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Wellesley College

Publication Date

Fall 2010

Program Name

Chile: Public Health, Traditional Medicine, and Community Empowerment


Gender is a social ordering principle; a definition of masculinity and femininity according to an individual culture. While in Chile gender identity is often shaped by machismo, the Mapuche cosmovision is without gender disparities. Rather, relationships between men and women are governed by principles of equality and duality, just as the Mapuche deities balance both male and female energies. Women hold very important roles in the community as the leaders of the medical community. Although both men and women participate in various roles within this profession, machi, the spiritual healers, are mostly women. Males, or wentru machi, occupy a very small percentage; an even smaller percentage are homosexual. This study describes the perceptions of gender in the Mapuche medical system and how this affects their practice, particularly for the machi. The investigation was conducted through community observations and interviews with 15 members of the Mapuche medical community, professionals of occidental medicine involved in intercultural medicine, and community members in Makewe, Chile. Opinions expressed through interviews showed very clear discrepancies between the cosmovision and a strong influence of occidental views and beliefs. As a result of colonization, Mapuche culture has been transformed, creating a pyramidal gender structure. The medical community has become a matriarchy; male machi face prejudices and a lack of confidence in their ability as healers, while homophobic ideas have both rejected homosexual machi and increased doubt of heterosexual male machi. However, because Mapuche women are entrusted with preserving the culture, the strong role women play in the medical community has helped conserve the practices and culture of Mapuche medicine even when faced with more than 150 years of colonization.


Alternative and Complementary Medicine | Community Health and Preventive Medicine | Family, Life Course, and Society | Gender and Sexuality | Inequality and Stratification | Medicine and Health | Public Health


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