Tuesday, January 29, 2013


There is nothing better than travel to jolt ones mind out of rutted tracks. One of the benefits of Peace Corps service is the near-constant opportunity and obligation to travel, at least within the host country. If much of this travel is unglamorous and exhausting we may better appreciate the times it is refreshing and exhilarating.

I'm back from a week about in San Bernadino, La Colmena, Asuncion and Luque for respectively our CloseOfService Conference, a trip with nearly our whole training group (G-35) to a beautiful waterfall called Salto Cristal, office business and a Sunday visit to a friend. I arrived back in town five hours before my Tuesday morning reading class, which was fun and heartwarming as usual.

Salto Cristal

G-35 Living it up

I've got some un-Peace Corps related ideas I'd like to get down before they get any more corrupted by habitual thinking...

Gun control: I've actually had my opinion mature about gun control, which surprises me given the intransigence and vitriol that generally accompanies it in the public discourse.

1) The USA's annual rate of shooting-deaths is insanely, unacceptably high.

2) The USA also has a rate of gun ownership much, much higher than comparable countries.

Therefore: it is too easy to get guns in the USA.

3) Most shooting victims are shot by handguns. Scary rifles are the instrument of few American civilian deaths.

4) Mexican drug cartels purchase guns in the USA because it is really easy to do so. These assault weapons are used against the Mexican Army, Police, and citizens at large.

Therefore: restrictions on purchasing assault weapons should be strengthened, but we shouldn't expect this to lead to a significant decrease in domestic shooting-deaths.

5) It is an American right for citizens to own guns for hunting or protection.

6) A gun in the home is more likely to harm its owner than an intruder. "In the 1990s, a team headed by Arthur Kellermann of Emory University looked at all injuries involving guns kept in the home in Memphis, Seattle and Galveston, Tex. They found that these weapons were fired far more often in accidents, criminal assaults, homicides or suicide attempts than in self-defense. For every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides." NYT editorial

7) It is extremely difficult to effectively confront a mass-murder in the heat of the moment even for experienced soldiers and police officers.

Therefore: Gun ownership ought to entail considerable responsibilities, including training, background checks and registration of all owned firearms.

1) I am well positioned compared to the average american. I am well-educated, supported by stable family members, smart, talented, without a criminal record. To top it off I am a straight white male, which presumably still has its implicit advantages (I don't think that's fair or right, I'm just saying). I will shortly be a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, which I am told carries some weight, in a general sort of way.

2) I have negligible experience doing specific skilled jobs.

3) There are many many people in my age-cohort with similar qualifications (good education, stable backgrounds, good at lots of general things, etc.)

4) The pool of well-paid, satisfying jobs is small. The so-called creative-class are the people who have jobs which involved creative output, thinking and making decisions essentially. Teachers, managers, planners, lawyers, doctors, consultants, executives, engineers, writers, journalists, designers, etc. and make on average $80,000 per year.

5) The rest of the job-sector is made up of blue-collar work (factory, construction, transportation jobs) and the service sector (food service, retail, cleaning, etc.). The service sector is the least paid and fastest growing part of the economy, while the blue collar sector is shrinking. These classes both on average earn between $25,000-$40,000 a year (service sector is at the lower end).

6) Much, possibly most, of my generation is trained for and aspires to creative-class jobs. Blue collar work, upon which the USA was physically and spiritually founded, is decreasingly common, decreasingly well-paid and is treated dismissively in much of what we tell young people about what they should do when they grow up. To work in the creative class is essentially the only way to participate in the American Dream (safe, stable family life, ownership of a comfortable home and comfortable cars, assurance of quality health-care and education for the whole family, difficult but satisfying work) in modern American society.
"the more fundamental long-term problem is that there is simply something of a mismatch between the expectation of students and also the reality of the job markets. We have do have four million retail sales clerks in the United States. These are not very glamorous jobs but there are a lot of them, and those are still growing in number. We have a lot of home health care aides and truck drivers and plumbers and electricians. More and more and more of our 22-year-old young adults have college degrees. They're not all going to get jobs as scientists and managers. Some of them are going to be almost forced by the sheer numbers into these other kind of positions." - Dr. Vedder, University of Ohio

7) I am a democrat. I admire and esteem the life of the average person, I believe in the wisdom and virtue of the population at large. I think beauty can be found in a simple life and that material wealth does not equate happiness or necessarily evince a life well-lived.

8) While there will be competition for jobs and status within the creative class, the greatest competition, the existential competition, will be amongst those who are trying to get in to the creative class and stay there.

