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Elisa Loncon: The decolonization of language

In 2016, Revista Universitaria (the University Magazine) interviewed professor Elisa Loncon. On Sunday, July 4, the professor and researcher of the Mapudungún language was elected president of the Chilean Constitutional Convention. The following is said verbatim interview. She told us her story and the struggle she has experienced trying to defend her native tongue.

Elisa Loncon in a traditional Mapuche outfit..

photo_camera In this interview, published in Revista Universitaria, Elisa Loncon tells part of her story and how the struggle for the linguistic rights of the Mapuche people was born. (Photos: Karina Fuenzalida and César Cortés/RU)

Interview published in Revista Universitaria nº 140, as part of the dossier "Palabra de Mapuche". Elisa Loncon is the current president of the Constituent Convention. Read here the article in Spanish.

Elisa Loncón has a dream: that the Mapudungún language is taught in Chilean schools. In a life of struggle against rejection and discrimination, she has learned the value of speaking a different language. As an academician, she has visited other countries praising the importance of her people. She is one of the leading promoters of the General Bill on the Linguistic Rights of Native Peoples that has been in Congress for years*. The proposed legislation seeks to promote the implementation of public policies on this subject. "Without this, our culture is silenced," she said.

The professor spends much of the day in her office at Universidad de Santiago correcting texts and preparing her classes. She approaches subjects with the weight of the history she carries on her shoulders.

Her simplicity and austerity enhance her robust trajectory. Elisa Loncón Antileo, who is 53 years old and has one daughter, has taken the Mapuche culture to the country and the world. Her crusade for linguistic rights is a personal and collective struggle to preserve her identity and that of the people who gave her life.

In the community where she grew up, near Traiguén in the Araucanía region, she witnessed the beginning of an end she hopes will never come. The extinction of traditions, rites, and language.

As a university student, she rediscovered the pride of being Mapuche and of speaking Mapudungún loud and clear, and she continues to do so.

She has visited many countries where she has gathered different experiences. The most important was in Mexico, where she participated in a project to teach the 56 languages spoken in the country in schools, according to the region.

She graduated as an English teacher from Universidad de La Frontera. In 1986 she received a scholarship from the International Institute of Social Studies in the Hague (Netherlands) and later from the University of Regina (Canada). She holds a Master's Degree in Linguistics from Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Iztapalapa UAM-I (Mexico). She is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands.

She is currently a professor at Universidad de Santiago and teaches some courses at the UC Chile Faculty of Literature**

For several years she has participated in various projects to promote the learning of Mapudungún, such as the development of books to teach the language to schoolchildren from first to fourth grade. 

She participated in drafting the General Bill on Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Chile. The proposed legislation, which defends language as a human right and a fundamental factor of integration, was presented in Congress but has not yet seen the light of day.

Oppressing culture with sticks

Elisa was born in a community called Lefweluan, which means "place where guanacos run." Her parents Juan Loncón and Margarita Antileo, had seven children. 

Her family spoke both Spanish and Mapudungún in their home. She loves words and has been drawn to them since childhood, so she associates them with positive emotions. "I grew up enjoying the privilege of having two languages," she said as she recalled the games they played at home.

Among indigenous communities were huge prejudices against schools because they forbade speaking the Mapuche language. Even though, as she explained, her father wanted all his children to go to school. So Elisa studied in a single-teacher school and then went to university.

—Were your parents able to go to school?

—My mother attended three years of elementary school. My father never went to school, but he learned to read when he was 17 on a farm because it concerned him. When he was a child, he wanted to study, so he worked to buy school materials. However, an uncle came and told my grandparents that it was not a good idea. It was likely he would later be ashamed of his family and roots and would not obey them. It was true.

The education system stripped the entire generation of their language. It denied it and created a precedent that being indigenous and having one's language was useless, foul, and had no value. Indigenous people must learn Spanish, to the point of washing out the mouth of children who spoke Mapudungun with soap. That's how hard it was.

—Did you witness something like that?

—No, I saw children being punished with rods and long sticks or kneeling on stones. My university classmates told me stories about mouth-washing practices or beaten boys.

—What were the other consequences of going to school?

