The Pretty Girls Of Paraguay
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
STRANGE CUSTOMS OF A LAND WHERE THERE ARE MORE WOMEN THAN MEN—THE WAR WITH BRAZIL, THAT KILLED OFF THE MEN—How THE WOMEN MANAGE THE COUNTRY—THEIR BUSINESS ABILITY—A VISIT TO THE MARKETS—ORANGE GIRLS AND BUTCHER WOMEN—A LOOK INTO A PARAGUAYAN HOME—PARAGUAY TOBACCO, USED BY WOMEN AND CHILDREN, WHO BOTH SMOKE AND CHEW.
The women of Paraguay are so much in the majority that they do the work of the country; they are the buyers and sellers of every community; outside the cities the men are the drones. Any bachelor in the United States can find a wife in Paraguay if he wants one, for the men are now so few that any two-legged animal of the masculine gender will here be greedily pounced upon. The sexes were once about equally divided, but Paraguay had a war which killed off the men. This occurred before the close of our trouble between the North and the South; at that time Paraguay was the leading country in this part of the world; it was about the richest in South America, and its wealth and influence angered Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. They combined against it and their joint army attacked the Paraguayans. The struggle lasted five years, but it ended in the wiping out, as it were, of the Paraguayan men. It is said that 100,000 of them died in battle, and that thousands of women and children were starved to death. It is difficult to obtain accurate figures in any South American country, but, according to the best estimates, the population of Paraguay was so cut down by this war that there was only one man to six women, while another statistician states that three-fourths of all the people in Paraguay, numbering about 800,000, were destroyed. When the war ended there were but 200,000 left, of whom only 25,000 were men and 106,000 were women over fifteen years of age; the remainder were children. Paraguay thus became a land of women, and nature seems to be keeping it so. Since the war occurred I have been told that more girls have been born every year than boys. In Asuncion the girl births exceed the boy births by more than five to the hundred, and outside the city the percentage of girl babies is even greater.
Most of the women of Paraguay are poor; many of them are hewers of wood and drawers of water; but there are some who are rich. There are class distinctions here as everywhere, and the people of the better classes dress and act much the same as do those in other parts of the continent. Paraguayan high-class ladies wear clothes not unlike those of our American girls. They wear bonnets or hats when out on the streets, and a few of them actually import their dresses from Paris. They speak Spanish when in society,—at least, when on dress parade,—and some are so well educated that they are able to read both English and French. Such women are usually interested in politics, and, through their husbands, have much influence on what is done by the government. They are good housekeepers, excellent wives, and are, I may say, the equals of their sisters in any part of this continent.
Many of the Paraguayan women are very good looking. This is true of all classes, but especially so of the young. The typical Paraguayan maiden is a trifle under middle height. She is as straight as an arrow and as limber as a willow tree branch, though inclined to the voluptuous in form. Her complexion is of the brunette order, and sometimes of the reddish-brown of the Guarani Indians, for she has, as a rule, more or less Indian blood in her veins. When the Spaniards came here the country was inhabited by the gentle and semi-civilized Guaranis. The two races intermarried; their descendants took wives from the same tribes, so that today there are comparatively few Paraguayans who have not a large proportion of Guarani blood. The Indian mixture has resulted in the adoption of many Indian customs, and the language most spoken by the people to-day is the Guarani. In the country districts nothing else is used, though there are notices on the walls of the Asuncion schools that scholars must not speak Guarani during school hours. The Guarani is a soft language, and the Paraguayan girls have sweet voices.
One of the chief industries of the Paraguayan women is lace-making. It is true that the lower classes do all kinds of work, but all the women make beautiful lace: they spin as delicately as spiders, and every house is full of beautiful cobwebs made by its women. They make lace handkerchiefs, fichus, and embroideries, and weave great hammocks of thread so fine and so strong that they will often outlast a generation. They have patterns of their own which they have taken from nature; one of the most beautiful is called the cobweb pattern, the threads of which are as delicately joined as though made by one of the big spiders to be found here in the semi-tropics. Some of these handkerchiefs are of silk, others are of linen, while others are of fibre grown in the country. It takes a long time to weave them, but there are so many at work that they are wonderfully cheap, so that an article upon which a month or so has been spent can be bought for , five dollars and upwards of our money. A good ham-mock will cost you ten dollars, and a shawl perhaps twice that amount.
