Indigenous nationbuilding in Paraguay

“Construction of a Guaraní identity – success and contradictions in the process of indigenous nationbuilding in Paraguay”

Report from Ottar Kristian Kvaal, Master in Peace and Conflict Transformation, University of Tromsø.
Project 200300843-15

The Master project that I am working with took as its starting point the particular situation of concepts as identity, indigenousness and nationality in the Republic of Paraguay. I wanted to take a closer look on the Paraguayan identification with the Guaraní Indian, the main indigenous group of this part of South America. The concept of “Guaraní” is (ab)used in many fields of the Paraguayan society.

As a unique case in Latin America almost 90 % of the Paraguayan population speaks an indigenous language: Guaraní. Keeping this in mind, and with some influence from my supervisor, the project turned socio-linguistic and has therefore entered the field of linguistic human rights. I got convinced that it was important to focus on such “positive” examples, especially in an age where globalization seems to threaten cultural and linguistic diversity.

The survival of the Guaraní Language is due to several factors, but the language has remained in the informal domains – spoken in rural areas, at home and among friends – being Spanish the language of public administration and official situations. Not least because 40 % of Paraguayans are monolinguals in Guaraní, there were obvious reasons to believe in the existence of weak linguistic rights, where access to make claims and to the public administration was limited. It should be no surprise that such a structure will benefit someone – those with power to impose – and discriminate the majority, by Galtung described as “structural violence”.

When a 35 yearlong dictatorship ended in 1989 one of the results was a constitutional reform that declared Guaraní as co-official with Spanish. In 1994, Guaraní became compulsory at all three levels of the school system, including as a language of instruction. Most of my work has been concentrated around the results of this officialisation, mainly on the consequences on linguistic rights and an eventual improvement of more general human rights of the speakers of Guaraní. Using theories of diglossy and linguistic domains (Fishman) I expect to see perceived changes in the areas of use of Guaraní. If the constitutional text were implemented fully, it would be expected to find an increased use of Guaraní in formal areas, as education and public administration, and in written texts. Such inclusion should have beneficial effects on how the natives feel by using what in most cases is their 1st language, which in the long run might improve general human rights and living conditions.

I will also pay attention to the “power-issue” involved. The economical elites and other groups could oppose eventual changes, as these might not imply much benefit for them.

To realize my research I spent three months (June –September 2003) on a field trip in Paraguay.

It was very interesting – and necessary – to learn what the situation is really about. With assistance from the Ministry of Education and Culture, the National Bilingual Commission and other institutions, I was able to receive very much information on the topic. Most time was spent in Asunción, but I also got time to visit interior towns and rural communities, were most of the Guaraní monolinguals live.

To finance the stay in Paraguay I applied for funding from Centre for Sámi Studies. I received NOK 12.000, which allowed me to use more time in the field. It also allowed me to collect more material and literature on the research topic, which would not have been possible to encounter in Norway. I want to thank the Centre for their support.

Link to thesis – BIBSYS

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