The farmer who lost his wife just 2 months earlier stood before me in his tan slacks and open blue shirt. His disheveled cowboy hat was cocked back on his brow. He squinted in the sunlight as he explained that here in this quiet, windswept cemetery lay his wife, her name carved into a small cross at the head of her tomb.
He hadn’t shaved in a few days and I thought could sense sadness in his words although, if this was true, he did little else to betray his feelings. Paraguayan men don’t really cry, or at least that’s what they say. Maybe it’s the machismo—or maybe it has more to do with the nature of death as it manifests itself among Paraguayan people. In this culture, dying is a process that continues long after one’s heart stops beating.
If one visits a Paraguayan cemetery, several features stand out immediately. The rows of tombs are wide and long, more like streets than aisles. And, seemingly as a way to solidify this similarity, Paraguayans will sometimes label the rows with street names written on street signs—at least in the larger cemeteries. The tombs (called pantheones by Paraguayans) are much more than just carved headstones laid in the ground. Each tomb resembles an aboveground altar. For the poorer families, this is often little more than a small brick or wooden structure, possibly even a dirt mound, adorned with a casita (“little house” in English) at its head. In the months following a death—usually on the one-month, two-month, or three-month anniversary—the family will revisit the pantheon to decorate with colored tiles, flowers (in the case of this farmer, small flowers placed in makeshift pots made from recycled soda bottles), trinkets, or other small items.
For the wealthier families, or at least those with more to invest (financially or emotionally) in such an endeavor, the pantheon can assume great prominence. Socioeconomics, it seems, plays out even in the afterlife. Some pantheones resemble mausoleums, rivaling both in size and structural integrity the very houses in which many Paraguayans live. While most rural homes are made of mud bricks or wood slats, the cemeteries are often mistakable for communities themselves with towering concrete rooms dedicated to dead family members. The priorities between the living and the dead are skewed in a way that differs largely from other cultures I have experienced and particularly from U.S. culture. This may relate to the religious tendencies of these people, as this country is predominantly Catholic. It may also have something to do with the connections of many Paraguayan people to indigenous practices or histories.
Regardless, it reflects an amazing reverence that people in this culture hold for death—the allocation of resources (especially in a country with a large portion of the population living in poverty), the regard in which people dedicate time and energy toward post-death rituals (for months and years, even decades following), and the way that all of this falls in stride with the daily lives of most Paraguayans. The anniversary of one’s death and birth are observed during weeklong events for the first few years following his or her passing. Then, for the next several decades, smaller but still significant observances are continually held to commemorate these important dates. The dead do not die—at least not until their living memory is lost with the passing of the next few generations.
The north wind is blowing hard through the palm trees when we finish working. It is late morning and the sun is now playing kaleidoscope between the branches and through the grasses of this tropical landscape. It is going to rain tomorrow, the farmer tells me. His wife’s tomb looks only slightly better than it did an hour before—the weeds have been cleared, a fresh layer of concrete added to the exterior. He wants to add tiles to the outside; he thinks that blue would look nice. We leave the cemetery and the mood is not solemn or melancholy. There is more work to be done. The fields must be hoed, the crops harvested, the beans dried, and the garden tended. And so our day continues, only an hour later than it would have otherwise, and with my head pondering the matter-of-fact nature in which we visited death for the morning.
Guido Almada is a small community just inside the border of the department of Cordillera in central Paraguay. The nearest town of Cleto Romero, about 5 kilometers away, is accessible only by a twisting dirt road, as is the nearest city of Carayao, about 25 kilometers farther. Like much of the rest of Paraguay, Guido Almada is a farming town with almost all of its roughly 500 inhabitants practicing agriculture on a subsistence, if not commercial, scale. The main cash crops upon which most people derive their modest and often tenuous salaries are tobacco (petỹ in Guraraní, an indigenous language) and orange essence (esencia de naranja in Spanish), which must be processed in homemade distilleries. Large tracts of land are also devoted to growing sugarcane, which many farmers choose to sell to the local cane-ethanol production plant that operates out of Carayao.
For subsistence, there is nothing out of the ordinary about Guido Almada. Mandioc, the starchy root that is a Paraguayan staple, is often intercropped with field corn and sometimes beans (referred to by any one of five different names in both Guaraní and Spanish). This starchy trifecta forms a slight variation on the classic “three sisters” cropping system (beans, maize, and squash) used for centuries by indigenous tribes of North America. Regardless, the principle is more or less the same: The leguminous beans provide a valuable nitrogen source to both other crops while the heavy-feeding corn and the light-feeding squash (or mandioc in the Paraguayan case) are complementary. The soil-shading and weed-suppressing capacity of the broad squash leaves is also mimicked by the mandioc. Some families use small-scale home gardens to help supplement their diet with additional vegetables, but still, the diet is primarily and at times almost entirely carbohydrates.
Most residents of Guido Almada live at what would likely be considered a normal Paraguayan socioeconomic state. Typically, the houses are made of wood slats or mud bricks and bamboo with dirt floors. A few houses whose owners are slightly better off are made of cement brick with concrete floors. Food is cooked over open fires or, in the case of wealthier families, propane-fueled stoves. Electricity and water services are accessible to most Paraguayans at relatively inexpensive rates, however, with unreliable infrastructure, one is lucky if they are actually available half the time. Cars are almost nonexistent in Guido Almada, but most families own a motorcycle for when quick transport is needed, or an oxcart if large loads need to be moved.
The soccer field is groomed daily by herds of cattle, bringing about the great query of rural soccer games: Which is better, long grass or piles of cow droppings? Kids in Guido Almada hedge their bets on their fast feet and take the latter. I must say from experience that I would choose longer grass, but that’s just me.
The local church and school are simple structures that seem to be visited only when deemed necessary—the church only on Sundays and religious holidays (in this predominantly Catholic country) and the school only during the academic year (from mid-February through the end of November). Otherwise, people pass hot summer afternoons drinking tereré, a cold tea, and sharing town gossip. In such a small and isolated town where a majority of people are either from the same family or have lived under the same roof their entire lives, one can only imagine the thickness of the drama that plays out here under the sweltering Paraguayan sun. As for me, being the first Americano to live in Guido Almada has been all sorts of interesting. Yes, interesting; I think that’s the best word for it. More on this in my next blog.