It’s Monday evening, almost 8pm here in Asuncion. From the room here I can hear the yells of the futbolistas playing soccer in the nearby Star Club. This is one of the first qualities of Paraguay: you are always within ear-shot of someone, of something: a diesel motor, kids running on the street, music. You can hear la gente. Yesterday morning, Sunday, we walked the 10 blocks to the supermarket. On the way, we probably glimpsed, dodged, heard, watched, or otherwise encountered more than one hundred people. That’s not counting the cars, buses, and dogs that swarm and scatter as well. Once in the supermarket, it was even more crowded. Everything and everyone is pressed in close. Space is smaller, almost non-existent. Instead of space, in Asuncion, there is la gente, the people. That quality that we Norteamericanos savor and hold sacred: our difference, our space, our individuality is wiped away in an instant. You find yourself not as one of many, but just among the many: like a drop of water in a frothing river, such is the individual in Asuncion.
At least this is the way it is in public. But a counter to the anonymity of la gente exists in Paraguay. It is la casa. In the U.S., there is little distinction made between the house and the street. There are few fences, and driveways lead right out into the street. In suburban Tennessee, we have these freshly mown and rolling lawns that draw the public eye right up to the house. Our houses show themselves off, invite the guest in, and send the message that the private lives of the people inside the house are just an extension of the public space without. There is the presumption that what happens in the house is open to neighborly view. The home shows us off. It puts on a face for us: our houses are only the people we want to be; they are rarely who we are. For us, the house is a public space—and why not? The real sanctum of privacy for us is individual: our private space is psychic space, what goes on inside our head. The home is where the individual is housed. It is not really private for an American: it makes a show of privacy; it privacy made public.
The houses are different in Paraguay. Walk down a street in Asuncion and what strikes you immediately is that there are no houses—only fences. The windows are barred and shuttered. The street is literally a series of private walls: a border that marks off and separates out the public life in the street—that anonymous and swirling river of la gente—from private life in la casa. As we guard the thoughts in our heads, protecting our individuality with a smile, or with silence, or with the barbed wire and broken glass of small talk, the Paraguayan guards what is most precious and defining with actual bricks and mortar, with locks and alarms, dogs and heavy steel gates. Behind each of those barriers lies the sacred counterweight to the suffocating mass outside. Inside the home, you find the Paraguayan equivalent of our individuality: the family.
Indeed, to step inside a Paraguayan house as a member of the family is like making your way behind the secrets and smiles that guard an individual’s consciousness to the pure subjective life. In la casa, everything is out and everything is open. The space inside la casa is a swirl of chatter, of concern, of laughter, tears, spontaneous gritos of joy and pain, punctuated by the steady rhythm of complaints. And there is history, too. Grandmothers live with granddaughters. Uncles and cousins and a wild, sprawling network of loosely related people come and go. They gather around the table, eating together. Their clothes hang on the line outside, futbol uniforms drying next to the long and loose underwear of abuela. So, you have it all there, the entirety of life on display in the little microcosm of the home, experience advising youth in new times, sisters and brothers fighting for attention, playing games, wives scolding husbands, maids folding laundry and speaking among themselves in their whirring Guarani. This splash of life I can only describe to you in one way: it is as rich and colorful and complex, as tumultuous and unfinished, as those precious thoughts in your head.
The only thing you will not find in this wild whirl of la casa is our most precious individualism, created by its intricate spiderweb of thoughts, some disclosed, some preciously guarded. The last barrier in Paraguay is the one that separates the house from the street. Entre casa, inside the home, the crushing and numbing and swelling anonymity of the street, is mirrored and counterweighted by a life of total disclosure. Outside, in la calle, one says nothing. Inside, in la casa one says everything.
Indeed, Paraguay is a society that works almost entirely without the most central aspect of social life in the United States, without the very tool with which we carve the worried lines of our public and private selves. Imagine this: Paraguay is a society without secrets. And this means that Paraguay is a society in which the distinction between public and private has very little to do with the individual. One could even go so far as to say that in Paraguay, there are only two subjects of social life, la gente and la familia, each with their equal and opposite spaces, la calle and la casa. The individual is a machine that carries out these two radically different and mutually sustaining orders of life. Outside, in la calle, the individual is a drop of water in an ocean of faceless faces. Inside, in la casa, the individual is an alphabet, an open book, a conduit of pure communication.