Paraguay is a land of oranges. It is perhaps the only place in the world where the orange grows wild. There are oranges in every thicket and in almost every forest; the villages are built in orange groves, and there are so many oranges that they often rot on the ground. The fruit is delicious; it is, I believe, the best of its kind, and is eaten by everyone. The orange girls are among the picturesque features of Paraguay. You meet women peddling oranges at the stations; you find them surrounded by piles of golden fruit in every market; and all along the Paraguay river they are to be seen carrying oranges to the boats, which are to convey them to the markets of the south. It is estimated that 60,000,000 oranges are annually shipped down the Paraguay river to Buenos Aires, and the loading of the fruit is one of the sights of the voyage. As we came up to Asuncion we found mountains of oranges on the shores at every town, with hundreds of Paraguay girls kneeling before them packing them in baskets, while other hundreds were carrying them to the steamers.
The scene is one that you cannot witness outside the country. Stop with me at Villa Pilar and look at it. Villa Pilar, has about i0,000 inhabitants: it lies on the east bank of the Paraguay river, a day or two's ride below Asuncion. As the steamer stops at the landing we notice that every garden has its orange tree and that the trees shade the streets. We see ox carts coming in from the orchards creaking under their golden loads. Each cart holds about 5,000 oranges, piled loosely within it like so many potatoes. The driver directs his oxen to the piles of oranges on the bank, backs his cart against one of them, and dumps out the fruit just as our workmen dump dirt when repairing the roads. Oranges are indeed worth little more than dirt here; that whole cart full will sell for $5, and one can buy all he wants for two cents. And yet every orange is counted; those women on their knees, who are putting the fruit into the baskets, count as they work, and a careful tally is kept.
The women who carry the oranges on board balance their loads on their heads, and walk with them over a gangway to the steamer. There are a hundred women at this work now, and the ship is already so loaded with oranges that a wire netting has been stretched about its deck like a fence and the fruit piled up within it. The deck is so filled with oranges, in fact, that the sailors are moving about on boards which have been nailed up above the piled-up masses of the fruit.
Stop and take a look at the girls. They are passing to and from the bank and the steamer over that roadway of boards 500 feet long. Each has a round basket, carefully poised on her head, and in and above, them the golden oranges rise. The girls are dressed in white gowns and the breeze that sweeps up the river wraps their thin skirts about their lithe forms. Still they walk without touching their burdens ; the shaking of the planks and the breeze from the river do not seem to disturb them. As you look, you cannot help admiring the typical Paraguayan maiden; she is so well formed, and she walks like a goddess. When young she is as plump as a partridge in autumn, and were it not for some of her ways you might straightway fall in love. To an American her attractiveness is spoiled by the use of tobacco. Until I came here I thought that there was no greater beauty-destroyer than the gum-chewing of the American girl, but the smoking of cigars, as it prevails among Paraguay women, is far worse. The Paraguay maiden smokes like a chimney. She begins to use tobacco when she first wears dresses, and even before, for you may meet girls of six, eight, and ten years of age with cigars in their mouths. I have seen scores of little girls of seven and eight smoking cigars almost as big as their wrists, and as for old women, it is the exception to find one in the country districts who does not smoke from morning till night. I speak, of course, of the common people. Those who are not actually smoking have cigars between their teeth, which they chew without lighting for hours at a time. Many make their own cigars. Tobacco is so cheap here that you can get a dozen fairly good cigars for five cents; leaf tobacco is sold for a few cents a pound.
The Paraguay girls remind me of the girls of Japan. They look not unlike them in feature, and their luxuriant black hair is of the same character as that you see in Japan. In the inland districts they have the disregard for clothing which one finds in the land of the Mikado. Very young girls, and often some of the age of fourteen, wear nothing whatever. The Paraguayan woman, like her Japanese sister, is not afraid of strangers; she is always good-natured and will laugh and joke with you just as readily as do the young women of the east coast of Asia.
The Japanese women are good at business; this is true also of the Paraguayans. If you would see smart women traders, come and spend an hour in the market-place of Asuncion. The market is situated in the heart of the city; it covers an entire square, and looks more like a monastery than a place for buying and selling. Its roof extends out over cloisters ten feet wide, back of which is a tier of cells running about a hollow court and forming the walls of the market-house proper. The court, the cells, and the cloisters are filled with women. There are hundreds of them, all in their bare feet; many of them I found squatting on the bricks with their wares before them. Others stand behind butcher counters, and others still have little tables covered with vegetables, laces, jewellery, clothing, or shoes.