9) I aspire to an interesting, well-compensated job that will allow me to pay off my student loans and also live the middle class American Dream (which I may modify with bicycles instead of cars and urban density instead of suburban). Therefore I must spurn my democratic impulses and try to claw my way into is 35% of the working population (to be fair I was born into it, so I suppose it's just clawing out my own nook) of whom consist the creative class.

Therefore: I've got to decide on what I want I want to do in the next years of my life and make it happen. I'm not going to "sell" myself, because I don't believe in buying or selling human beings, but I've got to promote myself as a job candidate to out-compete my peers for those good jobs.

what comes next?


Friday, January 18, 2013

Real Life

Today was frustrating, but the last two weeks have been fine. I've got two summer classes going at the library, one for 3rd and 4th graders who are having trouble keeping up, and an English class. The English class three lessons in is now quite large, after several false starts in which not one person showed up. I'm really not very interested in teaching English, I don't see the point of it, as it just helps out folks that are already doing okay. It really is just a sneaky way for me to get people into the library, so that they start to feel comfortable and to get to know the place. In this it has already been a success. I've also been participating in the samba drum group called Batukada which will perform during carnaval. This has been a lot of fun; it's been great to learn something new and to get to know these enthusiastic and organized youths. And there's been neighborhood volleyball and there's a bumper crop of mangoes and lots of time reading in the hammock, and all that. It's been pretty okay, I tell you.

There is a funny thing, as we start getting ready to leave, about what we are leaving and what we are going back to. In a lot of ways, in the way we deal with it bureaucratically and socially it's like we're going back to our real lives after a 27 month intermission. And that makes sense when we are in our American minds and we think about ourselves and future careers, cities we want to live in, ethnic cuisine, bicycles, cars, houses with carpeting and heating and 24-hour running water, pets and houseplants and complex artistic expressions and postmodern social norms. But it is also very true that these two years have been real life, most especially because we are living with people who are really living their real lives. Talking to people in Itapua, many of whom are solidly middle-class, with cars and tvs and water tanks (so they have water all day) and maybe AC and such, who don't feel like their lives are lacking in anything, it is hard for me to go back to that American mind and say why it is exactly that I am leaving, that I'm definitely leaving, and I'm not even really tempted to stay.

It is hard to bridge this gap, between the Paraguayans we care about that are living their real lives, and our distant real lives which are waiting for us in April or in May. It must be incomprehensible to Paraguayans that we would choose to leave our homes and families, show up in Paraguay, work and get to know and love people for two years, and then up and leave again all of a sudden. But then, Paraguayans do tend to have a great tolerance for the incomprehensible.

The only volunteers that really bridge this gap are the ones that marry a Paraguayan (or "host country national" in whichever country they serve). They make a commitment to bind their old real life to their new Paraguayan real life, to try to tie these two cords together in what can only be a messy knot. Short of marriage, there are only promises of future visits, which always end up being few and fleeting, and phone calls and facebooks and possibly letters to try and keep a few strands of affection intact.

How can we really engage with someone if we consider their whole world to be at worst a nightmare or at best a farce? If we would find their every expectation of quality unacceptably low or too unsafe, too ugly, too cheaply made?
Relativity and disparity and sincerity will make your head spin.

I have yet to spend a night outside this country since I arrived just under two years ago. This is mostly a planning oversight of mine, combined with accidents of timing, and was not what I intended to do. Today though, as I rode the bus out to the river port, and the ferry across the river I was filled with excitement and quite a bit of anxiety. I am comfortable in Paraguay, things that happen can be odd or annoying but they do not surprise me much. I know what to expect and I know how I like to do things in Paraguay. (Eat chipa during long bus rides, drink beer during long bus waits, eat bananas and coffee for breakfast, be friendly with everyone, ask for favors, ask at least 5 different people to confirm directions or timetables, don't touch anything clean after touching anything, don't go out or expect anything to happen in the early afternoon, think about which side of the bus will be in the sun once you leave town, bring a blanket for long rides on air-conditioned buses, pay with the largest bill you think can get away with, keep very low expectations for punctuality, make sure you've got enough groceries to last the weekend before noon on Saturday, don't buy "hot" food between 3pm and 7pm, don't tell anyone when you've been combining terere and mango or watermelon and wine, wear a hat, put lemon leaves in terere, put anis and cinnamon or cloves in your máte, use orange thorns to pick teeth or extract chiggers.) Modern, industrialized Argentina, about which I've been fantasizing for so long, would be unpredictable and strange and foreign.

