To care for each other and for the Earth:
An interview with Elisa Loncón
Members of CREW and the Burdick Global Scholars Program interviewed Elisa Loncón during her visit to UCSB in April 2023.
The following text is an edited transcript of the interview, translated by Tristan Partridge.
To cite this text:
Loncón, E., Barandiarán, J., Partridge, T., Bricca, L., Lessmeier, K., Maia, L., Millet, I., Salazar, M., Schnitzler, A., Torralbo, C., Wercinski, M. (2023) “To care for each other and for the Earth: An interview with Elisa Loncón.” Trans. T. Partridge. UC Santa Barbara: Center for Restorative Environmental Work.
Elisa Loncón: First of all, thank you for this invitation – and also for this opportunity to speak with students here in California. I always find conversations with students so enlivening; one reconnects with possible worlds because it is young people who live these possibilities intensely. Thank you.
Languages and linguistics
MW: How would you say your training in linguistics influenced your work in politics and within Chile’s constitutional convention (2021-22)?
Elisa Loncón: I find fundamental connections because both lines of work have to do with who is speaking and how. With linguistics, one looks for the living language, developing methodologies for understanding. I first studied English at the Universidad de la Frontera in Temuco in the eighties because I wanted to study languages, especially my own language. But my language was not the object of academic study. Still, a Mapuche professor named María Catrileo had worked at the university. She had also had a scholarship in the United States. When I got to college, I connected with her. Linguistics offered a path to explain how I use and live with my language. This was a language that I always heard was not a language, that it was merely a dialect, that it was almost the noise of animals. So much racism against Mapudungun made it difficult to pursue this work in linguistics.
Once I graduated as a teacher, I worked for about two years teaching English to Mapuche communities, to marginalized populations. I found there were enough teachers who could teach English but very few who could teach Mapudungun. It was not considered an academic subject. There were no pedagogical methodologies, no Mapudungun curricula. Since I had already learned English, I was able to recycle ‘second language learning’ methods and apply them to teaching Mapudungun. From there, I followed the path of research, postgraduate studies, and a PhD in linguistics.
I went first to Bolivia, then to Mexico. I did my master's degree and worked in the autonomous metropolitan area of Iztapalapa. There, my supervisor, influenced by Noam Chomsky’s work in linguistics, showed how formal linguistics can be studied in diverse settings. And one of the major things that pushed me there was that you have to understand human language as a human faculty – this puts all languages on an equal footing. Different languages all respond to this human ability, this capacity for language. And in studying these relationships, we continue to learn more about the human brain. My language is an agglutinative, polysynthetic language. But, as my teacher emphasized, studying it is not just about explaining how this suffix or that particle operates but how the human brain works. This put Mapudungun on a level with all other languages – and this inspired me.
Like Chomsky, I too dedicated myself to the study of linguistics and also became increasingly politically engaged. But I have no intention of abandoning languages, because I am languages. I was born toying with languages and I want to die playing that game of languages. It is the most beautiful and inspiring thing – to be in the world, to feel happiness, to be doing what I am doing.
My research now continues the work I was doing before I entered the political process: working with neologisms – the creation of new words – and the question of how we can expand the lexicon of Mapudungun; having a multifunctional Mapudungun that can be used in all aspects of academic and technological life (since it is an oppressed language which has previously been reduced to familial, rural, or more ceremonial contexts). All languages can be developed at a technological level since they are all a form of human expression, of creativity. They just need opportunities, and this is my focus.
Multiple forms of knowledge
LB: Some languages are tools of colonialism, used to further processes of domination and to reinforce hierarchies. Can we recognize this while also encouraging diverse language learning? How might we find a balance between critiquing those tools of empire while also supporting different modes of expression?
Elisa Loncón: There is much to explore on the theme of coloniality and linguistics. When I was studying English at university, Chile was under a dictatorship. My classmates were fighting against the dictatorship. And sometimes they criticized me because I studied the language of the empire. Why would a Mapuche person pursue an imperialist language? Here, linguistics and ideology coincide. Languages are often used to underpin processes of Othering, and this can limit our motivation. The English language, the Spanish language, they are associated with the colonial and everything that colonization implied. But one also learns to use languages for particular purposes. It is not the language that controls you. We control languages to express our human condition, our purpose, our creativity. We use language to express who we are, what we want, what we feel, and what we are looking for. And so when I use English, I don’t use it to colonize, but instead to work for greater freedom for Indigenous peoples.
