Introduction: Elicura Chihuailaf Nahuelpán, Mapuche Poetry for Our Survival


Elicura Chihuailaf with Paula Miranda at his house in Kechurewe. Photo: José Luis Torres.

On September first of this 2020 (year of the pandemic), the nation of Chile, represented by seven jurors, awarded the National Prize for Literature to Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf Nahuelpán (Kechurewe, 1952). This is the first time in the history of this National Prize (established in 1942), and in the history of all other national prizes given in all areas (341 prizes in total), that a National Prize has been awarded to a persona belonging to one of Chile’s native peoples, in spite of the fact that our country considers itself a “pluricultural and multiethnic entity” (Boccara, 2012). This persistent omission is a reflection of our history. The processes of conquest and colonization of the 16th-18th centuries, followed by the actions of the Chilean state from 1883 on, systematically robbed the Mapuche of their territory, their culture, and their language. In prehispanic times, they occupied thirty million hectares from the Choapa Valley (31 degrees South) to Chiloé Island (45 degrees South). Between 1641 and 1883, the Mapuche resisted and/or negotiated with the Spanish, keeping hold of their lands south of the border formed by the Bío Bío River (36 degrees South), preserving their language, culture, and what remained of their territory (ten million hectares). But with the creation of the Chilean national state (1818) and the so-called “Pacification of Araucania” (1865-1883), the Mapuche survivors (mapu: land, che: people; people of the land) were progressively relocated and confined to reservations, in a sort of internal exile, in which their system of knowledge (kimün), their language (mapuzugun), their legal and organizational system (Az Mapu), and their spirituality were rendered subaltern. But despite all efforts against them, the Mapuche culture and language were able to survive and resist extermination. The end of the twentieth century brought with it various movements for indigenous autonomy. In this context, starting in the late 1970s, Elicura Chihuailaf’s work emerged. It was succeeded by an important new blossoming of Mapuche poetry, with diverse manifestations (Caicheo, Lienlaf, Huinao, Huenún, Aniñir, etc), in a system differentiated from but in dialogue with Chilean poetry, coinciding with the emergence throughout the continent of new poetic voices native to the far-flung lands of Ab’ya Yala (Toledo, Ak’abal, Ninamango, Cocom Pech, Ancalao, Chikangana, etc). In the past twenty years, Elicura’s work has had a unique impact on Chilean education—his poems have been included in all Chilean and Argentine textbooks, and he has been invited to hundreds of universities and high schools throughout the country.

For this reason, his selection for the National Prize this 2020 was preceded by an enthusiastic campaign in his favor, carried out by hundreds of wide-ranging personalities and professionals: from the academic and educational world, from the social sciences, the humanities, and healthcare, professors, scientists, human rights and environmental activists, cultural managers, students of all levels, and social organizations. Dozens of artists supported him as well, since many of his poems have been set to music or adapted to other media; among them were Ana Tijoux, Manuel García, Oona Chaplin, Beatrzi Pichimalen, and Roberto Bravo. His supporters, myself among them, appreciate the immense cultural and aesthetic richness of his work—a product of its rootedness in Mapuche knowledge (kimün), in Mapuzugun (the Mapuche language), and in its respectful bond to nature.

The Prize also represented a revindication of Chile’s decentralization: an important marker in an excessively centralist country whose massive socioeconomic inequality is also expressed in the unequal distribution of land (80% of the market is concentrated in the capital, Santiago). In opposition to this trend, the regional government and municipalities of the Araucanía Region (where the poet lives) lent their support to his candidacy, and the city of Temuco (the region’s capital) was covered in billboards showing his face and his poetry. Two important universities nominated him officially: the Universidad de la Frontera and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. What’s more, in the last days before the decision, the campaign was aided by a letter to the jury from Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, in which the Kʼicheʼ Maya activist likened Chihuailaf’s legacy to those of Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, indicating that “like the great creators, his poetic works are living expressions of nature, of history, and of mankind’s path. His legacy is holistic, with universal space-time, which, besides enriching the spiritual production and fine arts of Indigenous Peoples, vastly transcends the poetic and literary creation of the Chilean nation.” With these words, Rigoberta Menchú recognizes in Chihuailaf a project, both poetic and political, that widely transcends national borders, proposing a dialogue that can effectively allow us to face present-day crises. It is no surprise, then, that since 1977 (El invierno y su imagen [The winter and his image]), his seventeen books have received abundant awards and been translated to more than twenty languages. His body of work has remained vibrant from that year to the present day, with the publication of his latest books La vida es una nube azul [Life is a blue cloud] (memoir, 2016) and El azul del tiempo que nos sueña [The blue of the time that dreams us] (2020), a book on astrophysical and environmental themes. The importance of this Prize lies in the recognition of the foundational work that Elicura Chihuailaf continues to undertake in the midst of these complex, hard times, linked with his Maya symbol, the tz’ikin: the chosen one among us who will “pass on the sacred words.” This title is borne out in the design that Genechen assigns him: “This one will be a singer, you said / turning over to me the Blue horse / of the Word” (“I Came To Heal You, Spoke the Canelo,” 1995). A word that, according to Chihuailaf, IS “Nütram,” conversation. This “conversation is the air, the water, our shared inspiration, exhalation, and draught; it is the force that will allow us to return to the natural order,” he tells us in his memoir La vida es una nube azul (2016). In the face of present crises, indigenous cultures offer integral and sustainable answers, and they can all be found in his poetry. So much so that in March of this 2020 the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, cited one of his poems, indicating that he expressed with powerful eloquence “this link between indigenous ways and the protection of ecosystems.” This is poetry staked on dreams and memory, connected to his ancestors, to his trees and hillsides, to the tenderness of his Mapuche lof, that simultaneously stays alert to the “counter-dreams” of the contemporary world (ecocides, dispossessions, systemic violences, colonizations). This is why his body of work is more than a body of work, and the Prize he has just been awarded is clearly much more than a prize. It represents the urgent need to learn from this “message” that Elicura (“transparent stone” in Mapuzugun) has come to pass down to us, in spite of the history of dispossession, usurpation, and misunderstandings that national states have long maintained with native peoples.  The poet himself, playing with words, points out that here we find certain “alter-native” ways: we can learn a great deal from them, and they can open up paths through this nightmarish present.

