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?

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