Stop now and notice the buying and selling. There are no scales or measures. That vegetable woman has a stock of green peas; she has arranged them in piles, about a pint to the pile, and sells by eye measure. The butcher woman behind her is cutting off meat in great strips. The customers judge what each piece is worth by its size, for all meat is sold by the chunk. But let us go farther into the market and take a look at the butchers. They are women, who stand in stalls with pieces of beef on their counters and strips of beef hung up on hooks at the back. The favourite cut is a strip, and much of the meat seems to have been cut from the animal in sheets; so the people buy, as it were, by the yard. The usual method is to tear or cut the meat from the animal's sides and back in layers about half an inch thick, one layer after another being cut off until the bone is reached. The sheets are then hung up in the market and sliced or chopped off as the customer desires. Each customer brings a cloth with her to wrap her purchase in, and she carries it home in a basket, box, or pan, which she rests upon her head. No market-woman ever furnishes paper or string for her customers. The most common market-basket is a dish-pan or tin wash-basin, and this is always carried on the head. Indeed, the head is the place of burden for all Paraguayan women. At the corner of the market we can see all sorts of burden-bearers coming and going. There comes a girl now at a "two-forty pace," with a demijohn on her head and a load of wood in her arms. Her black face is wrapped in a black shawl and her black legs show out under her white skirt half way below her knees. There is another woman with a white sheet round her head and shoulders. Notice the platter so care-fully balanced upon her crown ; it is filled with oranges and vegetables, and there is a great chunk of raw meat on top. She walks along without touching her burden, and that is the case with all the women about. There comes a young girl with a bundle of sticks perfectly poised on the top of her cranium; she has her hands at her sides: she lias bought as much firewood as you could hold in your arms, and she is carrying it home. Behind her is a young mother with a similar bundle and a baby in her arms. See, she has stopped to make a purchase of that orange-peddler over the way. Notice how carefully she stoops down without bending her back. There she has picked up a-half dozen oranges and stuck them in among the firewood and is walking off without the least trouble. But wait, the woman of whom she has bought is excited ; she is calling her back. The young mother returns and putting her hand away down in-side her chemise, takes out a coin and gives it to the peddler, who in turn drops it in at the neck of her dress. The bosoms of the women are their pockets, and before they make change they often have to fumble for some time for the coins.
And so we go in and out through the crowd, jostling and being jostled by women with bags of potatoes, baskets of corn, fire-wood, and bottles on the top of their heads. We beg pardon at every step, for we fear that a push may throw a basket of eggs to the ground, or that a chunk of raw meat on some woman's head may fall at our feet. There is no danger, however, for every woman handles her burden quite as well as though she were carrying it in her arms.
The market is a good place to see how little a poor Paraguayan family needs in order to live. Everything is sold in small quantities, and it cannot cost much for the average woman to keep house. The clothes of the poor are exceedingly scanty. The common women go barefoot and all go bareheaded. It does not cost much to dress them, for a full suit can be bought for $z in gold. Nearly all wear shawls about their chocolate or cream-coloured faces. Some have the shawls thrown back, so that you can see that the low-cut chemise, which reaches to the feet, forms the bulk of the clothing. The shawls look like bed sheets, and I am told that they are often used as such and that a woman takes part of her bed for her clothes when she goes out to walk.
The common people have but few wants. They do not seem to care much for money and think that one who works like a foreigner is very foolish indeed. I venture to say that the aver-age Paraguayan family does not spend as much in a year as one of our labourers in the North spends in a month. The houses outside the cities are huts of poles, chinked with mud and roofed with brown thatch. They have dirt floors, and commonly have neither fences nor gardens. The usual hut is not more than fifteen feet square, but it often has an open shed of the same size joined to it. As it is warm, the shed is frequently the most comfortable part of the house. There is little furniture; a ham-mock or so, one or two cot beds made of canvas and stretchers, a table, and a couple of chairs, form a good housekeeping outfit.
The cooking is often done over an open fire in the shed, and cook-stoves are not common. The chief meals are breakfast at 11 o'clock and dinner at 6, with a cup of "mate " or Paraguayan tea in the morning. The food is chiefly puchero, a soup of boiled beef and vegetables, and mandioca, a kind of a potato-like root, which is dried and ground into a flour. The soup is usually eaten first and the boiled beef and vegetables brought in as a second course. Very little coffee or tea is drunk at meals, and the only liquor used by the common people is a villainous rum made of sugar called cana.