Telling Stories Across Generations: History, Memory, and Identity


Florencia E. Mallon
Department of History
University of Wisconsin-Madison, U.S.A.

From the rural health worker who rolled up his sleeves to show me the purple scars left on his wrists from the electric shocks, to the mother who remembered running with her two-year-old child in front of her, held to her stomach to protect him from flying bullets, everybody in the community had a story to tell. For years most stories had been guarded with fear and pain inside a single heart. Yet starting in 1996, they were retold in kitchens and fields, reorganized so they made sense to an outsider. In the process they made new sense to the tellers and to other family and community members who heard them. Woven together into a larger tapestry of community experience, they recalled a dramatic past, full of heroism and untold sacrifice. By reminding people of their common history of oppression, resistance, confrontation and survival, these stories became a vehicle through which several generations could see more clearly who they were in the present, and were thus inspired to begin dreaming a different future.

In December 1970, the Mapuche indigenous community of Nicolás Ailío, located in the southern Chilean region of La Araucanía, participated in the illegal takeover of the fundo Rucalán, a farm that was later incorporated into the agrarian reform sector under Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government. After two and a half years of state-supervised prosperity, the same community became a target of repression before, during and after the military coup that violently terminated Allende's democratic socialist experiment. The families of those most strongly targeted by the military suffered such extreme poverty that, for years, their children's only source of food was a soup kitchen set up by the Catholic Church. In 1996, six years after the return of democratic rule, the community of Ailío successfully petitioned the state for a land subsidy to help alleviate the poverty and suffering of its families, leading to the purchase of a farm and the subdivision of the community into two: one group remaining on the original site and the other moving to the new land.

For the new generation that grew up during the dictatorship, this history is hazily remembered and poorly understood. As one of the sons of the most important community leader once asked, "why did you take over Rucalán, Papa?" He wasn't looking for the political and strategic reasons his father gave him. Instead, he wanted to locate his family's and his community's history on a personal, emotional, and moral map. Otherwise he would continue rejecting the "politics" he felt had only brought suffering to his family. And yet, at the same time, his father and the other members of the community who were imprisoned and tortured, and who had their dream of participation and prosperity shattered, had trouble walking through the wall of pain that separated them from that older emotional and moral map. Sometimes those memories were like physical wounds. They acted up on rainy days, when it got cold, when people had been out in the fields and felt tired. Other times they were emotional wounds, slashes in the heart or soul that hurt when, remembering, people touched them. Often, therefore, silence was the adaptation, even as the memories and questions continued to lurk in the space of misunderstanding between the generations.

When community leaders first invited me to present my project on community history for approval in community assembly, we began collecting oral histories. With the life stories from seventeen different community members and the use of a variety of documentary sources in national and regional archives and newspapers, I have produced a book-length history and collective ethnography that takes the community of Ailío from their origin in the first decades after the military defeat of the Mapuche (1884) through the present day. In essence, it provides an answer, through the memories and perspectives of the community's members, to the question: "why did you take over Rucalán?"

At the same time, however, recovering the stories and memories that have gone into the book has also encouraged people to recall existing divisions, political differences, and resentments that had accumulated between factions or families over the previous fifty years. Originating in a disagreement over whether to participate in the Rucalán takeover and deepening during the repression and poverty that followed the military coup, these divisions also helped defined who struggled for and received the new land. Ultimately, then, the people who left to settle the new land provided by the state in 1997 were roughly the same people who had participated in the illegal takeover a generation before.

Since I began working with the community before it split into two, between 1997 and 2001 I have shared and discussed the results of the research and received suggestions and reactions from both communities. Most recently, when I took a completed first draft of the book to Chile in August 2001, the two communities collaborated in organizing a joint meeting at which we read and discussed parts of the manuscript. I followed up with additional separate readings and discussions on site in both places. People provided me with an initial set of comments, reactions, and suggestions, which will be dealt with in the revised final draft of the book. Based on this experience, I believe that it is possible to use storytelling and the recovery of history as a tool for consciousness raising and inspiring activism across generations and community factions. I am supported in this belief by the experience I had with the community of Nicolás Ailío this past August, and the reactions of different generations and factions to the readings we did of the book manuscript.

Reading aloud was probably the best strategy we followed, given the differential literacy of distinct generations. It allowed people to hear the experiences of their neighbors or, in a few cases, their own, and react to or deepen the meanings these experiences contained. At the same time, by experiencing the stories in a group, whether reliving them or hearing them for the first time, people were able collectively to imagine a shared identity and common history. One way this happened was through direct identification with the experiences of another. One elderly man who could not read, for example, upon hearing an account of the poverty of his generation through the story of another member of the community, shed tears while exclaiming that yes, that was the way it had been; that they hadn't had shoes, and that when they got home to wash their feet after having walked a long way, their feet bled. Reading aloud the common history of oppression and resistance also allowed people who today carry resentments with each other, due to either personal or political disagreements, to step back from them to understand the broader commonalities of history and experience that originally helped constitute them as a community. One such person, today the leader of the community who stayed at the original site, arrived at the discussion with hostility and skepticism; he said goodbye with the comment that the book had "turned out well."

In particular, community leaders expressed the hope that the book would help the younger generations of the community understand their history. There was much discussion during our meetings of how groups in the community could follow up with further reading, involving both older and younger members. High-school and college-age young people did attend the readings, and in most cases managed to grab hold of a copy of the manuscript to further peruse afterwards. I recently received an email from a friend at an NGO working with them, where she informed me that the younger people were discussing setting up a theater group to act out the history contained in the book.

Several of the older leaders also expressed the wish that the retelling of community history would also help people understand their location in an unbroken chain of resistance to oppression, dating back to the moment of the Mapuche's military defeat. One of the leaders made a clear connection between Ailío's older struggles and the present-day confrontations between Mapuche communities and transnational lumber companies by suggesting that these companies were today's "Duhalde"-the name of the immigrant landowner who had usurped Ailío's lands at the beginning of the twentieth century. He suggested, and several others agreed, that it was easy for them to understand the suffering of the peñis (Mapuche brothers) who were in jail today, because the people from Ailío also knew about repression and jails from earlier times.

This project of recovering history through telling stories in the community of Ailío is still a work in progress. It is too soon to tell whether the young people will follow up on their idea to start a theater group. It is also too soon to tell if the resentments and divisions remembered or deepened by the process, will prove more resilient than the forms of identity and unity rebuilt through the rearticulation of collective memory. Ultimately, when the book is published, yet another layer will be added to people's perceptions of the value of their history as others share in the understanding of the community's dramatic story. Even though it has been especially difficult to follow the project from the distance at which I live, I remain committed to seeing it through to completion, and to making sure that copies of the Spanish-language edition make their way into every house in both communities. It is the hope of community elders, as well as mine, that the younger generation will see in this book a source of pride about who they are, and what their past has been. Perhaps they will also better understand the value of land, place and identity, as they remember the courageous struggles of their ancestors to protect land, community, and family. The unbroken chain of resistance is reproduced by retelling stories across generations; the only way we can clearly see where we are headed, is by remembering where we have been. As the Mapuche and many other indigenous peoples insist, this is why the past is, and must always be, in front of us as we make our way through the world.

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