Decolonizing Labor and Cultural Exchanges: A Lesson in Mapudungun

A few semesters ago I read Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of Western Modernity. The historic part of the book is fantastic, but I am still a bit skeptical about the utopian side of his theories on decolonialization. Specifically, I ask myself if it is possible to move past capitalism and transfer into an economic system that finds a balance between monetary gain and a decreased impact on natural resources. I am very doubtful, but learning a language this summer has given me insight into what a decolonial language exchange could look like in a less capitalist economy.

Some of my academic interests include poetry written by Mapuche writers. Many of the indigenous Mapuche in Chile speak Mapudungun and in the 1980’s there was a marked increase in poetry written by a handful of Mapuche poets. Some of those poets are Elicura Chihuailaf, Graciela Huinao, Leonel Leinlaf, and Jaime Luis Huenún. I have written about Huinao and Huenún in articles that analyze the diasporic elements in their works, but I struggled as a nascent academic and as a non-Mapuche person in U.S. academia.

I constantly ask myself, what right, if any, do I have to study these poets and how can I understand their work if I do not learn the language? For this reason, I contacted a few Chilean friends that speak Mapudungun and are very active in the Mapuche community. After about a week I was able to meet up with a friend that lives outside the city. Over a hefty pot of chai tea at El bombón oriental in the Lastarria area of Santiago, my friend Andrea Salazar and I planned a language class that would benefit both of us. She would teach me Mapudungun while I, in exchange, would read a collection of Mapuche short stories she had recently edited. I was to go to her house located in the hills near Viña del mar. We would work out of a book titled Kom kim mapudunguaiñ waria mew written by Hector Mariano, a Mapuche from Curacao Ranquil and Andrea’s language instructor.

The most enjoyable part of my trip occurred on the Friday I arrived because it was on that night that I got a sense of what an egalitarian language class could be. That night as we sat at her dining table drinking maté out of a tin cup, Andrea went over the Mapudungun alphabet and explained the long violent history of the Mapuche community. For example, she told me about the work done in the last half of the nineteenth century by two missionaries, Ernesto Wilhelm de Moesbach and Félix José de Augusta, to learn and archive the Mapuche language in a book that would later be titled Gramática araucana (1903).[1] De Augusta used this book to evangelize the Mapuche communities in the southern part of Chile in the early twentieth century. My Friday night conversation with Andrea lasted for hours in part because she is a fountain of information, but also because one of my questions always led to another and on and on, until the effects of the maté wore off and my belly was full of the homemade bread her partner had made for us that night. The next morning, Andrea and I would talk about her most recent project: she edited a book with Marilén Llancaqueo in which they translated from Mapudungun to Spanish stories written by a man named Segundo Llamin. The title of the book is Segundo Llamin ñi kuyfike nütram: Las antinguas conversaciones de Segundo Llamin. Andrea wanted to share this book with me because she knows that I have access to academic circles in the United States, access that could potentially spread the word about the book. In return for giving me access to and teaching me Mapudungun, I would read her book and give her feedback, a sort of informal review. In other words, instead of paying her to teach me Mapudungun, she invited to give me instruction in the language as long as we exchanged services. We are both granting entrance to each other’s fields without, in my opinion, colonizing it.

Now, I am in no way suggesting that I am comfortable speaking about and much less for the Mapuche people. I am starting to feel invited to continue learning Mapudungun with the Mapuche community and that is a start, especially when many academics often write about ethnic and racial minorities to further their careers while calling their colleagues of color “brown” people. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by academics in our field, especially if we truly wish to decolonize our ways of learning. I invite my colleagues to question themselves on how they are giving back to the communities they are writing about because we cannot continue exploiting our sources to further our careers. It is certainly easier for us to travel to other countries with the amount of funds we are given by our universities and for this reason we need to recognize the amount of privilege that we have as academics from the United States. While I have heard some of my colleagues gripe about how expensive travel can be and how much pressure we have to travel and publish, I worry that we are not acknowledging how much privilege comes with those complaints. We can travel to Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula without first having to fill out visa applications. We are allowed into those spaces and we should start talking about and acknowledging how academics from Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula do not necessarily have the same advantages we do. Perhaps an exchange of ideas and services is one of many ways to engage in the decolonization that Mignolo is suggesting, but I am still skeptical and will continue to work on respecting the labor and culture of people I am invited to write about. For now I will continue to work on Mapudungun with Andrea as long as she is willing and available.


[1] This book is still available through the extensive work done by the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. You can find it here:

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