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Guaraní are a group of culturally related indigenous peoples of South America. They are distinguished from the related Tupi by their use of the Guaraní language. The traditional range of the Guaraní people is in what is now Paraguaymarker between the Uruguay River and lower Paraguay River, the Corrientes and Entre Ríos Provinces of Argentinamarker, southern Brazilmarker, and parts of Uruguaymarker and Boliviamarker. Although their demographic dominance of the region has been reduced by European colonisation and the commensurate rise of mestizos, there are contemporary Guaraní populations in these areas. Most notably, the Guaraní language, still widely spoken across traditional Guaraní homelands, is one of the two official languages in Paraguay, the other one being Spanish. The language was once looked down upon by the upper and middle classes, but it is now often regarded with pride and serves as a symbol of national distinctiveness. All Paraguayan children are required to learn to speak, read and write in Guaraní.


The history and meaning of the name Guaraní are subject to dispute. Prior to their encounter with Europeans, the Guaraní referred to themselves simply as Abá, meaning "men" or "people." The term Guaraní was originally applied by early Jesuit missionaries to refer to natives who had accepted conversion and were thus "civilized". Barbara Ganson writes that the name Guaraní was given by the Spanish as it means "warrior" in the Tupi-Guarani dialect spoken there. Cayua or Caingua (ka'aguygua) was used to refer to those who had refused conversion. Cayua is roughly translated as "the ones from the forest". While the term Cayua is sometimes still used to refer to settlements of indigenous peoples who have not well integrated into the dominant society, the modern usage of the name Guaraní is generally extended to include all people of native origin regardless of societal status.


The history of the Guaraní people prior to contact with European explorers is not well documented. Their early history is based entirely on oral tradition, since they did not have a written language. Since the Guaraní people were a somewhat nomadic, decentralized society, there is little in the way of a reliable historical record.

Early Guaraní villages often consisted of communal houses for ten to fifteen families. Communities were united by common interest and language, and tended to form tribal groups by dialect. It is estimated that the Guaraní numbered some 400,000 people when they were first encountered by Europeans. At that time, they were sedentary and agricultural, subsisting largely on manioc, maize, wild game, and honey.

Equally little is known about early Guaraní society and beliefs. They practiced a form of animistic pantheism, much of which has survived in the form of folklore and numerous myths. According to the Jesuit missionary Martin Dobrizhoffer, they practiced cannibalism at one point, perhaps as a funerary ritual, but later disposed of the dead in large jars placed inverted on the ground. Guaraní mythology is still widespread in rural Paraguay.

European contact

In 1511, the Spanishmarker explorer Juan de Solis was the first European to enter Río de la Platamarker, the estuary of the Paraná or Paraguay River, followed by Sebastian Cabot in 1526 . In 1537, Gonzalo de Mendoza traversed through Paraguay to about the present Brazilian frontier. On his return, he made acquaintance with the Guaraní and founded Asunción, later the capital of Paraguay.

The first governor of the Spanish territory of Guayrá initiated a policy of intermarriage between Europeans and the indigenous women, whose descendants characterize the Paraguayan nation. He also initiated the enslavement of the natives, who had no protector until the arrival of Jesuit missionaries.

The first two Jesuits, Father Barcena and Father Angulo, came to what is now the State of Paranámarker, Southern Brazil, in 1585, by land from what was to be called Boliviamarker some 240 years later. Others soon followed, and a Jesuit college was established at Asunción. In 1608, as a result of Jesuit protest against enslavement of the indigenous population, King Philip III of Spain gave authority to the Jesuits to convert and colonize the tribes of Guayrá. It should be noted that in the early period the name Paraguay was loosely used to designate all the basin of the river, including parts of what are now Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.