KL: How did you experience the different roles of Indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge and perspectives within the constitutional process (2021-22)? Are there particular articles that you would say reflect Mapuche values or, by contrast, which threaten those values?
Elisa Loncón: As with different languages, not all forms of knowledge are considered equal. An imbalance in how different forms of knowledge are perceived or valued has to do with the ability to share between different cultures. In my case – working with Indigenous peoples, my own culture, my own language, as well as with Western thought and academic approaches – managing this balance is a form of struggle.
This year I published a book called Azmapu on Mapuche philosophy (Azmapu: Aportes de la Filosofía Mapuche para el Cuidado del Lof y La Madre Tierra / Santiago: Editorial Ariel). But thirty years ago I also spoke of Mapuche philosophy, though I did not dare to publish that work. There was no academic theory at the time that would sustain that we Mapuche even had philosophy.
So there was no balance, no equality between philosophies. Just as it has been with languages; as when I wanted to study my mother tongue but that language was not even an object of academic interest – and so I had to study another language and then approach my own through that acquired language. This happens also in philosophy. Such imbalances further depend on the unequal possibilities that different people have to work with their own knowledge and experience – especially peoples who have been oppressed, such as Indigenous peoples, or experiences that have been marginalized, such as the knowledge and practices of women. We are not considered equals, nor are our theories.
In Chile, for example, we see women struggling against such imbalances – especially in cases where very harsh judgments have been made against feminist researchers or against Indigenous defenders of nature who have been persecuted, including many defenders of nature who have been killed. Diverse forms of knowledge support diverse values and forms of commitment. But there are economic interests and a small percentage of society that seek to dominate others; they do not want to lose the power they have and they maintain their position in part through the suppression of other forms of knowledge. And so these inequalities between knowledges persist, they are enforced, sometimes violently.
Balance between knowledges requires recognition and also recognition of the right to knowledge and to an institutional context for knowledge. Just as I have heard here at UC Santa Barbara: this university was created on Indigenous land, but there is no Indigenous university where Indigenous people can feel pride in the practice and pursuit of their knowledge. Indigenous thought, Indigenous worlds, are displaced in favor of laboratory science and expensive technologies. So we are not in equilibrium, neither here in California nor there in Chile. These global links are forged through colonial histories.
The constitutional process
Where does this leave us? Social rights are universal. The fight against racism one could say in Mapuche is also universal. In other words, these struggles each have a local dimension. But they also have an inspiring expression that goes beyond the local. And that is why the Chilean constitutional process [of 2019-2022] was so important. Despite being based in one country, the values and policy proposals we expressed and created together are linked to debates and struggles around the world. They can be applied at a universal level.
We may ask, in the 2022 constitutional proposal, were Indigenous values included? We put forward plurilingualism – because we need Chile to learn Indigenous languages, since Chile only speaks Chilean Spanish. But, still and again, Indigenous languages are rarely considered academic objects of study. If we want a society that respects our roots, a society with many values, we need people to learn our languages or to learn the good way of living [buen vivir]. We put forward the rights of nature. This was shared with other ecological movements. There are many movements in Chile who share these commitments and an openness to multiple forms of knowledge.
This is not straightforward. The universal requires that differences are respected. There are points of overlap, and there are points of separation. For example, the environmental movement, interested in environmental protection, shares interest in Mapuche struggles for land rights. The territorial right of the Indigenous peoples is to have the right to control our territories, to manage our territory. In Chile, the coastline was privatized, limiting public access to beaches. But, now, there is a law that supports free beach access for everyone. There are times when the defense of Mapuche land rights requires dialogue with others seeking territorial rights or control. On these themes, we talked a lot with environmentalists. On other themes, for example, we spoke a lot with animal rights activists who refuse to eat animal products. But we Mapuche have inherited a subsistence economy where each family has its own chickens, to produce eggs, has its own cow, to produce milk and to kill for meat from time to time, as a necessary source of protein. We cannot fully embrace the fight of animal rights activists who seek to ban all meat consumption. This is an ongoing debate, open for further dialogue and discussions. We live within a subsistence economy that does not depend financially on state support – we have had to generate our own resources – and the effects of climate change, as well as growing inequalities, are making subsistence life increasingly difficult to sustain.
IM: My question concerns the world of politics: what was your experience of dialogue and negotiation within the constitutional assembly – especially when negotiation required interaction with people with whom you disagree? Did you experience tensions between your values and the imperative to achieve results and pol agreements? How did you resolve those tensions?
