Liliana Ancalao and the Poetry of Puel Mapu
Etymologically, the word Mapuche blends the Mapuzungun word “mapu,” meaning “land,” with “che,” meaning “people.” In other words, the Mapuche self-identify as “the people of the land.” Moreover, the preposition in that adjective phrase is itself of special importance. That is, the Mapuche understand themselves as being people of the land, and not its possessors, owners, or privatizers, for example. Rather, as archaeological records attest in concert with longstanding Mapuche oral histories, their culture emerged some 14,500 years ago from a nomadic people traversing the southern third of what is today mapped most commonly as continental South America. For most of that time, the Mapuche moved freely across the land, ranging from central and southern Chile to southern Argentina, and across that expanse, they practiced regionally variable but overlapping cosmovisions, while engaging in seasonal modes of hunting and gathering; creating exquisite cave paintings, pottery, and statuary; and devising innovative stone and wooden tools. However, in 1520, the rich and extensive mosaic of indigenous life in the region would be profoundly altered.
More specifically, in 1520 the Portuguese explorer Fernando de Magellanes reached the Southern Cone. His Italian scribe, Antonio Pigafetta, recorded the historical moment in an archive replete with Eurocentric hubris, racism, and exoticism. For example, Pigafetta famously described the indigenous Tehuelche of the region as fantastical giants, towering over the European explorers, whose heads barely reached the locals’ waists. Likewise he wrote of their ears as elephantine flaps hanging down to their feet, with one being used at night as a mattress to sleep on and the other as a blanket. Extending his projections to the firmament, Pigafetta wrote of discovering the Southern Cross in the night sky, meaning here that he was astronomically mapping an iconography of Christocentric Eurocentricity over the ancient Tehuelche constellation of a mythical rhea footprint. So began the five-century onslaught of European abjection, distortion, dehumanization, and erasure of the indigenous people of the region, with the consequences ultimately including the usurpation, enclosure, and Europeanization of Mapuche lands, and the denigration and disarticulation of Mapuche lifestyles, languages, practices, and beliefs.
Nevertheless the Mapuche remain the sole unconquered indigenous community of South America. That is, they remain independent to this day, having resisted the Incan Empire, Spanish Conquest, and multiple early modern and modern attempts at their extermination by both church and state, including the current murderous wave of displacement politics in the name of privatization, globalization, and progress. From this complex history, from this mapu, comes the contemporary Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao. She was born in 1961 in Diadema Argentina, in the southern Argentine province of Chubut, where nearly twelve percent of the population is Mapuche. More specifically, this is ancient Mapuche land, and as aforementioned, Ancalao’s ancestors have in fact walked this land for almost 15,000 years. In Ancalao’s case, her family hails from puel mapu, meaning the land to the east of the Andes and stretching down to the Straits of Magellan, but they were never definitively constrained territorially until being forced onto reservations, like most Mapuche, by the Argentine government in the last quarter of the nineteenth century during the so-called “Conquest of the Desert.”
Among those forced onto reservations in that vile historical moment were Ancalao’s great-grandparents. Consequently, Ancalao’s grandparents, like all Mapuche children on reservations, were forced to learn and converse in Spanish in the state school. This marked an especially sinister and devastating form of coloniality of power: the intent to erase Mapuche life and culture through the systematic repression and replacement of its language. The impact of this linguistic violence resounds to this day, with Ancalao’s reclamation of Mapuzungun in her writing being one example of an important contemporary contestation of it. More broadly, as alluded to earlier, the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century assault on Mapuzungun and on Mapuche life also included the reorganization of rural life by the state, much to the detriment of Mapuche autonomy and wellbeing. As a result, Ancalao’s parents, like many Mapuche, found themselves compelled to migrate to the city in search of work. This accounts for Ancalao’s relatively urban upbringing compared to millennia of her Mapuche ancestors. Today, from her home in the Patagonian city of Comodoro Rivadavia, in Chubut, she addresses precisely such ruptures, writing often in her poetry and prose with eloquence, precision, urgency, and clarity of the historical displacement, linguistic censorship, and material violence suffered by the Mapuche. She similarly undertakes such work as an important oral historian of her people.
Through those intertwined cultural practices, Ancalao strives to reclaim her Mapuche identity from centuries of attempts by both church and state to deform, destabilize, discredit, and erase it. That is, in a rediscovered Mapuzungun, Ancalao’s writing bears witness to the endurance and resurgence of her people against a diversity of violence. It is her testament to Mapuche power, pride, poise, resilience, and beauty, and it comes only after decades of sustained, arduous study of Mapuzungun under multiple teachers. Accordingly her voice is as crucial as it is compelling to listen to, both transhistorically and currently. After all, Ancalao is working to rescue and put into circulation the imperiled stories, cosmovision, music, history, mythos, and mapu of her people, and this helps to complicate and influence transnational conversations about such crucial (and mutually ensnarled) topics as racism, sexism, poverty, and pollution, to name but a few.