However, I was denied access to Argentina because of a very new "reciprocity fee" which must be paid online or at the consulate. This fee was previously only charged at airports for Americans flying in.
So I'm still in Paraguay. It does seem inevitable. But I will leave in four months with a backpack on my back to go wandering in Argentina and Chile, and then back to the world that was everything I'd known and everyone I'd known almost two and a half years before.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

La Historia III - Los Indios y los Missioneros

Well, so far we've got

La Historia I about the establishment of the Spanish Empire
La Historia II about the Paraguayan colony and the Spanish settlement of South America

The part of the story which I have neglected to tell is of the native inhabitants of the lands that were to become Paraguay. The information I've come across has been incomplete or inconsistent, but I'll do my best to give a good summary of what I've figured out.

Before the arrival of Europeans, South America was inhabited by many native peoples with very different ways of life. The had some degree of contact with one another, especially when one group would migrate or invade the territory of another. That could cause them in turn to migrate into the territory of a third group and so on.

The best known people are the Inca, who originated in Peru and by 1450 had an empire stretching from Ecuador to Chile. I've already written about how the Spanish incorporated much of the structure of this empire into their South American dominion. The Inca were agricultural and obviously advanced organizationally, though they never developed either writing or the wheel.

Tupi-Guarani is a language family that included many groups of people in eastern South America, stretching from the Amazon and the north of modern-day Brazil to the Rio de la Plata. Mostly they were semi-sedentary, meaning they practiced agriculture, but not intensively. They acquired some domesticated crops from the Inca (corn, sweet potatoes, squash, beans) and domesticated some of their own (peanuts, mandioca, cotton).

Tupi (violet), Tupi-Guarani (pink) languages areas and early probable areas (pink-grey).
The Tupi-Guarani did not occupy this enormous area exclusively. Many other groups, some part of large language families and others small and unique, interacted with the Tupi-Guarani.  During the second millennium AD the Guaraní migrated south from through Brazil, roughly following the Paraná River. They displaced some groups that they encountered and passed others by. Ultimately in the west, a group of Guaraní ended up in the foothills of the Andes where they clashed periodically with the Inca, while larger groups inhabited what is the modern Region Oriental, the fertile eastern part of Paraguay, leaving the Chaco to numerous different hunter-gatherer (or "paleolithic") peoples. The Guaraní inhabited the entire region from the Paraguay River east to the Atlantic Ocean and much of the land south to the Rio de la Plata estuary, displacing before them nomadic paleolithic groups.

The Guaraní usually lived in settlements of a few hundred families. They built large communal homes, grew corn, mandioca, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tobacco and squash and hunted and harvested many wild plants (they were "Neolithic"). They prized colorful bird feathers, which they used to make elaborate masks and costumes. River tribes traveled and made war by canoe and terrestrial tribes moved on foot. Because they covered such a wide territory and were so numerous Guaraní served as a lingua franca in the region.
dark blue = Guaraní groups, dark red = Guaycurú groups

The Guaycurú language family included many paleolithic groups that occupied the Chaco near the Paraguay River. This family included the Payaguá, Mbayá, Toba and Abipón all of which were very hostile to the Spanish and raided Spanish-Paraguayan settlements into the 1800s. These peoples were highly skilled river navigators, using large dugout canoes. The Chaco was also inhabited by a mishmash of smaller groups. The Chané, in the south-western Chaco were a part of the Arawak language family which primarily inhabited the Caribbean, while the Lulé were not related to any other known language group. The several related groups known to the Spanish as the Lengua occupied the central Chaco. Meanwhile in the eastern region some groups were surrounded but not displaced by the Guaraní and maintained their hunter-gatherer lifestyles such as the Aché or "Guayaki".

When the Spanish first arrived in this part of South America they clashed with the paleolithic natives they encountered near the Rio de la Plata estuary (near Buenos Aires), but travelling up the river they encountered groups of Guaraní which they found to be more peacefully inclined. It was from the Guaraní that the Spanish first learned of the Inca Empire and its riches.
When the Spaniards permanently set up shop in this part of South America, in Asunción in 1537, they began to interact with the natives in new ways. Spanish adelanteros began to establish feudal estates called encomiendas, taking advantage of forced indian labor. The natives were captured or bought and used as slaves. This, along with subsistence farming, was the chief economic activity of the colony up until and even after independence in 1811. Meanwhile, starting in 1580 the Franciscan order set out to establish "reductions" of groups of Guaraní to convert them to Christianity. These establishments did send natives back for forced labor in the Spanish encomiendas but they provided a degree of protection and economic development for the Guaraní subjects and began to integrate them into the Spanish colonial empire.