—For example, my father did not have the social constraints of Chilean culture. He was not sexist. On the other hand, my mother was because she came from a Mapuche family that was also evangelical. Because my father did not go to church or school, he had greater freedom of thought.

—Did you notice that at home and in the distribution of chores?

—Yes, in everything, because between them, they made a very organized couple which permeated into their parenting. We would all go to the city to sell our vegetables and eggs. We helped in the vegetable garden, on the farm, we took care of animals, pigs, and sheep. My mother would distribute the choirs.

As for my father, he decided to learn how to make furniture and had a small workshop. We grew up in a very productive environment based on effort and teamwork.

—How was the relationship within the community where you lived?

—The community was made up of 15 families and was located very close to Traiguén. When we were children, it was more or less mixed. There were Chileans married to Mapuche who was "Mapuchized" and spoke Mapudungún and vice versa. Over time, traditions started to get lost because of this mixing.

—Did the entire village have the same structure as your community?

—No, my community ahuincó (became similar with the Chilean society). In other words, we assimilated the Chilean culture very quickly. When I was a child, our community transformed the guillatún (prayer ceremony) place into a Traiguén garbage dump. The site was in the middle of the community. Imagine a sacred place full of garbage with us children collecting waste. It was terrible, we worked hard, but poverty was greater.

—Despite that, your childhood memories are beautiful.

—Of course, because it was a big family, there were 14 of us living together (between uncles, aunts, and cousins).  We also had people staying with us because they had lost their land and homes. My house was always open. My parents still live together in Traiguén.

Language, a force of nature


At the heart of Elisa's home was a solid oral culture that marked her academic interests. Her family told old stories, talked, listened to the news on the radio, sang, and danced. "I had an uncle who was great at telling stories and making us laugh. And my older brother, Ricardo, is a poet. He acted in a play by Manuel Rodriguez that we all recited," said Loncón.

His parents saved money to buy books. "My house was a ruca (Mapuche house) with soil floor, but we had history and philosophy books. I liked the writings of Socrates and Plato."

The knowledge, rites, and traditions she received guided her studies. She was taught that language is a force of nature. She finished high school at Liceo de Niñas de Traiguén. She was very lonely and was treated as "the Indian." In 1980 she began her university life in Temuco.

—How do you remember your university life?

—I arrived in Temuco in the 1980s. I lived in a home where we had a very enriching coexistence with other young indigenous people. We spoke in Mapudungún, which made me feel happy and liberated after hiding my language. Aucán Huilcamán (famous Mapuche lider) also lived we us and led the prayers. He was excellent because he knew the protocol perfectly, which allowed me to learn the ceremonies better. As those were difficult times, we were linked to the Admapu organization. We fought against the law of the division of the communities during the military dictatorship.

—You also participated in the creation of the Mapuche flag. How was that?

—At the Council of All Lands, created in 1990, I was a member. We considered recovering our autonomy, for which we needed to have a flag. The research conducted in 300 communities gathered valuable information on symbols and colors that identify them.

Representatives from Argentinian communities also participated. It was a personal and collective process of decolonization of ourselves. We had all been colonized by the school, where we were ashamed of having a different language than the rest of Chileans. By building this emblem, we realized that our culture had a lot of value, even if it was different.

—What did you learn from your studies in the Netherlands?

—I arrived in the Netherlands on a scholarship in 1987. Together with other young human rights leaders of different nationalities. There I once again experienced the joy of diversity (...). I shared with Asians, Africans, New Zealanders, and indigenous people from here. When I returned, I decided not to teach English anymore, but Mapudungún. Anyone can teach English, but few Mapudungún speakers and even fewer know how to teach it.

A language that connects you to the land

The right of all indigenous children to learn their language is proposed because it has been defined as a fundamental human right," says Elisa Loncon. In the picture: a book to teach Mapudungun to third graders.
"The right of all indigenous children to learn their language is proposed because it has been defined as a fundamental human right," says Elisa Loncon. In the picture: a book to teach Mapudungun to third graders.

