World News

Newfound Pride in Guaraní, a Language Long Disdained in Paraguay

Posted January 6, 2018 12:59 p.m. EST

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — When she was a student in Paraguay, teachers forced her to kneel on jagged granules of salt and maize for entire mornings as punishment for speaking her mother tongue, Guaraní, in the classroom.

“I had to do it in front of my friends so that they saw in black and white what happens to people who speak the language,” said Porfiria Orrego Invernizzi, now 67, and a language activist.

Other students were deprived of food and water for the day, forced to wear diapers to class as a form of humiliation or simply beaten for speaking the indigenous language. Treatment of this sort existed in Paraguayan schools throughout much of the country’s history, up until the fall of the dictator Alfredo Stroessner, whose 35-year rule ended in 1989.

“It was a question of open persecution,” said David Galeano Olivera, the head of the Lyceum of Guaraní Language and Culture, which trains teachers in the language.

Despite its widespread use — Paraguay is the only country in the Americas where the majority of the population speaks a single indigenous language — Guaraní has long been considered palatable for use on the streets and at home, but unsuitable in the spheres of power.

Yet today, officials and intellectuals in Paraguay are working to promote a positive image of the language, in an effort to make good on the 1992 constitution’s aim to put it on equal footing with Spanish.

It has been a slog. Centuries of subjugation made Guaraní a second-class language in the minds of many Paraguayans.

Spanish is the dominant language in government ministries, the courts, the news media, literature, schools and professions.

“There is a stigma, a prejudice, associated with Guaraní,” said Ladislaa Alcaraz, the government’s minister for language policy. “It is associated with poverty, rurality, ignorance, with people who are illiterate.”

An effort to make public education bilingual, however, has met resistance from a surprising group: Parents who were raised speaking Guaraní.

Many still hold negative stereotypes of their language, and have pushed back against their children being taught in Guaraní, with its high-pitched, nasal and guttural sounds. They say that an emphasis on Spanish, or a foreign language, would make their children more competitive in the job market.

“Parents say: ‘At home we speak Guaraní, so in the school they attend, I want them to learn Spanish,'” said Nancy Benítez, a curriculum official at the Education Ministry. “They say: ‘Let other people’s kids learn it. But not mine.'”

The government is hoping to change people’s perspective on the language by encouraging its use in official circles.

The Ministry of Language Policy, established in 2011, has been tasked with normalizing and promoting the use of Guaraní across the government, including in the Legislature and the courts. Judicial officials are being taught Guaraní, and Paraguayans now have the right to a trial in either Spanish or Guaraní.

The ministry in 2017 set up units in every government department — where less than 1 percent of written communication with the public is carried out in the language — to train civil servants in Guaraní. “It’s a human rights issue,” Alcaraz said. “People who use Guaraní deserve to be tended to in Guaraní.”

The effort to elevate the standing of Guaraní got a lift in 2014, when the Parliament of Mercosur, the regional trading bloc, adopted it as an official working language.

All this is the slowly unfurling result of a decision to make Paraguay officially bilingual in its post-dictatorship constitution, which gave Guaraní and Spanish legal parity. The intent was to give a historically marginalized segment of the population access to basic government services, the justice system and medical care.

Speaking only Guaraní “is a significant factor driving inequality,” said R. Andrew Nickson, an expert in Paraguayan development policy at the University of Birmingham in Britain. When it comes to having a voice on various issues, monolingual Guaraní speakers, or those who speak only a little Spanish, “fear they will be made fun of, so prefer to keep their heads down and mouths shut,” he added.

The majority of those who speak little or no Spanish live in the countryside. One-third of Paraguayans tend to use only Guaraní at home. But this figure doubles to nearly two-thirds if urban areas are excluded.

The push to improve the language’s image and expand its presence is having a noticeable effect.

Today, a growing number of babies and businesses are being given Guaraní names. Guaraní text can be seen on billboards and signs in Asunción, the capital. Its music is no longer just confined to the folk genre; artists are increasingly recording metal, rock and rap songs in Guaraní.

Online content in Guaraní is also steadily expanding. Vikipetâ, the Guaraní version of Wikipedia, gets 220,000 monthly visitors.

“We are breaking out of the enclosure,” said Susy Delgado, who won the 2017 national literature prize for her work in the language. “Not as rapidly as we would like, but we are breaking out.”

But efforts to bring Guaraní on an equal footing with Spanish are “swimming against the tide,” said Shaw N. Gynan, a linguist at Western Washington University, who has done extensive research on Guaraní.

“It is in danger,” he said. “And it’s nothing to do with state policy.”

Increasing urbanization, caused by large-scale farming that has pushed people from the countryside, is shrinking the monolingual Guaraní base.

On top of this, the bilingual education program is underfunded and has failed to reach many areas of rural Paraguay, where Guaraní speakers are still schooled in Spanish, leading many to drop out.

Part of the problem is that the Guaraní taught in schools is a formal, and somewhat anachronistic, version compared to the colloquial version spoken on the street. “There is something artificial in the Guaraní kids learn in school; it isn’t the Guaraní used on the street,” Benitez said. “It isn’t the language a referee uses in a football match. It isn’t the Guaraní that you’re going to speak with a salesman.”

There is no standardized written form of Guaraní, and there is a fierce debate about what the official version should look like.

The Guaraní Language Academy, established in 2012, is split between those who favor a purer version of the language, replacing words adopted from Spanish with old Guaraní words, and those who believe it should be the heavily Spanish-influenced version, known as Yopará, that is spoken on the street.

For at least one group of Paraguayans, knowledge of the language has become a key factor in their performance: politicians.

In the recent past, not speaking Paraguay’s native language was no barrier to those seeking to gain or stay in power. When he was dictator, Stroessner never made a single address in Guaraní (although his wife spoke the language and he rewarded rural Guaraní-speakers with land for their loyalty to his regime).

But now, voters are encouraged to check if candidates speak the language, and those who do not face mockery on social media. The most recent politician to feel the repercussions was Santiago Peña, a close ally of President Horacio Cartes.

In a result that surprised many, Peña failed to secure his party’s nomination to contest the presidential elections in 2018, losing last month in the primary of the ruling Colorado party to Mario Abdo. One of the reasons for Peña’s downfall was an elitist image painted by his opponents, aided in no small part by his inability to speak Guaraní — something Abdo did not hesitate to point out during the campaign.

Under pressure from the electorate, Peña took a crash course in the language, but it appeared to have done little to sway voters.

“It wasn’t like this before,” said Maria Gloria Pereira, a policymaker and former head of curriculum at the Ministry of Education. “Politicians feel this pressure, because they know now that those that don’t speak the language of the people are far from the people.”