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What Languages Will the New Constitution of Chile Reflect?

Geopolitics

After this week’s vote to compose a new constitution, a debate is occurring in Chile about whether Indigenous groups will be represented in the upcoming Constitutional Convention, and in what capacity. How will language play a part?

In a landmark vote about whether to compose a new national constitution, the people of Chile have spoken. After a year of protest, police violence, and resistance from President Sebastián Piñera, the people have decided to vote on an assembly of 155 delegates for next year’s constitutional convention.

Responding initially to a rise in public transportation fees, the protests evolved into a larger critique of Chile’s structural inequalities and widening income disparities, turning demands to the constitution. Written in 1980, Chile’s constitution was composed in secret by the Pinochet government, cementing into Chilean society a neoliberal, market-driven philosophy that valued economy over people.

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In contrast, this week’s vote has made clear that the people demand the constitutional re-write promote a transparent, democratic process, as well as a commitment to serve all Chilean people.

Some of the issues expected to be covered in the constitution will be health care, education, pensions, water rights, and the expanded autonomy of Indigenous groups. Additionally, representation will play an important role in determining who will actually write the document. The process aims to ensure a binary gender parity, and negotiations are currently considering Indigenous representation.

However, reports are inconclusive about what further measures the convention will take beyond numerical representation. Questions arise, then, about what that representation looks like not just in the composition of delegates, but also in the substance of the constitution.

For example, what role will language play in the crafting of this new constitution?

This is a broad question, but one that could have notable implications in the debates during the convention, particularly in terms of the languages representatives speak during debate, the languages used to compose the document, and how the document aims to promote Chilean languages.

Though Chile recognizes Spanish as its official language, speakers of Indigenous languages number the hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, Indigenous groups — the Mapuche peoples making up the largest groups — make up well over 10% of the Chilean population. Despite their significant numbers and linguistic diversity, however, the current constitution makes no mention of Indigenous peoples, let alone their rights and languages.

The constitutional convention will begin in April next year and will extend as far as April 2022. At that time, it will be presented to a plebiscite to consider the reforms. As the story develops, we will continue digging into how, or if, the languages of Chile’s Indigenous groups will play a role in this historic moment.

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