With limited resources, Guarani students paper a village school's adobe walls with writing in Guarani and Spanish.
With limited resources, Guarani students paper a village school's adobe walls with writing in Guarani and Spanish.

Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 12 (Spring 2005): Cultural Rights: Section 1: Language Rights And Guarani Renaissance In Bolivia

Apr 22, 2005

In much of Latin America the idea that Indian languages are fit for any modern purpose is seen as absurd, even subversive. The 60,000 Bolivian Guarani, like most other indigenous peoples throughout Latin America, have been fighting this prejudice as part of a wider struggle for political equality. In Bolivia, state reforms defined by “interculturalism” hold some promise for indigenous peoples. However, the quest for robust cultural rights is ongoing, and the history of native languages is particularly illustrative of that quest in Latin America.

The Guarani language flourished for several thousand years across South America and survived five hundred years of violent colonialism. With speakers in Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, Guarani is still one of the largest indigenous language groups in South America. However, the language and its speakers find themselves increasingly displaced today. As Guarani land bases are reduced and communities are fragmented by migration and poverty, Guarani language has given way to Spanish, mirroring in some ways the fate of the people themselves.

In Bolivia, elites long shared the Western idea that the path to modern nationhood required the unification of one people occupying one territory and speaking one language. With the expansion of public schooling after 1955, the country pursued this monolithic vision for fifty years, seeking to eradicate native languages and to impose Spanish in their stead. Reinforcing racist ideas about “Indian-ness,” the effort stigmatized native language use and promoted cultural assimilation. Most Guarani remember their two or three years of schooling as a time of violence, fear, and silence. Today a bilingual teacher recalls trembling at the sight of white teachers. An elder recalls that “speaking out, especially in Guarani, would bring the stick.” The imposition of Spanish was thus not just about the acquisition of a national language as a useful instrument, but about the negation of the indigenous right to exist as culturally distinct peoples.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Guarani speakers began to question this national policy and to consider the option of bilingualism. Such an option would use both indigenous languages and Spanish in the public schools, and would incorporate indigenous cultures and histories in curricular models—resulting in both a better education and native language survival. Bolivia and the Guarani are not alone in this matter. From Mexico to southern Chile, indigenous demands for political participation and territorial control are accompanied by demands for bilingual education as a distinctly cultural right.

Guarani school children line up to sing Bolivian national anthem at rural village school. Photo by Bret Gustafson Bilingual education is based on an empirically demonstrable fact: Children learn better if taught in their first language, and these learning skills can be transferred to master second or third languages more effectively. For educators (and for multi-lingual people around the world) the notion is common-sensical, not to mention that rights to language are guaranteed in a number of international covenants.

One would be hard-pressed to identify any subversive motives in the quest for bilingual schooling. The vast majority of indigenous people agree that learning Spanish, Bolivia’s national language, is important and that the state has the obligation to educate its citizens, among whom they count themselves. Yet Guarani calls for language rights do entail a recognition that their survival as a people depends upon their control over both material (territorial) and symbolic (language, history, etc.) resources. As one Guarani leader expressed it, having accommodated themselves to foreign invaders over the past 500 years, they do not now want “to be treated as foreigners in their own lands.”

According to a Guarani elder speaking at a Guarani language congress in Bolivia in 1997,

No longer will we be ashamed to speak our language in the streets of the white man’s town. No longer will we be beaten for speaking our language in the schools. We will speak out loudly, [saying] that we are Guarani.

Guarani thus claim the right to native language schooling not just to reproduce their distinct identity, but to engage in a pluralistic society as equals. This entails recognizing that languages are social practices through which people give meanings to their social membership in a particular group, and through which they create meaningful relations between distinct groups.