The Mapuche say that through the language the land breathes, that Mapudungún is the land's speech. That is how Elisa feels and why she has dedicated her life to keeping it alive. 
The draft bill General Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Chile sought an express recognition of the plurinational condition of Chilean society. It was created by the Network for the Educational and Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Chile (Red EIB in Spanish), an organization of which Loncon is one of the founders.
The proposed legislation seeks to have the State of Chile recognize the following indigenous languages: Aymara, Quechua, Mapuche, Rapa Nui, Likan Antay, Kaweskar, Selknam, Yagan, Diaguita, and Colla.

—What relevance does Mapudungún have for the culture?

—It conveys the sense of being Mapuche in the world, and we have no alternative but to spread it through ourselves.

—Is this why you have embarked on this crusade for the language?

—Of course, particularly a crusade for language education. When I was younger, I collected many life stories because we had to reconstruct the memory to recover land.

—How would you characterize your language?

—From a cultural point of view, it allows you to talk about a vision of the world, where human beings are twinned with nature. We are linked to the hills. Our names are connected to the animals, to the birds: that is our identity.

—Do you seek to protect it with this language rights bill?

—Yes, the bill proposes that they be recognized as pre-existing and become official. It also suggests creating an institute of indigenous languages that would elaborate policies to coexist with Spanish. This coexistence would have to be at the level of public spaces, not only in schools but also in the institutional framework and the media.

The right of all indigenous children to learn their language is proposed because it has been defined as a fundamental human right. We are human because we have language. Without that, our culture is silenced. So the approach is profoundly human, and the policy has not yet reached that level.

—Why has this project not advanced?

—What has happened is that the educational reform does not consider indigenous languages or peoples. The teacher improvement projects do not mention them either. The inclusion law talks about diversity but does not refer to languages or the rights of indigenous peoples. All these ordinances that are coming out should expressly state that they assume intercultural bilingual education to legislate to continue developing this approach, but they do not say so.

—In your classes, do you try to rescue the lost language and culture?

—Yes. We learn the basics and also connect with prayers, songs, and dances. For example, I take them to the ruca in La Pintana, and there they have to speak Mapudungún, introduce themselves, go to a ceremony, and share food. So they have to apply everything they learn during the year, and we need to generate spaces of functional and practical use.

—What is the word you like the most?

—We are doing a program at the university called mapudugufe, which means Mapudungún speaker. I got carried away with the word because it is what we need the most: the more people who speak it, the better.

One more human right

Various international codes and treaties support the importance of preserving the language of different peoples:

  • The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in the preamble affirms: "faith in fundamental human rights, the dignity, and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women." In its second article states that "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms outlined in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or another status."
  • In 1954, UNESCO proclaimed the equality of languages, considering that all languages serve for communication.
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of December 16, 1966 (article 27) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the same date state: human beings cannot be free unless conditions are created that enable them to enjoy both their civil and political rights and their economic, social and cultural rights.
  • Resolution 47/135 (12-18-1992) of the United Nations General Assembly adopts the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
  • The Universal Declaration of the Collective Rights of Peoples (Barcelona, May 1990) declares: "All peoples have the right to express and develop their culture, language and rules of organization and, to this end, to adopt political, educational, communications and governmental structures of their own, within different political frameworks."
  • ILO Convention 169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention) of 1989, ratified by Chile in 2008, establishes in its article 2.1: "Governments shall have the responsibility for developing, with the participation of the peoples concerned, co-ordinated and systematic action to protect the rights of these peoples and to guarantee respect for their integrity." Such action shall include measures for: "promoting the full realization of the social, economic and cultural rights of these peoples with respect for their social and cultural identity, their customs and traditions and their institutions," and "assisting the members of the peoples concerned to eliminate socio-economic gaps that may exist between indigenous and other members of the national community, in a manner compatible with their aspirations and ways of life." In article 28.3 it also establishes: "measures shall be taken to preserve and promote the development and practice of the indigenous languages of the peoples concerned."

Source: Network for the Educational and Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Chile (Red EIB).

*In July 2020,  Decree 97 was promulgated, which establishes the curricular bases of the language and culture of the ancestral native peoples for grades 1 to 6 of primary education.

**Elisa Loncón is also a researcher at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Studies, which is part of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Universidad Diego Portales and Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano.


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