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

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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. …