The Eisteddfod of Chubut (Welsh in Patagonia, Argentina)

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BROOKS, Walter A. & Geraldine LUBLIN, 'The Eisteddfod of Chubut, or how the reinvention of a tradition has contributed to the preservation of a language and culture', Beyond Philology, 4 (2007), 245-59.
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  1 BROOKS, Walter A. & Geraldine LUBLIN, 'The Eisteddfod of Chubut, or how the reinvention of atradition has contributed to the preservation of a language and culture',  Beyond Philology , 4 (2007),245-59.The Eisteddfod of Chubut, or how the reinvention of a tradition has contributed to the preservation of a language and culture Introduction Much has been said about the Welsh settlement in the Patagonian region since its foundation 140 years ago, but phi lologists may have heard about it because of the ‗miracle‘ that has allowed the Welsh language to survive in the very end of the world. The fact that two areas in the Patagonian region of the ArgentineRepublic should remain the only place outside Wales where Welsh is still spoken and has a certain degree of currency may sound implausible considering that Welsh is a minority language in its homeland. What at the beginning was a quest for a better life and a struggle to preserve a specific cultural integrity has inevitably become a highly romanticised legend. It is surprising indeed that many of the cultural traits carried by thefirst Welsh migrants to Patagonia have persisted even when the descendants are born and immersed in a predominantly Latin-American society. Furthermore, some typically Welsh traditions  –  such as the  Eisteddfod  festival and choir singing  —  have been transplanted and adopted into the local social practices andhave become part and parcel of the identity of the community.From an objective perspective, the Welsh pioneering in Patagonia must be seen against the backdrop of acentury of emigration from Europe to different parts of the world. Nevertheless, the inherent traits of thePatagonian experience make it unique within the context of the larger Welsh migration. Jones (1997, 298)notes that, even when the quest for higher standards of living and the possibility of becoming landownerswere part of the motives that spurred the Welsh to move to Patagonia, strong cultural, religious, linguisticand identity factors played a prominent and even fundamental role in their decision to emigrate and stay inspite of the unexpected hardships they had to endure. These characteristics conferred the PatagonianMovement a distinctive ethos.When in 1865 the first settlers landed in what would become the town of Puerto Madryn, in the province of Chubut, Argentina was not a full-fledged nation state but rather a group of provinces that had achieved onlyrecently a certain degree of unity. What is now the Patagonian region was not officially part of the country  2 as we know it today. In this sense, the Welsh proposal for establishing a settlement 300 miles to the south of Carmen de Patagones  –  the furthermost, fragile outpost of Argentinean sovereignty at the time  —  was perceived by some Argentinean officials as a possibility to lay future claims over the whole of the region. Atthe same time, the Welsh regarded the extreme isolation of their desired settlement as synonymous with being able to develop in freedom, far from the influence of other communities (Williams 1991, 49).In spite of the initial difficulties the Welsh underwent, the settlement eventually prospered in many regards.Once they surmounted the problems caused by their lack of knowledge of the terrain and managed to reapsubstantive crops, the Welsh farmers began selling their produce to Buenos Aires as well as exporting it.The quality of their wheat even earned them gold medals in both the Paris and Chicago agricultural shows by the end of the nineteenth century. They also built a system of canals that allowed them to tap into theavailable resources provided by the Chubut River, since the rainfall in Patagonia proved too scarce to water their crops. With the aim of shipping their produce, the pioneers built a railway across the plains linking theChubut Valley and the harbour at Puerto Madryn, where it was easier for vessels to anchor rather than at thetreacherous mouth of the Chubut River. The farmers also founded a cooperative society in the early 1880s  –  the Cooperative Society of Chubut  —    that became the mainstay of the settlement‘s economy and laid the basis for Patagonia‘s economic development (Williams 1978, 620). By the end of the 19 th century thesettlement was one of the most successful in Argentina as well as the most mechanised rural community inthe country, and one of the most productive in the whole of South America (Williams 1991, 133). At theturn of the 20th century, the Welsh community in Patagonia was undoubtedly a very powerful group.This economic bonanza went hand in hand with a flourishing of culture. The Welsh language developed toan extent previously unknown. While muffled at the time in the mother country, it regained its formalregister in Patagonia, becoming the language of education, law, business, religion, and social events. It wasalso used in government, and the local Council proceedings were written in Welsh and only eventually in both Welsh and Spanish. The language was thus free to develop and expand. For instance, a new, simpler  system of counting was implemented to facilitate the children‘s learning of mathematics (Jones 1997, 312). Even the  Eisteddfod     –  the traditional Welsh festival  —  was successfully transplanted to the new home acrossthe Atlantic. The Eisteddfod The Eisteddfod is arguably the most important Welsh festival devoted to poetry, literature and music.Although minor Eisteddfodau are held at different times of the year all around the country, the climax of theyear is the main National Eisteddfod celebrated annually in north and south Wales alternatively. During this  3 week-long event, participants compete in different categories following