Winter has been mild so far here in Paraguay, where seasons are reversed from those in the northern hemisphere. Usually, temperatures hit lows in the mid 30s to upper 40s on a regular basis; this year, we’ve seen only a few scattered weeks like this. Right now, in the dead of the Paraguayan winter, some days are hot enough to wear sandals, shorts, and a T-shirt out in the sugar-cane fields. This is not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as we have had only one night of frost this season so far, but the noticeable changes in the weather underscore a profound climatic issue.
The farmers here in the village of Guido Almada notice it; they can tell the weather is changing from year to year. Average temperatures are increasing overall. The rains come later, or earlier, or not consistently, or all at once. The pulse of the seasons, the pace by which the life of a Paraguayan campesino is set, has been gradually thrown off beat. For now, the changes seem manageable. My neighbors grumble and complain as we pick tobacco leaves or cut sugar cane, but they have so far managed to get by. Still, even the slightest changes in their crop yields can affect their ability to provide for their families in the coming year. As global climate change continues on its dismal trajectory, it is only a matter of time before the typical yearly agricultural gamble for impoverished families becomes more like a bid to stay or leave, to invest in their land or sell it, to eat or starve.
For those of us who live in developed countries, climate change might seem little more than no more “white Christmas” or slightly higher produce prices at the local food market. But for the people of the developing world, especially those who subsist directly from the land—the farmers and fishermen—their livelihoods sway with the seasons. These are people with small carbon footprints who bear little responsibility for the environmental neglect that has led our world to the precipice of climatic disaster. Regardless, they will shoulder a share of the burden that a gradually warming planet will bring.
This year, Paraguay was hit with a one-two punch of severe drought followed by intense rains, which then combined to cause massively destructive flooding in the northern and western parts of the country, displacing thousands of peasants. While this made national headlines, other climate-related damage is not as noticeable. Sometimes it is as subtle as a family forced to skip meals because the mandioc crop is failing. It may be higher instances of anemia, malnutrition, and other diseases among children. It may be a quiet depression among parents who, despite their sweat and toil and love, cannot feed their families.
On a large scale, the issues surrounding climate change, its causes and effects and its potential fallout, are continually debated by politicians and global leaders as if they were part of a campaign strategy or bid for political leverage. Science, even at its best, cannot adequately convey in humanistic terms the social impacts of rising global temperatures. To grasp this properly, ask a third-world farmer how his crops have been in the past few seasons. Ask his wife how far she must walk for water or what she does to care for her sickly child. Notice their calluses as they pray that their hands will always feel as rough as sandpaper, for the day these scars of the trade have faded is the day that the land has nothing left to give.
In this sense, and perhaps many others, the campesinos of Paraguay are proving wiser than our elected officials; they see what is happening to our planet and feel the changes in the seasons. They understand better than we the true gravity of our collective future. —Mario Machado
In Monday’s post I described some of the antics of youthful celebrants, called cambâ, at the Paraguayan festival of San Juan. The cambâ engage in a variety of activities involving fire and a sort of slapstick comedy routine. For example, before the festival, a large post about 5 meters tall is sunk into the ground, topped with an array of traditional Paraguayan food. This post is then greased with pig fat. In an intentionally comical manner, the cambâ compete to scale this post. After their humorous conquest of the post, a pair of boys draped in a cow’s hide, donning a cow skull with flaming horns, charge at the group of triumphant cambâ. The masked men then run in feigned fear, only to return moments later to taunt the fake bull.
A series of other events will then occur. A hoop made of forest vines is doused in gasoline and set on fire. The cambâ proceed to dive through this loop with varying success. Another common part of the festival is called tata pelota in Guaraní or pelota del fuego in Spanish—in English this translates to “ball of fire.” A ball is wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags, ignited, and then used in a game of soccer between the cambâ. Needless to say, all of these practices tend to be fairly dangerous, however, I should mention that the dried banana-leaf costumes are not worn everywhere and many of these events take place with the cambâ wearing masks and regular clothing only.
The last part of the festival is something that could only be described as a sort of Paraguayan drag show. The very cambâ who before were playing with fire and demonstrating their comical masculinity by taunting a bull then change their costumes into female clothing and stuff their buttocks and chests with cloth to represent exaggerated parts of the female body. What commences is a dance in which the cambâ imitate female dance moves (which takes the form of “grinding” in our modern age) with other male cambâs. Again the idea here is comedy, a sort of mockery between the sexes that is equally as irreverent to males as it is to females. The fluidity between the genders and the gender roles represented here is especially fascinating given the overt machismo typical of Latin American cultures.
