Sunday, July 5, 2009

I’m a blonde!

After five weeks in Paraguay and one quick lesson this morning on the history of Paraguay, I am going to try and summarize Paraguayan culture from my perspective, experiences and education in this blog. I believe many of the Paraugayan people’s customs, attitudes and beliefs today are a direct reflection of their past and the decision’s their leaders have made over the last several centuries.
Since independence the country has been run by a succession of dictators. The major players include Dr. Francia, Lopez, Solano Lopez and the infamous Stroessner. Dr. Francia began a pattern perpetuated by the rest of the dictators in which he simultaneously supported the poor to remain popular and repressed the elite and middle class. He fed and clothed the poor and provided them with all their basic physical needs. The poor were satisfied with their leader. Yet, he neglected to provide them anything beyond basic needs. Leader after leader saw it necessary to continually repress a middle class and education to remain in power. However, a lack of a middle class and an educated populace in this country for centuries repressed development of any sophisticated culture in Paraguay. The middle class in most cultures are responsible for culture creation and Paraguay lacked this key component during its crucial development as an independent nation. Dr. Francia stunted the progressive potential of the country to keep himself in power and many of the leaders after him followed his example.
Furthermore, Paraguay has experienced two tragic wars in its recent history that has greatly affected the current atmosphere of today’s culture. Solano Lopez led his country into a war that almost erased Paraguay off the map. In the mid 19th century, Solano Lopez foolishly started the War of the Triple Alliance and put Paraguay into a five year siege against the aligned militaries of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Paraguay lost a lot of land, hundreds of thousands of men died, and Paraguay was occupied by the Brazilian and Argentinean governments after the war. After the war, the country was left with less than 30,000 men and 110,000 women. This left a large space for immigrants to begin to populate the countryside, which the government began selling off in large parcels to foreigners as a way to begin generating income again. Paraguay’s economy was stunted during the war but had no hopes of starting after the war because its entire labor supply, young men, was killed off. Paraguay would have to wait another generation to repopulate its labor source once again and regenerate a suffering economy. Therefore, at this time immigrants were seen as very valuable because they were the only ones producing an economy, they were brining their wealth from the outside. This belief is still held today and foreigners are thought to be wealthy and in general Paraguayans are fascinated by them.
I mentioned the Chaco War in a previous blog so I won’t go into too much detail. But, it is often written up in the history books as a draw between Paraguay and Bolivia, a military victory for Paraguay but a political loss. Paraguay once again lost a significant proportion of their men in this war- 41,000- and lost confidence in the ruling Liberal party which set in motion the long reign of the Colorado Party which only ended last year when Lugo historically became the first Liberal in almost 80 years to become president.
Although Paraguay lost these two wars, they are generally extremely patriotic about them and emphatic about their war heroes. Maybe this sentimentality is necessary to keep the country united in the face of such tragedy and shame of loss or maybe it is due to the Paraguayan’s miserable education system and the fact that most Paraguayans do not really know their history. Paraguayan kids only go to school four hours a day and the system is mostly a wrote-memorization style where teachers write something on the board and students copy it down in their notebooks, memorize it and write it back for exams.
When I asked my family about the wars for my homework assignment they all said they used to know details about the war in school but couldn’t remember anymore. Everyone was taught the information at one time but the system doesn’t really allow students to ingest the material. My host brother and uncles all offered their own tidbits about the Triple Alliance War. Raul said Brazil won the war, half true. I was pretty proud of him since it’s a common myth that Paraguay won the war. And then I felt bad for poor, shy Raul when the rest of the family started to tease and taunt him for saying Brazil won the war when obviously Paraguay won. “Oh Raul is such an idiot.” Poor Raul. Its also a common myth that Solano Lopez and his wife collected gold pesos from the populace to support the war but as they retreated from the allied forces they began to bury the gold in the ground and gold is still buried throughout Paraguay. My host mom mentioned this myth as fact once again. Apparently, if you see a tree on fire and a dog with no head at night that means gold is buried below that spot. So everyone grab your shovels!
This brings me to the Stronatto- the reign of Paraguay’s modern dictator Stroessner- the second longest dictatorship in the world and the longest dictatorship in the Western hemisphere. Stoessner’s legacy sounds somewhat similar to other dictators of the 20th century. He had a secret police of spies, party membership controlled all state jobs, propaganda was rampant, people were disappeared at random if they spoke against the government or stood out in any way, he tortured, he supported a constant state of emergency, people were afraid to be out after dark, he created favors, favoritism, paternalism, underdevelopment, fear, patron-client relations, vertical loyalties instead of citizenship. There was a myth that all resources were a gift from the beneficent father figure Stroessner such as schools, roads, hospitals, electricity etc… Every new school/hospital had to be inaugurated by Stroessner before it could be used to perpetuate this myth. In fact, one language teacher at my school tells a story about standing in the rain at her new school as a young child waiting for Stroessner to come inaugurate her school. He was very late and instead of coming in and performing the whole ceremony he just drove by the school in his fancy car and that was his “gift”.