These missions were founded near Asunción and also further north on the east bank of the Paraguay River.
When the Jesuit order arrived in the region in 1610 they took things up a notch. The Jesuit reductions, unlike those of the Franciscans, did not send Guaraní laborers back to work on the encomiendas. In fact, the only Europeans allowed to enter the missions were the Jesuit monks assigned to them. Currency was also forbidden; all labor and all goods were collectively shared, under the oversight of the Jesuit fathers. It was a highly paternalistic system, but provided needed protection from the Spanish colonists and allowed the Guaraní to enjoy some of Europe´s more benign imports. Schools were established; western music, painting, and carving were taught and nurtured in the missions, which also became increasingly ambitious architecturally.  The Society of Jesus was something of an avant-garde organization for Europe in the 1600's and 1700's and many gifted and adventurous individuals were inspired to come to Paraguay to participate in their utopian project.
The unfinished ruins of Jesus de Tavarangue
The history of the Jesuit missions is one of the few aspects of Paraguayan history that is accessible and about which much has been written, so I encourage you to research it yourself. The movie The Mission is a pretty good start. That movie combines the events of the early 1600´s, in which the Jesuits were establishing missions deep in the jungle of what is now Brazil and were subsequently attacked and driven out by Portuguese slave raiders, with the "Gauraní War" of 1756 plus some Hollywood cheese. The Guaraní war occurred when an agreement between the Spanish and Portuguese governments left seven Jesuit reductions on the Portuguese side of the colonial border. When the Guaraní inhabitants of the missions refused to relocate to the Spanish side of the new border they were attacked and massacred by a joint Spanish-Portuguese army.

For me, the Jesuits are fascinating because of the adventurous and earnest spirit with which they undertook their projects in this part of the world, when there were no roads, self-propelled  transportation, communication devices, modern medicines, or nearly any other of the many conveniences that I enjoy. Even so, I cannot help felling that we, as Peace Corps volunteers in Paraguay, are following in their legacy. They left behind their (17th century) European comforts to come to an unknown, wild and dangerous part of the world because they thought they knew something they could share that would help improve the lives of the people they encountered.

While the ideas the Peace Corps seeks to share are quite different, the essential impulse is unchanged: to travel to a foreign land in the service of an abstract cause or ideal. It is the flip-side of that expansive European desire which lead the Spanish and Portuguese and French and Dutch and English to build their far-flung empires, subjugating and dominating foreign, unknown lands and peoples. We volunteers and missionaries (there are two Jehovah´s Witness missionaries and two Mormon missionaries also living in Natalio) come to places where we have no real, immediate business outside of a general desire to help others or to do the right thing. In that sense people might be correct when they accuse us of being part of American imperialism.

Dan and I at the ruins of Trinidad, about 2 hours by bus east of my site.
The Franciscan and Jesuit missions anchored and maintained some Guaraní populations into the 1800s. To the best of my knowledge no other native group were taken into missions in this part of South America (however in Bolivia the Chiquitano people were the focus of the Jesuits efforts). Meanwhile the paleolithic peoples of the Chaco remained relatively undisturbed. We can be sure they were laid low by disease and other disruptions as a result of European contact, but since actual contact with outsiders was so rare, it probably took much longer for these effects to unfold compared to other parts of the New World.

The mid-1600's saw a lot of retrenchment for the young colony
One of the Guaygurú groups which did have a lot of contact with the Spanish were the Mbayás, who moved into northern Paraguay during the 1600's. The Mbayás raided Spanish settlements and missions extensively and succeeded in driving the Jesuits and Franciscans out of northern Paraguay. The displaced Franciscan missions, which included Guarambaré, Ypané and Tobatí, were relocated nearer Asunción. The displaced Jesuit missions relocated still further south, near the long established mission of San Ignacio Guazú, and were renamed Santiago and Santa Maria. Other missions and settlements in the north and on the west bank (Chaco side) of the Paraguay River were abandoned outright due to their attacks.

The Guayacurú peoples were successful raiders and were held in grudging esteem by the Spanish for their prowess in their river canoes, but they never adopted a sedentary, agricultural way of life and were gradually displaced and destroyed by the advance of Spanish-Paraguayan technology and population. Today only one group, the Toba-Qom, of this once large language family survives.

