Last year, IBLAS student Emyr Humphreys undertook a fascinating fieldwork project for his Year Abroad dissertation. A .pdf of the dissertation will soon be available on Emyr’s own blog, but in the meantime you can enjoy his account of the project and the beautiful photos of the region here. Thanks, Emyr, for sharing this with us.
The Welsh community in the province of Chubut, Argentina is getting ready to celebrate. July 27 2015 will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Y Wladfa, the attempt to establish an autonomous Welsh-speaking community in the wilds of northern Patagonia. Here, adventurous Welsh migrants could pursue their cultural, linguistic and religious practices away from the confines of their homeland, felt to be under threat by the presence of the English in the socio-economic climate brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Today, fundraising events, regular Welsh cultural activities and even local and provincial eisteddfods (traditional competitions in literature, music and performance which act as cultural celebrations) all play their part in promoting Welsh and raising the funds necessary to carry out the celebrations and to properly commemorate the settlers who since landing in 1865 would play an essential role in Welsh and Argentine history. I arrived at the beginning of October last year with a vague itinerary and the plan to conduct field research to give me an idea of the presence of Welsh culture in Chubut today. I planned on gathering this qualitative data through conducting observation in various towns of everyday things such as monuments, signs and buildings and through conducting informal interviews, eventually concluding my field trip with the 2012 Chubut Eisteddfod, taking place in Trelew on the 27th of November.
My first stop, after an 18-hour bus journey from the capital, was the beach resort town of Puerto Madryn…
Despite the gorgeously sunny weather, it was currently off-season and the gentle breeze that blew in from the sea carried a bitter chill with it. Its wide streets, sedate almost to the point of desolation, felt like a shock to the system following the towering neoclassical buildings and frenzied streets of Buenos Aires. After consulting the Tourist Information office, I was told to follow the coastal road toward the chalky white cliffs of Punta Cuevos, where I was to find the Museo Del Desembarco (Museum of the Landing). Here, nestled between the beautiful marine expanse of the Atlantic and the desert I found a monument bearing the names of all 153 initial settlers, and the caves which they all bore into the soft clayish rock where they resided until more permanent shelter was built. Today the site is regarded as a national monument and to me was an unexpectedly poignant and humbling site.
Inside the museum, a wealth of primary sources and information about the difficult first years of the Welsh settlers greeted me. I met my first Welsh-speaking Argentine, an amiable elderly lady who was one of the co-managers of the museum. Her accent consisted of the north-Welsh dialect mixed with Spanish inflections, and chatting to her about all sorts of topics including the area, the local Welsh-speakers and descendants of the colonists was a joy and made for the perfect end to the first leg of my trip. Despite the strong commemorative motif, Welsh culture in Puerto Madryn is hardly the main feature of the town. As the 20th century progressed with the gradual decrease in Welsh presence, nature tourism soon became the town’s major attraction, with daily whale-watching excursions taking place nearby, as well as opportunities to see penguins and elephant seals along the impressive coastline. Hundreds of travellers pass through town, which acts as a convenient stopover for those travelling by long-distance bus between Ushuaia and Buenos Aires, yet only a handful know about the legacy left behind by the Welsh. According to the museum managers, the town with the strongest Welsh presence in the area was Gaϊman, where I planned to visit on my way back from the west, which was my next stop.
I left the dusty eastern coastland and headed westward across the arid scrub toward Esquel, about 700 miles to the west and very near the Chilean border. In 1865, 20 years after landing and subsequently settling along the Río Chubut, it was decided that a company of Welshmen were to join a group of pioneers mostly consisting of Argentine soldiers to found a new settlement in Argentina’s name. Despite it being the mission statement of the founding settlers to establish a politically autonomous Welsh community in Patagonia, this was primarily a venture that worked in favour of the Argentine government, as settling the area here in their name would nullify Chilean claims to Patagonian land, of which it had been contesting since the late 18th century and would go on to contest up until 1970s. On the 16th of October 1885, they found the perfect spot, hidden away between two steep foothills and seemingly within walking distance of the Andes which stood resolute in the distance. The change from Puerto Madryn was staggering. All around there was an alpine-like freshness to the air, with snow-capped mountains always in view from its expansive, peaceful streets. No wonder the area was christened Cwm Hyfryd (Lovely Valley) by the settlers. Here, I met the town’s local Welsh teacher, who was on a two-year contract with the British and Welsh councils living, teaching and establishing a presence in the community. I came along to a Welsh lesson, where I got to speak to the local attendees. The participants were various – not only were there descendants of Welsh families, but also people who had no connection whatsoever with the settlers but were interested in learning the language and culture. These lessons were an opportunity to give those who were interested in the Welsh culture a chance to enjoy and find out about its role in local history. Despite the strongest Welsh presence I had encountered yet, in a town of around 23,000 inhabitants, there was barely any evidence of it outside of the nucleus of the classroom in the centre. Here, like Puerto Madryn there were more important matters than preserving the Welsh language. The citizens of Esquel were locked in a legal battle with international mines, whose ownership of gigantic tracts of land was stifling development in the area, and whose excess produce was poisoning the local river, creating health problems. Everywhere I went, I saw banners and graffiti proclaiming No A La Mina (no to the mine) scrawled on bare surfaces of walls.
