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The Guarani Culture: Language, People and Yerba Mate

A region of rocky jungle crisscrossed by rivers and abundant wildlife. The region's abundant rainfall favor's the expansion of impenetrable jungle forests where wonders such as the Iguazu Falls are found. Here flourishes a vast culture that has lived in the area and protected it for centuries. 

This is the Guarani culture, an indigenous population native to Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and also parts of Bolivia and Uruguay. But by the term Guarani we are not only referring to an aboriginal population that pre-dates the conquest of America, but its extension and persistence gave rise to a movement that survives strongly even into the 21st century.

Guaraní culture is a culture shaped by its spirituality, courage, and tradition. It has continued to thrive, even after countless indigenous nations have become extinct for a variety of reasons. Its language, Guaraní, which literally translates as "warrior", is still spoken and taught in countries throughout the region. In fact, Paraguayans learn both Spanish and Guarani growing up, as Guarani is an official language throughout the country.

The language holds together the multitude of Guarani groups and tribes that have spread over thousands of kilometers in this vast territory of South America.

History and culture of a resilient people

The Guaraní people suffered from the Spanish and Portuguese invasion during the 17th century and were subjected to slavery and religious conversion, especially due to the Jesuit evangelizing missions. After the expulsion of the missions in the early 19th century, the Guaraní focused on continuing their traditions and strengthening their community.

Modern Guaraní culture continues to carry ancient traditions, some of which have been shared throughout South America. The best known of these is undoubtedly yerba mate. Mate is an infusion of loose leaves prepared with hot water in a traditional container (also called "mate"), made of gourd or wood. Yerba mate has been part of Guaraní culture for hundreds of years, and its popularity has spread throughout Argentina and Uruguay.

In addition to mate, Guaraní culture manifests itself in handicrafts. Local artisans create products from indigenous materials such as basketry and weaving, elaborate feather ornaments and wood carvings of animals can be found in various shops and fairs in the area around Misiones, Argentina.

Today, Guaraní people living in rural areas still live in simple wooden or brick houses and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. In some cases, the crops are grown for family consumption, while in others Yerba Mate, Tea and “mandioca” (Guarani term for cassava) are grown for sale.

The extended family usually lives together, often up to three generations in the same house. However, younger generations have begun to leave their homes to move to larger cities in search of work or education. Upper-class Guarani may be business owners or strong human rights activists in their communities.

The tribes have had a major cultural impact on the countries they inhabit, including northern Argentina. After re-emerging from territorial struggles and violent clashes, the Guaraní have left their mark and remain a vital part of the region's indigenous culture.

An aboriginal language with surprising endurance

If you ask the locals living along the Paraguay River, the idea of a noble indigenous heritage remains strong, and it can be expressed by most of the country's inhabitants in an indigenous language: Paraguayan Guarani. Elsewhere on the continent, European colonial languages have driven indigenous languages to extinction, but Paraguayan Guarani remains one of the main languages of most of the South American country. In neighboring countries, the situation is not much different.

And unlike other widely spoken indigenous languages (such as Quechua, Aymara, or the Mayan languages) it is mostly spoken by non-indigenous people.

Factors contributing to the preservation of the language include the geographical isolation of the area, the thick jungle and difficult terrain have helped to keep the communities intact over the years, but also the linguistic fidelity of the people who live there. The Spanish conquistadors recount in their diaries that "The indigenous people refused to learn Spanish, the imperial rulers had to learn to speak Guarani".

Eventually, the Spanish authorities gave in to this new reality and two official languages were adopted in Paraguay, the benefits of which were soon felt: Spanish was used as the official language of government, and Paraguayan Guarani is widely spoken in rural areas, where it is a key requirement for many jobs.

So much so that even in regions outside the Guarani zone of influence, terms coined by the aborigines centuries ago are still used. It is not surprising to hear terms such as the fruit "Ananá", and animals such as "Yacaré", "Jaguarete" and "Carpincho".

The Guaraní culture, fundamentally oral, needs its own language to survive: culture is language, and language is culture. And this is how the locals live it, preserving their language means taking care of their roots and traditions.

Yerba mate, the gift of the gods

It is not possible to talk about the Guarani culture without referring to the local plant whose influence reached the whole world: yerba mate. Also known as “yerba de los Jesuitas” or “yerba del Paraguay,” this species grows wild throughout the region, filling the jungle with its characteristic aroma. Its characteristic bitter taste, sticks and dust make it a specialty in its own right, and even the locals take strong favorites over the different varieties of yerba mate.

In popular culture there are three basic and widespread ways of consuming yerba mate, which go by different names:

- The most common form is mate, an infusion that is prepared in a container (also called "mate") or - if the container is of the wide-mouthed variant it is called "porongo" - into which hot water is poured, which is sucked through a bombilla.

- Tereré is like mate, but it is prepared with very cold water or citrus juice, ice, and some weeds. It is especially for hot days.

- Mate cocido is a hot infusion, which is prepared by first heating water, adding yerba mate before boiling (often previously "burnt" with sugar) and then straining it and serving it in a cup. Today, in some places, this way of preparing mate cocido has been displaced by mate cocido prepared in paper bags, similar to those of common tea.

