Dispatch from Paraguay #4: What We Did Last Week, with a digression on bilingualism and Guarani

This week started off with a cold south wind and rain, our first days without bright sunny skies since we arrived in Paraguay. Asunción is not well suited for rain. Without storm water drains the streets fill with water, and the endless rush of buses tears through the puddles, soaking the sidewalk—and whatever unlucky soul happens to be making his way down the street.

On Monday we ventured out anyways for a San Juan celebration in Shopping Mariscal Lopez, one of the big malls in Paraguay. Since the evening was rainy and cold, the celebration was moved inside to the parking garage, which filled the air of the garage and eventually the entire mall with thick smoke from the cooking food. The garage was packed with people, and I was reminded once again of the different ways in which we experience space. The Paraguayans were pressed together in a dense, smoky, noisy garage—as happy as they could be. For my sensibilities, it was a bit too much humanity. So we didn’t linger too long and ended up going to a little pastry shop inside the mall for merienda: café con leche with alfajores.

Tuesday was another rainy day. It started off with Guarani classes and a trip to Sajonia to run and swim. I’ve been enjoying the Guarani, though it’s really just the briefest of introductions. It’s a difficult language, full of particles and prefixes, and as I mentioned earlier, it has 12 vowel sounds, seven more than English, so it’s difficult to pronounce. However, the Paraguayan Spanish is heavily influenced by Guarani, so it doesn’t sound as foreign to me as it might otherwise. Let’s see if I can write a sentence: Pe yvyoty che sype guara (the sentence needs an accent over the “y” in “sype”, and tildas over the “g” and second “a” in guara): That flower (Pe yvyoty) is for my mother (che sype guara). As you can see, it’s a different sort of language, but having picked up the rhythm and pronunciation a bit (even if it’s still hard for me to reproduce) I can occasionally pick out words when I hear it spoken. Guarani is spoken everywhere in Paraguay, but it is usually mixed with Spanish. The mixture is called Jopará. Even if there is no Guarani actually spoken, the Paraguayan Spanish still carries with it the rhythm and vocalization of Guarani. For example, in Guarani, you never have two consonants side by side or a consonant at the end of a word: consonants are always paired with a vowel. So the Paraguayans often swallow, mute, or don’t even pronounce solitary consonants at all when speaking Spanish, particularly the “s.”

This phenomenon of bilingualism is interesting. Guarani is used among friends and family. Paraguayans say it is much more expressive and precise than Spanish, especially when it comes to communicating feelings or talking about objects at hand. Spanish is most common in Asuncion, as a language of schooling and of business—and also as a marker of a certain level of education. But Paraguayans complain of its abstractness and dryness. In his reflections on Paraguay written at the beginning of the 20th century, El dolor paraguayo, the Spaniard Rafael Barrett comments that this bilingualism is the norm, not the exception in human history.

He writes:
“La historia nos revela que lo bilingüe no es una excepción, sino lo ordinario. Suele haber un idioma vulgar, matizado, irregular, propio a las expansiones sentimentales del pueblo, y otro razonado, depurado, artificial, propio a las manifestaciones diplomáticas, científicas y literarias. Dos lenguas, emparentadas o no; una plebeya, otra sabia, una particular, otra extensa; una desordenada y libre, otra ordenada y retórica. Casi no hubo siglo ni país en que esta no se verificara.”

“History shows us that the bilingual is not the exception, but the rule. Customarily there exists one language that is vulgar, bright and irregular, appropriate for the habits of the people, and another language that is rational, purified, artificial, appropriate for diplomacy, science, and literature. Two language, related or not; one plebian, the other scientific, one particular, the other universal; one disordered and free, then other ordered and rhetorical. There has hardly been a century or country in which this has not been not the case.”

In a dominantly monolingual culture like we have in the United States, it is still the case that there are (at least) two languages, a high language and a lower language. Perhaps in the South and among the Black population this is most true. But these two languages, being related, carry the same name, English. (Not to mention the recent mass arrival of Latinos, which presents an actual and perhaps more vital bilingualism.) But here in Paraguay, where the contrast between these two languages is amplified by the fact that one is indigenous, and the other comes from colonization, the division between these two different modes of culture and all the attendant relations (private, public, class, family, ethnicity, friendship, native, foreigner) that these modes evoke are much more conscious, evident, and felt.

At any rate… Back to recounting the week’s activities. Tuesday evening, we went to the opening of an international art show at La Manzana de la Rivera, a neat space right downtown in view of the presidential palace. The show featured work from Argentinean, Uruguayan, and of course Paraguayan artists. The art and photography was of a variety of styles and included three pieces from the mother of our niece and nephew here. The most interesting piece for several reasons was a woman, nude from the waist up, who had been body-painted and was dancing a piece intended to show the suffering of the environment and the clash between nature and technology in a dress covered in trash.

