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Guarani from tongue to tome: although this native language has long been spoken throughout Paraguay, its literary boom is relatively recent, thanks to a growing number of dedicated writers.

In Paraguay, Spanish is the language of business and government, law, and the media. But Guarani, it may be said, is the language of living. The native language's earthy phrases and throaty tones can be heard drifting from under shade trees by Chaco farmhouses, rising on warm evenings on Asuncion street corners, and even amid the buzz of government office buildings while the terere is passed around. It is the tongue of animated sidewalk debates about futbol, of mothers' tender talk to infants, of bawdy jokes and romance.

And, more and more, Guarani is also becoming a language of literature.

"Since [longtime dictator Alfredo] Stroessner fell in 1989, there's been a boom in Guarani literature," says Mario Bogado, who operates a Guarani website and a bookstore in Asuncion.

Yet, the Guarani literature "boom" began even before Stroessner's departure--with a wager among college students, an exile's insight in a Buenos Aires bar, and an immigrant's passion for the culture of her adopted nation.

Paraguay provides particularly fertile ground for indigenous literature because of a form of bilingualism that may be a unique phenomenon worldwide. Unlike other Latin American nations such as Bolivia and Peru, where indigenous tongues are spoken overwhelmingly by indigenous peoples, in Paraguay Guarani is spoken by people of many descents and origins. And, in contrast to nations like Canada and Switzerland, where different languages are spoken in specific regions, Guarani is spoken widely throughout Paraguay, albeit rarely by wealthier urban classes. As Guarani gives Paraguayans a sense of unity and nationhood, it also provides this small nation landlocked in South America's interior with perhaps its greatest source of identity and fame--apart from storied soccer teams.

"When the topic is bilingualism, sooner or later the name of Paraguay comes up," says Bogado.

The last national census, done in 1992, reported that 39 percent of Paraguayans spoke only Guarani and 6 percent only Spanish, while 49 percent were bilingual. Linguists say Guarani took hold in Paraguay because of the way that two peoples--Spanish invaders and native Americans--met. Paraguay contained no precious metals to be looted and carried home to Europe. Instead, the Spanish came here to settle, took indigenous wives--frequently several of them--and produced many children, who grew up speaking their mothers' language, which was often Guarani. During the following centuries, Paraguay's indigenous people suffered terribly from new diseases, forced labor and slave raiders from neighboring Brazil. As a result, today only about 2 percent of Paraguay's people are indigenous, and not all of them are Guarani. And yet the Guarani tongue is spoken by blond-haired children of German descent in the countryside, by Korean immigrants in Asuncion's market neighborhood, and is even mixed into presidential speeches.

However, for most of its history, Guarani has been an almost purely oral language. The first written Guarani literature was created on the Jesuit reductions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Jesuit priests took away the Guaranis' traditional hunting and gathering with small farming life-style, making them become settled farmers. However, the Jesuits also protected the native peoples from slave hunters and taught some to be scribes who both translated Catholic holy books into Guarani and wrote original works themselves. The most famous Guarani writer during the Jesuit era was Nicolas Yapuguay, a Guarani scribe who in 1727 wrote Sermones y Ejemplos, describing Catholic liturgy. In a sense, this is still the most truly Guarani literature, because it was produced by Guaranis themselves--albeit immersed in a foreign culture, says bookstore owner Bogado.

Today, the native Guarani people are overwhelmingly impoverished and are often seen begging on Asuncion's streets. In contrast to what was produced in the Jesuit reductions, today's literature is not precisely Guarani literature, but more accurately called "literature in Guarani." In 1967 Guarani was made Paraguay's second "national" language and in 1992 elevated to being the second "official" language, making its status equal to that of Spanish.

"That year, the Paraguayan who believed that his language had low status learned differently," says Bogado, a professor of Guarani who opened his Guarani Raity bookshop ( guarani) in his Asuncion home in 1996.

Raity is Guarani for "nest with eggs," and the name reflects Bogado's expectations for the language's development. He says business is fine and growing. And yet, business is usually at the bottom of people's lists of reasons for working in Guarani literature. Rather, it is a desire to encourage their nation's heritage. Take Tadeo Larrateo Davalos, now an Asuncion property judge, who in 1977 during law school got into a fateful discussion about why so few people had read a particular Paraguayan classic novel.

"We concluded that it was because it was written in Spanish," he recalls.

The students observed that Guarani literature had developed almost exclusively in poetry and theater.

"A century of poetry is enough already. We're going to begin with the prose," Larrateo recalls them saying.