As usual in Spanish colonies, exploring expeditions were accompanied by Franciscan friars. Early in the history of Asunción, Father Luis de Bolanos translated the catechism into the Guarani language and preached to Guaraní people who resided in the area around the settlement. In 1588–89 St. Francis Solanus crossed the Chaco wilderness from Perumarker and stopped at Asunción, but gave no attention to the Guaraní. His recall left the field clear for the Jesuits, who assumed the double duty of "civilizing" and Christianizing the Native Americans and defending them against the cruelty of slave dealers and employers, as well as of practically all of the European population, whether lay, clerical, or official. "The larger portion of the population regarded it as a right, a privilege by virtue of conquest, that they should enslave the Indians" (Page, 470). The Jesuit provincial Torres arrived in 1607, and "immediately placed himself at the head of those who had opposed the cruelties at all times exercised over the natives" (ibid).


The centre and depot of the slave trade was the town of São Paulomarker. Originally a rendezvous place for Portuguese, Dutchmarker, and Spanish pirates, it later became a refuge for criminal of all nations, who mixed with Native American and African women and actively participated in the capturing and selling of Guaranis as slaves.

To oppose these armed and organized robbers, the tribes had only their bows and arrows, since the Spanish government prohibited the use of firearms by even "civilized" Indians. Many Native Americans were slain or enslaved by the slave-hunters active in Brazil during those years.

Jesuit missions

With royal protection, the first Guayrá mission, Loreto, was established on the Paranapané by Father Cataldino and Father Marcerata in 1610. As the mission provided the only real possible protection against enslavement, the Guaraní flocked there in such numbers that twelve more missions were created in rapid succession, containing in all 40,000 Guaranis. Stimulated by this success, Father Gonzalez and two companions journeyed to Uruguay and established two or three small missions in 1627, with good promise for the future until the local tribes killed the priests and the neophytes and burned the missions.

Slave raiders saw the Guaraní missions as "merely an opportunity of capturing more Indians than usual at a haul" and as "nest of hawks, looked at their neophytes as pigeons, ready fattening for their use" (Graham 57). In 1629, an army of Paulistas surrounded the San Antonio mission, set fire to the church and other buildings, killed those who resisted or were too young or too old to travel, and carried the rest into slavery. San Miguelmarker and Jesu Maria quickly met the same fate. Eventually, reinforcements gathered by Father Cataldino drove off the enemy. Many other missions were not as fortunate. Within two years, all but two of the establishments were destroyed, and 60,000 Christian and "civilized" converts were carried off for sale to São Paulomarker and Rio de Janeiromarker. The attacks usually took place on Sunday, when the whole mission population was gathered for Mass. The priests were usually spared, but several were killed while ministering to the wounded or pleading with the murderers.

The survival of Guayrá missions was in jeopardy; only a few thousand Indians were left of nearly 100,000 just before the Paulista invasion. Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya purchased 10,000 cattle, and was able to convert the Indians from farmers to stock raisers. Soon, work began to prosper, and under Fathers Rançoncier and Romero the Uruguay missions were re-established. However, in 1632 the old enemy, the Mamelucos, discovered a new line of attack from the south. In 1638, despite some successful resistance, all twelve of the missions beyond the Uruguay were abandoned and their people consolidated with the community of the Missions Territory. In the last raid Father Afaro was killed.

In the same year Father Montoya, after having successfully opposed the governor's and the bishop of Asunción's attempts to reduce the liberties of the Indians and the mission administration, sailed for Europe. On this trip he was successful in obtaining letters from Pope Urban VIII forbidding the enslavement of the mission Indians under the severest church penalties, and from King Philip IV of Spain, permitting Indians to carry firearms for defense and to be trained in their use by veteran soldiers who had become Jesuits.

When the next Paulista army, 800 strong, attacked the missions in 1641 they were met by a body of Christian Guaraní armed with guns on the Acaray Rivermarker. In two battles, the Paulista army suffered a defeat that warded off invasions for ten years. In 1651, the war between Spain and Portugal encouraged another Paulista attack to gain territory for Portugal. Before Spanish troops could arrive to help defend the missions, the fathers themselves led a Guaraní army against the enemy. In 1732, at the time of their greatest prosperity, the Guaraní missions were guarded by a well-drilled and well-equipped army of 7,000 Indians. On more than one occasion this mission army, accompanied by their priests, defended the Spanish colony.