Elisa Loncón: Well, a first tension we encountered was because we set ourselves that goal of inclusion. With the Vice President of the constitutional convention, Jaime Bassa, we were elected as head of the assembly process – and we proposed to expand the governing board. Instead of having two people, we wanted to include all the representatives of political parties and social movements on the board. This was a source of tension: the Left did not want the Right involved and the Right did not want us to make decisions that came from the Left. But it was our proposal to create representation across all the political forces, including the Right and the Left.
How did we do it? Through dialogue. But there were divisions within sectors, including within the Right. They participated in the dialogue, but had conflicts of their own. Still, I always had hope in the Right. I saw the process from a human perspective. I also believe our struggle was so just that it would be understood by everyone interested in human rights. I thought that at the end of the constituent process we would all end up talking about plurinationality as a way to resolve historical conflicts, to stop the violence that affects us all, to ease confrontations between us. But on the Right, instead of listening to me, they began to assemble disinformation and racist attacks on Mapuche language, culture, and appearance, and then they manufactured lies – or fake news – targeting me in particular, spreading doubt about my qualifications. They thought it impossible that a Mapuche woman has a doctorate. To this day, they think it impossible that I speak English and criticize me for not speaking English, not knowing that I do speak English and have worked in English, including published works, for many years. So dialogue with the Right always involved tensions.
Meanwhile, with the Left, there were tensions because I am not a member of the political parties, I was seen as an outsider. Some people among the radical Left opposed expanding the dialogue and others prioritized the political points they were trying to make in different debates.
I remember a strong tension was the “two thirds” clause. The assembly was to vote on whether two thirds of the assembly members would be required to approve constitutional articles. The radical Left opposed this; they proposed alternatives, such as three sevenths. Some of the proposals were constitutionally impossible, going against the brief that was our task. Many of the assembly members occupying “reserved seats” [17 of the 155 seats were reserved for ten recognized Indigenous groups within Chile] also adopted the more radical position. Among those occupying a reserved seat, I was the only one who voted to keep the “two thirds” requirement. Ultimately, every vote counted equally, and the two thirds clause prevailed. I was the president of the Constitutional Assembly and I refused to risk invalidating the very process that I was elected to lead. This was part of my political ethics and I was going to defend it to the end. Commitment, conviction, and adherence to the collective process.
The media and communication
AS: Since in Chile there is no public media, I wonder if, or where, you have found more inclusive forms of media through which to share knowledge and about Mapuche life and values? Do you think participating in international events, like this visit to UCSB, can contribute to a greater appreciate of Indigenous views within Chile?
Elisa Loncón: You are right. There is no publicly owned communication media in Chile. Public media was destroyed under the Pinochet dictatorship.
While the dictatorship was destroying public media, an alternative media was born. Alternative media emerged, continued their work, during the dictatorship, with the support of international organizations. There were multiple magazines and radio programs; they had support, they were practically the voice of the people – because, on television, everything came from the dictatorship. With the return of democracy, there was a negotiation between the president-elect Patricio Aylwin and the dictatorship where they reached certain agreements regarding where, and to what extent, free and democratic speech could exist. It was a fight. Concessions were made. Opposition to the dictatorship and its philosophy was strong. The social movements that had created alternative media were strong. International organizations offered further support to these media. But the negotiation process weakened these bonds. The incoming government decided not to maintain these media, looking for a route toward a new democracy. The alternative media effectively died.
Before the military coup, we had public television. The government at the end of the 1960s gave control of the television channel to the Universidad Católica and the Universidad de Chile to “inform, entertain and educate.” Those were their stated objectives. When the dictatorship arrived, those public stations were sold. The universities station was sold to someone who today is the owner of a major mining company. What was public was sold off. Everything is controlled by those who have economic and political power.
So there are very few opportunities to build publicity through the media. We, who were part of the constitutional assembly process, arrived at the convention to write a new Constitution. We had the bare resources required to do that job. Within that process, the possibility of generating and sustaining communication channels was limited: we had only a year to write the new Constitution. We didn’t have a strategic communication system. That should have been in the hands of the Government. But this was never addressed because the media is not public. Those limitations are real. Ultimately, it fell to the Apruebo [Approve] campaign to manage communications. But money talks. With the radio, for example, we found that every five minutes there would be advertisements for the Rechazo [Reject] campaign. They took over the airwaves. Even if there had been money for it, there wasn’t even room for announcements from the Apruebo side.
