Paraguay — History and Culture
Paraguay is known to have a history of ‘blood and tears’, yet through it all Paraguayans remain incredibly proud people, displaying strong signs of unity throughout their culture. The Guirani language, spoken widely in Paraguay, is one of the largest spoken indigenous languages in South America. The country was one of the first to be colonized by the once flourishing Spanish Empire, and soon after it became the wealthiest nation on the continent. It then yielded great power and importance, although global political changes of the 20th century have had the effect of making Paraguay the second poorest country in South America. Also, like many other countries in the region, Paraguay succumbed to a brutal dictatorial regime, leaving many emotional scars. Nonetheless, a visit here will reveal an extremely proud nation.
Europeans first made contact with the semi-nomadic tribes that lived in what is now modern day Paraguay in 1516, and by 1537 the Spanish Empire had founded the city of Asuncion, making it one of the first modern settlements on the continent. Its position on the Paraguay River was a strategic site which remained important to the Spanish, who held control for the next 300 years. It was during this time that the evangelical Christian denomination the Jesuits came to eastern Paraguay to convert the local population. The Jesuit presence lasted for nearly 150 years until the central Spanish government banished them since they were unhappy with their practices.
Paraguay gained independence in 1811 after an established landowning middle-class desired freedom and overthrew the Spanish administration. Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia was appointed as the newborn nation’s first president. Four years later he became the country’s first dictator. He ruled from 1814 to 1840 and interestingly attempted to create a utopian society. However, as a result of his absolute power, he crushed civil freedoms and removed links with the church. During this time, he also made Paraguay isolationist, creating initial hostilities with neighboring countries that still somewhat exist to this day.
Rodriguez de Francis died in 1840, and shortly after Carlos Antonio Lopez became Paraguay’s second dictator. Then in 1862, power was transferred to his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. By 1864, Paraguay had entered war with the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. This war lasted five years and was the bloodiest the South American continent has ever seen. Paraguay lost major casualties as well as huge areas of land to the north and south. The second battle Paraguay fought was the Chaco War with Bolivia in the 1930s. On victory, Paraguay regained control over a huge area of the Gran Chaco, although no oil was discovered here.
The first half of the 20th century saw a period of political instability following strong leadership from the country’s first three dictators. Thirty-one presidents were interspersed with military coups until 1954, when the country’s final dictator, who was to rule for the next 36 years, came to power. Alfredo Stroessner became one of the most ruthless tyrants in Latin America and his brutality has left emotional scars on the modern nation. Although during his rule, Stroessner did much to modernize Paraguay and attempted to integrate it with the modern economy. Since 1989, Paraguay has struggled to maintain political stability, although democracy is positively enforced.
The indigenous Guarani culture can be remarkably heralded in the survival of the language, which is spoken by about 90 percent of the population. The country’s inhabitants are mainly mixed race, known as Mestizo, with it is virtually impossible to trace a pure indigenous bloodline in today’s Paraguayans. The country has been home to notable immigrant populations; it is estimated that five to seven percent of Paraguay’s population are of German descent, thought to be the largest percent of immigrants in any South American nation. Most significant are the German Mennonites who settled here in the 1930s and now number at over 25,000. More recently, Paraguay has garnered the interest of another distinctive religious group known as the Moonies, who controversially purchased huge tracts of land in the north of the country.
A great museum to discover more about Paraguay’s dual culture between the native people and the Spanish immigrants that arrived in the 16th century is the Mythical Museum Ramón Elías, located 12 miles south of Asuncion. It displays a carefully selection of items from a private collector and the museum’s founder. It houses many interesting artifacts of Guarani mythology, many from the Jesuit period, as well as items from more recent history, including the Chaco and Paraguayan War.
Typical Paraguayan folk music derives from two separate traditions: the polka, which is of European origin and is generally upbeat, and the guarania, which has a slower, swaying beat and was created during the 1920s. The initiator of this music was renowned Paraguayan musician Jose Asuncion Flores, who was influenced by tango music which he heard in neighboring Argentina. You can visit the Arpa Roga culture center in Asuncion to learn more about the role of the Paraguayan harp in the country’s traditional music.