In short, that is the festival of San Juan. I would hardly call it an entirely Christian tradition. The reality is that such a mixing of religious belief systems is more the norm than the exception in the world. This type of hybridization occurs almost invariably along with colonization, conquest, and cultural interaction. Perhaps it is particularly evident here in Paraguay because of the strength and prevalence of the indigenous culture, but less obvious examples can be seen almost anywhere if one has the mind or eye to look for it. From an academic perspective, it is extremely interesting; from a personal perspective, it is a really good time. There’s nothing like dancing Paraguayan polkas with my Guaraní neighbors into the wee hours of the morning. —Mario Machado
To the casual observer, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan appears to follow the typical Paraguayan paradigm for parties and holidays: loud polka music; people dancing, drinking, and playing card games; and traditional foods. On second glance, and especially as the evening gets moving, things take a surprising and curious turn. By the time young masked men can be seen jumping through flaming hoops made from forest vines, a little voice inside one’s head can be heard in the midst of the hooting and hollering: “What in the world is going on here?”
Paraguay is a predominantly Catholic country. The festival of San Juan, like many other Paraguayan holidays, is Catholic in origin. It celebrates Saint John, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples in the biblical New Testament. In this country, however, the story does not end there, as the unique cultural history of Paraguay comes into dramatic play. While Paraguay may be mostly Catholic and a part of the largely Christian Latin America, it also stands alone for its thriving and ubiquitous Guaraní Indian tradition. The reason for this strong indigenous tradition, especially while most other such religious customs in Latin America were wiped out during the conquest, is a history in and of itself. Suffice it to say that modern Paraguayan culture is a strange mix, a sort of hybrid that is neither fully Latin American nor fully indigenous. The Guaraní language is still the first language of most Paraguayans and is even more widespread than Spanish. In regards to holidays and celebrations, the situation is much the same.
From an anthropologist’s standpoint, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan represents a textbook example of how ideologies and beliefs interact when cultures clash. The nominally Catholic festival has been combined with ancient Guaraní celebrations that venerate fire and the fluidity of gender roles. In reality, the only really Catholic elements of the festival are its name and the typical mass or prayer session that occurs in the morning.
I have had the privilege of seeing this festival twice this year in different parts of the country. The main event involves characters called the cambâ, played by teenage boys dressed up in masks (traditionally of local wood, but also commonly of cloth or face paint) and wearing costumes made of dried banana leaves. While these boys perform a sort of exaggerated dance around the outside of a circle, young girls dance in the middle around a fire wielding torches of dried grass. One by one, the masked cambâ rush into the center to grab one of the girls while the girls attempt to ward them off with their flaming torches. This is, of course, incredibly dangerous given the open fire and dried banana-leaf costumes. The exact performance of this ceremony varies slightly, but the idea is usually the same: fire, masked men, and animated dancing. I’ll describe more of the festival and its gender-bending aspect in my next post. —Mario Machado
I have been working a lot recently with individual families in my community to introduce organic methods into household gardening as a means of creating sustainability, increasing production, and helping household nutrition. So far I have worked with about eight families, doing things from bed preparation to companion planting to homemade, organic insecticides and fertilizers. This week, I had my first great success story that really made me realize how small ideas can sometimes change how people think and work.
Last week, I was showing some families how to double-dig garden beds and add organic matter to the soil in the process to help with soil recuperation and nutrient availability. After working with one family, I proceeded to demonstrate how to make a homemade insecticide using garlic, onions, and leaves from a local tree called paraiso gigante. These ingredients are mixed together, steeped in water for about 2 days, and then applied to the plants. The smelly garlic and onions deter pests; the paraiso leaves have a strong odor as well as other natural insecticidal properties.
A few days later when I revisited the garden, the mother of the family proudly told me of her newest horticultural conquest: As she double-dug a new raised bed in her garden, she found if full of ants. Using leaves from the paraiso gigante tree as her organic matter, she mixed the material into the soil. The next day when she returned to plant the bed, the ants had all left and the soil was ready for planting.
As she told me this story, I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a local mother who not only learned well enough to be able to repeat the whole process on her own, but she was also willing to experiment and try new things. Such willingness is rare for people who usually have little room for error. Without much financial backing, with little capital, and often faced with the problem of providing enough food to survive, impoverished farmers often hesitate to try new things, lest they jeopardize their ability to provide for their families.
Working with farmers in this capacity means that I must be understanding and cautious and always remain cognizant of this fact. It is important to impart knowledge in a way that manages and minimizes risk and optimizes benefit. This is not always perfectly possible and there are always unknown variables, but hopefully (if this situation is any indication) the work I am doing will have a tangible impact both in the gardens and in the thought processes of my Paraguayan neighbors. —Mario Machado