Not long into my first year in service, big news hit my community. A group of indigenous had moved in close by, and some of the kids would be attending my school. While I was kind of excited at the prospect of the opportunity to learn more about indigenous culture, others were not so happy about it. It was a hot source of gossip, and I began to realize that there was a negative attitude towards indigenous communities. People told me not to put my wildlife camera trap near their community because it was sure to be stolen. When I talked with a professor at the school, he said that the indigenous don’t want to farm, even though it’s “necessary.” He mentioned that some of them have a hard time finding jobs because the Guarani they speak is a little different from what is most common. Now, remember, I live in what used to be the Altantic Forest. Only about seven percent of the forest is left, and that’s what used to provide the livelihood of the indigenous population. So, yes, maybe it is helpful for indigenous populations to grow their own food nowadays, but only because their way of life has essentially been destroyed by agriculture and immigrants.
“The Guaraní speakers of Eastern Paraguay were scattered throughout the (formerly) remote regions to the northeast, along the country’s border with Brazil. Although much land occupied by Indians had been legally owned by large estates, the tribes traditionally had been able to practice slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting and gathering largely undisturbed. Members of some tribes occasionally worked as wage laborers on the immense yerba maté plantations, whereas others had no peaceful relations with the larger society. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the tribes’ customary ways of life were eroded by the IBR-sponsored settlements, the influx of Brazilian migrants, the purchase and more efficient operation of many estates by multinational firms, and the initiation of large-scale hydroelectric projects. As a result of increasing intrusions into traditional Indian lands, almost all Indians in Eastern Paraguay were involved in wage labor to some degree by the late 1970s.” (http://countrystudies.us/paraguay/34.htm)
I remember walking by the newly formed community when they were living in black tarp tents. Now, houses of wood, mud, and thatch have been built in a forested area. The way that the community was built makes the road appear to be a dividing line, with tin and brick on one side, mud and thatch on the other. Two separate communities, one route of transportation.
Last year there was an indigenous student in my preschool class. The teacher told me that the kids treated him differently, that they wouldn’t share their things with him like they did with others. Another teacher says that he can’t practice Paraguayan dancing with his students because the girls don’t want to dance with the indigenous boy in his class. They don’t even want to sit near him. So even at a young age, these values are present, presumably coming from parents.
The other day I had a conversation with a friend who scrunched up her nose as though she smelled something bad when she talked about the indigenous community right on the other side of her road. I couldn’t help it. I asked her why she disapproved so much. She said that they have a lot of kids and don’t care for them well, that they sometimes come by to ask for clothing. She also claimed that they marry their own cousins. She compared them to animals, an opinion shown to be present amongst non-indigenous people. It is strange for me to live somewhere that looks down on indigenous culture. Many people probably don’t think of South America that way (https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/04/south-americas-silent-apartheid/#).
I never thought I’d encounter racism here. I didn’t expect there to be prejudice in a country where the indigenous language is still spoken by 95 percent of the population. If I had done my research beforehand, I would have known. It’s been an interesting experience discovering it for myself through observation and conversation.
Honestly, it makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. I grew up learning about the atrocities that were brought upon North American native society, but I’m not sure that is being taught here. I’ve learned about the history of racism in the United States and am now encountering it in person. It’s interesting to me that there can be such a negative attitude toward indigenous people when they are being negatively affected by other countries, because other Paraguayans acknowledge this hurt as well. In my community, for example, families claim that drifting chemicals from soy plantations are killing their chickens. Human diseases have been blamed on soy production. If anything, I would think that the two communities could join forces somehow.
I’m not sure it’s my place to make barriers disappear. All I can say is that I hope that, over time, the road is crossed more often and with more feelings of unity. We all know the whole world needs it.