BACK TO LATIN AMERICA HOME

A FEW BASICS OF PARAGUAYAN CULTURE

by

DR. WALTER JAHN

BACK TO FRONT PAGE

students

When I first visited Paraguay, I made the mistake that most North Americans make: I assumed it would be like Mexico and the Caribbean. I expected Mexican food, salsa dance music, and wide sombreros. I was completely wrong (except for the hats-Paraguayans don't wear these sombreros but they do sell them in tourist stores to the North Americans who mistakenly feel that they are buying a souvenir which reflects Paraguayan culture).

hat

(click on pictures in this document to enlarge)

GUARANI

sculpturessculptures


The major native American tribe to inhabit the region now recognized as Paraguay were the Guaranis. Paraguay is unusual in that the majority of the people in the country are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and Guarani. Near the capital and other large cities, more Spanish is typically spoken (and you can find Paraguayans who only speak Spanish) while in more rural areas, more Guarani is spoken (and you can find Paraguayans who only speak Guarani). Not only can most Paraguayans speak both languages, they typically mix them as they speak. It is common for sentences to contain both Spanish and Guarani words and people often feel that they can express a certain concept better in one language or the other. Originally, Spanish was spoken by the Europeans (mostly men) who used it for business, education, and "official" business while Guarani was spoken in the home, especially between a mother and her children. Today Paraguayans will still use more Spanish when speaking about business, education, etc. and prefer Guarani when talking with friends, for jokes, cooking, and descriptions of wildlife.

The following are examples of guarani phrases:
--Mba'eixa pa? Mba'e teko? (How are you? How have you been?)
--Iporante. Ha nde? (Great. And you?)
--Mae'eixa pa nde rera? (What's your name?)
--Mba'e piko re-japo hina? (What are you doing?)
--Ja jo-hexa ta. (We'll see each other later.)
--Xe mbo'e hara. (I'm a teacher.)
--Ro hayhu. (I love you.)

Given that the guarani word for fish is "pira" and the word for devil is "ana", one can understand how the pira-ana or pirana received its name.

YERBA MATE

 

The most popular drink in Paraguay is a green tea made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. If the tea is drunk hot (often close to boiling), it is called mate and if the tea is drunk cold is called terrere. Mate is also drunk in neighboring countries (southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina) but terrere is more typical of Paraguay. To drink yerba, one adds the ground leaves are added to some sort of cup (although a cow horn called a guampa is by far the most frequently used container). Next one needs a bombilla, a metal straw with small holes at the tip so that only the fluid (and not the leaves) will pass through when you suck on it.

materials for terreredrinking terere
While you can drink terrere alone, it is far more common to drink a groups of co-workers, family members, classmates, etc. The single guampa and bombilla are shared and it travels around a circle with each person taking a turn. One person usually designates themselves to add more water prior to the next person's turn. Traditionally, the youngest girl/woman in the group would be the one to pour. Bus drivers often travel with a friend who sits with them in the front and serves terrere.


bus driver


In the hot summer, people drink terrere throughout the day while in winter, mate is most frequently drunk in the morning. Paraguayans are firm believers in the curative powers of local plants and additional plants "called yuyos" can be added to the water before pouring it into the guampa. For example, if one person had a hangover, a particular curative plant would be found, ground up, and added to the water. Women and children often walk through the streets or stand at bus stops selling a variety of yuyos to select from.
Where I worked, drinking terrere was a wonderful custom as long as you didn't have to rush back to work. Finding and preparing the appropriate yuyo could take a bit of time. There was almost never an individual who was in an extreme hurry and, while the guampa slowly made its rounds from person to person, there was plenty of time for stories, jokes, gossip, etc. While time my time at work wasn't as productive as it is in the U.S., it was much more relaxed and enjoyable.

FOOD


Paraguayans love to cook meat on the grill. Often, sausages called chorizos were cooked as appetizers while the rest of the meal cooked. The meat of wild animals is often especially valued but is becoming less and less common as animals become more endangered. Difficult economic times have limited the average consumption of meat compared to a generation ago.

grillingsopa


Other common foods include "Paraguayan soup" or "Sopa Paraguaya" (in the above right photo). It isn't really a soup but rather a dry cakelike food made from cornmeal, butter, cheese, and onions. Mandioca (yucca) is a potato-like root which is boiled and commonly eaten with meat or fried with eggs. Legend has it that during the time of Mariscal Lopez (the President during the Triple Alliance War) a soup was once prepared that was too solid but so popular that it remained a popular dish.


