SANTIAGO, Chile — Just before taking the stage, the teenage Indigenous rapper took a deep breath and composed herself, eyes closed.
Her father reached over to pick a sequin from his daughter’s eyelid, but the 16-year-old recoiled with an embarrassed shrug. Then Millaray Jara Collio, or MC Millaray as the young rapper calls herself, spun away and exploded onto the stage with an animated rap about the presence of Chile’s military in the territory of the Mapuche, the country’s largest Indigenous group.
MC Millaray’s impassioned performance was delivered at a campaign event in Santiago, Chile’s capital, a few months ago, and just one week before the country would vote on a new constitution. If approved, the constitution would have guaranteed some of the most far-reaching rights for Indigenous people anywhere in the world.
Although she was too young to vote in the referendum, MC Millaray was one of hundreds of artists who campaigned in favor of the new charter.
“I’m two people in one,” she said after her performance. “Sometimes I feel like a little girl — I play, I have fun and I laugh. Onstage, I say everything through rap. It liberates me: When I get a microphone, I’m a different person.”
The new constitution — which would have empowered Chile’s more than two million Indigenous people, 80 percent of whom are Mapuche, to govern their own territories, have more judicial autonomy and be recognized as distinct nations within Chile — was soundly defeated in September.
But in the wake of that loss, MC Millaray, an emerging star with more than 25,000 followers on Instagram, is more determined than ever to convey five centuries of Mapuche struggles against European colonizers.
“This is not the end,” she said defiantly in the vote’s aftermath. “It’s the beginning of something new that we can build together.”
Slipping between Spanish and Mapudungun, the Indigenous language she would speak with her maternal great-grandmother, MC Millaray articulates that story with fast-paced, lyrical fury.
Her songs decry environmental injustices, yearn for the protection of childhood innocence and honor fallen Mapuche. Above all, she calls for the return of Mapuche ancestral lands, known as Wallmapu, which stretch from Chile’s Pacific seaboard and over the Andes to Argentina’s Atlantic coast.
Her single “Mi Ser Mapuche,” or “My Mapuche Self,” which came out this year, combines trumpets with the “afafan” — a Mapuche war cry. She sings:
Since the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s, the land once controlled by the Mapuche has been substantially whittled down across centuries of invasion, forced removals and purchases. The loss of traditional land accelerated in the 19th century when Chile enticed European migrants to settle its south, promising to give them lands it claimed were unoccupied, but often were populated by the Mapuche.
For some, it is Chile’s greatest unsettled debt. To others, it’s a centuries-old impasse without a clear solution.
“For me it would be a dream to recover the territory,” MC Millaray said. “I want to give my life to the ‘weichán,’” she said, referring to the fight to regain Wallmapu and traditional Mapuche values. “I want to defend what’s ours.”
Millaray, which means “flower of gold” in Mapudungun, grew up with her younger brother and sister in La Pincoya, a hardscrabble barrio on the northern fringes of Santiago, where the walls are splashed with colorful graffiti, and hip-hop and reggaeton blare from the ramshackle homes sprawling up the hillsides.
The area has a strong rap tradition. In the 1980s the Panteras Negras, one of Chile’s first hip-hop groups, formed in nearby Renca, and Andi Millanao, better known as Portavoz, one of Chile’s best-known hip-hop stars, first penned his firebrand political rap in neighboring Conchalí.
As a child, Millaray said she would look forward more than anything to traveling south each summer to the Carilao community in the municipality of Perquenco to visit her maternal great-grandmother, spending afternoons splashing in a nearby river or collecting maqui berries in a jar.
“When I get to Wallmapu, I feel free and at peace,” she said. “I would learn about what I was and what I represent, what runs through my veins,” she added, referring to the time she spent with her great-grandmother. “I realized how little I knew my fight.”
At home in her barrio in Santiago, it was music that most captured her attention, and she would attend the hip-hop workshops that her parents — two rappers who met at a throwdown in La Pincoya — would run for local children. “I grew up in a rap family,” said Millaray. “They were my inspiration.”
One afternoon when she was 5, her father, Alexis Jara, now 40, was rehearsing for a show, with his daughter beside him on the bed mouthing along. When he performed that evening, Mr. Jara spotted his daughter sobbing in the crowd, feeling left out.
He pulled her up onstage and, sniffling and puffy-eyed, “She transformed — pah! pah! — and started rapping with such force that she stole the limelight,” her father remembered. As her tears vanished, the 5-year-old addressed the crowd: “I represent La Pincoya, I want hands in the air!”
“From that day on we never got her down from the stage,” her father said. “Now everything has turned on its head — it’s me asking to join her!”
By the time she was 7, Millaray had written and recorded her first album, “Pequeña Femenina,” or “Little Feminine,” which she burned onto CDs to sell on public buses while out busking with her father.
When they had earned enough money, the two would jump down the back steps of the bus and take the money to play arcade games or buy candy.
They still perform together — Mr. Jara an energetic whirl of braids and baggy clothing, his daughter calmer and more precise with her words. “Tic Tac,” the first song they wrote in tandem, remains in their repertoire.
It was while she was still in elementary school that she was given the jolt that would strengthen her resolve to take up her ancestors’ fight in her music, and life.
In November 2018, her history teacher told the class that Camilo Catrillanca — an unarmed Mapuche man who was shot and killed that month by police in the Temucuicui community in the south of the country — had deserved his fate.
“I couldn’t stay quiet,” she remembered. “I stood up, burning with rage, and said: ‘No, nobody deserves to die, and certainly not for defending their territory.’ In that moment I defended what I thought, and it changed me.”
At the end of 2021 and in the first half of 2022, the conflict in the Mapuche territories, where a state of emergency has been regularly renewed by governments on both the right and left, was at one of its most tense periods in decades.
In addition to peaceful sit-ins by Mapuche activists on privately owned land and at regional government buildings, there were dozens of cases of arson, responsibility for which was claimed by Mapuche resistance groups, as well as attacks on forestry companies.
At least seven killings were recorded in the conflict area in 2022, with the victims including both Mapuche activists, like a man on his way to a land occupation, and forestry workers.
In March, when Chile’s interior minister visited the community where Mr. Catrillanca was from, she was greeted with the crackle of gunfire and quickly bundled away in a van.
In sometimes violent protests against economic inequality that exploded across Chile in October of 2019 — set off by a 4-cent increase in subway fares — Mapuche symbols and slogans were ubiquitous.
In Santiago’s main square, demonstrators were greeted by a wooden “chemamüll” statue, traditionally carved by the Mapuche to represent the dead. At the protests, Millaray would rap or stroll among protesters with her hand-painted blue flag bearing the “Wünelfe,” an eight-point star sacred in Mapuche iconography.
“We’re more visible now than we have been in my lifetime,” said Daniela Millaleo, 37, a singer-songwriter from Santiago whom MC Millaray counts among her greatest inspirations. “Before it would just be the Mapuche who marched for our rights, but now so many people feel our pain.”
After her grueling schedule of performing at campaign events on behalf of the failed constitutional effort — as well as a trip to New York to sing in Times Square as part of Climate Week NYC— MC Millaray is now focusing on recording new material.
“I want to reach more people, but I want every verse to contain a message — I don’t want to make music for the sake of it,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter what the style is, I’m always asking myself what more I can say.”