Guaranis: a bit of history and traditions

The Guaranis are a native population of south America. They are now living in Paraguay and parts of Bolivia, Brasil, and Argentina. In Argentina they are mainly present in the region of Misiones, in the north-east of the country. We had the opportunity to stay in this region for a few days and learn more about their history. You can also read our post about the Jesuits missions in San Ignacio.

Before the arrival of the Europeans

Before the arrival of the Europeans they were living in the vast forests around the rivers Paraná and Uruguay, and what is now the south of Brazil. They were mainly nomadic, living out of hunt and agriculture. When settled in a place, they would start growing vegetables like potatoes, mandioca and sugar cane. After three years, when the soil was too poor for the new crops, they would move the village to another place. They would also hunt basically all the animals in the jungle: armadillos, iguanas, coatis, etc…

They were building their houses out of mud and wood. Firstly they were collecting a lot of small branches and tying them with vines. These bundles were positioned between two sticks of wood to form the wall of the house. Subsequently, mud was applied to the branches and let dry. Houses built like this could last up to six months.
They were talking the guarani, a language still alive today. Rather than trying to translate all the names of places, the Europeans decided to adopt them. That is why we now have, for example, Iguazù, “big water”, the park of Teyù Cuare, “lizard cave”, and Paraguay, “water that creates an ocean”.

The missions

Guaranis mission jesuit
A model of a Jesuit mission: well visible are the church and the main square, and, on the sides of it, the workshops.

The presence of the Europeans in the area was, at the beginning, of two different natures: missionary or violent. On one hand, the Portuguese were hunting the Guaranis so they could sell them as slaves. The cheap workforce they represented was the best merchandise of the area.

On the other hand, the jesuits were trying to convert the Guaranis to catholicism, at the cost for them to leave most of their traditions. Jesuits learned the language and traditions of the Guaranis in order to better communicate their message. As a result, many missions were created in the area. They normally included a church, a square, center of the life of the community, workshops, a field where to grow food, and houses. Life in the missions was strictly organized. Different hours of the day were dedicated to praying, working or educating the children, and relaxing. Everybody was contributing to the common interest.

For the Guaranis, living in a mission ensured safety against the enslaver. Even though they were able to maintain some of their traditions, especially their language, they had to renounce to their nomadic lifestyle.
In 1767 the expulsion of the Jesuits from the country signed the beginning of the end of the missions. In the following years, not providing anymore any kind of safety or advantage, they were abandoned by the Guaranis who returned back in their old life in the forest.

Present

The Guaranis today are organized in communities in the forest. They still retain their nomadic lifestyle, moving whenever the soil is not producing enough fruits anymore. They also hunt in the forest, which is of their property. Inside the communities they speak only guarani, but the kids attend a bilingual school. Each community has a leader, the “cacique”. Even though they might be far, the nearby communities meet once a year for some celebrations.

Until the last years, the Argentinian government was offering them some money to repay the expropriation of their lands. But lately, due to the economic crisis, the flux of money almost completely stopped. The expropriations on the other hand, did not stop. With less and less lands, agriculture and hunt are becoming increasingly difficult for the Guaranis. They tried to protest, by blocking the traffic for example, but it did not help. The production and sell of handcraft objects is now the main source of revenue for the community.

One of their traditional meal is called reviro, which they eat it mostly at breakfast as it is very filling. It is made out of flour, water and salt, cooked together in a pan. It remains grainy thanks to a constant stirring. We had the chance to try when we where in Puerto Iguazu. In the end, since the ingredients are the same, yeast excluded, it tastes like salty bread crumbs. Nowadays is mostly accompanied with fried eggs.

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