by Rebecca DiTrolio

            A nation would be nothing without its people. People are a vital element to the very essence and definition of a country. The characteristics of a country include a government, administration and laws, civil services, and a population. People groups that stay together in one place develop cultural ideas and traditions that are exclusive to their group, and that vary from country to country and ethnic group to ethnic group. Paraguay has developed its own ideas and traditions that differ from other Latin American countries. It is a growing country with exceptional people. Paraguay, a small, seemingly insignificant Latin American country, is made up of a unique people group known as the Guaraní, improving health standards, and interesting community pastimes and hand gestures.
 

            One of the first groups of people to inhabit this small country of Paraguay was the Guaraní Indians. The Guaraní people originated from a wide area of central and southern South America. They also inhabited the neighboring countries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. In following similar interests to overthrow the Incan Empire to gain its vast wealth, they joined and intermarried with the Spanish.

 

            In 1558, Jesuit missionaries arrived and attempted to convert the natives to Catholicism. In reality, the religion that resulted was a conglomeration of Catholicism and the traditional occultist faith and rituals (Guaraní). Two positive things that the Jesuits introduced to the Guaraní were agricultural skills such as farming and trades such as metalworking, textile making, artistry, and many others (Thomas).

 

            Today, many Paraguayans can claim to be descended from the original Guaraní. As much as 95% of Paraguay’s population is a mix of Spanish and Guaraní Indian known as mestizo (Paraguay). Most Guaraní live in the dry desert-like area of Paraguay known as the Chaco. There are some however, who live and work in the capital city of Asunción; some working at selling handmade crafts and other artistry for which they are known. Many different such crafts and unique forms of art have arisen from the Guaraní culture. This art includes handicrafts such as hammocks, lace, embroidery, and hand woven linen known as ahó poí that is very unique to the Guaraní people.

 

          Besides these crafts, the Guaraní have also become proficient in the art of sculpting figures of birds and animals out of palo santo and timbó wood. They also manufacture baskets and ceramics. Some traditional Guaraní food and drinks include a tea made from yerba leaves. When served hot it is known as mate; when served cold, as terere. It is also a very traditional practice to eat mandioca is with each meal. Jopará is a common meal consisting of beans and maize (Guaraní). The second official language of Paraguay stems from their name, Guaraní (Paraguay). The Guaraní people have made enormous and invaluable contributions to the Paraguayan culture. Without them, the Paraguayan people and culture would not be what they are today.

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              In any nation, public health is one of the most important issues when considering the well-being of a country. Paraguay’s history of health and healthcare is less than outstanding, but in the past 30 years, there has been a marked improvement. In the 1970s and 1980s, the government initiated an impressive campaign of vaccinations for infants against diseases such as diphtheria, pertussis (also known as whooping cough), tetanus, and measles. These efforts increased total infant medical care percentages from 51 percent to almost 75 percent, and pre-birth care from 53 percent to nearly 70 percent from 1973 to 1983. Between 1965 and 1981 surveys indicated that the amount of nurses relative to the population had doubled and that in the 1980s 60-70 percent of the population could acquire needed healthcare. Despite advances in healthcare, there have been some setbacks. In the 1980s, for example, the national healthcare budget was decreased due to an “economic downturn” (Health). Other problems Paraguay encountered were a lack of supplies available to government health services, a concentration of doctors and health professionals in the urban areas thus causing a lack in the rural areas, and a lack of cooperation and coordination between health services. Since then, the situation has improved and today, the life expectancy in Paraguay for men is about 73 years; for women it is closer to 78 years old (Paraguay).

            One of today’s leading health regulating organizations that functions in Paraguay is the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). A recent resolution passed in 1997 by the XL Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization in regards to the collection and use of core health data stated that the collected data would be used to “evaluate the health status of the population and health trends, provide empirical basis for identifying the population groups with greater health needs, stratify epidemiological risk, determine critical areas, and to examine the response of the health services to provide input for policy-making and setting priorities in this field” (Regional). This means that the collected data would serve the purpose of providing a standard for identifying a country’s status in healthcare, whether deficient or acceptable. Several other health organizations that exist in Paraguay are the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare, Social Insurance Institute, Military Health Service, and the Clinical Hospital of the National University—which is under the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare (Health). The current minister of health in Paraguay is named Dr. Gualberto Piñánez. Although Paraguay’s health and healthcare systems still have ample room for improvement, they are continuing to develop and Paraguayans will surely one day be able to boast of ample and generous healthcare coverage.

