Cultural tradition or cultural appropriation?

Last week my children celebrated ‘Mapuche week’ at their nursery. If like me, you’re clueless as to what Mapuche means, well I checked and according to Wikipedia they’re ‘a group of indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina, including parts of present-day Patagonia’.

I went to a market seller and asked for a Mapuche costume and was handed a couple of ponchos, headbands and a set of panpipes. Job done.

That night I dressed them up and boy, did they look cute!

But really was it entirely appropriate? It turns out that there is a long running history of conflict between the Mapuche community and parts of the Chilean government and some larger institutions. Land rights and deforestation seem to be major issues, but admittedly I’m rather ignorant on the subject.

Now, I’m not against my kids learning about these sensitive issues, but I reckon it’s a tricky task, especially considering they’re aged two and four.

I asked my sons what they learnt at their Mapuche celebration and they told me they made some bread. And they played their panpipes. Ummm.

No doubt I’m overreacting. Like a typical politically correct Brit, I’ve got my knickers in a twist over a kids’ party. I know there was no harm intended on the nursery’s part.

But I’ve heard similar stories from other expat mums here in Chile. One, whom was asked to dress her kid up as an Aboriginal. The mother was undecided – should she dress him up as a someone earning below the median salary and facing discrimination from the state, or just buy him a boomerang?

In Belgium, the ‘Zwarte Piet’ tradition still makes me cringe. ‘Zwarte Piet’, aka Black Pete, is apparently a friend of St Nikolaus who helps dole out the presents. All innocent enough so far. But the costume always involves blacking up a white guy’s face. He’s basically Santa’s black slave.

I asked a Belgian friend who was shocked. ‘Oh no, it’s not like that. Goodness no. He’s black because he came down the chimney’.

‘So why does he also wear a black curly wig and have huge red lips painted on his face?’

‘Ohhh well… I actually never really thought about it like that,’ she replied.

Here’s the point. Most wouldn’t see anything wrong in a tradition that they’ve learnt from their childhood. I know my Belgian friend isn’t racist. Perhaps just a little innocent (or dare I say it, ignorant).

In Spain I’ve seen something similar. My brother positively howled with laughter when he spotted the three kings for the first time. One guy was blacked out. ‘It’s just soooo inappropriate!’ he shrieked.

I quizzed my Spanish hubby and he said I was overreacting and besides, ‘the kings were probably black anyway’, he retorted.

So why not find a black actor then? Why resort to Gollywog style fancy dress?

Speaking of Gollywogs, I had one as a kid. I didn’t have a clue what it symbolised, for me it was just a doll. But my mum found it and threw it out, accompanied by a lecture on global racism, apartheid and the black power movement. I must have been about six.

Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, perhaps we Brits are a little too sensitive? Or perhaps it’s a generational thing?

We hope to stay in Chile for the long term and I’m sure our kids will feel as much Chilean as they do Spanish or British. Our third child will be born with a Chilean passport.

I look back on the photos of them on their Mapuche day and coo with parental pride. But who knows how they’ll feel when they look back in twenty years time?


  1. Fernanda Navarrete Campos
    January 18, 2023 / 4:40 am

    Hi, chilean here, born and raised in Chile. We don’t have the same racist background as, for example, the US. The Spaniards conquered these lands not only by force, like in the US did with native americans, but by blood too. What do I mean “by blood”? Well, they had bastard children with mapuche women (against their will, most of the time), and sometimes mapuche men would have children with Spanish women when they kidnapped them (yes, it was reciprocate). That’s how we, the modern chileans, were born: half-blooded as hell. It’s said some remained “pure Spanish” or “pure mapuche”, but to be completely honest, we don’t believe in pure “races” here. So, in a way, we’re the bastard children of two cultures, and even though some people, that call themselves “pure mapuche” (remember that “pure bloods” don’t exist here, after centuries of miscegenation between two cultures, or even more) say we don’t have the right to use traditional jewelry like earrings, I say heck, mapuche culture is like the mother culture for us, sort of like half of the family tree, part of what made us what we are now and gave birth to a new culture, a fusion of the two original ones, process called syncretism. So, as a chilean woman, yes, mapuche culture is part of me too, even more so as someone raised in the countryside, where the syncretism is even more palpable, with elements of christianism and mapuche mythology fused together. It’s an interesting topic, you should totally check it out.

    • Nina
      February 10, 2023 / 1:16 pm

      Thank you for this. This is equally distressing and insightful, I never considered this angle. It’s lovely to hear how you are connected to the Mapuche culture, and from how you describe it, it sounds like many others feel the same too. I still feel awkward when my kids (who had very little knowledge of the culture) were dressing up in the costumes etc. but on a brighter note, it made us all seek out more information and educate ourselves. I’m by no means clued up yet, but I’m certainly open to learning a lot more.

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