Hola! Baile porte! Greetings from Coratei, Paraguay, next to the beautiful Rio Paraná. I came to Paraguay initially to work with a youth group (ages 17-27) on the creation of the first library in Coratei, with plans to facilitate workshops and literacy activities. The CLACS Summer Field Research Grant allowed me to expand my work into an inquiry into how and why this youth group, the Jovenes Unidos Coratei, worked to start the library and what they see as its role and future in their small community here in southern Paraguay.
In Coratei, many residents speak mostly, or only, Guarani, one of two official languages – the other being Spanish. I arrived in the country as Pope Francis departed and as election season rose to a feverish pace. Bumper stickers covered car windows and doors, banners hung from stores and across the main street in town, and nearly everyone was doing some sort of work for the municipal elections that would take place on Sunday, July 26th. The elections would determine the head of the Colorado Party and the municipal heads of districts. People were busy – including the members of the youth group I had come to work with.
The three founding members of the youth group – a young mother and former Red Cross volunteer in Argentina, an environmental engineer at the Itapua Dam and Secretary of the Coratei Community Council, and an American Peace Corps Volunteer – worked together to identify young adults in the community committed to service and education. Through these contacts I had the pleasure of meeting fourteen of the eighteen members of the group. Every member of the group has completed high school and is working on her/his bachelor’s degree at a local university in Ayolas, the head of the municipality.
The youth group initially identified two separate but important issues they hoped to address in their community: the abundance of unmanaged trash and the need for access to a library. The focus on trash arose from the number of group members who are interested in environmental sciences (several held or are working toward degrees in the field) an important field of study in the area due to the proximity of the river and a major hydroelectric dam. Additionally, environmental tourism, fishing in particular, is a major driver of the local economy. The focus on the library came from several members being avid readers, in spite of living in a community without a library or bookstore. In fact, almost all of the youth group members and other Paraguayans I spoke with mentioned more than once how rare it is for people where they live to own books. Most families might have one or two books in their homes and few opportunities to purchase more – whether for financial or logistic reasons.
My first night in Paraguay I attended a group meeting where they were celebrating a major victory – the mayor of their municipality had donated a moto-truck for trash pick up and they had completed their first rounds successfully. They had also purchased and received in the mail a stamp with their own logo to use on the books they had worked to get donated to start a library in the community. The group had also decided to sell plates of batiburrillo (beef organ stew, a Missiones state specialty) to fundraise for t-shirts, so the logistics of this were being worked out. It was at this meeting we determined a schedule for my visit – including a working day to set up the library and make decisions about how to run it and another day for a kid’s camp with literacy activities for 8-13 year olds. I also set up a schedule of interviews with seven members of the youth group for prior to the workshop/camp in order to learn from and apply their ideas as I co-planned these activities with youth group members.
Over the next few weeks I spent time with the youth group as they prepped, cooked, and sold their batiburrillo, as they hung out with one another socially, as we planned our literacy activities with the library, and as we facilitated the camp for children in the community. Through this time, and through my interviews, I am learning more and more about the power of motivated young people to put in hard work, to have fun, and to remain committed to their community. Paraguay is a small, landlocked country in a big continent. The town of Coratei boasts one of the country’s few beaches in addition to beautiful wetlands. It is a tranquil place, a birder’s paradise, even as its residents contend with high rates of poverty and un/underemployment. The politics and government are either embraced as a means of advancement or spurned by residents.
These young adults have taken it upon themselves, in the midst of their studies, their personal lives, and the economic challenges of becoming an adult in a small town, to work to better the community they live in, and one they hope to make better for themselves and future generations. They view their work, and the potential of the library and the trash service, as enriching an already beautiful and special place. They do not see their work as transformative, rather they hope for their efforts to remain true to their upbringings and to the beauty of the land they love, while giving the community tools to support itself and its residents into the future.
Alexandra Panos is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at IU.