Mission layout

The ruins of several of the missions still remain. They were laid out in a uniform plan. The buildings were grouped about a central square, the church and store-houses at one end, and the dwellings of the Indians, in long barracks, forming the other three sides. Each family had its own separate apartment, but one veranda and one roof served for perhaps a hundred families. The churches were of stone or fine wood, with lofty towers, elaborate sculptures and richly adorned altars, with statuary imported from Italymarker and Spain. The priests' quarters, the commissary, the stables, the armory, the workshop, and the hospital, also usually of stone, formed an inner square adjoining the church. The plaza itself was a level grass plot kept cropped by sheep. The Indian houses were sometimes of stone, but more often of adobe or cane, with home-made furniture and religious pictures, often made by the Indian themselves.

Life at the missions

Smaller missions had two priests, whereas larger missions had more. Populations varied from 2,000 to 7,000. In the morning, the rising sun was greeted by a chorus of children's hymns, followed by Mass and breakfast, after which the workers went to their tasks. "The Jesuits marshaled their neophytes to the sound of music, and in procession to the fields, with a saint borne high aloft, the community each day at sunrise took its way. Along the way at stated intervals were shrines of saints where they prayed, and sang hymns between shrines. As the procession advanced it became gradually smaller as groups of Indians dropped off to work the various fields and finally the priest and acolyte with the musicians returned alone" (Graham, 178–9). At noon each group assembled for the Angelus, after which came dinner and a siesta; work was then resumed until evening. After supper came the rosary and sleep. On rainy days they worked indoors. Frequent festivals with sham battles, fireworks, concerts, and dances prevented monotony.

Aside from the farm, each man typically had his own garden. In addition to different kinds of agriculture, stock raising, and the cultivation of maté. Jesuits introduced many European trades and arts. It was not uncommon for missions to have many different types of trades within their communities. Cotton weavers, tanneries, carpenters, tailors, hat makers, coopers, boat builders, silversmiths, musicians and makers of musical instruments, painter, and turners could sometimes be found in these communities. They also had printer to work their printing presses to print the many books, and manuscripts were produced similar to those made by the monks in European monasteries (Graham).

The goods that were produced at the missions, including the increase of the herds, were sold in Buenos Airesmarker and other markets under the supervision of the priests. The proceeds earned were divided among a common fund, the workers, and helpless dependents.

Much emphasis was placed on education, as early training was regarded as the key to future success. (Page 503) Much of the instruction was conducted in Guaraní; which was still the prevailing language of the country, but Spanish was also taught in every school. In this way, the Jesuits hoped to transform the Indians into communities of peaceful, industrious, highly-skilled Christian workers among whom idleness, crime, and poverty were alike unknown.

In 1732, there were thirty Guaraní missions with 141,252 Christian Indians. Two years later a smallpox epidemic killed approximately 30,000 of them. In 1765, a second outbreak killed approximately 12,000 more, and then spread westward through the tribes of the Chaco.

Uruguay missions saved

In 1750, a treaty between Spain and Portugal (the Treaty of Madrid) transferred to Portugal the territory of the seven missions on the Uruguay, and the Indians were ordered to be removed. However, they refused to leave, being familiar with the Portuguese as slave-hunters, and with the Spanish and Portuguese armies. Seven years of guerrilla warfare killed thousands of Indians and nearly ruined the missions (see Guarani War). The Jesuits secured a royal decree restoring the disputed mission territory to Spanish jurisdiction. Two missions in 1747 and a third in 1760 were established in the sub-tribe of the Itatines, or Tobatines, in Central Paraguay, far north of the older mission group. In one of these, San Joaquin (1747), Martin Dobrizhoffer ministered for eight years.

