I knew nothing about theirs. The only reason I can tell you anything about the Mapuche now, is because as a white, privileged, middle class American girl, I could afford to pay money to enter a program that exposed me to this specific culture. My family at home is not sitting around my television watching a Mapuche cartoon show with specific cultural jokes. We are not attending Mapuche religious ceremonies on a weekly basis. The problem is not the sharing of culture, but rather, the domination of culture. Western culture is valued as progressive, and modern, and so cultures like that of the Mapuche get tossed aside. Their quiet, sustainable, circular way of living does not fall into our linear, goal-oriented lifestyle.
I am grateful for these moments of learning. Acknowledging my privilege has been an important step for me–one that started at Vassar, but has really become concrete for me here. I now wish I knew what to do with this privilege. Being here could be considered imperialistic, for example. I am a middle class white girl, who can see oppression, but escape it whenever I choose to. Even so, I don’t think I would undo this experience–even as I now recognize that this trip is emblematic of Western domination. What I struggle with now is, how do I fit into the solution? Do I have a place in helping the Mapuche of the world, or is it a problem that needs to be solved in their way, without the influence of my specific framework? Would interjecting my opinion also be a way of assimilating them into my Western trajectory? Probably so, but is that the price of success in the modern world?
I guess for now I am just going to continue to learn and to value the small moments. I’ll remember the soccer games with my host brothers, and the shared laughs at my frequent mistakes in Spanish. I’ll think about the sweet kisses shared between mother and son, the hand offered when I fell down, the mint tea for my upset stomach. These are the moments that remind me that there is something universal to humanity, and that there is hope in every thoughtful gesture.