Thursday, November 3, 2011

Growing Pains

In many ways, Paraguay is the baby in a world of nations.  Yes, many of our towns have celebrated 400 year anniversaries (and usually that just marks when the Europeans started paying attention).  Yes, people often call our capital the mother city of South America, as the founders of many of great cities stopped in Asunción before establishing, for example, Buenos Aires.  And yes, Paraguay officially turned 200 this past May.  Nevertheless, merely 22 years back, Paraguay experienced a rebirth. 

The dictator Stroessner ranks in as the 14th longest serving non-royal state leader in history.  Coming from a country where presidents stick around for eight measly years, I find it difficult to wrap my brain around the idea that one person could act as the face of a nation for 35 years.  (Of course, Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy don’t even top the list of longest serving US senators, at 47 and 46 years respectively.  However, I hardly believe that most Americans considered these guys for even a moment when making daily decisions.)

In 1989 Paraguay initiated a move from closed society where very little from the rest of the world penetrated these borders, to a place where international trends could potentially take hold.  With time, cable television and the world wide web steeped in to take the country that sustained itself- intellectually and agriculturally- for decades, and introduce it to the rest of the world.

The transition from absolute power into democracy hardly ever goes smoothly.  When all a generation has ever known focuses on pleasing a tyrant, change does not come easy.  Beyond updating laws and recognizing human rights on a state level, personally people need learn how to live freely.  Dealing with choice does not always come naturally.  And through these awkward, finding oneself years, Paraguay struggles through comprises and contradictions arise.

Parents post photos to Facebook of their children performing traditional dances from smart phones.  Some areas surge forward with the speed of neighboring industrialized countries, others lag behind.  We live in a town with 3G internet coverage, but no standardized running water system.  A woman’s gaze or the way she crosses her legs may may invite something entirely unintentional.  Yet, since no one bothered to investigate the lyrics, second graders can whip up a dance routine to Lady Gaga singing about someone’s “disco stick” without any concern.

Halloween has become a point of contention.  Our town, which prides itself as one of the most Catholic places in an already very Catholic country, does not celebrate.  November 1st and 2nd mark special days in the local religious calendar and dressing up for October 31st indicates a partnership with the devil.  Despite this, elsewhere in Paraguay, stores stock up on fake spiderwebs and the second annual zombie walk recently marched through the capital.

On the other hand, you can dress up as Batman for the first day of spring.  Also known as “Youth Day,” our town hosts a week of celebrations including a children’s parade, some sort of princess contest, and countless asados.  Paraguay makes a big deal out of this particular change in season and an even bigger deal out of extolling the country’s youth.  Nearly every person in our medium sized town took part in the party.  Neither one of us had any idea the significance of the day before hand.  Other volunteers reported a wide variety in levels of observance in their own sites.

Accordingly, we navigate Paraguay in tandem with the rest of the population.  Our confusion takes a backseat as this nation finds itself.  I doubt we’ll figure it all out in just two short years.  Neither will Paraguay.  All the same, next year I will have my Godzilla costume ready a month early.


  1. I think we are living in such an interesting time here in Paraguay. Big things are happening... poco a poco... but they are. There are crazy divides though, as you mentioned. Asuncion is getting a World Trade Center (crazy good!)...some National highways aren't paved roads (not so good..)

  2. I fully agree, Manuel. Poco a poco, but can you imagine what it must be like for folks who left to work in Spain 5-6 years ago and are just now returning?