In Guarani, words such as yemboe encapsulate this view of language as a capacity to act as a social being. Yemboe means “to make oneself be made to speak.” Yemboe comes from the root [-e], “to speak,” combined with the prefix [–mbo–] (to make someone do something) and [ye–] (to have that action come back onto the subject). It refers to everyday practices such as adults coaxing small children to speak to others, giving them lines to say, often to comic effect. Children are taught to speak as social beings, not merely to possess language as an abstract thing. In the spiritual realm, Guarani traditionally “make themselves speak” through singing and dancing aimed at transcending earthly mortality. On the hunt, Guarani “make themselves speak” in formal dialogues in the forest, exchanging words of respect and a bit of tobacco with tutelary spirits who release game to hunters. Curers use songs that they are “made to speak” by spirits, who are the source of knowledge. These words heal the sick, shape the weather, prepare one for love or conflict, and so on. Guarani value those who are skilled at using these powers of language —those whose words demonstrate mastery of Guarani knowledge (arakuaa). As another leader argued at the language congress, “those who have no power to speak can only create bitterness.”

During Spanish colonialism and Bolivian nation-building, missionaries charged with schooling the so-called “savages” seized on the power of language. New meanings were imposed for words like yemboe that sought to cause a break with the past. Yemboe was appropriated first to refer to catechism, and later extended to refer to Spanish school learning of all kinds. For missionaries, and eventually for Guarani themselves, yemboe came to refer to a process through which Guarani personhood was to be erased, catechized, made literate, and “made to speak” Spanish—the only language seen fit for fully human beings. This rupture is reflected today, as Guarani distinguish two words that were once closely linked: arakuaa (Guarani knowledge) and yemboe (school-learning, like the whites). The more one experiences the latter, the less one retains the former.

This manipulation of yemboe illustrates two dimensions of language: as a practice of becoming an effective member of a social group, and/or as a practice through which one gives meaning to one’s relation to other groups. To recognize a group’s right to language requires not simply to recognize their right to have their language, but to have tolerance for people who act and speak differently within a culturally plural society. This means transforming powerful metaphors of “nation” and “modernity” that view languages such as Guarani (and their speakers) as somehow inferior.

A robust notion of language as a cultural right guarantees a social environment in which all people can act, speak, and create as equal members of a society. But for such equality to exist, these rights must be guaranteed where the negotiation of social norms takes place, such as in public schools. In the Latin American context, indigenous peoples seek these opportunities for intercultural dialogue and exchange both with and within the nation-state—in its markets, schools, political institutions, etc.—not as distinct ethnic enclaves.

With constitutional changes and the launch of a sweeping national education reform in 1994, Bolivia’s government recognized native languages as valid instruments of schooling. “Bilingual intercultural” education, at least in official law, promises significant change, even redefining Bolivia itself as a “pluri-ethnic” and multilingual nation. However, detractors of bilingual education continue to voice the racism of those who oppose cultural rights more broadly. There are also technical challenges to such profound educational change in the form of preparing new textbooks in indigenous languages, restructuring school administration, retraining teachers, transitioning to a more intercultural curriculum—all requiring money, administrative capabilities, and skilled personnel. In other words, full implementation of these reforms is by no means guaranteed.

Nevertheless, bolstered by multicultural reforms, indigenous movements are already transforming the state from within. The Guarani are taking back the meaning of their language while working to change public understandings as well. In events staged for both Guarani and Spanish-speaking Bolivians, the Guarani make claims for legitimacy as citizens with distinct histories and ways of speaking, yet citizens nonetheless. At a 1998 event commemorating the Guarani struggle, the leader Valerio Mena signaled this renaissance of a new kind of yemboe (school learning), reconnecting the word to the Guarani word arakuaa (knowledge), in effect beginning to repair the ruptures produced by schooling in the past:

Our ancestors did not read and write, but they had arakuaa, they defended this land so that we could live…We will not forget these histories. Now that we have our own teachers and our own yemboe we will pass this new knowledge on to the young. This is arakuaa that we have been given; let us place these words into our very being.

* The ideas expressed are the author’s and do not purport to represent official Guarani positions.

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