 

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               Latin American countries share many similar characteristics, customs and even problems such as healthcare. There are however, some customs and traditional pastimes that are unique to Paraguay. Often, visitors to Paraguay from other countries have one main complaint. They complain that Paraguayans have no sense of time and punctuality. Paraguayan hosts do not expect their guests to be on time, and the guests will not be (Paraguay Cultural). Even the restaurants open late and, bizarrely, many shops actually close in the middle of the afternoon; although this is less and less common in daily life (Kelly). If one considers certain factors, there is a very logical reason for the afternoon siesta and shops closing at midday. During the afternoon hours, the heat becomes unbearable and people cannot work in such heat. Therefore, traditionally, people would take a midday break and eat lunch later in the day (Siesta). This caused people to dine later as well, which meant that it was more profitable for restaurants to open later in the evening, such as at eight o’clock, rather than at the traditional six o’clock evening meal that Americans practice (Dinner). During the siesta time was when people would socialize. They drank tereré together and gossiped. Tereré is a traditional “social beverage” (Tereré). In this social ritual, a hollowed out cow’s horn called a guampa is filled with the yerba tea leaves. Then water is added to the tea leaves and the horn/cup is passed around with each person sipping through a silver straw called a bombilla. This communal cup practice is not unique only to Paraguay, but it is practiced the most in Paraguay as opposed to any of its neighbors. Paraguay also has some interesting hand gestures that are generally only used in Paraguay. For example, one stops a bus or taxi by holding two up two fingers, horizontal to the ground; or else by pointing to the ground with two fingers. Another notable gesture is that, unlike in the United States, one would never beckon to another person with a crooked finger. That would be construed as a rude gesture. One beckons using the fingers of the hand with the palm down as if calling a child. Lastly, to convey frustration or bewilderment, one pulls the tips of the fingers into a single point and shakes it pronouncedly up and down a few times. This generally communicates the idea very swiftly and effectively. Paraguayans should be proud to have these pastimes, social activities, and other idiosyncrasies that help to strengthen their singular sense of community that differentiates them from other Latin American countries. 
           
           Although a comparatively small country, Paraguay boasts unique people, rising health qualifications and requirements, and fascinating community focused activities. Paraguayans are a singular group of people that are similar in some ways to other nationalities, but in many ways are totally distinct. Home to the Guaraní Indians, Paraguay’s dominant ethnic group is mestizo due to the Guaraní intermarrying with the Spanish explorers. Since that time, Paraguayan health services were founded, then deteriorated, and are now being improved once again. Paraguayans have their own customs and culture that include interesting time schedules, community pastimes, and hand gestures. In summary, Paraguay is a unique nation with a population that is proud to be known as Paraguayan.
 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Asad, Babur. Personal Interview. May 30 2006.

 

“Country”. Wikipedia. 2006. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 6 June 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country>.

 

“Dinner”. Wikipedia. 2006. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 6 June 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinner>.

 

“Guaraní”. SIM- Serving in Mission. 2005. SIM International. 6 June 2006 <http://www.sim.org/pg.asp?pgID=58&fun=1>.

 

“Health and Welfare”. Country Studies. US Library of Congress. 6 June 2006. <http://countrystudies.us/paraguay/36.htm>.

 

Kelly, Ryan. Personal Interview. June 2 2006.

 

“Paraguay Cultural Tips”. Tools and Business Tips. 6 June 2006. <http://www.dhl-usa.com/usgov/isr/culture/1,2122,,00.html#Paraguay>.

 

“Paraguay”. The World Factbook. 2005. CIA World Factbook. 2 June 2006 <http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/pa.html>.

 

Regional Core Health Data Initiative”. Pan American Health Organization. 2005. World Health Organization. 6 June 2006. <http://www.paho.org/english/dd/ais/coredata.htm>.

 

“Siesta”. Wikipedia. 2006. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 6 June 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siesta>.

 

Thomas, J.. A History of Paraguay. Asuncion, Paraguay: 2004.

 

Thomas, J.. Personal Interview. May 30 2006.





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