Chipa is a type of bread prepared with starch from mandioca, pigs fat, and anise. Chipa is a standard food which is sold at bus stops (in the bag on the man's head in the following picture).

bus stop

MUSIC


Although Paraguayans do listen to popular Latin musicians from Mexico, Columbia, the Caribbean, etc. and to popular English-speaking musicians, there are two types of music which are home-grown: the polka and the guarania. The polka is more fore dancing and the guarania is used more to express sentiments such as the love of their country. The main musical instruments are the acoustic guitar and the full-size Paraguayan harp.


ARTESANS


One of the things Paraguay is known for is the beautiful sewing crafts known as nanduti (which means "spiderweb" in guarani) which typically adorns tablecloths and wall hangings.

nandutinanduti

Dresses and shirts can also be sewn using a style known as apo'i.

apo i

SPORTS


Soccer is the major sport and is played all year round. Especially in warmer weather, most men play barefoot. Volleyball is also played all year round.

soccer

Given the heat of the summer, many Paraguayans seek out rivers and streams where they can take a dip and have a barbeque.

swimming



A girl's 15th birthday is treated as an elaborate coming-of-age.

15th birthday


In America, many daily tasks make use of washing machines, dishwashers, sewing machines, lawn-mowers, etc. Most Paraguayans perform equivalent household tasks by hand.

washing


Paraguayan cemeteries contain above-ground structures where one can display flowers, place pictures, and visit with the departed.

cemeterycemetery


Many of Paraguay's churches were constructed centuries ago and contain intricate artwork.

church artwork



Paraguayans feel a great deal of national pride and celebrate their history. The following pictures are of a parade which honors the veterans of the war fought between Paraguay and Bolivia over the Chaco.

paradeparade

MYTHOLOGICAL FIGURES OF PARAGUAY

Before the European colonization, the Guarani tribe which inhabited most of what is now Paraguay believed in a variety of deities and supernatural figures.

TUPA was the supreme deity, depicted today as a masculine sky god. It is said that the relative ease with which the Jesuits converted the Guaranis to Christianity was influenced by the similarity between Tupa and the biblical depiction of Yahweh.

TAU and KERANA were the two human-like figures whose offspring include many of the following mythological figures.

tau and kerana

YACY YATERE (Pronounced "Yacee Yateray") was depicted as a golden-haired child who could punish those who walked outside in the hot mid-afternoon sun with the symptoms which we associate with sun exposure. He was depicted as being fond of siestas, plants, and bees. Many mothers still warn their children (usually, but not always, with the same degree of belief that modern parents use when speaking of Santa Claus) that going out in the hot sun will bring punishment by Yacy Yatere.

yacy yatere and pompero

POMPERO is depicted as a short, troll-like figure. Although he is considered capable of doing some mild harm, most people think of him as being fond of playing practical jokes. In the countryside, one can still find spots where locals will leave a shot of whiskey and a bit of tobacco out for Pompero to take. Many Paraguayans that I have met, particularly older ones, will vehemently defend the belief that Pompero exists.

AO-AO
The mythological figures of native Paraguayans include a fierce creature known as the Ao-Ao. Although this seems a bit odd given that Ao-Ao is the guarani word for sloth and modern sloths are anything but fierce, it is quite possible that this legend has its origin in the hunting experiences of the early native South Americans which encountered the much larger relatives of the modern sloth. At least some of the animals known from the fossil record of South America survived until early human groups arrived, including the giant sloths. Although related to the slow moving tree sloths of modern Latin America, these elephant-sized creatures lived on the ground and could defend themselves with large claws. Below is a Paraguayan representation of the mythological Ao-Ao.

ao aoao ao and mboi yagua
MBOI YAGUA was a cross between snake and dog.

LUISON was a cross between human and wolf who could come out at night. It is not that uncommon to find someone who tells the story of how they were frightened one night when they actually saw a Luison. The decomposition of corpses was often attributed to Luison's gnawing on them.

CURUPI (Pronounced "Koo Roo Pee") was seen as a protector of the jungle, animals, and a spirit of fertility. He is often depicted with a penis which is long enough to wrap around his waist several times.

MBOI TUI is depicted as being a cross between a snake and parrot who protects aquatic environments and flowers.

MONAI was a protector of birds.

TEYU YAGUA was a lizard with a dog's head who liked holes and protected fruits.

KAAGUAY PORA (literally the "forest ghost") protects the forest.

KAA-IARY protects yerba and medicinal plants.

Although Paraguay is predominantly Christian, belief in magic persists. The Paraguayan belief in magic or PAYE (pronounced Pajay) is reminiscent of the voodoo-like beliefs (called Makumba) which persists in other countries, although arguably it is a milder set of beliefs. There are still those who claim to practice PAYE. You could contract their services to cast a spell onto someone you don't like or to remove the bad spirit/luck which surrounds your house. Fewer and fewer modern Paraguayans ascribe to these beliefs.