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After teen suicides, an Argentine tribe outlaws 'white' vices

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  • dorinda moreno
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 2, 2007
      >from the November 02, 2007 edition -
      >After teen suicides, an Argentine tribe outlaws 'white'
      >In a tropical corner of Argentina, a Guarani chief has set
      >a 7 p.m. village curfew and prohibited alcohol.
      >By Sara Miller Llana | Staff writer of The Christian
      >Science Monitor
      >Fortin Mborore, Argentina
      >Every Saturday night Victoriano Espindola would dance,
      >drink, and often end up in a fight. He lost his left eye in
      >one brawl.
      >But now the 21-year-old spends quiet nights with his
      >parents and six siblings in this indigenous village in a
      >tropical corner of Argentina.
      >The village is in the midst of a quarantine called for by
      >the cacique, or traditional leader, after two teens shocked
      >the community by committing suicide in September. All
      >members now must be home by 7 p.m., alcohol is strictly
      >forbidden, and all youths must attend traditional dance
      >classes and consultations with elders.
      >The cacique, Silvino Moreira, says that the white culture
      >that surrounds the village on all sides has encroached on
      >their Guarani culture and that they must protect themselves
      >from all its many "vices," including alcohol, drugs, and
      >even the radio. It's an issue indigenous groups worldwide
      >have faced for centuries, but the unusually drastic
      >measures Mr. Moreira has enacted are key to preserving
      >their culture in today's world, say community members here.
      >"When I was young, we sat around as a family when it got
      >dark and drank maté [tea] together," Moreira says. "Now the
      >youngsters want to go to the center of town, watch soap
      >operas or play on the computer. Then they want to smoke and
      >drink. We have to teach them about their traditions and
      >strengthen our spirituality before we lose them."
      >Fortin Mborore, a town of about 750 residents, is just
      >miles from one of the most visited tourist sites in Latin
      >America, the waterfalls of Iguazú. Homes, which dot
      >expansive fields of red earth, are made of wooden planks.
      >The village contains no stores, and its only school ends at
      >the seventh grade. Most residents, who speak to each other
      >in a dialect of Guarani, live by selling necklaces made of
      >seeds to tourists at the waterfalls.
      >Argentina's 'European' culture
      >Argentina's capital city, Buenos Aires, is by most accounts
      >the most cosmopolitan of Latin America. It is commonly
      >referred to as the "Paris of Latin America." When
      >discussing Argentina's genealogy, the starting point
      >usually begins at European immigration at the end of the
      >19th century. The nation's indigenous population, numbering
      >between 1 million to 1.5 million, according to the National
      >Institute for Indigenous Affairs, is much smaller than in
      >neighboring countries. And while the indigenous have gained
      >rights from Bolivia to Ecuador, here in Argentina they are
      >largely forgotten.
      >There are almost 90 Mbya Guarani communities in the
      >province of Misiones, where Fortin Mborore lies. But this
      >community is particularly vulnerable because it sits at
      >the "three frontiers" of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay,
      >and its population constantly fluctuates. Residents here
      >leave most days to sell their crafts at the waterfalls.
      >They even invite tourists to the community.
      >Teen suicides new to the community
      >It is this collision of cultures that the community says is
      >ultimately to blame for the suicides of the two teens, who
      >both hanged themselves within a week of one another in
      >September. "This has never happened before," says Rosendo
      >Moreira, who coordinates the youth education program, which
      >includes teaching traditional dance, their religion. The
      >program also teaches respect for one another, their elders,
      >and the forest in which they live.
      >He says that as teens adopt the lifestyles of Westerners,
      >even with such seemingly innocuous acts as surfing the net,
      >they are more alienated from their roots and lose of sense
      >of identity and purpose. "Our culture is sacred for us," he
      >Edgardo Barchuk, a local reporter who covers the indigenous
      >communities of Misiones, agrees that the effort is a
      >positive step for a community whose loss of culture is
      >evident, as teens are often found in the center of town
      >drinking. "They sit in the very middle, surrounded by non-
      >indigenous communities," he says. "They cannot handle
      >alcohol the way whites can. This is an effort to save their
      >Many of the young residents seem to favor the plan,
      >although a few say privately that no one in the community
      >would speak out against the cacique. "We forgot our
      >religion," says Mr. Espindola. The hardest part for
      >Espindola is a measure to turn off radios once it turns
      >dark. "Now we are better off."
      >A teenager's hard lesson
      >Despite the fact that his cousin and good friend were the
      >two young people who committed suicide, Delfino Benitez
      >says the curfew, which requires that he be at home with his
      >family each night at dusk, is unfair.
      >Fifteen-year-old Delfino, who began drinking and heading to
      >the center of town at age 13, says the shock of what
      >happened has made the villagers realize how much they had
      >lost. "It was hard to give up going out, very hard, but I
      >support it," he says.
      >When the community met in September to discuss the crisis,
      >a group of teachers, police officers, and workers from the
      >local hospital in Puerto Iguazú also signed the cacique's
      >The local police round up teens found in the center past
      >curfew and take them home, says Ramón Armando Irala, who
      >heads one of the police departments in Puerto Iguazú.
      >"Underage drinking is a problem in all of the state, but
      >it's accentuated in Fortin Mborore because they are losing
      >their roots," he says. "We fully support their initiative."
      >Those in Fortin Mborore say that already, just a month into
      >the experiment, family life has improved. "The adolescents
      >need to sleep more and go to church, not drink and fight,"
      >says Maria Felipa Espindola, Victoriano Espindola's
      >mother. "Now we are all together. There is more happiness."
      >Residents in the neighboring Mbya Guarani community of
      >Yriapu . one of two in this immediate area . say they
      >haven't experienced the same problems as Fortin Mborore.
      >Raúl Correa says they still drink in their community but
      >that it's always responsibly done. Whereas Fortin Mborore
      >stopped their traditions, such as dancing, Yriapu didn't.
      >He says it's in part because their community of 300 is much
      >smaller. Even though he can't see his friends from Fortin
      >Mborore in the evenings anymore, he supports the
      >effort. "This is a preventive measure. The suicides could
      >happen again," he says.
      >IN many ways Moreira's measures have been just as hard for
      >him to follow. The cacique has been drinking almost as long
      >as he's been head of this village . some 17 years . but the
      >recent suicides made him realize how dire the situation has
      >"This is a hard change for the teens," he says. "You can't
      >just say something and expect they will do it, you have to
      >do it too," he says. "It's very hard for us. We have to
      >abandon these vices."
      >Last week, the community voted to extend the quarantine for
      >another 60 days. "My vision is for my people to be free, so
      >they aren't used by white people," says Moreira. He says he
      >doesn't blame white culture but his tribe's inability to
      >resist it.
      >Despite lofty goals and enthusiasm, though, it is Moreira
      >who admits that the task ahead will be a tough one.
      >The police have brought adolescents who sneaked out of the
      >community back home. Some older community members have flat-
      >out refused to participate, says Moreira.
      >As the sun sets on a Saturday night, the radios go off.
      >Children begin streaming back to their homes. Fires light
      >up and smoke hugs the surrounding forest like morning mist.
      >There is hardly a sound. And then the Cumbia music comes
      >wailing from a simple home, and Moreira does nothing but
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