Guaranís Preserve Customs but Struggle Economically in the Jungle of Argentina

In the middle of the jungle in Argentina, indigenous Guaraní people preserve their ancestral customs but struggle economically.

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SANTA ANA MINÍ, ARGENTINA – A short woman walks between small houses made of straw, timber and tin in a village lost in the jungles of northeastern Argentina. Her long hair is tangled on her back, and her bare feet tread on the stones of the dirt road.

Lucía, who says she does not know her last name, has never worn shoes. She sets her heels into the hot soil and propels herself forward with the tips of her toes. A parade of her children and grandchildren follow her.

Lucía and her family belong to the indigenous community of the Guaraní, one of the native groups that have lived in Argentina since before Spanish colonization. Their home is the small village of Santa Ana Miní, located at the foot of the Santa Ana hill in the province of Misiones.

Lucía has lived in this area for her entire 40 years of life. Her husband, Mariano Verá, is the village chief. Together, they have 17 children and 23 grandchildren. Speaking little, Lucía lets her husband do most of the talking.

Verá, which means “tree that falls because of lightning” in Guaraní, thinks he is 52 years old. But he questions his age because it is common for parents in remote areas to legally register their children long after birth or, in some cases, not at all.

When Lucía does speak, she uses a language that sounds as if she is singing. She does not speak Spanish, the official language of Argentina. To communicate with the 101 people in her community, she uses the language of her ancestors, Guaraní.

The Guaraní of Santa Ana Miní preserve their ancestors’ traditional way of life and social organization. While men rule on administrative and spiritual matters, women have the power to make cultural decisions. But their traditional economy, based primarily on the sale of crafts, is suffering because of a lack of raw materials as people have developed the touristic region. Education of the village’s children is also a challenge as most community members speak only a traditional form of Guaraní, which limits interactions with the nearby town.

Before the Spanish colonization, which started during the 16th century, some 330,000 people of various groups inhabited the territory that is now Argentina. The Guaraní people formed one of the largest groups in the eastern part of the country, according to research by Argentine historian Felipe Pigna.

The Spanish conquered many of those indigenous groups inhabiting the area, while other indigenous people died in combat or from diseases they received from contact with Europeans. Some descendants of indigenous survivors intermixed with the white population over the centuries, while others now live in remote villages, like Santa Ana Miní.

There are more than 955,000 people in Argentina who consider themselves descendants of or belonging to an indigenous group, which represents more than 2 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 national census conducted by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos.


Guaraní Way of Life

The 19 families of Santa Ana Miní are part of this indigenous population.

Verá, the chief, explains in Guaraní that they do not even celebrate the holidays recognizing Argentina’s history. The only holiday they recognize on the official Argentine calendar is New Year’s Day on Jan. 1.

The community has a children’s choir that sings ancient songs that the people have passed from generation to generation. The songs serve as intercessions to Tupá, the supreme god of the Guaraní.

“We dance and sing to Tupá,” Verá says. “We ask him to make us happy, that we do not lack food or water for us, or for the plants or for the animals.”

While explaining how they ask Tupá to make them happy, Verá looks into Lucia’s eyes as if to strengthen his petition. She glances back a look of support, without saying a word.

Gender Roles

The shaman, whom everyone calls “Father,” is the village’s spiritual leader. He chooses his own successor from among the children born in the village based on the words he receives from Tupá. As young as 10 years old, the chosen boy can become shaman if the current shaman dies.

The shaman and the all-male community of elders jointly elect the village chief, who exerts authority over daily affairs. They elected Verá two years ago.

Lucía always lets her husband speak, but that does not diminish the power she has within the community. Custom dictates that she walks before him, and she decides who may visit the village.

Women, specifically the mothers of the brides, also decide whether marriages will take place. Community members usually marry between ages 15 and 17.

Verá says that women also have power over their husbands’ hair.

“The wives or mothers cut the hair of the men,” he says. “But women never cut their hair, nor do children until they are 15 years old.”


A Dwindling Economy

In Santa Ana Miní, the shaman assigns community members jobs within the local economy. He decides who will work the land – who will farm corn, cassava, sweet potatoes or black beans – and who will collect materials to make handicrafts.

The creation and sale of crafts has been traditionally one of the cornerstones of the village’s economy, Verá says.

Guaraní artisans have passed down the techniques to make distinctive works in straw, clay and wood for generations. They sell them on the roadsides or at a nearby tourist area. Misiones is a touristic province, home to the Iguazú Falls, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in the world.

“Everything we learn is from the work that those who were before us did, such as grandparents,” Verá says. “When we are small, we watch and do the same as them. In that way, we learn to make baskets, bracelets, knitting. We make little animals with wood, and we also make crafts out of clay.”

But recently, they have been suffering a shortage of raw materials in the area. Verá attributes this scarcity to changes in the ecosystem as a result of human development, such as the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam and deforestation.

The community notices the lack of “tacuara brava,” a type of reed they use to make baskets, among other things. Also scarce is the clay they used to extract from the neighboring Santa Ana stream, connected to the Paraná River.

“These days, we are working very little,” Verá says. “That clay from over there, from the river, there is no more because the river bore everything and what remained does not dry. It cannot be used for ceramics.”

They now principally depend on grants from the national government to the heads of low-income families in Argentina.


Communication and Education Challenges

Except for these commercial practices involving the sale of crafts and purchase of food, the community does not have any major contact with the neighboring communities, like Santa Ana, Verá says. Santa Ana is a town about 10 kilometers (six miles) away that has a population of about 1,100 people, mostly of Portuguese descent.

Zulma Isaac Alegre lives in Santa Ana. During a phone interview, she says that she has contact with the Guaraní only when they come to her village to buy food or when they assemble makeshift huts along the road to shelter themselves from the sun or rain or to rest during their travels between Santa Ana and Santa Ana Miní. In those stalls, they display their crafts to sell or to trade for food and beverages.

“I usually see them when they come to the town to buy things,” she says. “The majority of the people are not interested in the community, and the most direct contact is through the huts.”

The difference in language hinders communication with people outside the village and the education of children, Verá says. He intersperses a few words of Spanish into his Guaraní as he talks. But most members of the Santa Ana Miní community speak a pure form of Guaraní, which differs from the modified version spoken by those who have mixed with other communities.

“A woman once came from the town to demonstrate how pottery was made,” Verá says. “But the children did not understand much, and after, she did not come anymore.”

He says that few children attend the rural school located a mile away because they do not understand the classes, which are taught in Spanish.

Issac Alegre says the children from Santa Ana town do not play or associate with the Guaraní children because the language and the games are different. But the people of Santa Ana believe the Guaraní have no interest in communicating with them either.

“The people of Santa Ana Miní are not communicative,” Issac Alegre says. “They do not ask questions, and they respond baldly. Because of that, many people have little patience with them.”

The midday heat becomes scorching in Santa Ana Miní. Families disappear little by little as they take shelter in the shade of the huts. Lucía begins to walk ahead of her husband toward the house and leaves him to have the last words.

Verá says the government announced this year that they will send a teacher who speaks Guaraní well who can communicate with the children and can help them in their education.

“This way, we will all understand each other,” he says.



Interviews were translated from Guaraní and Spanish.