By June Carolyn Erlick
DRCLAS receptions are bustling affairs, sparkling with ample liquor, Latin American tidbits and compelling conversations. It was at one of these receptions that Jorge Silvetti and Graciela Silvestri first approached me casually regarding an issue about the Guarani.
Reception over, I tried to conjure up everything I knew about the subject. Not much. In ReVista’s Fall 2011 issue on Bolivia, Marcia Mandepora, the rector of the UNIBOL-Guarani “Apiaguaiki Tüpa” in Machareti, had written an informative article about the university’s endeavors to explore indigenous linguistic and cultural perspectives.
Even before then, in 2000 Nieman Fellow Benjamín Fernández, a Paraguayan journalist, and Nieman Affiliate Lizza Bogado, a well-known Paraguayan singer, taught me how much Guarani culture permeated their country. Nearly everyone was bilingual, and Lizza sang in both Spanish and Guarani.
I began to imagine the ReVista issue as one on indigenous rights, culture and bilingualism.
Then Silvestri, a professor of architecture at the Universidad Nacional La Plata in Argentina, gave her Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor Lecture on the Guarani. It wasn’t what I expected. The talk looked at the Guarani territory that she defined “in more than one sense as aquatic.” “The omnipresence of water in the region challenges our usual ways of thinking of the world, both culturally and technically,” she observed. Here was a vision that both incorporated culture and embodied it in physical space.
I began to understand why two professors of architecture had suggested this theme and was eager to embark on the project.
Jorge Silvetti, a native Argentine, had long intrigued me as an architect’s version of a Renaissance man. The Harvard Graduate School of Design hosts studios all over the world, and his have ranged from sports urban culture in Buenos Aires to the museum of Maya archaeology in Copan, Honduras, to touristic development in the Istrian Peninsula, Puntizela, Croatia.
I couldn’t think of two better guides.
So off we went, exploring many aspects of the Guarani. As the issue evolved, I watched it morph into the theme of Guarani territory—a space, a place, an identity that comes together from a long and complicated crossborder history and emerges into a future challenged by issues such as natural resources, the building of hydroelectric dams and deforestation.
Someone asked me if there was enough to say about Guarani territory for an entire magazine. Actually, there’s too much. We ended up focusing on the territory spanning Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. There’s so much more to say about indigenous culture and indigenous rights—and, indeed, we hope to do an issue of ReVista on the subject.
As I wrapped up the issue, I began where I started, with Marcia Mandepora’s essay.
“Oil and gas—as well as ranching, logging and industrialized fishing—have all affected indigenous communities in negative ways,” she writes. “Nonetheless, as well sites and pipelines dot and crisscross the region, indigenous organizations have taken a stance of engagement rather than opposition….(T)he question is how to transform how these activities take place in indigenous territories.”
Territories. That’s her word too. And I invite you to explore the theme with us and to keep the conversation going.