A mixture of herbs or medicinal remedies such as mint, cedron, peperina, burrito, cocú, among others, are usually added to any of these preparations.

Yerba mate has been part of the Guaraní culture for hundreds of years, and its consumption as mate is undoubtedly the most popular form, widely spread in Argentina and Uruguay, but its influence even reaches countries as far away as Poland and Syria.

Drinking mate brings with it a whole ritual built around it, full of symbolism and inheritance in the Guaraní culture: the container or gourd used to brew it is called "caiguá". This word is the result of the union of three Guaraní words: "Caá” refers to the herb, "i", the water, and "guá", the container. In other words, "the container for the water of the yerba", while the word "mate" derives from the word "mati", which means gourd.

The Guaraní name for the bombilla is “tacuapí”, which is the common name for the plant, from which the reed or cane from which the bombilla was originally made was extracted, which at the end that was inserted into the yerba mate had a basket woven with plant fibres that served as a filter.

The kettle also has a Guaraní name: “itacuguá”. It is formed from the words "i", water, "tacú", hot and "guá", container, which is to say, "container for hot water". This container was not made of metal but a pottery pot.

Sharing mate is a typical symbol of communication on the banks of the Río de la Plata and the littoral. There is "el arte de cebar mate" (the art of brewing mate), with an infinite number of variants in each area or sector where this custom is practiced. What is certain is that cold, hot, very hot or lukewarm, mate is a profound symbol. A tradition, almost. A social custom. In the word of the locals, Mate "makes you talk if you are with someone, and makes you think when you are alone".

Origins of the mate round

In the beginning, the custodians of yerba mate were the Guaraní. They used its leaves as a drink, as an object of worship and as a bargaining chip with other peoples. "Caá" in Guaraní means not only yerba mate but also plant and forest, so its meaning is more complex: For these people, the yerba mate tree was, more than anything else, a gift from the gods.

But it was the conquistadors who took it upon themselves to spread its consumption and its virtues throughout the then Vice-royalty of the Río de la Plata. Years later, the Jesuits introduced its cultivation in the Jesuit Guarani reductions or missions. Thanks to them, yerba mate became popular.

This is how drinking mate became one of the traditions that, like few others, has remained unchanged for centuries, taking root and spreading around the world.

Mate and history

The drinking of mate is one of the customs in force in the country's region since before its independence from the Spanish Kingdom. This drink has slowly but inexorably earned its place within the national identity and the Argentine economy, from the declaration of its independence in 1816, when the representatives of the people were drinking mate in the heated discussions in the House of Tucumán, to the present day, when 200 years later yerba mate is part of the basic family basket considered by the government to measure poverty in the country.

"In front of the mate we are all equal".

In Guaraní culture, sharing the consumption of yerba mate is a horizontal social act, where members of the community forget their differences and become equal in a round where the same mate is rotated and drunk by all. This spirit of egalitarianism transcends the boundaries of the aboriginal community and is reflected in very different contexts in the history of the region.

In 1800 in this South American region there was a context of isolated comarcas, with very strong regionalisms, and mate was one of the few cross-cutting elements, like the poncho. It was an element in the construction of a common identity in the mestizo community that was forming between the racial mix of aborigines (Guarani, Quechua, Mapuche) and Europeans.

Thanks to the accounts of the outsiders who came to explore these lands, it was possible to reconstruct that mate crossed all social strata, it united and equalised: it was consumed by rich, poor, masters, slaves, natives, Spaniards, men, women, young and old. It was even shared between members of different positions such as slave and master.

The way to distinguish social classes was not by whether or not mate was consumed, but by what additions were included, both in the "recipe" and in the objects used to drink it. Thus, the aristocrats of the time made the most select infusion by adding milk, cream, cinnamon, or cloves. And they sent their mates to Potosí to be made with the silver from there. The more ostentatious, elaborate and baroque it was, the more refined it was considered to be.

Mate as a ritual drink

Yerba mate is considered a sacred tree by the Guaraní community, and its wood is sought after to make religious figures such as saints, peasants, etc. The aboriginal Cainguáes (in Guarani, "people of the forest") are famous for their diviners. The Cainguáe were the first consumers of yerba mate. In ancient times they did not process the leaves, but consumed them fresh. For their rituals, they take the yerba "canchada", sift it with a sieve, place it on a bench and burn it, while, covered with a large cloth, they inhale the smoke; in this way they begin to speak, predicting the future.

The mystique of mate is an inheritance from the Guarani people. They created a community life governed by the principle of reciprocity, following the guidelines of "giving to receive" because they believed that the richest person was not the one who accumulated the most material goods, but the one who shared material and spiritual goods with others.

For this reason, when they received the divine gift of yerba mate and incorporated it into their lives, they chose to share it, in front of the sacred fire and sharing the container among a whole round.

In the words of the locals, Cebar (the act of pouring hot water into the mate container) is not the same as serving. "Cebar" means to distribute by feeding, an action that requires a certain amount of love, affection, and dedication. Today we share mate with this same spirit, thus transcending the magical message of the Guarani people.