This is a serious injustice. It is a question that has not been investigated: how much money did the Rechazo campaign spend? How much did they have available to them? No one has said. No one knows. They invested everything that could be invested and nobody has revealed how much money was involved. We were in a very unequal situation regarding information and communication. On the Apruebo side, we simply did not have the resources necessary.
Possible pasts, possible futures
TP: These next two questions are connected. Let’s ask them together.
LB: We know that the proposed Constitution was rejected (in September 2022). Reflecting now, are there things that you would like to have seen done differently?
LM: After your rich and difficult experiences in the constitutional process and beyond, what are your dreams now for Chile?
Elisa Loncón: Wonderful questions. Regarding differences between the first process and the current constitutional process – between the one that was rejected and the second processes currently underway – these are significant. Those who were empowered by the Rechazo win refuse any dialogue. One former Assembly member, Fernando Atria, offers an analysis where he talks about ‘patricians’ and ‘plebeians’ – historically, it has been the patricians who were in power, who were always included, and who made all political decisions. In the first Constitutional process (2021-2022), for the first time, the patricians were the ones who were excluded. It wasn’t the case that we actively excluded them; rather, they somewhat self-destructed. This inversion of historical political norms meant that, since Rechazo won, the patricians are now seeking revenge against those who only recently had been included within national political processes. This revenge is fierce. They even decreed that none of us, no member of the first Constitutional Assembly, could be part of the second Constitutional Assembly. At the same time, since this is an agreement of Parliament, the President has less power or influence than the opposition. The Right now sets the limits governing the second process. And they maintain their vision that Chile is one, that it is ‘unique and indivisible.’
Effectively, this means closing the doors to the possibility of plurinationality. A ‘unique and indivisible’ Chile is the colonial Chile. This leaves no room to incorporate the other cultural, historical, and political forms that exist in Chile. We see this further in the fact that the second Constitutional process does not have any reserved seats securing Indigenous representation. These are now two completely different processes.
A central weakness of this second process is that it is not democratic – and this undemocratic approach both undermines its own importance while also erasing part of the history and importance of the first Constitutional process. But, as I always seek to emphasize, the first process made history which cannot be undone.
What would I do in terms of doing things differently? One thing that I would not change: maintaining democratic openness, and maintaining dialogue between and beyond the Left and the Right. I always feel uncomfortable when analyses adhere closely to Left and Right categories, because Indigenous peoples have been affected by both the Left and the Right. Instead, we would like a less oppositional relationship. Not black and white, but a process that also allows for inevitable shades of grey.
How do we achieve that? I think it also has a lot to do with language – how one approaches people. You have to commit to that, embody that. You have to work and dream for Chile and for the future. I place my faith in the younger generations. It pains me to see a Chile where young people don’t have the chance to study, they don’t have access to the university. It pains me to see a Chile where many young people today are without a future. Drug trafficking is gaining strength, spreading far and wide. A country that is democratically dishonest – and which is also failing to guarantee rights for young people – such a country has no chance. The future of Chile depends on training and supporting young people. Things have to change.
So, now, the dream is one where young people and future generations love each other in all their difference, with so many languages, with a full and vibrant Nature, with rivers that still run with their waters flowing freely, living out creative values where money is not the dominant empire.
We need life’s necessities. We need to create poetry. We need to embrace all forms of beauty. We can no longer submit to the cult of money. The neoliberal system leads to competition between all human beings; achievement is continual competition. But beyond all that, we are talking about the meaning of life, a meaning for life that is being lost. The core question: Why are we here?
We need to create space for our shared humanity, to allow our human condition to build connections between us, to reconnect with other, men, women, everyone. We cannot be fighting alone, separated. Our peoples cannot fight in isolation. We must strengthen our networks, networks built through dialogue and collaboration – strengthened with multiple forms of knowledge, with diverse shared experiences.
That is why it has been important for me to do this lecture journey [during my sabbatical year]. These conversations will have positive impacts. Everything brings consequences and these are going to be positive consequences. More people around the world will hear about us, through our own words, more people will learn that we are not violent, that we hold no hate for Chile. What we do want is that our struggle is known, our ongoing struggle for the right to take care of each other and take greater care of the Earth. We need this to be known everywhere.
Science and technology
CT: Those are beautiful words, thank you so much. Now, I would like to change the line of questioning a little, focusing more on science and technology. There remains the dominant idea and driving force that ‘development’ means extractivism and the sale of natural resources. How do we look beyond this? Are there ways to connect diverse Indigenous or ancestral knowledges with contemporary practices of science and technology?
