The Land-Locked Island of Paraguay

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The land-locked island of Paraguay

ONE cannot hope to understand Paraguay without taking into account its linguistic problem. For four hundred years now, two languages have coexisted in the country: Spanish and Guarani-- the language of the conquerors and the language of the conquered. These two languages are used as parallel, though not complementary, means of expression for a whole society. In this, Paraguay is unique in Latin America.

For the child with a European father and an Indian mother, the natural mother tongue was Guarani, and Spanish was a language imposed as a symbol of authority. It was the language which the mestizo would in turn use to impose his own authority on the Indians.

Mestizos and Indians felt that the language of their father or master, as the case happened to be, was a more integral part of his dominance than the arms, tools, food, houses and customs which were the trappings of his power.

In the missionary settlements of the Jesuits, however, sermons and prayers were in Guarani. There, the Indian was not forced to change his language. He did, however, have to change his rituals, his liturgy, his gods, and his conception of nature, of the world and of the universe-- although the embers of all these still glow brightly today in Indian myths about the universe.

Governor Lazaro de Ribera was mistaken when he complained, at the end of the eighteenth century, that the language of the conquered peoples had become dominant. Guarani was not, and could not be, the dominant language. It retreated into the depths of the collective memory, settled there like a sediment, and came to dominate from within the self-expression of Paraguay, whether it be bilingual or not. …