“BEAUTIFUL WORDS” IN THE “LAND WITHOUT EVIL”: THE PERSISTENCE OF GUARANI SPIRIT IN CONTEMPORARY PARAGUAY
Paraguay, as its name might suggest, traces back its origins to a network of semi-nomadic tribes that wove their routes and culture around the banks of the Paraguay River all the way to the distant sea/ocean. The center of Guarani perspective and cultural heritage was and has been language and religion. Intriguingly, notwithstanding the battering storms of colonial conquest, missionary evangelization, dynastic dictatorships, and disastrous wars, the Guarani language, and to a certain extent religion, has miraculously persisted as the centerpiece and cornerstone of Paraguayan culture and national cohesive force. This historical development was already foreshadowed and contained in the ancient Guarani belief that the soul is closely interlinked with the word, and that language is the choice medium of communication with the other world and the supernatural, as well as for the purpose of self-improvement. The riches of oral Guarani culture have been preserved in old chants, prophecies, legends, and myths. According to Guarani belief, death amounts to loss of speech/words. Likewise, the usage of “beautiful words,” eloquent speech equals longevity and health. The mysterious prophetic figure Karaí, guided by the “beautiful words” that inspired his communication with the gods and goddesses, indefatiguably pursued his quest in the marshlands for the mythical “Land without Evil,” a type of earthly paradise located to the east and close to the sea, which was not restricted to dead souls only, but could be accessed by gifted individuals who excelled in the art of communication with “those dwelling above us”. The culmination of Guarani “good life,” a concept of living without blemish, was entrance into the Land without Evil, which motivated numerous migration and resettlement waves within ancient Guarani territories. One of the key features of Guarani cosmology and ethics has been openness and hospitality to the other, including foreigners. According to an old Tupí Guaraní hymn, “No te burles de tus semejantes, míralos con sencillez, recíbelos con hospitalidad” – “Do not make fun of your fellow humans, observe them with humbleness, receive them with hospitality.” Not surprisingly, throughout the centuries, Paraguay has thrived as the real melting-pot of the Americas: an open, unprejudiced society with porous internal borders and transformative fusion within society and culture. Preservation of indigenous presence and legacy, absorption of diverse groups of immigrants, syncretic embrace of Guarani beliefs and Christianity, and certainly the coexistence along with hybridization of languages, make contemporary Paraguay at the same time the most homogeneous and farthest-from-roots society in South America.
Situated in the central area of the continent, bordering on Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, Paraguay is also known as el Corazón de Sudamérica (the “Heart of South America”). Its capital city, Asunción, has been going under the similarly seminal nickname – “Mother of the Cities” – being one of the oldest cities established in South America (1537). Guaranis’ dream of Yvy maraë´y, “a land without evil”, has shaped the course of Paraguay’s political and social history in both prescient and ironical outcomes. Paraguay has been home to successive attempts at organizing utopian communities and societies. Vestiges and remains of the Jesuit “reducciones” (missionary cities of refuge offering indigenous people protection from enslavement in exchange for conversion to Christianity) sprawl alongside the Rio Parana in the east of the country, including Mision Jesus de Tavarangue and Mision la Santisima Trinidad de Parana, which have been made world-famous as the setting for Richard Joffe’s movie The Mission (1986). Following the liberation from Spain and the founding of the Paraguayan Republic in 1811, the first post-independence dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia enforced a socially engineered revolutionary society. Towards the end of the 19th century, a group of Australian Marxist enthusiasts would come over to Paraguay and try to sustain a socialist commune named “New Adelaide.”
Paraguay’s geography and administrative organization has been dominated by the Paraguay River, the central artery of the country, which runs from the north to the south, and divides the country into two halves: the Chaco in the west, and the Región Oriental in the east. Asunción, the riverside capital built on the banks of the Río Paraguay, houses over a half of the country’s population, and functions as the political, cultural, and economical center of gravity in the nation’s life.
The contemporary nation of Paraguay is a mestizo society, the fruit of centuries-long intermarriage between Spanish (and other European) settlers and indigenous Guaranis. Paraguay is also a perfectly bilingual country, approximating the ideal from a linguist’s theoretical dream. Guarani is spoken and written as the official language, alongside Spanish (90% of the population is fully bilingual). In addition to a dozen native languages and dialects, also in use are Portuguese (spoken by Brazilian immigrants and their offspring) and German (still used by descendants of the founders of the Mennonite colonies in the Gran Chaco plains in the west of the country). In the streets of modern Paraguayan cities, one becomes accustomed to hearing Jopará, a Guarani variety interfused with Spanish.
The Paraguayan cultural fusion does not stop at language; it has also molded the country’s music (Paraguayan harp) and dance traditions (polkas, guaranias, zarzuelas, galopas), embroidery (ao po’í) and spiderweb lace styles (ñandutí), as well as cuisine (sopa paraguaya – cornbread with cheese and onion, chipa – manioc bagels with cheese or beef). In the hours of the obligatory midday siesta, Paraguayans relish the customary mate or tereré (Paraguayan tea).
Just as with mixture and recombination, Paraguay is likewise a country of “firsts” – in chronology, environmental riches, and leadership. Asunción bears the title of the first city established in South America by Spanish colonial settlers. Estación Central del Ferrocarril, the old railway station in the capital’s center bears witness to Paraguay’s historical entrepreneurship as the first country in South America to introduce steam-engined trains and develop a railway network. Travelling further east, visitors may tour the Guarani Aquifer and the Itaipú Dam – Paraguay’s principal drinking water reservoir and hydropower resources, also the world’s largest in their category. And for those guests and visitors who strive to encounter Paraguayan culture on its own terms – in Spanish and in Guarani – the IDIPAR Institute of Languages in downtown Asunción has operated for nearly three decades as the leading school in the country offering both Spanish and Guarani courses for non-Spanish speakers and foreigners.
Paraguay greets us at the uncanny frontier of the familiar and the unknown. Thus, one of most beautiful among the plenty of graceful governmental and cultural edifices in Asunción, beckons the observer to another revolutionary capital and cosmopolitan city. The National Pantheon of the Heroes (Panteón Nacional de los Héroes) is a copy of the Les Invalides in Paris, including a tomb of the unknown soldier, and shrines and monuments to the heroes of the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870 against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay) and the Chaco War (1932-1935 against Bolivia). It is almost as if out of the cauldron and mists of historical wanderings, the Paraguyan nation, along with the foreigners dwelling in its midst, is inching ever closer to the mythical Land without Evil, both as a physical condition and as a state of mind. The trick is not to lose sight of the stunningly beautiful pink-blossomed lapacho (or, in Guarani, tajý) trees.
[Photo]. Embajada de la República de Paraguay. http://www.embajadadeparaguay.org/
Galvez, Lucía. “El mundo tupi guarani en vísperas de la conquista.” Diccionario de Mitos y Leyendas. Equipo NAyA. http://www.cuco.com.ar/tierra sin mal.htm
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