By Grisel Roberts
I was born and raised in the Argentinian Welsh colony. Growing up in Patagonia has been quite peculiar: in my city Welsh surnames are accompanied by Spanish names in the phone book, some of the street names have to do with our Welsh history and if you walk around you can see some dragons printed on flags. My Spanish vocabulary has quite a few Welsh words, I had a taid a nain who sang Welsh songs to me and taught me the numbers, and I learned how to cook at least one traditional Welsh recipe before I started high school. I would always go to Welsh tea houses to have tea and cakes, I would recite passages of Patagonian Welsh history as if they were superhero stories and I have known the Welsh National Anthem by heart for as long as I can remember. Almost all of us have been to choir practice, to an Eisteddfod and to the chapel at least once before we could ask ourselves why. And for us everything Welsh stands English-free, untainted by England’s pollution.
This may sound like an idyllic colony, a Welsh uprooting transplanted unaltered into South America. However, there are quite a few myths as regards Patagonia. First of all, geographically speaking, Patagonia is a large Argentinian region which actually consists of five provinces. The Welsh colony settled down only in the Province of Chubut (which is, in fact, about the size of Wales) and spread into two main areas: some settling in the valleys, near the coast, such as Trelew, Rawson, Gaiman, Dolavon and Madryn; and a couple in the Andes, Esquel and Trevelin.
Not everybody living in these places has Welsh heritage and most of us -specially the younger generations- are genetic hybrids: we also have Spanish and Italian ancestry or even Turkish or German blood mixed in. Everybody speaks Spanish and only a very small percentage speak Welsh as a first language (usually the fading elderly generation). Most people learn Welsh as a second language, only a few manage to speak it fluently and most of us speak a mixture of South and North Welsh with a strong Spanish accent. We are full-time Argentinians, we eat asado and have mate, we are football fans, we are used to long distances and to living in a third world country. Some of us have very Latin looks and others do not have Welsh surnames at all.
However, Wales is also a part of us, it defines who we are. A mystic land which is spoken about in an aura of admiration and longing, Wales represents a sacred myth that the first settlers, who could never return, passed on from generation to generation. We worship all things Welsh; the people, the landscape, the language, the culture. We want to belong to the vision of our grandparents who spoke, lived and dreamt in Welsh because we are proud of the blood that coursed through those early settlers’ veins, and that we have inherited.
Regarding the Welsh language in Patagonia I think it has a future because although we may not be too many, we are determined. We share the same front with the Cymry Cymraeg because we are fighting the same battles to keep the Welsh language alive and are bleeding from the same defeats. We defend our Welsh side and culture with the same intellectual and sentimental weapons, brandishing the same arguments into battle. We wish to protect the language because it is all we have to help us cling to our Welshness. Because without language there is no culture. No literature, no music, no history. No identity. Through speaking Welsh we succeed in honouring our ancestors, proudly owning up to the identity that has been passed on to us like a banner which will, in turn, be passed on to enrich our children’s cultural legacy.
My relationship with the Welsh language and culture has been a life-long infatuation. The Welsh in me comes only from my father’s side, even though my grandparents did not actually speak Welsh fluently. But my taid, who was a man impassioned for the country of his forefathers, had told me captivating stories of that land that lay across the seas. It took me three years without him to start studying Welsh in the Andes Welsh School twice a week. It was an attempt at bringing him back to me, believing that we could still secretly share something we both loved and that he would linger in the sound of every new word. The project to teach Welsh in Patagonia had started the previous year, in 1997, and for the first time in 132 years, there were formal classes with native teachers and more opportunities to travel to Wales. Before that, Welsh was learnt solely within the family nucleus.
When I was 17, in 2001, I went to Lampeter on a scholarship to study Welsh. For two months, we had classes about seven hours a day including Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, which had wonderful results on my command of the language. And it was a dream come true to fill my eyes with the green of the hills that would have brought tears to my grandfather’s eyes. Standing perched at the edge of adulthood, with all the possibilities stretching out before me, I came to terms with traits that I would not change and outlined the aims of my major struggles. I finally became aware of who I was going to be.
When I returned to my hometown, Esquel, I started a radio programme in Welsh. Then I moved near to Buenos Aires, very far away from the colony, in order to go to University. I went back to Wales in 2007 on holidays and I realised I needed to learn more Welsh, but in the big city where I was studying there were no Welsh teachers, no Welsh colony, no Welsh culture. I soon discovered that there were many young students from Chubut scattered around who also had Welsh roots and wanted to learn the language. So in 2008 I plucked up the courage and started teaching Welsh in La Plata for free, outside the formal Language teaching project. In that way I ensured a weekly time for me to study and practise the language and to meet with Patagonians who share the same passion about Welshness. I have had 22 students so far and in 2013 and 2014 some of us have sat Welsh international exams with outstanding results, the top marks amongst the Welsh schools in Argentina.
Last year I went to live in Australia. I got in touch with the Sydney Welsh society, went to their meetings, took part and helped organise most of their activities. I taught Welsh to beginners for free once a week and sang with the Sydney Welsh choir. I met more amazing Welsh people and this proved that they are still awesome even if they move to the other side of the world.
I realised that, wherever I am and whatever I do, I am Welsh Patagonian and I will be, regardless of what fate may have in store for me. Culture lives within us no matter the environment. Even if I were to go to the Moon, I would look for the Welsh there, because it is my way of forging a home.
Grisel was born in Esquel, Patagonia Argentina and now lives in La Plata, Province of Buenos Aires. She graduated from La Plata University as an English-Spanish translator and as an English Language and Literature teacher. She is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Linguistics.
Categories: Culture / Diwylliant