The rest of the week was pretty relaxed. Lulu prepared for the weekend asado (barbeque) she was planning with her high school friends, and we continued with our ordinary activities, running, riding the buses around town on errands, etc. The days were full of activity, but nothing of great interest. We did go twice to the Bolsi, a delicious restaurant downtown for merienda, once for coffee and alfajores and the next time for their famous media luna—super rico!

On Saturday, the big event was the asado that Lulu prepared for her high school group of friends. I got up early and ran at the park before everything got too crazy. Lulu stayed and prepared for the asado. When I got back from my run the house was buzzing with activity: mops and brooms were flying, tables and chairs moving around. About 15 of her high school friends came over. Fortunately, it was a beautiful afternoon, in the 70’s and sunny. We hired an asadero, who brought rice salad, potato salad, tossed salad, chipa guazu, sopa paraguaya, and prepared chorizo picante, mandioca, morcilla, along with pork, chicken, and huge hunks of sirloin steak. Oh baby. Her friends trickled in through the afternoon, arriving around 12:30 and staying until around 6. We finished the evening with mugs of mate cocido—a delicious way of drinking mate that is common in the wintertime in Paraguay.
After the asado, we cleaned up quickly and headed downtown to Manzana de la Rivera for a free concert featuring the Paraguayan harp. It was a really neat show, which presented 400 years of history of the harp in Paraguay, broken down by century. The harpists were really amazing; and the harp is such a cool instrument. I thought it would be neat to try to integrate the harp with a bluegrass band… The concert finished up around 11pm, and we took a taxi home, ready for bed.

Sunday morning I cooked pancakes for the family, including Raul, Carolina, Ines, and Diana. Afterwards, I went for a quick run—it’s actually hot out! Ate a good lunch (leftovers from the asado) and then two of Lulu’s friends, Giovanni and Martin picked me up to take me to a championship match between two Paraguayan football teams: Cerro Porteño and Libertad. Lulu’s friends were big fans of Cerro (as is about half of Paraguay; the other half is dominated by an equally popular club, Olympia), so I of course became an instant fan of Cerro.

Since this was an important game, the stadium was totally packed. When we arrived, there were people dressed in the blue and red of Cerro everywhere. Martin fought (literally) at the ticket window for three tickets to “Platea”—the cheap seats, not because they are far from the action, but because you have to look into the sun. After literally 15 minutes of shoving and sacrificing his body, Martin popped out of the mad crowd grinning with three tickets.

After that, we got in a line that stretched around the block, but moved fairly quickly. We got into the stadium about 10 minutes before the game started. We were too late to actually find seats, but there was a wide area on turf level for standing-room, and we positioned ourselves there. The view, I thought, was great. The players were right in front of us, and though sometimes it was hard to get a feel for the flow of the game, we had a player’s perspective on the game. Unfortunately, Cerro got crushed by Libertad, 3-0, the last Libertad goal coming on a spectacular upside-down bicycle kick right in front of where we stood. The crowd was fairly wild, but not as bad as it could have been—alcohol is not permitted on the premises. After the game, some particularly unruly fans tried to rush the field, taunting and throwing coke bottles and fireworks at the riot police, complete with shield, helmets, and rubber bullets that are the routine form of security at the game. Giovanni and Martin told me it was much crazier when Cerro won. I believe them.

After the game I walked to a local empanada shack to meet Ricardo Villalba, a Paraguayan philosopher, for some philosophy talk and a beer or two. Ricardo is a great guy, and I had the good fortune to attend two of his classes last week at the national university. He specializes in medieval philosophy—particularly Duns Scotus—and received his doctorate in Argentina. Here’s a tidbit: if I were a philosophy lecturer in Paraguay instead of at Vanderbilt, I would earn approximately $200 a month. Ricardo makes a little more than three times that—because he works at three different universities. Our conversation ranged from talk of the material conditions of philosophy to Aristotle and the present and future of Paraguayan thought. Most interestingly, to me, Ricardo repudiates the recent trend towards explicitly political philosophy in favor of medieval metaphysics, which he sees as a much more liberatory practice than adding more talk of politics to a culture saturated by politics. And it’s hard to argue the point. It was a great connection to make, and I’m excited about continuing our conversations.

This “dispatch” I fear is long, much too long, so congratulations for making it to this point. There is so much still left unsaid. But so it goes. Next week we head to the interior to visit the cities of Villarrica and Colonia Independencia… Onwards! And, only two weeks left!


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