Colonial Paraguay (basically, what is now Eastern Paraguay) lacked productive mines, strategic seaports, or lucrative plantation agriculture. Through most of the colonial era, it languished as a backwater of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, a region of small estates with a minimal number of Spanish settlers. The Guaraní-speaking Indians of the region were drawn into colonial society principally through high rates of intermarriage and concubinage with Spanish settlers, a process that created a mestizo society within a few generations. In the resulting cultural synthesis, the dominant language remained Guaraní, whereas the rest of the dominant social institutions and culture remained Hispanic.
The few remaining Hispanic overlords were largely eliminated in the upheaval of the War of the Triple Alliance, leaving a homogeneous population of mestizo farmers. Despite far-reaching changes from the 1960s to the 1980s, Paraguay remained a country of peasants engaged in subsistence farming. The basic social dichotomy was between small farmers and a narrow stratum of elite families whose diverse resources included links to industry, commerce, government, the military, and commercial agriculture. The upper class was centered in the capital and was interlinked by ties of kinship and marriage. Many, if not most, members of the elite knew each other from childhood, having grown up in the same neighborhoods and attended the same schools.
Guaraní--which, unlike many indigenous New World languages, included a written form after the Jesuits developed an orthography in the mid-sixteenth century--remained a vital element of Paraguayan national identity. Guaraní had always been one of the principal ways Paraguayans distinguished themselves from the rest of Latin America, and the 1967 Constitution recognizes Guaraní as a national language. Guaraní theater, in which both Paraguayan works and translations of European classics were performed, was popular with all levels of society. Paraguayan songs were internationally popular; lyrics in Spanish and Guaraní were a hallmark of Paraguayan culture.
Sociolinguist Joan Rubin characterized Paraguay as ". . . a Guaraní-speaking nation with a heavy incidence of Spanish-Guaraní bilingualism in which each language tends to fulfill distinct functions." Spanish had been the official language since the sixteenth century, and in the late twentieth century it remained the language of government, education, and religion. Nevertheless, Paraguayans of all classes spoke Guaraní much of the time. Language use varied by social context, however. Guaraní was appropriate in more intimate contexts. Spanish was used in more formal situations; it implied respect toward one of higher status. In families, for example, parents might use Guaraní in speaking to one another and require that their children speak to them in Spanish. The upper echelons were distinguished by their relative fluency and ease in using Spanish. By contrast, most rural Paraguayans were monolingual Guaraní speakers until as late as the 1960s.
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