After Columbus, only one Amerindian people managed to escape the violence and subjugation imposed by the Europeans: the Guarani.
Not only did the Guarani escape cultural obliteration; they flourished. As such, they are the only people whose eponymous language achieved official status alongside the colonizers’ dialect of Latin – the language we call “Spanish” – from the foundling days of the Republic of Paraguay, to the present.
The Guarani lived in groups, but they had no kings or queens. They were known to practice cannibalism, not out of a desire for conquest, but for survival. They were adept at making use of whatever they had. Today, we see evidence of the spread of their culture in the names of streets, towns and plazas throughout Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. There has even been evidence of Guarani tribes as far north as French Guiana.
When the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – entered the Guarani encampments in Paraguay in the 1600s, they expected to be met with poisoned arrows and savage resistance. Instead, the Guarani welcomed them. They were animists, in a way, but they had a Supreme Being, known as Tupa.
They also loved music, and to this day, Paraguayans prefer music and poetry in Guarani because of its lilting cadence. The Jesuits intended to civilize the Guarani and teach them the Catechism as well as handicrafts, farming and language, and found, surely to their shock, that they were learning more from the Guarani than the Guarani were learning from them.
The Guarani showed the Jesuits the leaf of Ilex paraguariensis, which when steeped in hot water gave the Guarani stamina to work in the heat and facilitated storytelling and camaraderie. This began the history of cultivation of what was to become known as “yerba mate,” enjoyed throughout the River Plate region as a social beverage like coffee or tea.