There are certain phrases you avoid when traveling. In most of the Southern Hemisphere, you’d be remiss to refer to the residents as “natives,” a term which smacks of the pejorative. This presents a problem, because of course there are natives, people whose ancestors have inhabited the region for hundreds if not thousands of years, and who are ethnically distinct from later colonial and immigrant populations. In Asia, the common phrase for residents is “the local people.” In New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and now South America, the preferred term is indigenous people.
We were shocked upon arriving to learn that very few of Argentina’s current residents qualify as indigenous. In fact 97% of modern day Argentines claim European ancestry. So what happened to the original inhabitants? They suffered different fates. The people of the South resisted colonial rule and were subsequently exterminated in an 1879 campaign called “Conquista del Desierto.” Immigrant farmers and ranchers quickly claimed their lands. As a result, today you can find Welsh settlements in Patagonia and Ukrainians in the Southern Pampas. The people of the North fared better but faced their own unique challenges. Beginning in 1609, they became the focus of Jesuit priests from Spain, whose efforts to convert and colonize brought mixed results.
In the Northeastern region, the Jesuits established 30 missions around the Parana River, 16 of which are in modern day Argentina. They called the missions reducciones, or reductions, because it was here they sought to gather the nomadic Guarani people and settle them in permanent communities, thereby reducing their presence in the land to fixed locations. The strategy bore fruit, but not necessarily in the way the Jesuits intended.
Under the Jesuits’ direction, the Guarani built beautiful settlements centered around impressive churches. They did not however adopt the God to whom the churches were devoted but instead maintained their animistic beliefs. They lived together in sedentary harmony but became sitting ducks for Brazilian slave traders, who now could pinpoint the location of large numbers of victims rather than having to scour the forests for the occasional hunter. They enjoyed the benefit of food and shelter but often perished at the hand of European settlers to whom the Jesuits contracted them as laborers. They contributed to the growing wealth and power of the Jesuit order by producing yerba mate, the dried leaf that when chopped and mixed with hot water becomes mate, but ultimately it was this wealth and power that led to the banishment of the Jesuits by the Spanish crown and the eventual dissolution of the missions.
We learned all of this fascinating information when we visited San Ignacio Mini, the best preserved of the Parana missions, located an hour outside the city of Posadas. This was another one of my must sees, and the family was skeptical from the start. Once we entered the grounds, however, there was little doubt this was a place worth seeing. We passed through the Visitors’ Center, which opened in April and was one of the most excellent displays we’ve encountered in our 10 months of travel. The guidebooks had promised a bizarre “interpretive center” boasting black lights, flourescent fruit, and half a pirate ship, but apparently it entered the museum graveyard with the initiation of this new facility. In our brief time in the center, we saw artifacts from the site, learned about Guarani history and faith through both text and film, listened to their music both pre- and post-Jesuit, and gained insight into the development and demise of the mission.
None of this mattered when we exited the building, however, because the ruins spoke for themselves. The spirit of the place was overwhelming. Crafted of basalt and red sandstone, the crumbling walls of the living quarters seemed to echo with the voices of Guarani children. Their parents, firm believers that everything in nature possesses its own unique spirit, received permission from the earth to hew the stone blocks that formed their new homes. Line after line of dwellings separated by grassy paths led to the heart of the complex, the Italian-designed, Baroque church, expertly adorned with bas relief sculpture by Guarani craftsmen.
Though neither as detailed nor as extensive, this felt to me a supremely spiritual place, on a par with Angkor in Cambodia, Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, and the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. This feeling has nothing to do with any particular faith but rather with the energy that created the place and the conviction that sustained it. In the quiet of the morning, with nary another tourist in sight, I could picture the pathways bustling with earnest, hardworking Guarani and the black-robed Jesuits who had gathered them. I could hear the chopping of yerba mate as the breeze rustled the leaves on the trees and the tapping of chisels on stone as our feet met the tile walkways.
I wonder what might have happened here had the Jesuits been allowed to remain. Would the Guarani have stayed? Would they have prospered? Their few descendents that inhabit the region to this day express great pride in the accomplishments of their ancestors but are quick to emphasize their devotion to traditional beliefs. In my mind this place seems too fragile, too mystical to have endured. So now it stands, a hope for a future trapped in the past, a moment in time suspended in sandstone