In winter, skiers and snowboarders would use Esquel as a base for visiting the nearby ski resort of La Hoya, and looking at all the ski-themed signs dotted around town, and the cabin-like architecture of some guesthouses it was apparent that this was one of its primary sources of income, after which it has been catered for. To see visible everyday presence of Welsh culture, I was told, I should visit Trevelin.
20 miles and a rickety bus ride later, I arrived in Trevelin and booked into the only hostel in town, a shared living space on a hilltop overlooking the town, overshadowed by the frosty spine of the Andes. I decided to visit one of the famous Welsh-themed tea shops, whose numerous signs were proudly adorned with the Welsh flag. Here, waitresses clad in aprons served up tea to a soundtrack of male choirs. All around hung pictures of settlers and descendants of years past, and my guide, head of the local Welsh society whom I had met earlier that day, pointed out the name of every single one, and which descendant today pertained to whom. I was later invited to a Welsh film screening that the society was putting on. Feeling this to be a perfect opportunity for some cultural observation, I went along to take notes. Somewhat unsurprisingly, most of the attendees were of an older generation, practically everybody chatting in Spanish. More surprisingly, and a little disappointingly, I noted that everybody needed the Spanish subtitles that were provided. It was a lovely evening however, where I got to practise both my basic Spanish and rusty Welsh with interested locals, and got a good idea of how tight-knit the welsh community was. Trevelin was by far the strangest leg of the field trip, yet also the most fun as I got to talk to the members of the community en masse. I hurried back to the east to commence the final leg.
Using Puerto Madryn as a springboard, I briefly visited Gaϊman before heading to Trelew for the province’s eisteddfod. Similar to Trevelin, I saw numerous examples of Welsh culture on display here such as the Welsh flag more teahouses, a traditional Welsh guesthouse and even Ysgol Meithryn Y Gaiman, a welsh-medium nursery school founded in 1993. I managed to catch a glimpse of the Río Chubut, the river along which the pioneers settled and so depended on during the difficult first years of the settlement. I got the impression that Gaϊman was like the designated Welsh part of the area, where tourists and visitors alike could go and experience a mirror of the Welsh culture as the bigger urban centres expanded and largely ignored its presence. This was most apparent in the case of Trelew. Today the biggest town in the province of Chubut, its recent history takes precedent over its Welsh colonial past. Home of the infamous Trelew Massacre of 1972, the killing of 16 young Peronist and leftist runaways from nearby Rawson’s high security prison by naval staff during the dark years of the military junta is still engraved in the collective memory of the town. My visit to the area coincided with the arrest of two naval officers who were originally responsible for the massacre that same month. The downtrodden, almost oppressive air to the town might have been informed by its unjust past, and walking through the streets of brutalist architecture in varying stages of decay I saw no sign of Welsh presence in the town until the front door of the auditorium where the eisteddfod was taking place. The ceremony, lovingly organized to mirror that of its counterparts from home, shared practically every detail with Welsh ceremonies, except that most of the participants were of Argentine extraction, and that all announcements were being made in both Spanish and Welsh. The turnout was distinctly similar to that of the film screening in Trevelin; most of the crowd were of an older generation, the youngest being children of curious families. Also present was a contingent of Welsh school pupils that had come over for the event. The whole auditorium was only about two thirds full, and heading outside at the end, all traces of the culture and heritage the ceremony had celebrated disappeared instantly as I made my way along the derelict-looking streets back to the bus station.
It seems that the presence of the Welsh culture simply does not play a major role in the affairs of the bigger towns of Chubut which I visited. The more I explored, the more I got the impression that the culture has been “designated” to small satellite townships; Trevelin being the hub for the western part of the province, and Gaϊman the eastern equivalent. Like live-in museums where people can go and experience the presence of the Welsh culture at an aesthetic level, it is in this capacity that the presence of the culture flourishes, nothing more than curious appendages to guidebook entries on the area. Taking a closer look however, one finds an incredibly tight-knit and welcoming community of like-minded people. All kinds of participants – from curious locals learning a few phrases to descendants and fluent Welsh-speakers committed to the preservation of Welsh culture – share one thing in common, which is the desire to participate in and celebrate the reason why this part of Patagonia was ever made inhabitable in the first place. The 150th anniversary will commemorate the founders of the settlement which an estimated 50,000 Argentineans are descended from, but should also act as a celebration of the members of the Welsh community today, who in face of the rapidly changing socio-economic and linguistic landscapes of Chubut, make available for all the province’s rich history and cultural heritage.