Patagonia: No Welsh Shangri-La

Ian Johnson says Patagonia is poorly understood.

One hundred and fifty years after the arrival of the Mimosa on the shores of the Golfo Nuevo, Jasmine Donahaye is quite right to problematise the Welsh vision of their relationship with Patagonia and, by extension, the role of Wales as colonised nation and colonisers, and our own history and self-image.

However, she achieves this in such a curmudgeonly manner that it is almost impossible to resist further discussion and debate

The Welsh gaze on Patagonia is indeed highly one-dimensional, concentrating on the linguistic and cultural links with Wales. Media presentation here in Wales focuses almost exclusively on these images and the supposed exoticism of the gaucho, moving without irony from stereotypes of the Welsh with chapels, choirs and cake to stereotypes of tough, weather-beaten men on the paith.

In the context of Welsh linguistic and cultural survival here in Wales, the lack of neutrality is unsurprising, and it takes the hardest of Welsh hearts not to crack a smile at seeing Welsh imagery and hearing the language spoken so many thousands of miles from ‘home’.

But such a presentation is seen through our own eyes, our political, cultural and linguistic struggles, and so, for a subject which occupies so much of the Welsh imagination, Patagonia is remarkably poorly understood.

In our mind’s eye in Wales, we view Patagonia as a little Wales, linguistically and culturally decontextualized from its own political and cultural background.

The modern day Patagonia is no Welsh Shangri-La.

Of the million or so emigrants from Wales in the late nineteenth century, just a few thousand made their way to Y Wladfa, founding a series of small towns where a previous colonial attempt had been unsuccessful, supported by the Argentine state, and eventually enveloped by it.

Patagonia is a multicultural society whose residents identify with an Argentinian civic identity, holding multiple individual and family ethnic identities, reflecting immigration to the region. Spanish, the fourth most spoken language worldwide, and the language of the state, is the dominant language in all domains.

Around a quarter of a million people now live in the cities, towns and villages along the River Chubut, at Puerto Madryn on the Golfo Nuevo, or high up in the Andes. Near the Atlantic, the regional centre, Trelew, with a population a little over 100,000 people, is the largest city, while nearby Gaiman is the most visibly Welsh, populated by tea-houses and Welsh-named hotels and shops. In the Andes to the west, Esquel and Trevelin perform similar roles, with the lush and green landscape of Cwm Hyfryd, where Trevelin sits, evoking images of Wales.

Perhaps twenty thousand people have some claim to Welsh ancestry, although only a few thousand, at the very most, have any level of fluency in Welsh. Most of those who have followed Welsh classes in school achieve a level comparable with modern foreign language status in Wales, although more intensive classes produce greater fluency.

Small in number, the Welsh maintain a strong status and position within Chubut society. In part this is through the continuation of the settler myth, strongly promoted through Argentine devolution and the hundredth anniversary of the Mimosa arrival in 1965, and the high culture provided by the Eisteddfod.

The 1965 centenary undoubtedly regenerated links between Wales and Patagonia. The continuation of those links to the present day provides a way out for those from Patagonia from a society which has faced many difficult economic and political challenges in recent decades (whether dictatorship or bankruptcy), a source of external income and political prestige. Just as our media love trips to Patagonia, tourism delegations from Patagonia to Wales last year included separate visits and entourages from the Chubut provincial governor and Mayor of Trelew searching for kudos from the celebrations, ahead of this October’s elections.

In a devolved Argentina, the need for a separate Chubut provincial identity has driven the promotion of Welshness – a unique tourist offer of Welsh tea and protestant church architecture. Immigrants from Europe, but not the immigrants that you’ve heard of, and a compulsory history taught to children in schools across the province.

The Eisteddfod provides an alternative high culture focus for the area – celebrating local authors in both Spanish and Welsh, as well as music and choirs, anchoring Welsh culture within the cultured middle classes, and a constant flow of resources from Wales, in one form or another, help support the language and culture.

The choice to speak Welsh or not, or to promote Welsh identifying cultural practices, remains one for individuals and the community locally – whatever support we wish to provide from Wales.  Welsh culture, embedded within local communities and formalized, would survive in Patagonia on its own terms, but, for better or worse, Welsh language use may fall without continued support from Wales.

Of course, with an annual provincial bank holiday celebrating the arrival of the Mimosa, the arrival celebrations – and the cultural importance of Welsh tea – are already strongly embedded across the Chubut Province.

The indigenous population play their own role in the anniversary, with historically inaccurate celebrations in Puerto Madryn showing how they extended the hand of friendship to the newly arrived Welsh colonists, playing their own power games within local society.

Separated not by our common language but our failure to contextualize New and Old Worlds, the Patagonia 150 celebrations mean different things in different places.

The celebration in Wales is largely of the unique survival of the Welsh language and culture in an exotic outpost far from home.

In Patagonia, the celebration is of the successful settlement of the territory and how the Welsh made the otherwise barren area fertile and possible to inhabit through the irrigation of the fields surrounding the River Chubut.

We should, of course, problematise both of these myths, but let’s also enjoy them appropriately. Patagonia might not be a Welsh Shangri-La, but, for the Welsh gaze, it is unique.

Dr Ian Johnson wrote his PhD thesis on ‘Subjective Ethnolinguistic Vitality: Attitudes towards Welsh language, culture and identity in the Chubut Province, Argentina’

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