Voices from Wallmapu: How Indigenous Media are Challenging the “Terrorist” Stereotype in Chile

How is Indigenous media fighting back against stereotypes in the Chilean press?

By Giulia Dessì

The photograph captures a stationary truck, engulfed in flames. Thick black smoke rises out of the frame, partially obscuring a plantation of pine trees that borders the road. The article below informs that “hooded people” attacked three trucks working at the construction site of a wind power plant, mentioning that they held a banner demanding the liberation of Mapuche political prisoners, and opposing the construction of the wind farm. This article is from May 8, but almost every day, similar stories can be found in Chilean national newspapers. They draw attention to spectacular acts of violence against private property, without meaningfully interrogating the conditions and histories that give rise to such scenes. The language in these stories is not always explicitly discriminatory, but cumulatively they reinforce a stereotype that depicts the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, as terrorists.

Never defeated by the Spanish crown, the Mapuche were stripped from their territory, the Wallmapu, following the invasion of Chilean and Argentinian forces throughout the second half of the 19th century. Even at this early stage, mainstream media were key to generating public support for repressive state interventions, consistently stigmatising indigenous people through racist stereotypes.

“By depicting ‘the Mapuche’ as an aggressive and savage person, they created an excuse for intervention.” said Universidad de La Frontera Social Sciences Professor Carlos Del Valle, explaining that the stereotype was inherently racist, framing the invasion of indigenous territory as an act of racial cleansing and modernisation.

Since the first invasion, the Mapuche have been continuously fighting for their ancestral land. The conflict has ebbed and flowed in nature, but state repression and indigenous resistance both came into force at the end of the 1990s. Large tracts of the Araucanía and Biobío regions are currently owned by logging companies, which planted monocultures of pine and eucalyptus trees, in turn depleting forests and water resources. In resistance to extractive industries, Mapuche groups regularly start fires on plantations, block main roads, and burn forestry trucks. In response, the government uses an anti-terrorism law that bolsters police powers and bypasses the normal procedures of the Chilean legal system.

This is a struggle both over rights and representation.  Media ownership in Chile is highly concentrated, with the majority of print titles run by two holding companies. The monopolisation is both economic and ideological, and most news outlets have historically maligned the Mapuche population. Analysing the representation of the Mapuche El Mercurio, Chile’s longest running newspaper, Carlos de Valle identified three key stereotypes that emerged in different historical periods. In the second half of the 20th century the early image of the violent savage was replaced by the “drunkard” and “layabout”, legitimising further expropriation of land.

“With the economic crisis, this territory was seen again as a territory to occupy through a process of eviction,” Del Valle said. “It starts circulating, in El Mercurio and in the local press, the stereotype of ‘layabouts’, of unproductive people who do not work the land as they should. The articles of this period are emblematic of the expulsion of Mapuche people and [the discussion around] which people should come here, people from Santiago or European settlers”

The third stereotype, which emerged with the intensification of the conflict in the 1990s, depicts Mapuche people as terrorists. Even when not explicitly labelling them as such, mainstream media often fail to offer a nuanced portrayal of the conflict, focusing exclusively on violent skirmishes while ignoring the social issues that underlie them. Catalina Manque, reporter at Mapuexpress, one of the oldest Mapuche community media outlets in the region, believes that the social demands of indigenous people are constantly neglected and that the dominant media discourses are based instead on racism, stereotypes around poverty and discrimination.

“The analysis of social conflicts is very vague,”, Manque told Media Diversity Institute in an interview. “Content is rarely produced to give visibility to the problems of the Mapuche people; the expropriation of land, the shortage of water, the lack to access to education.”

Attempting to challenge dominant discriminatory discourses, the first Mapuche-run news outlets emerged in the 1990s.  

“While they reported on the conflict, they framed it differently, that is as the conflict that they [the Mapuche] have with the state; a state that is historically responsible for what is happening today. There is a complete change of narrative,” Del Valle continued.

In the past few years, with the expansion of Internet access, Mapuche media have flourished, setting different narratives, goals and business models than mainstream media, giving visibility to what matters to them. These media outlets do a diverse range of work, but share a commitment to serving their community by maintaining strong roots in the territory, and rejecting a profit-based model. Being autonomous and self-managed, their members provide financial resources, meaning they don’t have to negotiate with corporate advertisers or political parties over what they can and cannot publish.

In addition to highlighting the social and political demands in the conflict, these community media outlets have been providing a vital service to their own audience, encouraging the knowledge of their own culture and language, as well as fostering a network of mutual support between local people.

“My role as a reporter and social communicator is to give visibility to all these cultural processes, and to train communities to use communication to report their own needs through digital media and social media”, says Catalina Manque about her work with Mapuexpress.

Similarly, Nadia Almonacid, a community radio maker at the social autonomous outlet Radio Kurruf, argues that it is important that those who tell the story are those who are personally affected.

“We advocate for the communities to have a voice. They send us what they want to be published, and we share that information, rather than us writing it ourselves,” she shares. “We are interested in them being their own voice, for them to be able to deliver, to the world or to just the people visiting our website, knowledge of what is happening”.

When an unprecedented eruption of protests swept across Chile in October of last year, solidarity with the indigenous Mapuche community grew with it. Mapuche flags were flying in every demonstration, and indigenous symbols were spray-painted on the walls of major cities, while activists put on theatre performances about the Mapuche people.

“The social revolt provoked the realisation that the Mapuche were not fighting just for the sake of it, but because the Chilean state repress its people,” says Nadia Almonacid, explaining that Chileans themselves are becoming more and more aware of what police brutality looks like, since the systemic violence of the Pinochet dictatorship.

“This became clear with all the people who lost their eyes while protesting. For me, killings by the police were not rare either. All this has been happening here with the Mapuche people.”

The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic put a premature end to the street protests, but the new ties of solidarity with the Mapuche community remain. Now, activists like Manque warn that the Mapuche communities might be disproportionately impacted by being marginalized in the healthcare system, and not having information campaigns translated in their languages. She also worries that its prevalence in the news cycle could obscure repression against the Mapuche community.

“The coronavirus is like a spiral of silence, hiding the advancement of energy projects that violate the human rights of Mapuche communities,” she says. Manque’s message is a reminder of the importance of remaining attentive to enduring forms of injustice and discrimination, with or without a pandemic in our midst.