His word is a word that comes from the oral memory of his family, and that is written in the memory of the present-future (this is why he has coined the term “oralitura,” or “oraliture”), writing dreamt in orality. The backbone of this oralitura is associated with the stories he heard from his elders: “I remember one my grandmother used to tell, about the blue… The first Mapuche spirit comes from the blue of the east, where the sun rises. That is the energy that lives within us.” This word that looks back on the blue has come to pray. What is asked for in these prayers? “That my people might always pray, / that they might have life, that they might have / food / that they might have good visions / and good Dreams / That they might have wisdom / and that their good Conversation / with Mother Earth and the Universe / might not end,” Elicura tells us in “Rogativa azul” [Blue prayer], alluding to Mapuche “good living” or “küme mogen”—meanings that have never diverged from the Mapuche, and that are offered to us today as a way to access a “certain experience of totality,” as Raúl Zurita tells us.

Whether it be written, sung, or spoken in conversation, the word desires to make-create things, to carry out an action upon the world: to pray, to remember, to invoke, to recognize. This function is only achieved through a poetic use of the word, turning to tangible, localist, sensorial, and emotional images (not intellectual ones, as Elicura clarifies himself). This is why hearing Elicura read his poems moves and impacts us so. This poetry passes on aesthetic joy to us, as well as ways to act and orient ourselves in our life, seen as a circular journey that “opens and is closed in two points that unite it / Its origin and encounter in the Blue.” In his fundamental poem “Sueño azul” [Blue dream] (from De sueños azules y contrasueños [Of blue dreams and counter-dreams], 1995), at once powerfully cosmological and personal, he builds the blue house of his youth in Kechurewe, as a “concentrated being” brimming with gestures of community, with belonging, rootedness, connection with the Ñuke Mapu and with his ancestors. He recalls, as well, the meaning of life and also of death, lodged forever in the “forests of the imagination.” In the poem “The Key that No One has Lost,” poetry itself defends its primordial function: to serve as an analogue, in correspondence and tenderness, to the conversation of nature—to be “the song of my ancestors.” But this sense of fullness is not everywhere; in many poems we also hear echoes of the despairing expressions of En el país de la memoria [In the country of memory] (1988) and the poem “Parece un contrasueño la ciudad” [The city seems like a counter-dream] from his 1995 book.

In his essay Recado confidencial a los chilenos [Confidential message to the Chileans] (1999), which now boasts eight editions and almost fifteen thousand copies published, which also includes fragments of his poetry, the oralitor connects us in confidence (confidential) with part of Mapuche history and knowledge (kimün) in order to pass down the visions and lifeways of his Mapuche people. In this book, we find figures, reflections, and intense dialogues with others who have also turned their thought to the complex relationship between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people (Juan Ñanculef, José Bengoa, Pablo Neruda, etc), in the ever unsuccessful process of negotiating the relationship between the Chilean state and indigenous peoples. The book has been considered a fundamental contribution to the possibility of building a bridge or plotting a course between cultures and peoples, for mutual recognition and appreciation, for the promotion of development based on interculturality, biodiversity, and sustainability, in spite of the long-standing difficulty of resolving these conflicts.

As a counterweight to this story of misunderstandings, Chihuailaf published in 2016 the first volume of his memoirs, La vida es una nube azul, the culmination of a long path: the path of life, from youth to old age, where “the wind yellows in memory.” This memoir, far from a summing-up of biographical anecdotes, represents the exercise of unraveling, in old age, the meanings of this life, as if it were a cloud. But why a cloud? In the Mapuche vision, clouds represent an element of great polarity, but also of complementarity between positive and negative charges, for only these warring forces can give rise to the miracle of rain, of life. Elicura tells us: “In the clouds there is a constant discursive struggle between the present and the past (their positive and negative).” The result of this struggle is the cloud’s explosion into many meanings. The clouds are also journeys, shining light eclipsed by the sun, souls outlined against the sky, counter-dreams, an apparition of forest groves, environmental crises, ravaged cities, thunderheads in the times of military dictatorships. But clouds are also and above all, now in their positive charge, the place where the poet chooses to lose himself, the warm and welcoming place of the blue house of his youth and the ruka of his elders. The passage of a young man who travels in exile to the city to become an obstetrician, a poet, and finally the messenger he is today. Around these intimate spaces of refuge and protection there are only a few faint little clouds, a small cloud with wings, and “the blue cloud of imagination,” upon which he will embark on new journeys, “that unfathomable and brief, marvellous journey, which is life.”

Only the deepest and most illuminated poetic word, of which Elicura is a bearer, could revive in all its tangibility and imagination the life of the past, the glimmers of each gesture and each act of this life, of each person and each lifeway that this oralitura now brings back to life. In this blue space-time, Elicura has decided to leave the footprints of all the voices and experiences that inhabit his work. He, “riding” on the clouds of imagination, will finally be able to pass on his message by means of a conversation woven of deep blue, the color from which everything emerges and emanates for the Mapuche culture, and toward which he wishes to invite us to take part in this long and urgent conversation.

Paula Miranda
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon


Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism





Brazilian Literature


Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Nota Bene