Country Spotlight: Culture & Diversity in Paraguay
Population: 6.5 Million (2010)
Capital: Asuncion (2.0 Million Est.)
Size: 157,000 Sq. Miles (Roughly the same as California)
Neighboring Countries: Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia
Date of Independence: May 14, 1811 from Spain
Official Languages: Guarani & Spanish
Ethnicity: Mestizo (Mixed European & Native Ancestry) 95%, Other 5%
Religion: Roman Catholic 90%, Protestant 6%, other Christian 1%, Other 3%
President: Fernando Lugo
Main Industries: Manufacturing (food), agriculture (sugar, soybeans, cattle), wood & paper products
Paraguay today is an emerging South American economy with nearly 15% annual growth in 2010. However, this has not always been the case. The country has struggled through many years of economic stagnation brought on by a corrupt political system, war, and authoritarian rule for much of its independent history. Paraguay has only held fair and democratic elections in the last two decades, highlighted in 2008 with the election of a president from an opposition party for the first time in 61 years.
History: Little is known about the history of the country prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the early part of the 16th century. It can be assumed that the dominant indigenous culture, the Guarani, had been inhabiting the eastern part of the country for many centuries before their arrival by surviving on subsistence farming in small interconnected villages similar to other native cultures throughout the continent. After colonization, the Guaraní and the Spanish mixed heavily to become the large homogenous mestizo (Amerindian and European decent) population that it is today. Paraguay is unique in that the local language was preserved while the children also adopted Spanish customs.
Since independence in 1811, Paraguay has seen its fair share of dictators that have nearly driven the country into the ground through corruption and wars. The War of the Triple Alliance from 1864 to 1870 pitted Paraguay against its neighbors Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. During this time, Paraguay saw a large percentage of its male population killed with estimates putting the total death toll of the war at 60%-90% of the country’s population.
After the war, Paraguay would continue on a course of political instability characterized by infighting between the two dominant parties; the Colorados and the Liberals. Paraguay would go back and forth between the two, with several coup d’estats along the way including one in 1954 that saw General Alfredo Stroessner came to power. For 35 years, his repressive rule of the Paraguayan people stifled their civil liberties and economic opportunities.
In 1992, Paraguay elected Juan Carlos Wasmosy of the Colorado Party in what was deemed the first free and fair elections in the country in over 35 years. 16 years later in 2008, Paraguay chose Fernando Lugo, a Catholic Bishop, to stand as President. His entrance into the seat ended 61 years of a single party rule under the Colorados, and was the first time in the country’s history that the presidency was handed over peacefully to an opposing party.
Food & Culture: As a racially mixed country that is also landlocked, Paraguay has formed it’s own musical and culinary traditions. Like many agrarian areas of neighboring Brazil or Argentina, folk-country music is popular and unique. Paraguayan Polka, not to be confused with European style, is melancholic in style and often features a harp. Click here for a sample. An example of more modern music can be heard with one of the country’s most popular bands, Flou, which caters to the younger generations with rock music.
Popular cuisine in the country includes the traditional staples of corn, cassava (or yucca), yams, potatoes, beans and meat (beef, chicken). Popular dishes are sopa paragauaya (which is actually more like corn bread than soup), mbeyu (an omelet with cassava starch with cheese and beef stew), lambreado (fried cassava and beef cakes), payagua mascasa (Paraguayan style tortillas), and mazamorra (a corn drink). For more foods and drinks from Paraguay, please visit this page.
People & Language: While 95% of the 6.5 millions residents of the country largely self-declare themselves as mestizo, there are significant populations of immigrant groups in the country. In the past few decades, Brazilians have made their way to Paraguay and bringing with them their agrarian ways in the form of soybean production. They live predominantly in the eastern part of the country and number around 300,000. Other visible minorities in the country include Koreans, Chinese, Mennonites, and indigenous peoples who live in the sparsely populated western half of the country. German Mennonites began arriving in the late 1800’s in search of freedom of religion and the large tracts of land that were available to them in Paraguay’s harsh Chaco state. They agreed to populate this area in exchange for high autonomy from the government. Their success lead to larger waves of immigrants pouring in from Canada and Russia that helped repopulate the area since it was devastated during the War of the Triple Alliance several decades before.
For the majority of the country who are of Mestizo ancestry, the use of Spanish and Guarani is a daily occurrence. Paraguay is unique in that much of the population is able to speak the indigenous language even though they are not fully indigenous themselves, whereas in other Latin American countries, language has shifted to Spanish as a means of primary communication. Although the people are a mix of two cultures, speaking Guarani provides a strong connection to one aspect of the culture for many people. While Guarani predominates the indigenous language category, there are at least 10 others that have a significant number of speakers.