Importantly, too, such work begins for Ancalao in language, meaning in Mapuzungun. Ancalao is poignantly aware of the oral linguistic tradition of Mapuzungun; there was no written system for it prior to Conquest, and no definitive codification exists to date. Thus, to a certain extent, in writing poetry in Mapuzungun, Ancalao is both reinvigorating a besieged language by breathing it into the present poetically, and performing a subversive poetic intervention by defiantly usurping the weapon of written literacy and wielding it critically against its hegemonic oppressor, Spanish-language literacy. Moreover, in her writing in Mapuzungun, she is creating new possibilities for rememorating, articulating, and conceiving life, both Mapuche and otherwise. Simultaneously, too, she is striving to help to restore a cultural continuum long predating Conquest. And whenever she speaks, translates, or listens to Mapuzungun, she also is embodying a living ancient history. Thusly empowered, and working in multiple temporalities at once, she pores over historical records, anthropological texts, literature, music, and global cultural production by and about indigenous people, and all of this feeds her writing life, whether in her poetry, historiography, oral histories, or advocacy of her people.
It bears mention, too, that Ancalao also practices a powerful form of collaborative Mapuche politics. This is evident, for example, in her participation in the communitarian creation in 1994 of Ñankulawen, a group of Mapuche in Comodoro Rivadavia working together to explore the past, to support one another in the present, and to carry Mapuche life soundly into the future. In other words, Ñankulawen serves as an invaluable cultural nexus for Mapuche, both in the region and beyond. Furthermore, such centers are as necessary now as ever to the independence and vitality of the 1.7 million Mapuche living in Chile and Argentina. For they are everywhere menaced by the nation-states mapped over their mapu, with current crises including large-scale pollution by national and multinational industries, continued population displacements, severe deforestation, significant pay gaps for Mapuche in the labor force, systematic educational inequality for Mapuche, unequal access to and protections by federal and local law for Mapuche, and even the outright murder with impunity of Mapuche people and their allies, such as the recent cases of Rafael Nahuel and Santiago Maldonado, for example.
Through and against such saturating violence, Ancalao raises her voice. She sings a poetry that is by turns trenchant and mellifluous, urgent and timeless. Moreover, she sings not only of the historical brutalities and humiliations perpetrated against her people, but also of their courage, beauty, strength, and complexity. She celebrates their resilience and creativity. She shares their insights into ecological, sociopolitical, and spiritual wellbeing. She critiques the state while also imaging it otherwise. And she examines the potential of Mapuche life to transform the world for the better for everyone.
In short, then, Ancalao is a poet whom we all need. She is teaching us to reclaim our language(s) with tenderness, hope, and precision, and to respect those of others. She is teaching us to listen to one another with rapt attention, patience, and compassion. She is exemplifying ways to be courageous and self-effacing, whether in excavating historical atrocities or in theorizing new conceptions of who we are and who we could be. For through the tropes and figures of poetry, and through her reclamation of Mapuzungun, Ancalao is creating for us new modes of looking into the past, understanding the present, and imagining better futures. Thusly her voice announces both individual and collective possibilities for creating the conditions for more informed and harmonious ways of sharing our precious time together on this Earth, this mapu.
For these reasons and more, and however paradoxically, Ancalao as artist is bravely plunging deeply inward and backward so as to turn outward and forward to you in conversation. In other words, through her poetry, for example, she is opening a Mapuche worldview to a new kind of witnessing. She is eliciting a new and hybrid mode of collaboration with a transcultural, multilingual readership, and this in turn encourages us to re-envision our worlds via a careful attention to the potentiality of language(s) to make possible new ways of being. Accordingly you will encounter her texts herein in Mapuzungun, Spanish, and English; your struggle with and between them is an instantiation of the lived struggle of our shared postcolonial reality. Put differently, this is Ancalao intimating to us her deepest hopes for humankind to form more inclusive, pacifistic, and egalitarian communities of difference. And this is clear throughout her written oeuvre, wherein she works tirelessly to create space in the body politic not only for the Mapuche, but also for all Mapuche, not to mention all indigenous peoples, women, migrants, and so many other overlooked, minoritized, and/or silenced groups and peoples threatened with erasure by the state.
So please accept Ancalao’s invitation here, dear reader. Please join her in poetically recognizing how we might listen to one another with more concentration, openness, and compassion. See Ancalao tracing new and crucial pathways towards more pacifistic futures. Hear her praising the nourishing potentiality of a politics of inclusion based in radical listening. Through such a reorientation you might come to understand the phenomenology of her finest poetry, which leads us to understand how she somehow lives both “seeing herself [as] a ruins on the map of dreams” and as the “impossible flowers” enduring in the landscape. Such is our charge, she suggests: to learn to carry the sorrows of the mapu while also being living extensions of its capacity for eruptions of ravishing, inexplicable beauty.
Washington and Lee University