Civilizing the Frontier: Anglicans, Salesians, and Mennonites in the Paraguayan Chaco, 1888–1927

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Promenade Ballroom C (Westin Chicago River North)
Bridget M. Chesterton, Buffalo State College (State University of New York)
For the Guaraní peoples who inhabited the upper Rio de la Plata in the pre-colonial era, the people who inhabited the western banks of the Paraguay River, the Guaikurú, as they were commonly known, were a hostile people who regularly threatened and raided the Guaraní.  During the colonial area and the early national period this fear of the peoples who inhabited the Chaco continued.  As a result when during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s tensions over the region between the Bolivian and Paraguayan state came to a head, there was a need to redefine the Guaikurú as citizens of the larger Paraguayan state.

This paper studies the role of three different religious groups in the Paraguayan Chaco frontier from 1888 to 1927 who worked to change perceptions of the Guaikurú in Asunción. Specifically the paper will look at how the Anglicans and Salesians missionaries and later Mennonite settlers worked to “civilize” the region and make extend Paraguayan claims to the region.  The Paraguayan state, in an attempt to make the natives of the region both “civilized” and “Paraguayan,” allowed missionaries to work with relatively little oversight. While the work of the missionaries was not well advertized in Asunción until the later decades of the 1920s, the reality was that these missionaries worked diligently to make the natives of the Chaco frontier “citizens” of Paraguay. In order to accomplish this goal, missionaries worked to ensure that their charges dressed in appropriate ways and worked the land as farmers and ranchers.  As a result it was possible for elites in Asunción to imagine that the natives of the Chaco who had once been imagined as barbarous were now part of the larger Paraguayan community.

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