Illustration: Regina Rivas ©
The notion of femininity can be read as inscribed within a discourse about national identity. These women challenge those traditional notions and propose instead dynamic and diverse answers to the question: 'What it means to be a Paraguayan woman?'
It could be contended that the idea of the Paraguayan woman is crystallised in one image. She is wearing the typical dress, composed of a typoi (a blouse confectioned in ao po'i * with ñanduti* sleeves) and a long skirt with ruffles made of the same fabrics. Several necklaces and a rosary adorn her neck, her hair is ornamented with flowers and she holds a traditional jug in her arms. This picture -taken between 1930 and 1940- is printed in the banknotes since 1943, when the Guarani became the national currency of Paraguay. Every day, the citizens carry it in their pockets with an idealised version of the Paraguayan woman: always smiling, frozen in one unique postcard, in one static image. The sociologist Roberto Céspedes Ruffinelli (2015) argues that values such as an essentialist femininity, fragility, and nostalgia -for the past and for the rural areas- underlie this image which, at the same time, is fixed in the national consciousness and reproduced through the banknotes.
The historian Barbara Potthast explains that Paraguay is the country in Latin America that has paid more attention to the role of women across its historical development. However, far from being an interest in women themselves, it is ‘a highly ideological discussion, aimed primarily at strengthening Paraguayan nationalism’ (Potthast, 2011, p.6). According to this author, the first antecedent of this situation can be found during the first years of the Spanish conquest, when Paraguay was called the 'Paradise of Muhammad'. This name was received due to the practice exercised by the Guarani -original inhabitants of the territory- called cuñadazgo, by which they presented their women in marriage to the colonisers, as part of a political transaction to establish alliances with them. From there onwards, Asunción -the capital of the country- became known for the alleged unbridled polygamy that was practiced.
The second great myth about Paraguayan women was born, based on a cruel demographic situation. After the Triple Alliance War (1864-1870) -which Paraguay lost to its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay- the country was devastated, the male population was practically annihilated, and women became the primary force for the national reconstruction. Due to this context, Paraguay started to be known as ‘the country of women’ (Potthast, 2011), associating this gender with values such as sacrifice, strength, and resilience. From a perspective of cultural criticism, the museologist Lia Colombino (2018, p.84) questions why, if women have been considered protagonists in Paraguayan history, they continue to occupy a subordinate role in society, and machismo is still prevailing. The answer she finds is that:
The country of women is a myth that we reproduce. Country of women, nevertheless, without them participating in the decision taking (Colombino, 2018, p.84).
Consciously, in some cases, and unconsciously, in others, the images that are part of this section try to deconstruct that myth. They question, criticise and defy these established ideas about what it means to be a woman, in the first place, and what it means to be one in Paraguay, secondly. The illustration made by Adriana Peralta (@ahdriperalta) reflects about the notion of questioning identity by showing a woman who is confronted by her image in the mirror. Following this idea, Sandra González (@srrhino), with abstract lines, explores the myriad identities cohabiting in one body.
The other three images in this section -two works from Leticia Sayuri (@itoleticia) and one from Mayeli Villaba (@ yelialba)- discuss representation regarding race. Both creators are descendants of ethnic minorities underrepresented in the Paraguayan imagery, which translates into their visions: while Sayuri has Japanese roots, Villalba is Afro-Paraguayan. On the other hand, the reinterpretation that Sayuri has made of the Virgin of Caacupé, a central figure in the Catholic culture of this country, invites to rethink the relationship between religion, idiosyncrasy and Guarani culture. Because while Guarani race is deeply embedded in Paraguayan identity, its recognition has been historically problematic. By painting an indigenous Virgin, the author tried to recover the original representation of the Virgin, which according to the popular legend was made by an indigenous called José, and ‘at some point of history, it was transformed into the image of a white woman covert by jewellery’ (Sayuri, 2017).
*Ao po'i: a delicate but sturdy fabric completely made of cotton threads.
*Ñanduti: type of lace characterised by a spoke-like structure of foundation threads upon which many basic patterns are embroidered.
Céspedes, R., 2015. Imágenes de mujer en billetes y monedas paraguayas (The imagery of women in Paraguayan banknotes and coins), Cuadernos Americanos, Mexico, 2015 vol. 2 no. 152, pp. 147-166.
Colombino, L., 2018. The narrative’s of Claudia Casarino. In: Claudia Casarino. Illuminating Absence. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: CAAM.
Potthast, B., 2011. ¿Paraíso de Mahoma o País de las Mujeres? (‘Muhammad’s Paradise’ or ‘The Country of Women’?). 2nd ed. Asunción: Fausto.