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Guarani of Paraguay: Language, Culture & Food

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the Guarani, a native group from Paraguay and the surrounding areas. Explore some relevant aspects of their culture, as well as their language. Also, study the basics of their traditional gastronomy.

The Guarani People

Many times in history, an indigenous culture has encountered a more technologically-advanced group that has imposed its culture on them. The Guarani people suffered through the process of colonization and mixed with other groups. Their population dropped dramatically, but parts of their culture still survive, and their language is spoken by almost an entire country.

The Guarani is an indigenous group from South America. They are mostly located in Paraguay, but also inhabit areas of Southern Brazil, Northern Argentina, and Eastern Bolivia in areas of mixed grasslands and woodlands. Many modern Paraguayans are descendants of the intermingling of the Spanish and Guarani. They keep alive aspects of the traditional Guarani culture, but it's hard to determine the exact number of the Guarani population.

Guarani People inside a Traditional House
Guarani People

Language

Guarani is the traditional language and although the indigenous population was reduced due to colonization, the Guarani language continues to be widely spoken all over Paraguay and in neighboring areas. Guarani is the official language of Paraguay, along with Spanish, and schools have begun to teach in Spanish and Guarani. Some have an official Spanish name and also a private Guarani name.

Places where Guarani is Spoken
Places where Guarani is Spoken

The Guarani didn't have a writing system. Jesuits missionaries introduced the Latin alphabet and tried to standardize their grammar. There are 21 consonants and 12 different vowels. Differentiation in nasal and oral sounds form different words and meanings. All words end with a vowel. There are three levels of language; the secular, the sacred and the secret. The secular level is commonly spoken by all the population. The sacred is spoken by some male and female elders, and the secret language is reserved for the religious leaders.

Culture

Most of the culture has changed since Spanish colonization, as conquerors and missionaries tried to impose European ways. In modern times, a significant part of the Guarani people has assumed a western lifestyle, while a smaller part still keeps a traditional way of life. Many aspects of their culture still survive and provide us with insight into the rich history of this group.

Family

The extended family is the traditional social structure. The young men undergo a rite of passage to become adults in which the lower lip is pierced and they are taught proper behavior.

The Guarani, in the past, were usually grouped in clans of more than fifty families, but modern groups are smaller. The women are commonly in charge of administering the resources, and trading items with other clans. They were once semi-nomadic and would move to a new place once the soil becomes exhausted. However, this custom is now rare today.

Religion

The Guarani are a very spiritual people and most communities have a religious leader, or shaman, who is also an important social figure. The Guarani believe in a creator, several deities, and evil creatures and that all living things have protective spirits. Most festivities and celebrations include religious ceremonies, like the blessing of the corn, and rituals to keep the balance of the Earth and the cosmos.

Yasi Yatere, a Character of the Guarani Mythology
Yasi Yatere

Arts

Traditional forms of art consist mostly of crafts for daily use. The practice of basket weaving out of palm fibers is still commonly used. Fish traps in the form of baskets are also produced. Pottery is still created among the more traditional groups, using clay, which is hand-modeled. Pieces are functional, with almost no ornamentation. The Guarani don't have major textile crafts since they didn't wear clothes before colonization. Over the years, most have adopted western attire consisting of shirts, pants for men, and skirts for women, but some of them still paint their bodies.

Ancient Guarani Pottery
Guarani Pottery

Music

Music is an important part of Guarani spirituality. Singing and dancing are strongly linked to their ceremonial practices, often led by the spiritual leader of the community. Traditional wind and percussion instruments made out of wood are commonly used. Also, the Jesuits introduced European instruments, like guitars and violins, which were adopted by some Guarani groups.

Food

The Guarani have been very respectful of the land, only hunting and taking what they need. They learned to grow crops and use animal bones and feces to fertilize the soil.

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