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​The country of women

· Their heroic service during the tragic war of the Triple Alliance, still up to date for the new generations ·

“Even when by then the young and the old, / the son and the brother and the husband, / had fallen for ever... and when in the plain /the restfulness of tombs prevailed, / you undertook to return, your breast / oppressed by nostalgia for the homeland, / and in vain you gazed at your home destroyed, / at the place where you were once loved”. With these words, in his poem La Mujer Paraguayana, [the Paraguayan woman] Ignacio A. Pane (1880-1920) celebrated the women of Paraguay.

For the people of Paraguay the Guazu War – “Great war” in Guaraní, or the War of the Triple Alliance – continues to be the most traumatic period in their national history, the most dramatic and bloody phase in the history of Latin America from its origins to our day. For this reason it was also known as “the war of the triple disgrace” (Juan Bautista Alberdi) or the “American genocide”.

A Paraguayan woman in an 1870 illustration

It was an event that marked a “before” and an “after”. In the “before”, Paraguay was an authentic power in its central axes, that is, an economic and technological power, with regional respect and a sovereign presence. The “after” was marked instead by bleakness, ruin, dependence, submission, even in a state of democracy and freedom, however imperfect. It was 1865 when Marshal Francisco Solano López, President of Paraguay, found himself involved in a conflict of enormous proportions. The moment when the hostilities began was not one of the most favourable for the country since modern weaponry had not yet arrived there. Nor would it ever arrive: today it is certain that it would not have overcome the blockade that awaited it in the channels of access. And so the awe-inspiring military instruments, still being built in Europe, were purchased by Brazil which used them against Paraguay during the conflict.

Nor did Solano López have at his disposal a corps of well-trained officers with experience of war: indeed, Paraguay had stopped participating in wars since the battle of Tacuary in March 1811, prior to Independence from Spain. The secret Treaty of the Triple Alliance, signed on 1 May 1865 by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, against Paraguay, stopped being secret even before the first anniversary of its signing. The full text was in fact published in the pages of a London journal.

From that moment the Paraguayan cause was surrounded by a defensive mystique and staunch heroism. Paraguay’s gigantic neighbours, anxious to acquire new land for themselves, invaded and mutilated the national territory.

The collective memory of the War of the Triple Alliance gives a special emphasis in the official history to the Paraguayan women who donated their jewellery for the cause of their homeland. However, Paraguayan women did far more. Indeed they played a central role, cultivating the land, burying the dead and accompanying the troops as residentas or destinadas. It is indisputable that the women were – and today still are – pillars of Paraguayan society.

President López and what remained of his army were followed closely by the residentas, women who – forced to abandon the country’s capital, Asunción, as they faced the invaders’ occupation and sacking at the beginning of 1869 – had no other choice than to follow the survivors closely and to share in their privations, hunger and unspeakable sacrifices.

This, for example, was the case of Ramona Martínez, a teenager who, brandishing her sword, on that fateful day in 1869 saved Solano López’ life in the locality of Lomas Valentinas, enabling him to flee; and of Juliana Insfran de Martínez, Pancha Garmendia, María Meque, and many other brave women.

Once peace had returned, Paraguayan women had to be reconstructoras de la patria, namely the central axis for repopulation, for long years taking charge of productive activity to obtain basic foodstuffs. Everything was done anonymously but in a manner that was extremely significant.

Post-war figures such as Asunción Escalada, Rosa Peña de González, Adela and Celsa Speratti, should therefore be remembered. They were women dedicated to teaching who, overcoming thousands of obstacles to educate various generations, were paradigms of dedication and courage. It is in fact thanks to them that Paraguayan little girls and older girls received the same primary and secondary education as boys. This parity was far from being widespread at the time.

In reflecting on our historical development as a nation, we are struck by the role that Paraguayan women played in the country’s history: a role which was therefore preponderant from the outset. It was not by chance that one of the definitions of Paraguay was Land der Frauen, [country of women], the title of the major work on Paraguayan social history written in 1996 by a German historian, Barbara Potthast.

Also in another conflict, the Chaco War, fought against Bolivia between 1932 and 1935, women took over agricultural activities and never has the food production been as abundant as in those days. Yet in spite of these successes, this heroism, this history, Paraguayan women are still today fighting poverty and exclusion.

The equation shows that woman and shortage result in poverty. Therefore any State initiative that intends to be bear fruit must necessarily aim at the educational sector, in order to overcome the cycle of poverty and exclusion in an asymmetrical and polarized society. It is a cycle that has become an open wound.

In remembering the heroic women of the past, let us ensure that women today obtain that recognition which Pope Francis has given them: his visit to our beloved Paraguay makes our people vibrant with deep emotion, joy and hope.

Beatriz González de Bosio
 Università cattolica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Paraguay

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