Along Yvyrupa’s Paths

Beyond Borders

By Maria Inês Ladeira

My little sisters, my parents, it is true that all things here in the world are really difficult for us. Our word, every time it comes out of our mouths, it is Nhanderu eté (our true father) that releases it. Let him see that we talk, that we are happy. (…) From distant places, through the real walk, that is how you arrived to our village. We, as human beings in this land, we face many obstacles in order to keep in touch with other villages. However, through this walk that happened under the guidance of Nhanderu, because only he can open up our ways, it was possible for us to meet here on this land” 

(Shaman from Fortin Mborore, 1997). 

I started living with the Guarani in September 1978, after the inhabitants of a small village on the outskirts of São Paulo built a modest wooden room as their own school and had asked the government for an instructor to teach them to read and write in Portuguese. 

I lived with the chief’s (cacique) family. Often, at dusk, he sat in front of his house and welcomed recently arrived visitors. Conversation quickly followed and, depending on the subject, there was mate or tobacco. Throughout the two years dedicated to teaching this community, although I did not master the Guarani language, I learned to recognize those people that came from distant villages, bringing seeds, medicinal plants and other goods offered as gifts to relatives in addition to news. Sometimes they spent long periods of time in the village to sell handicrafts in town and participate in rituals. Gradually, I was able to understand the close ties between the villages located on the Brazilian southeast coast and the countryside of Paraná state, with which this community had close ties, and learned who their shamans and caciques were.

In the following years, I started working towards the recognition of indigenous territorial rights at the Center for Indigenist Work (Centro de Trabalho Indigenista, CTI), and I had the opportunity to visit Guarani villages in other regions of South America. I came to understand that the spatial configuration of their villages relates to the social thread in a continuous composition. Old and new relationships interact, integrating the past and projecting the future of the village's territorial basis. The comings and goings of generations result in constant communication, allowing for the renewal of experiences and updating memories, while continuing to exchange knowledge, rituals, and growing and breeding practices.

Throughout the centuries, the Guarani territory has been formed by an intense and extensive network of relationships crisscrossing national borders, political boundaries and administrative divisions. The Guarani population at the time Europeans arrived is estimated to have been two million; it is currently 250, 000 (including Bolivia).

During the 16th and the 17th centuries, chroniclers identified as part of the “Guarani nation” groups sharing the same language found from the Atlantic coast to the Andean slopes, inland: communities were named after rivers, streams, or after characteristics based on physiography and/or political leadership models. Linguistic, social and cultural variations found among these groups were sometimes indicated, in time and space, through the use of various ethnonyms.

Despite current Brazilian classifications—Mbya, Nhandéva, Kaiowa—and their correlates from different countries, new arrangements among subgroups were promoted by the advent of colonization, the operation of Jesuit missions and indigenist politics, but, above all, by the Guarani social dynamic itself.

Currently occupied Guarani lands are discontinuous and small in size, interspersed with farms, roads and cities with little or no native forest. For this very reason, these remaining forests are crucial to maintain the balance of the Guarani way of living. Given the shortage of fertile land in the slopes, in order to practice their ancient cultivation techniques, the families living in the Atlantic coast need seeds and other traditional produce grown by those living on the hinterland plains. Likewise, families living in regions deforested by agribusiness benefit from native species found in wooded villages.

The Guarani conceive their traditional territory as the base that sustains their villages, which, in turn, support the world. The process of expropriation of their traditional territory takes on a multiplicity of meanings about the nature of borders, as experienced by Guarani families dispersed all over their extent territory.

Guarani families living in Guaíra on the border between Brazil and Paraguay are a case in point of such a loss: after having their ancient lands plundered by agricultural and animal husbandry exploitation or mostly destroyed by the flooding caused by Itaipú’s construction, they live, at present under critical conditions, without even having  recognized citizenship. Close to the Atlantic Ocean, and very distant from the border area, conflicts caused by land expropriation and struggles for the recognition of historical Guarani rights also proliferated. The most frequent strategy employed in depriving the Guarani from their lands is to label them as foreigners, no matter which side of the national borders they live on.

Even if constantly living under restricted situations, the Guarani people as a collective precept claim to have no borders. Their domain over a vast territory has been asserted by the fact that their social and reciprocal relations are not exclusively bound to villages located in the same region. They take place within the framework of the “world,” in which linkages between distant and close villages define this people’s spatiality.

The Guarani still claim the amplitude of their territory, even if they do not hold exclusive rights over it. This territorial space where their history and experiences have been consolidated is called Yvyrupa (yvy=land; rupa=support), which, in a simplified translation, means terrestrial platform, where the world comes into being. According to the Guarani, the act of occupying Yvyvay (imperfect land) follows the mythical precept related to the origin of their humanity, when ancestors from distant times were divided into families over the terrestrial surface (yvyrupa) in order to populate and reproduce Nhanderu tenonde’s (our first father) creation.

In the course of my work, I was able to observe some aspects of Guarani’s spatial mobility. I knew that contact among people, even when they are set apart by national borders, happens in their own ways, including by crossing rivers, using different means of transport or  walking. The CTI stimulated many exchanges of seed and plants, but I hold a special memory of the first trip I made.  My aim was to observe how the Guarani living on the Brazilian coast, at the tip of the world (yvy apy), and their counterparts in Argentina and Paraguay would talk about the world. I assumed I would hear theoretical statements about their multifaceted territory’s current conditions, declarations that would extrapolate the political discourse produced by the young leadership.