So what does this all mean for Paraguayans now? It means that history separates people, people don’t trust each other and are afraid of each other; they only trust their families. People do not work together, people do not know how to work together and have never thought to work together to solve a problem. There is no merit system. People always got somewhere based on who you knew, who you are, or your political party. How hard you work is not a virtue and is not always valued. People don’t expect their government to work for them. The government always covered their very basic needs, usually, and they don’t expect more when they should. People don’t feel they deserve better. They have a very fatalistic attitude. They have a lack of inclination to challenge information and to question. People look outside for solutions and not in themselves. They don’t think, “how can I fix this?” Individuality, creativity and ability are stifled. The education system definitely perpetuates this last point.
Individuality is not valued. If anyone looks at all different it will be pointed out and in a country where everyone has similar hair, eye and skin color a slight difference will be recognized and somewhat negatively. In Paraguay I am a blonde. This was quite a shock to me. I have brown hair, it says so on my driver’s license. Well, my lighter shade of brown hair and the lack of true blondes in this country has labeled me as a “rubia” in Paraguay. But this new label doesn’t feel endearing. It sets me apart in country where blending in is valued and standing out is uncomfortable.
Furthermore, individuality in personal character is not explicitly valued. Because critical thinking is not present in this culture, this means self exploration is also absent. For example, a volunteer came to one of our training sessions and had simulated an activity she conducted in her high school and elementary level classes in her site. It was called “My Personal Flag”. The idea was to draw a flag with symbols that represented you as an individual. The volunteer drew her flag as an example for the students. She explicitly told them it was an example and not to copy. Her flag had green stripes because she loved the environment, a globe because she loved to travel, a heart, and two flags because she had duel citizenship. And sure enough when I looked through the stack of the kids’ personal flags most of them had stripes, a heart, a globe because they love to travel (even though most of them have never even been outside their own towns) and a Paraguayan flag, they almost all looked the same. Kids just don’t know how to be creative even when they are told to, they were never taught how. They were taught to copy what their teacher did and give it back to them, that is all they know. Although I saw a few flags that were very unique and very creative. So, that is where a volunteer can draw inspiration. Progress!
What about popular culture? TV, music, dance, art are all very simple. Paraguayans have not yet had enough time without the umbrella of dictatorship to begin to explore the possibilities of a more sophisticated culture as a middle class begins to take shape. At night I sit around the sit with my family and watch many dubbed Disney channel shows and man, woman and child all laugh their asses off at the benign humor. My conclusion from this “phenomenon” is that this culture has not had time to develop a sophisticated sense of humor. My friend Lyn and I were guessing that to have a heightened sense of humor you must be educated and without it adults will find the same things humorous that children do. The constant commenting on who is fat and who is not and how you get fat, who is getting fat, who got skinny is another facet of a simple side of culture. This is what they will continue to find entertaining.
So what does this mean for me as a Peace Corps volunteer? It means I must show how democracy is a beneficial system and how the average citizen can use it to their advantage. Right now a common thought is that democracy is messy and nothing gets done, for example no roads have been built since Stroessner, and Stressner provided a lot more to the people. The fact is people do not know how to run a meeting or work in groups. People do not know they can go to their local municipality and talk to the local mayor or authorities and request funds for a project or ask for help. They do not understand that the government is supposed to work for them. They can form local commissions and petition their local government but often these commissions fall apart because they don’t know the rules or don’t know how to work as a united group. Also, it is my job to teach Paraguayans to challenge the status quo, to not take things for granted, to question. This might seem like such a common concept to us but it has been ingrained in us since we were children. This is a democratic and American quality. It must be taught, it is not inherent. Paraguay is a forgotten corner of the world but in the last two decades has been making great strides to become more exposed. It was easy for the rest of the world to forget about Paraguay: it didn’t have a coastline, its dictators closed it off to the world and was mostly self sustaining, and it didn’t offer any valuable resources to the rest of the world. But as Paraguay has more opportunity to be exposed to the modern global culture and is importing more common global products it is changing and expecting more. So in a country where I am a blonde and a headless dog means buried treasure I guess anything is possible.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jenna AKA Blondie ;)
    I think you should know how much I enjoy your have a gift.
    Love the car shopping experience, crazy perspectives they have of Americans, and the history lessons.
    Dustin and I just returned from a cruise to Ensenada. It was my very first cruise and I must say that we will be cruising again in the near future. The food, entertainment, crew, excursions, and people make it highly enjoyable. Dustin planned the cruise for my 35th birthday and our 5th anniversary. It feels good to be in my mid-30s. Our family is off to Big Bear on Sunday for 3 nights. We hope to get in lots of bike riding, alpine sliding, smores, games, hiking, and fishing.
    Thinking of you...