Jesuits expelled

In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish dominions by royal edict. Fearing the outcome of this decision, viceroy Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa entrusted the execution of the mandate in 1768 to two officers with a force of 500 troops. Despite their mission army of 14,000, the Jesuits submitted without resistance.

Decline of the missions

The missions were turned over to priests of other orders, chiefly Franciscans, but under a code of regulations drawn up by the viceroy and modeled largely on the very Jesuit system which he had condemned. Under divided authority, uncertain government support, and without the love or confidence of the Indians, the new teachers soon lost courage and the missions rapidly declined. The Indians returned by the thousands to their original forests or became vagabond outcasts in towns. According to the official census of 1801, fewer than 45,000 Indians remained; cattle, sheep, and horses had disappeared; the fields and orchards were overgrown or cut down and the splendid churches were in ruins. The long period of revolutionary struggle that followed completed the destruction. In 1814 the mission Indians numbered but 8,000, and in 1848 the few who remained were declared citizens.

However, the Guaraní people and culture persist. Nearly all the forest tribes on the borders of Paraguay are Guaraní. Many are descendants of mission exiles. In Paraguay Guaraní lineage predominates in the population and the Guaraní language is spoken in most provinces to this day.


The Guaraní language has been much cultivated, its literature covering a wide range of subjects. Many works written by the priests, and wholly or partly in the native language, were published by the mission press in Loreto. Among the most important treatises on the language are the "Tesoro de la Lengua Guaraní" (Madrid, 1639) by Father Montoya, the heroic leader of the exodus, published in Parismarker and Leipzigmarker in 1876; and the "Catecismo de la Lengua Guaraní" of Father Diego Díaz de la Guerra (Madrid, 1630).

The Guaraní were also later described, amongst many other historical documents in existence today, in 1903 by Croatianmarker explorers Mirko and Stjepan Seljan. Several English words can be traced to Guaraní roots, such as "tapioca", "toucan" and "jaguar."

Presently, the language is still the main binding characteristic of the Guaraní people. The Argentinian communities speak mainly Mbya-Guarani, as opposed to the Tupi-Guarani and Guarani-Jopara spoken in Paraguay and Brazil. However, these varieties are mutually intelligible. The Guarani villages located in the south of Brazil and in the north of Argentina are more marginalized due to European immigration following the First and Second World Wars. Many Guarani do not speak Spanish and the European immigrant population does not speak Guarani. The Mbya-Guarani still live in secluded villages and only the "cacique" and some other officials in their community learn Spanish. Recently the government of Argentina has partly financed bilingual schools in the northern province of Misionesmarker.

Paraguay is a bilingual country and most of its Spanish-speaking population also speaks a form of Guarani. The Paraguayan population learns Guarani both informally from social interaction and formally in public schools. Guarani became part of the required curriculum in public schools during the ten years since the fall of ex-President Stroessner. The native populations in Paraguay speak the traditional tupi-guarani while the majority of bilingual Paraguayans speak Guarani-jopara (jopara meaning mixed). Many words have been borrowed from Spanish but include traditional tupi-guarani prefixes and suffixes. For example "Nde rentede pa?" meaning "Do you understand?" The "entende" root is borrowed from the Spanish verb "entender" meaning "to understand." The evolution of Guarani-jopara is very similar to "Border Spanish" or "Spanglish" where the mixture of the two languages begins to develop its own rules and uses. An understanding of both Guarani and Spanish is required for full fluency.

In August 2009 Bolivia launched a Guarani-language university at Kuruyuki in the southeastern province of Chuquisaca which will bear the name of the indigenous hero Apiaguaiki Tumpa. The education minister of Bolivia said that indigenous universities “will open up not only the Western and universal world of knowledge, but the knowledge of our own identity”.

See also

Guarani poets and writers


External links

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