Elisa Loncón: Well, as we have also heard today [at the UCSB conference on “Political Reconfigurations, Cultural Practices, and Artistic Manifestations of First Nations of the (Abya Yala) Americas”] there are now different efforts underway to ‘decolonize’ academia, to introduce intercultural dialogue within universities and institutions of learning. Science and technology are one such site. They are human tools and science must go back to the origin of science: it emerged as a way to solve the problems that human beings faced. It is a core motivation that has been lost. Now, science has in large part become an instrument deployed to maintain the power of those who have the most, upholding systems of inequality.
But the world has changed. The Earth is so damaged now. There are even people looking to colonize the Moon, seeking out spaces in the universe to continue colonizing. Already the Earth is heating up, and life will become impossible. Now, more than ever, it is vital to deepen dialogue with other peoples who have distinct knowledge and experiences – to learn from people who have maintained very different relationships with what Nature is. We can no longer rely on an extractivist culture that strips everything in search of minerals. We do need wealth to create well-being, but it has to be balanced. The great problem of science and technology today is the lack of balance in relationships between humans and between human societies and the wider natural world.
While there are some people planning trips to the Moon, millions of children are dying without enough food. There is no balance between forms of knowledge nor in how knowledge is used; women, and Nature, continue to be excluded, exploited, and silenced. Nature is an eternal gift, giving us warmth, continuing to give us food. And yet we continue working against Nature, we continue with extractivism, the quest for mega-production, and a global food system based on chemicals, genetic modification, and excess. So we need a science rooted in discussion of the problems that different communities face – to reclaim scientific practices that reduce problems rather than making them worse. Science and technology need to attend to global problems of injustice – to redistribute, to improve what we are consuming, and to teach us how to live with what is necessary.
Movements of difference, movements of care
MS: Thank you. My question concerns the vote in the September (2022) referendum. Electoral data show that rural and Indigenous communities also generally voted for ‘Rechazo.’ What is your sense of how the constitutional processes was seen? Did people feel represented?
Elisa Loncón: Well, there are several elements that we have already discussed. One of them is the communication campaign waged against the Constitutional Convention. Even in my province, in Malleco, on the radio, every five minutes they would broadcast false information regarding the constitutional process. And that is where Mapuche people live. It is not the case that all Mapuche people react the same way nor take a stand against Chileans. If they tell a Mapuche person that the Constitution is against all Chileans, that Mapuche person will also react negatively and vote against it.
Another element of this social and political reality is that we have evangelical church groups in Mapuche communities. After so many years of being marginalized, silenced, and discriminated against, this has led many Mapuche people to seek out creeds and connections elsewhere, and in some places the evangelical religion has been welcomed. A call went out from various churches, calling their pastors to keep telling their members the same things: to reject the constitutional process because it was ‘anti Chile’ and the other lie that the new constitution would promote abortion. Then we saw what happened: Mapuche people voted the same as the rest of the Chileans, rejecting the proposal.
The only place where Apruebo won was Rapa Nui. We saw similar voting patterns nationally across Mapuche and non-Mapuche communities. But across diverse groups, we all share the same objectives of struggle: the recovery of land, autonomy, and decision-making powers. We share these objectives with movements around the world. All of us, except for those on the right who deny this struggle for autonomy. Even people on the Mapuche right wing deny it. They say ‘well, aren’t we already integrated Chileans? Is there even anything left?’
So how do we understand these differences? There are different ideas about power and strategy. We opted for dialogue. That is why I went to the Convention. We engaged in political dialogue. But others adopt more colonial strategies, including within Mapuche communities. Top-down approaches. It is a form of colonialism, of domination, propagated by the Left – in the sense of seeing their struggle as necessarily radical in nature, demanding the seizure of power. Like the old ultra-Left movement, an almost military seizure of power. They were not against our proposal, but they did not share our strategy.
I believe that, in order to share the same strategy and build coalitions, it is necessary to decolonize. On one hand, power corrupts and the power of man intensifies and escalates through the use of weapons. By contrast, the central Mapuche demand that we have been talking about is this: the right to take care of each other. There are strategies that simply do not enable us to enact care for each other – and so we have to decolonize ourselves too.
MW: Thank you. I feel very honored to be here and to be speaking with you.
Elisa Loncón: Thank you for listening to me and for your interest in learning about Mapuche ways of thinking, about our history, about our struggle. And thank you for staying with us, acting together: I believe every one of us has a role to play in society. We need all of you to take care of Nature. To take care of each other. Everywhere. This is my main focus – and why I am here. Thank you.