On the morning of January 1997, a group formed by spiritual leaders and elders from seven villages headed west with their luggage filled with memories of different times and places. The journey began in Barragem village, São Paulo, which was coincidentally, the first village I had ever visited. Five villages were visited in Argentina and five more in Paraguay. The first one was Fortin Mborore, where we arrived late at night, after the inevitable problems on the borders. The farewell took place 18 days later, at the ruins of Trinidad.

In each village, the inhabitants, standing in line and following protocol, would greet us: porã eté aguyjevete! The visitors were welcomed with the sound of flutes, maracas and rabecas, or celebrations in the Opy (the ritual house). After this, hosts and visitors' speeches alternated. Speeches about the journey’s significance and critical comments on the gravity of the landholding situation stood out.

These speeches deserve to be analyzed carefully in their entirety, but that would go beyond the scope of this article. I transcribe only part of the texts that depict common principles, recognized in rhetoric as the origin of ceremonial words re-elaborated according to current local circumstances and according to the idea of a land with no state borders. In these greetings, mentions to the relevance of the walk (guata porã) oriented by deities and following mythical precepts stand out. During highly emotional moments, leaders would refer to the task of achieving yvy marãey (the eternal land, where all deities live).

• I don’t know how to reach the word of the old ones to greet you. Admittedly human, I can not  reach a word that comes from Nhanderu. We are already grownups, for this reason we already know what is good and what is bad. We are already old, for this reason we know how to thank him, the one who created humanity, we, the Nhandéva, men and women (…). For this reason, you also came to this land and you will see beautiful things that our ancient grandfathers have left to us, (…) it was him who gave courage to you so that we could communicate with each other, play and speak. And may this strength pass to our children, granddaughters and grandsons. I don’t have many words, but your presence makes me happy.

• I am speaking, me, for being human, I also have difficulties to reach wisdom. Despite this, no matter where we are, we are all equal, we speak the same language and we know how to see. (…)

• This is the reason why we are making efforts to have only one thought, everywhere, always with the same strength. We all want to have health, the same joy, the strength you have, we want to have it. Because we are relatives, brothers, the blood that flows in us is the same.

• I came to see my relatives. I was at Iguaçu village when they arrived and I came along with them. I saw many beautiful things (…) we remembered our relatives and together we worked to follow the same words in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil (…). Because, we  caciques will assemble and, as for today, we will have no borders. We, the Guarani, will go to any village.

• No matter where we walk or where we go, it were Nhanderu Kuéry (our divine fathers) that have put it on this world, the place where we step. (…) and this has happened because of Nhanderu, only he can free the way.

• I also want to say a few words. It is true, many things are difficult. Not all roads are free for us. There are many evils that can hit us. (…) But with the help of Nhanderu, you made this journey and this is good for us and for you too.  So, it is Tupã’s son that protects us. (…) it is Nhanderu’s will that this event goes forward, that it happens again.

• Everyone that came will not easily be forgotten. I will keep to the rest of my life the place where our grandparents stepped, planted and tried cross to Nhandery retã (Nhanderu’s place, yvy marãey,  the land of eternity). We believe in Nhanderu so that he further enlightens our thoughts, so that we follow the same path as our old grandparents.

• We saw the place where the old ones managed to cross to yvy marãey. They are the ones who were left and I saw the elders’ efforts to cross the world. (…) the grandparents that did not succeed, walked down by the sea so that they could cross it from there (…) for this reason, we have to look at the ocean (…) everyone that lives today has the same destiny and those who strive will succeed.

• I am very happy because my relatives came here to our village. Today, you are already going back to your villages. You, that are my grandmothers and grandparents are already grown (…) When you arrive to your village we want you to remember us and to tell to your grandchildren about us. I did not believe when you arrived.  But what is important is that I saw my grandmother, now, your hair is already white, because your mother and father gave much advice to you and you followed it. (…) And you have already seen me as I am. So, now that you are leaving, I am left with this sadness in my heart. But what can I do? (…) I told myself: I no longer have my grandmother, the grandmother I had is already dead, but I saw that I have another one, and that you are already a grown-up. So, now you know, my grandmother, that I come from a village called Pastoreo. (…) I am a leader and I am really happy. You will go back to your village and you are taking a part of me with you.

In engaging with Guarani paths, it becomes noticeable that while Mercosur establishes commercial rules, it does not take into account intensive and widespread flows of interchange that have been happening for centuries among hundreds of villages that, together, make up the same territory. Nonetheless, the bonds and flows among the Guarani people have not been interrupted. Despite all problems related to the recognition of their land rights and citizenship, and other bureaucratic formalities, the Guarani people continue on their timeless paths.

Maria Inês Ladeira is a member of the Center for Indigenist Work (Centro de Trabalho Indigenista, CTI) Coordinating Office. She holds a Ph.D. in Human Geography from the University of São Paulo and a Master's Degree in Social Anthropology from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.