The Poetic Imaginary of Miguel Urrelo Valdivia

Posted by Amanda Sommer Lotspike – MA Candidate at CLACS

This is Part II in a series of essays on the social life of the yareta, based on fieldwork supported by the Tinker Grant. Find Part I here.


Y llegan así, sin nada de nada, absoluto silencio
entre la página de un libro y el poema muerto
el vino del sueño quebrado en sus palabras
el sueño del vino embriagado en la esperanza

With these words, Miguel Urrelo Valdivia opens “Días,” a poem from his latest chapbook Jallp’ay, Tierra mía. Published with support from the National Corporation for Indigenous Development of Chile, Jallp’ay is Urrelo’s fifth book of poems and short stories. Among those are Cuentos de los Abuelos I, a compilation of oral histories passed down in the Alto Loa of San Pedro, Atacama, and II, a selection of new stories, which in Urrelo’s own words “are created by me, but emulate stories that were transmitted orally.”

Jallp’ay is Urrelo’s first bilingual Quechua-Spanish collection of poetry, an effort to reclaim Quechua as a pillar of nortino cultural identity. Raised in the small mining town of Amincha, Urrelo moved to the city of Calama with his mother and siblings at age ten following the passing of his father. “Calama welcomed us the way that all cities welcome indigenous migrants,” he told me as we sat, paused in the city square one morning, “with discrimination, with ignorance, with that [type of] scorn directed at indigenous communities.”

Yet, Urrelo’s father, an indigenous Quechua speaker, had instilled in him a love of Andean culture that pushed him to take on the “titanic labor, at best a utopia” of envisioning a different world through his writing. “My father’s words, perhaps few and far between, were very sound,” Urrelo told me. “They shaped me. So that entire process of adapting to that society, they couldn’t cut those roots.”

Miguel Urrelo Valdivia, photo taken by the author.

In Jallp’ay, this voice shines through. Urrelo takes on the complexity of power and identity by tracing its engagement with the material world (from the now-obsolete infrastructure of mining projects in former encampments to the cityscape and of course, the yareta). Urrelo’s writing style is at once punchy and effusive, but always metered. In his ode to cablecars (“Andariveles”), he describes the “oxidized and cold voices” of the machinery—a death procession—as they empty a mountain of its wealth. Here, the “yellowed cars” of sulphur crystal conjure up the image of another vital mineral resource: gold. It is a process of extraction which is not only made animate (the rails “whisper”), but which also makes inanimate (for example, the voice of his father, reduced to an “echo” that is left to wander).

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Antique cablecars from the region of Ollagüe. Source: Olivares, S.A. (2012). Ollagüe, Gentes y Paisajes de Tierras Altas. CORE: Región de Antofogasta.

This same echo appears in Urrelo’s “Octogenario.” He writes of an elder’s “imprint made incarnate / in the desert highland,” where in his absence (quite literally the spaces or impressions left in the earth) grow the waxy branches of the queñua tree and the blooming yareta–“your yareta.”  It marks a recurring theme in Urrelo’s work: how might absence hold?

From the end of the yareta extraction “boom” in 1955 up until the closure of the last active sulphur mine in the region in 1992, residents gradually left to the nearest town of Ollagüe or the major city center, Calama [1]. Passing through the town of Amincha today, a thicket of ricarica, a pungent green herb, grows along the pathways that lead up to the former mining encampment and home of the town’s sole resident. There is no yareta now, although a small stream, nearly ice, softens the earth at the foot of the mountains.

The town of Amincha. Photo taken by the author.

Urrelo writes of Amincha: “Yesterday I didn’t wake you, pacha mía…perhaps you didn’t feel my presence.” It is through the arc of Jallp’ay that we finally come to see clearly the difference between absence and loss. In “Regreso,” he writes: “I came back to embrace you with my eternal, perennial nostalgia / to touch your skin of sulphur, of yareta…”

Listen to Miguel Urrelo read an excerpt of Jallp’ay in Quechua below, and reach out to him here for more information on how to purchase a copy.


[1] Olivares, S.A. (2012). Ollagüe, Gentes y Paisajes de Tierras Altas. CORE: Región de Antofogasta.


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