The Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous group. Historically, they have been unacknowledged in the country’s rule book. On Sunday, one of its own, Mapuche woman Elisa Loncón, was elected by its constitutional delegates to lead a group to draft a new text to replace the Pinochet-era constitution.
Of the 155 Constitutional delegates who make up the constitutional body of the national assembly, 96 voted for Loncon, including 17 Indigenous people.
Loncón, 58, is an academic and professor at Santiago University, specialising in linguistics and indigenous rights. She is an activist for Mapuche educational and linguistic rights and the grand-daughter of Ricardo Antileo, a political prisoner sent incarcerated by Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
On Sunday, Loncón accepted the position with her fist clenched above her head, telling her colleagues to cheering celebrations: “I salute the people of Chile from the north to Patagonia, from the sea to the mountains, to the islands, all those who are watching us today,” she said.
“I am grateful for the support of the different coalitions that placed their trust and their dreams in the hands of the Mapuche nation, who voted for a Mapuche person, a woman, to change the history of this country.”
Before the ceremony began, Mapuche and Aymara delegates (an indigenous people in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America) held spiritual ceremonies with song and dance in the downtown streets of the nation’s capital, Santiago.
The delegates were elected to draft a new text to replace the nation’s previous Magna Carta, which was produced during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The previous version of Chile’s constitution was unpopular and commonly viewed as a root of social inequality.
Last October, a popular referendum saw 78 percent of voters demanding a new constitution, with 79 percent demanding it be written by fellow Chilean citizens, with half to be women.
Chile, a nation of just under twenty million, becomes the first country ever to have a constitution written by women in equal numbers to men.
Daniel Schweimler, a reporter for Al Jazeera, explained that up to sixty percent of the assembly must approve each article of the new constitution for it to pass.
“The idea of this 155-member assembly is that it tries to encompass and represent all the diverse elements of Chilean society,” he said.
“No group is big enough to veto those articles at the moment,” Schweimler wrote. “What we’re going to see over the next nine months to a year are a lot of negotiations; alliances, coalitions being formed, people trying to decide the best way forward.”
On Sunday, the inaugural session of the delegates’ swearing in was delayed for hours after protesters and a special police unit fought in the streets of Santiago in the areas surrounding the location of the ceremony.
Protests were also seen in the nearby Plaza Italia, which emerged as the centre of mass social justice protests that broke out two years ago, and led the country to establish the constitutional assembly.
Independent constituent Malucha Pinto told Al Jazeera the biggest issue facing the constituents will be to build trust and learning to work together.
“We must understand that we are facing something completely new for which we do not have the practice,” he said. “It is a huge and beautiful challenge that we also face as a country in the future.”
In May, the constitutional body was elected by a popular vote and is currently dominated by independent and leftist candidates, some with origins in the protest movement.
The delegates have promised to tackle issues including water and property rights, central bank independence and labour practices, sending investors to worry over the potential changes to the free market system of the world’s top copper producer.
Unrecognised in the existing constitution, the delegates of Mapuche and Aymara decent are hoping a new text will demonstrate their nations true cultural, political and social rights.
The commission has up to twelve months to agree on a common rulebook, establish other necessary committees and draft a new constitution.
Image: REUTERS / Ivan Alvarado