Though the modern population of Paraguay is substantially mestizo (a racial mix of European and Native American) it does not seem that the free Guaraní tribes were peacefully assimilated into Paraguayan society. Independent populations of Guaraní were gradually captured to work as slaves, for which there was a constant demand because of the lethality of their living conditions, or driven further into the jungle. Guaraní rebellions were frequent during the 1600's. The Spanish population of Paraguay was always small, and European men sought out Guaraní women as wives. These wives spoke to their mestizo children in Gauraní even as they raised them in a (heavily adapted) European context. Though the Guaraní language survived and even flourished in mestizo Paraguay, much of the rest of the culture was wiped out.

A Franciscan cathedral in San Pedro
It is more difficult to say how the Guarani populations of the monastic reductions fared. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1768, many of their missions were abandoned and the Guarani populations were captured, killed, or retreated into the jungle. Several, however, such as Encarnación, San Estanislao (Santaní) and San Ignacio transformed into important Paraguayan towns. It is possible that the Guarani populations of these reductions gradually assimilated into the general Paraguayan population. The Franciscan reductions survived nearly a century longer than those of the Jesuits, well into the period of Paraguayan independence. Many of the towns nearest Asuncion were originally Franciscan reductions, including my training community Guarambaré, which is one of the oldest. It is likely that the Franciscan reductions transitioned more easily into the fabric of general Paraguayan life than those of the Jesuits; the Franciscans never insisted as vehemently as the Jesuits on complete separation of mission life from that of the colony.

Those tribes that remained outside of Paraguayan society gradually felt their buffer zones decrease over the centuries. In the mid-1900s Mennonite and Paraguayan military settlement of the Chaco forced most into the light of modern society for the first time. Around the same time, and especially after the establishment of Ciudad del Este (née Ciudad Stroessner) in 1957, the easternmost part of Paraguay began to be heavily settled by Paraguayans. My own town, Natalio, was founded just 45 years ago in the extreme south-east of the country. This part of the country was mostly covered in the dense Atlantic Rainforest and served as a refuge for three Guarani groups, the Mbyá Guaraní (in the south-east), the Ava-Chiripa (central-east) and the Paí-Tavytera (north-east). These peoples speak languages that are similar to Paraguayan Gauraní but use fewer loan words from Spanish. It is also inhabited by two small populations of a hunter-gatherer people called the Ache (or Guayaki). It turned out that this region has the most fertile soil in Paraguay, which has in the last few decades fueled an agricultural revolution. This has meant that the remaining indigenous peoples have been pushed off their lands with greater than usual enthusiasm.

A settlement of carperos, or landless peasants. This settlement isn't actually made up of indigenous people, but it reflects the poverty that exists in the indigenous settlements. 
 It is hard to say what the situation of the remaining native groups in Paraguay is other than to say that there is much poverty, but that even today some of the distinct, ancient cultures and languages are maintained. The three Guaraní groups in eastern Paraguay are estimated to have a combined population of 40,700 while there are only about 1,200 Ache surviving. The combined population of the many distinct tribes of the Chaco is estimated to be 37,500.

Rapaciousness and greed accounted for much of the suffering of these groups in the 20th century, while incompatibility with western culture has accounted for the rest.  The question for the future is if the poverty these people live in can be destroyed without simultaneously destroying their unique and ancient cultures.

All photos and maps in this post were created by me.


Origen e Hisoria de lo pueblos del Paraguay, González Torres, 2010, Servilibro, Asunción Paraguay

Puelos Indígenas en el Paraguay, La Embajada de España en el Paraguay y el Centero Cultural de España Juan de Salazar, 2011, Asunción Paraguay

Encyclopedia Ilustrada del Paraguay y sucesos del mundo vol. 1, colleción Atlas, Atlas
Representaciones 2010, Montevideo, Uruguay

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Another video: HISTORY

Hey folks!
I've spent the last several months slowly making a video showing the geographic history of Paraguay from the arrival of the Spanish to independence. I cannot offer much in the way of explanation for why I would do this. I think I was motivated by my frustration with the lack of hard information about most of Paraguay's history. I'm also not sure what to do with it, as it is denser than just about really anybody needs. I'd like to make it available as a training material for anyone that is interested in learning about Paraguayan history. I also might try to put it on the Paraguayan wikipedia page. I think a post-independence video would also be ... well something I'd like to do, but I'm not sure if I will have the energy to do it. I am getting better at this with each animation I make (this is the third now) and feedback is appreciated.

The music is Allegro Solmne by Berta Rojas.

oh yeah, the text in the video is in Spanish. Maybe I should make an English version?