They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What our books tell

What our books tell

By Edgardo Civallero
Translation by Sara Plaza

"None of the other Indians from the Río de la Plata area were more implacable in their hatred, more cruel in their revenges nor more terribly anthropophagous."

This sentence refers to Guaraní people, and was written by the Jesuit Father Guillermo Furlong in his book "Missions and their peoples of Guaraníes" (Buenos Aires: Theoria, 1962, pp. 72-75). I have kept Furlong's book in my library for a long time, as an example of total lack of understanding. It is curious to know that the texts written by this Jesuit continue to be included in many bibliographies about indigenous peoples. Do we know what is inside the pages of our books? Do we know whether the knowledge kept in them is true or false? Would we be able to orientate a user's reading through pages similar to the ones I want to show you in this post?

The Guaraní call themselves Avá, which in their language (Avá-ñe'é) simply means "mankind" (the name of their language means "the language of mankind"). The epithet "Guaraní" means, in their language, "warriors", something that they were really and truly along the many centuries of their history, which was never written by themselves but by the pens of those who visited them, who knew them, sometimes better and sometimes worse. Guaraní people belong to a bigger group, the Tupí-Guaraní, a linguistic family that covers a wide territory inside South America, from Brazil to Argentina and eastern Bolivia. The first Jesuit missions in the southern part of the continent were placed in their ancestral lands, which were turned into a true empire (following the words written by the Argentinean writer, Leopoldo Lugones during the first part of his life as intellectual). Practices that some people consider to have had a "civilizing" influence on the original dwellers, while others think of them as a good example of "acculturation", took place in those "reductions". The detailed examination of such different perspectives, in order to understand more about the missions result in many contradictory statements inside the books that we are checking.

It was in those settlements where the first printing press within the Río de la Plata viceroyalty was built, which afterwards would be moved to the city of Córdoba, from where I write now. There, in those missions, the first books of the region were printed, written in Spanish and in Guaraní. They were mostly dictionaries, vocabularies and sermons, which would have been very useful for missionaries to continue with their work of persuading people to become Christians, and keep on being of much help for all of us who want to recover the customs and linguistic characteristics of Guaraní.

There are a lot of historians, anthropologists, and linguists who describe the Guaraní language as one of the richest and sweetest of the continent.

The beauty and the poetry that impress its construction can be appreciated in the variety of Guaraní languages at present, from the Avá-ñe'é from Paraguay (official language of this country that is also spoken in the Argentinean provinces of Corrientes and Misiones), to the Aché, the Pai-Tavyterá, the Kaiwá, the Avá-Chiriwano and the Sirionó. Its melodious pronunciation and the many possibilities that are open with its vocabulary, tell us a lot about a wonderfully complex language that is still alive. It would be said by another Jesuit, the Father Ignacio Chomé:

"I should confess that I found it very estrange to discover its sheer majesty and its energy. Each word is an exact definition that explains the nature of what it intends to make understandable, and every one gives a clear and distinct idea of it. I had never imagined that, in the middle of the barbarism [sic], it was spoken a language, which, to my judgment, for its nobility and harmony, is not inferior to the ones that I had learnt in Europe. It has, on the other hand, its delicacies and likes, and it demands many years to be able to achieve it to perfection".

At the same time, the different literatures (oral and written) and the Guaraní cosmogony are highlighted by their exquisite richness, by the use of metaphors and by the possession of a very complex cosmology, both magic and religious. In addition, the universe, its origin and its development is enclosed in the language: the words have power and also a sort of spirituality, as it was signaled by Lucía Gálvez in her book "Guaraníes y Jesuítas. De la tierra sin mal al paraíso" (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana).

If we continue with the quotations from the book of Furlong, I would like to note down a long fragment, which explains by itself the prejudices that many religious men (and non-religious as well) carried with them when they came –and still come– near to the native peoples.