an established programme selectedin advance, and these activities take place in the main pavilion. However, this pinnacle of the Welsh-speaking world represents much more than the competitions that provide its structure. Once a year, Welshnative speakers and learners get a chance to immerse themselves in a unique atmosphere, while variousinstitutions, businesses, government and non-governmental organisations set up their stalls around the main pavilion and establish a more direct link with the thousands of visitors that make the Eisteddfod the biggestwandering festival in Europe.The srcin of the National Eisteddfod of Wales would go back to the year 1176, when a contest was held inAberteifi Castle under the auspices of Lord Rhys. 1 Bards and musicians from every corner of the countrywere invited to participate, and the winner was to obtain a chair and a place at the Lord‘s table. Although theLord‘s table is now gone, the tradition of presenting the victorious bard with a chair has remained until the  present.Another traditional aspect of the Eisteddfod is its ceremonies, inextricably linked to the Gorsedd y Beirdd  (‗Throne of Bards‘ in the English translation). The National Eisteddfod website explains that this institution, founded in 1792 in London, was the brainchild of Iolo Morgannwg, an eccentric scholar whose aim was tohighlight the connection between the Welsh and the culture and heritage of the Celts. The complex and pompous set of ceremonies that he therefore devised have come to be used strategically in the opening of theEisteddfod and in the honouring of the poets. Ever since the foundation of the National Eisteddfod in 1860-1861, the Crowning, the Prose Medal and the Chairing ceremonies presided by the Gorsedd have become aregular feature of the flagship festival.It is a fact that the first Welsh settlers who emigrated to Patagonia were well aware of the Eisteddfodtradition and of the Gorsedd ceremonies, so it is not surprising that they should have decided to celebrate anEisteddfod at a very early stage in the settlement history. Although local historians do not agree on a definitedate, the first Eisteddfod in Chubut would have taken place some time between 1865 and 1875. 2 In any case,the celebration of the festival at such an early stage is proof of the place of honour it holds as part of theWelsh identity.It was thus that the Eisteddfod of Chubut developped successfully up to the first decades of the 20 th century. The cultural ‗golden age‘ was a consequence of other factors that allowed for Welsh traditions to be recreated in a distant and different environment from the mother country. Bo urhis description that ‗the more 1 According to the official National Eisteddfod website(http://www.eisteddfod.org.uk    ). 2 The very official website of the Patagonian Eisteddfod(www.eisteddfod.org.ar    )seems to be undecided on whether the firstfestival was celebrated in 1865 (as asserted in the homepage) or in 1875 (as claimed in the time line page).  4 status a linguistic community is ascribed to have, the more vitality it could be said to possess as a collectivity‘ (Bourhis 2001, 109) accurately depicts the reality of the Welsh -Patagonian community. Asdiscussed previously, they were in control of the local government and economy. Moreover, althoughimmigrants of different ethnic backgrounds settled in some of the up to then Welsh-dominated areas, thecommunity managed to remain homogeneous and maintain an extremely low rate of intermarriage.Consequently, for an ethnic group with such a high prestige, preserving the Welsh language and traditionswas the natural thing to do. Times of change Had it not been for the Argentinean government‘s intervention to make sure that the settlement would not become an alien spot within the expanding republic, the dream of a new Wales held by the leaders of theimmigration movement might have been a reality. However, the 20 th century brought a gradual set of changes that would undermine the strength of the Welsh community, forcing an adaptation to a changingreality that stressed national Argentinean values and unity above any manifestation of ethnic particularities.Confronted with a massive flow of immigrants, the national government decided to launch a campaign to ‗Argentinise‘ the incoming hordes –  a process applied in a number of countries in their nation-building stage.For one, Welsh was forbidden in the classroom and Spanish became the language of education as early asthe first decade of the 20 th century. To make matters worse, since organised immigration from Wales came to an end in 1911 (when the last group of colonisers were brought aboard the steamer ―Orita‖), only a decreasing number of individuals from Wales would settle sporadically in Chubut. The outbreak of the FirstWorld War would mark yet another breach in the contact between Chubut and Wales.The Welsh community would lose its last two symbols of economic power after the Cooperative Societywent bankrupt in the early thirties, allegedly due to mismanagement as well as to the world crisis triggered by the fall of Wall Street. The second blow would come soon after, in the mid-forties, when shareholders of the Irrigation Company were forced to sell the irrigation canals to the national government. Eventually, asthe country embarked on a process of industrialisation, the agricultural sector from which the Welsh farmersderived their wealth suffered neglect. This policy generated an exodus to the cities and as a result itweakened the cohesion that the Welsh community had maintained in rural areas.On the social front, the mid-forties brought about a major setback when it was decreed that religion  –  more precisely, the Catholic religion  —  should become a subject to be studied in all primary schools. To makematters worse, although the Welsh had been influential at the local and national levels through their contactswith the powerful British community in Buenos Aires, by the mid-forties the new post Second World War 
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