The students made a bet about who could write the best novel in Guarani. Larrateo won, with Kalaito Pombero, the story of a boy growing up in the countryside. However, before the work saw print in 1981, Larrateo had to overcome his publisher's doubts about the marketability of a novel in Guarani. In fact, the book sold well, although Larrateo, fifty-four, a soft-spoken man with a graying goatee and a thoughtful manner, credits the book's novelty more than its quality. Kalaito Pombero also won for Larrateo a literary award from a Paraguayan media company for being the first novel in centuries written in an American indigenous tongue. Eight years later, Larrateo published a book of short stories in Guarani, and he is now working on a Guarani grammar.

Larrateo ascribes part of his dedication to Guarani to the injustices he witnessed in his rural school. There, classes were taught in Spanish, despite the fact that Larrateo and his brother, whose father was Uruguayan, were the only children who spoke that language.

"I said `the Paraguayan educational system is very mistaken,'" Larrateo recalls. "Here, many talents are lost."

Years later, Larrateo helped write the new constitution, which made Guarani Paraguay's second official language. Now, he is also trying to have the laws published in both languages.

Another person who has written out of a passion for Guarani is Natalia Krivoshein. Perhaps an unlikely advocate for an indigenous tongue, she is the Czechoslovakia-born daughter of Russian-exile parents, who grew up in Paraguay speaking Russian at home. It was not until age forty that Krivoshein decided to learn Guarani "because in Paraguay everybody spoke it," and because in Paraguay "there are certain things that can only be said in Guarani." So, she signed up for classes at a language institute. Although she doesn't consider herself a perfect Guarani speaker, in 1977 she and others, including Judge Larrateo, launched a bilingual, periodic newsletter called Nemity with articles in and about Guarani. For the first issue, they published several thousand copies, but the magazine's circulation and frequency have since declined--a positive development, says Krivoshein, since it is a measure of the abundant literature that has since come out about and in Guarani--much of it a result of the educational reform.

Of course, the current generation of writers follows a long and vital tradition of literature in Guarani, although almost exclusively in poetry and theater, the popular entertainment before the era of television and movies. Some of the more prominent poets in Guarani included Narciso R. Colman, who under the pseudonym Rosincran wrote criticisms of modern society's obsession with money and work. Another was Teodoro Mongelos, a writer of poetry and of protest against war, poverty, and social injustice. A third, Manuel Ortiz Guerrero, wrote odes to nature and love in both Guarani and Spanish. But newsletter publisher Krivoshein asserts with fervor that the list of poets is really endless.

"There are other nations that have their `maximum' poets," she says. "But not Paraguay. Here, every Paraguayan writes poetry--and does it quite well."

Like Larrateo's work, much literature in Guarani deals with rural themes: growing up in the countryside, confrontations over land between campesinos and large landowners, and migration from the country to the city in search of opportunity. Other works record popular tales and traditions. Many of these star Ca'i, a mischievous monkey who teases his enemy, the tiger Yaguarete, freeloads off of local villagers, and escapes so many hazards that he seems to possess nine lives.

But authors acknowledge that Guarani literature's reading audience is still limited. The language continues to be overwhelmingly oral, spoken by people with generally low educational levels and little tradition of reading. Too, the novels are not inexpensive in a nation with an official minimum daily wage of about $5.50. In fact, some comment that foreigners visiting Paraguay buy more Guarani literature than do native Paraguayans.

Yet, Guarani authors say that even if few books sell, they add legitimacy to the Guarani tongue, which is still searching for its place in a globalizing world. For much of Paraguay's history Guarani was something one was a bit ashamed of--an accompaniment of poverty and underdevelopment--and those negative associations still dog it today. Even the effort to teach Guarani in urban schools has produced a backlash against a language some feel is forced upon them.

"Until ten years ago, it was degrading to speak it--and then, suddenly, they forced us to teach it," says Martha de Godoy, a retired teacher and Guarani speaker who believes Guarani should remain a purely oral language.

What is more, Guarani is suffering an identity crisis. Politicians and academicians debate over what the "real" Guarani is: the relatively pure language of the countryside, or Jobara, the freewheeling mix of Guarani and Spanish spoken in cities.

In the face of these challenges, writers in Guarani see written literature as fundamental for the language's vigor and survival.

"Literature makes a language grow, because it is a continual experiment with words," says Carlos Martinez Gamba, one of the first and still one of the most prolific of prose authors in Guarani. He grew up in a small town in the countryside, where his parents owned a shop and also farmed. A socialist in his youth, Gamba was exiled by the Stroessner dictatorship and has since lived in Argentina. He recalls the day, sitting in a Buenos Aires bar, when he thought of writing novels in Guarani.