"During a century and a half, the missionaries were intimately connected with those Indians, and we do not have found a single offensive statement towards them among the many writings, anuas [a very complete report written annually], accounts and letters that we have had in our hands. However, a few years after the Jesuits were forced to leave the continent [1767], a man to whom some people have incorrectly given the name of 'wise', treated with some Guaraní persons, and this supposed wise came to classify Indians not among the rational beings, but among the four legged animals. After writing down a series of incongruities, Don Félix de Azara continued with his unconcerned attitude: all of these qualities seem to approach them to the quadrupeds; at the same time, they seem to have a sort of relationship with the birds on account of their sharpness and sight. The language unity among the Guaraní who occupy a large part of the country, an advantage that none of the learned nations have managed to achieve, similarly indicates that these savages have had the same teacher of language who taught dogs how to bark equally in every country.

Azara doubted, at the end of XVIII century, whether Guaraní people belonged to the human genus, incurring in a manifest philosophical aberration and showing, in passing, his complete misunderstanding of everything made by those indigenous people in the reductions.

Other 'wise' men, made of the same raw material as Azara, have pointed out the total parity between the Indian man and the European, since the former, once he had left the forest, was able to think, speak and do in the same way as the latter. Today, science has proven how childish those statements were, and more than four centuries of history firmly rejects them. The absolute abandonment of any kind of mental effort, the neglect and the idleness of countless generations, the inveterate vices through centuries, the wild environment in which they had been born and lived, and many other recurrent factors, had degraded the Indian man so much, and it was humanly impossible to promote him to the European normality all at once.

Historical reality is, on the other hand, quite eloquent. After four centuries, and despite of the worthy efforts on the part of the governments and the missionaries, the American Indian man, from the one who inhabits the surroundings of the big cities of the United States to the ones we have met and treated in the Patagonian valleys, and the ones who are in the deep narrow valleys with step sides of Jujuy, as well as those who dwell in the plains of Chaco, continue to be as much Indian as they were when Columbus first set his foot on the American lands. The fact that they get dressed in European clothes, or know how to scribble down a few letters, what some ones call to write, does not modify in substance what has been said, and the Indian man is what he was centuries ago".

Far from stopping at these "appreciations", which were similar to reasons that made famous debates to happen, such as that one of Valladolid, in the XVII century (where took part the well-known Bartolomé de Las Casas, supporting the principles on which he based the theory that Indian people were human beings as well), Furlong (who writes in the second half on the XX century, at a time when indigenous peoples were still included, in some Argentinean primary school books, in the Zoology section) keeps on putting his opinions in writing:

"None of the missionaries ever doubted, as Azara did, whether Guaraní people were true human beings; however, with relation to them, similar to what the Father Cardiel acknowledged, 'their understanding, their capacity was, and is, very restricted, like the one of a child; their spoken discourse was very weak and faulty. When we asked them a disjunctive, v. gr., where are you going, to the village of San Nicolás or to the village of San Juan?, they answered: Yes, Father; what did not allow us to find out to which of the two parts the 'yes' or the 'no' was referred, and having to make our question once more, asking for one of the parts only'. This is what the Father Cardiel wrote in the middle of the XVIII century, a century and a half after the existence of the reductions, and half a century ago, the Father Lozano had written down that they had not managed to understand yet the fact that our death was something natural that would happen to everybody; however, they persuaded themselves into believing that it was something fortuitous with external causes. They thought the same about illnesses, whose causes, in their opinion, were always external and beyond the very human nature".

The misunderstanding of the philosophical structures of the "other" (whoever he or she is; in this case, the Guaraní people), and the analysis of their linguistic patterns with the European languages logic (completely different from the logic of the native languages) as if that logic was the "only" and the "true" one, is clearly expressed in Furlong's discourse. However, do not misjudge the importance of the previous lines: it is a discourse that continues to be present and active in the Latin American society in general (and in Argentina in particular). The indigenous customs, habits, ways of life, attitudes and idiosyncrasies are fiercely criticized, forgotten and discriminated, even made fun of in a wide range of contexts, from the political to the scholar, and along the social as well. All of these perceptions "overpopulated" with preconcepts continue feeding the walls and the racist remarks written on them, and regretfully make it possible that the intercultural dialogue collapses and ends in a complete disaster.

Let's expect that our steps and our actions in the future will allow us to overcome such barriers and divides.