"I found it very natural to write in that mother tongue, but in Paraguay it was never done," he says. "Everything was written in Spanish so that it could be read in Buenos Aires."

Since then, Gamba, sixty-two, a serious-mannered man with an occasional hoarse laugh emanating from a huge, frizzy orange beard, has published nearly twenty books in Guarani, including poetry, fiction, schoolbooks, and recompilations of traditional stories.

Today, he still lives in Argentina, in the town of Puerto Rico, on the eastern bank of the Parana River, just a short distance from his beloved Paraguay, to which he yearns to return if only he had a way to support himself there. On Puerto Rico's quiet main street, where Gamba has a small insurance business, he continues writing new works, including an epic poem--already at 12,500 verses and seven hundred pages--about the 1864 to 1870 War of the Triple Alliance, in which Paraguay struggled for its existence against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. But, like the great majority of literature in Guarani, most of Gamba's stories are set in the countryside and are based on people and experiences recalled from his youth. Many describe the odyssey of migration from the country to the city, a common phenomenon in Paraguay. Gamba says few of his tales have happy endings.

"Exchanging the misery of the countryside for that of the city is almost the same thing," he observes.

The Guarani tongue's role in Paraguayan history is a story in itself. During the War of the Triple Alliance and the fratricidal 1930s Chaco War with Bolivia, the Guarani tongue served the Paraguayan military as a "secret language," which foreign soldiers could not understand. Gamba believes today Guarani continues serving as a bulwark--but now against the cultural and economic forces of globalization.

"Paraguay is a nation that is very pressured from outside," he says. "The [Paraguayan] people discovered taking refuge in their language to be a very effective manner of protecting themselves."

For many writers in Guarani, their work is a tribute to Paraguay's native culture. Felix de Guarania spoke only Guarani until age six, when his schoolteacher slapped students with a ruler for using their mother tongue. (Today, as part of the educational reform, classes are taught in Guarani in areas where it is the common tongue. Many educational specialists believe that thoroughly establishing a first language helps students to learn a second one more easily.) De Guarania, seventy-seven, an enthusiastic man with a lush silver beard who changed his name from Jimenez during the 1940s, has written some thirty books, including fiction, poetry, biography, and popular stories from the countryside, as well as translations of classics such as Moliere and the Bible "to demonstrate that Guarani is a language that functions, that works." He finds Guarani a particularly rich tongue for poetry, thanks to its many figures of speech, plentiful vowels, and strong sentiments. The language's vocabulary is rich in earthy images and bawdy expressions, which sound natural in Guarani, but fall off the tongue heavily in Spanish. De Guarania says this is the legacy of the Guarani people--hunter-gatherers and small farmers before the Spanish arrived.

"Their culture was very deep, very spiritual. Material things were not very important to them."

Like Gamba's, de Guarania's works chronicle the impoverished lives and relentless struggles of Paraguay's campesinos. However, in contrast to those of Gamba, many of de Guarania's plays end happily. In Amor campesino, for example, a young girl leaves her small town to pursue an education in the city. There, she studies, marries, and has a daughter--but loses contact with her friends and family back home. At the play's conclusion, the young woman brings her husband and daughter back to her town and reconciles her new life with her old one. And in El camino de la tierra, a group of campesinos assert their right to land and decent working conditions and find strength in the support of a student returned from college in the city. However, in El desaparecido, a man who responds to what he believes to be a routine call from the police is tortured and killed. The story of the disappeared is near to de Guarania's heart, for, like Gamba, he was exiled by the dictatorship and spent twenty-six years living in Argentina and Europe. He returned in 1989, the year the Stroessner dictatorship fell, to find his nation's native tongue receiving new respect and legitimacy. He finds that an inspiring change.

"[Guarani] has been marginalized, repressed, and persecuted," de Guarania says. "Only now do we begin to defend it, love it, adore it: to make it grow and become great."

With poetry and literature readings frequent evening events in Asuncion, and the educational reform providing a vigorous market for works in Guarani, authors see themselves on a mission.

"In Guarani, it happens that the people don't know how to read because there isn't anything to read," says Gamba. "We have to create a literature so that the readers come."

Mike Ceaser is a freelance journalist who was recently based in Asuncion, Paraguay. He is a past contributor to Americas.
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Author:Ceaser, Mike
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3PARA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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