Life in Community

Roots in South America

June 28, 2021 by

Dark clouds trailed us on our three-hour drive from Asuncion to San Pedro, Paraguay. It was one of those days so typical of the Paraguayan summer: suffocating heat, beating sun, and the promise of rain always on the horizon. We, the girls from Villa Primavera Bruderhof house, were on our way to visit some friends in the town of Itacurubí del Rosario before camping by the Tapiracuay River. On our way to the town we stopped through the Primavera estancia where, seventy years ago, our forebears lived.

The Bruderhof bought Estancia Primavera in 1941 when they were forced to flee Europe during World War II. Paraguay was the only country at that time willing to accept a group of three hundred refugees of both English and German heritage. By some accounts, the country lost up to 90% of its male population between 1864 and 1870 in the war of the Triple Alliance, and thousands more had been killed in the Chaco War from 1932–1935, so any able-bodied people were welcomed.

christoph and maidiThe author's grandparents with friends on the Tapiracuay River, 1961.

Over time, the Bruderhof built up three communities on the 7,780 hectare property, where they tamed the jungle into pastures and fruit orchards. Members of the group had to adapt to a lifestyle and climate totally different from what they had known in Europe. At the same time, however, they came to appreciate the beauty of the land they lived in and the great heart of its people. To earn a living, they raised cattle, planted rice and vegetables, turned wooden bowls and dishes, and produced high quality bricks that can still be found in the area. They also opened a medical clinic that served Paraguayan locals as well as community members. My grandfather spent hours in the saddle rounding up cattle and later studied ceramics in the town of Areguá, which is famous for its colorful pottery.

When I was a child, I would sit with my grandmother, listening to stories of her childhood in Paraguay. Once she and a friend went flower picking and, just like Little Red Riding Hood, they wandered farther and farther into the campo until they were completely lost. But instead of being eaten by a wolf, the girls found themselves in the same field as an angry bull! The girls fled toward the fence as the bull charged and they just barely escaped in time. When they finally got back they found most of the community was out looking for them . . . of course they were both grounded for a month! Along with the adventures, however, came some very difficult times for my grandma. Her little brother died when he was only eleven months old, and not too long after that her mother died quite suddenly from asthma. My grandmother was seventeen at the time and the oldest of eight siblings. Her father couldn’t face raising the children alone, so they were taken in by another family. My grandparents were later engaged and married, and their first child was born shortly before the communities in Paraguay closed down. Those twenty years in Paraguay were the most formative years of their lives.

After looking around where the communities had been, we continued on to the little town of Itacurubí del Rosario to visit Sra. Castorina. She is eighty-eight years old and well known and respected in the town for the many years she worked as a nurse. Her medical career started in the Primavera Clinic when her mother was ill. Castorina went to the clinic to care for her mother and someone noticed how much she enjoyed caring for people. She was invited to work there full time and she happily accepted. A year later, she was accepted into a nursing school in Asuncion thanks to a letter of recommendation from the doctor of the Primavera Clinic. When her studies were done, she returned to work at Primavera for several years before moving on to another nearby clinic.

When we came to the townhouse where she lives with her husband, she ushered us in with a brilliant smile and commenced to tell us stories of her youth and her memories from the time she spent at Primavera. She had some hilarious stories to tell! Two hours later, she saw us off with an invitation to come again as soon as the pandemic is past.

sunsetSunset over the Tapiracuay River, San Pedro, Paraguay. Photo by author.

When we came to the camping site by the Tapiracuay River late in the afternoon, the air was heavy and still. The river, which runs quite close to Estancia Primavera, passes through a large swamp and consequently, on such a hot summer day it smelled strongly of rotting plant matter and looked rather slimy. After some brief speculation, I decided a walk would be preferable to swimming! Two of us set off up the red, sandy road from the camp, past cow pastures and farmhouses and along the hilltop. Just as we turned back, the dark skies finally loosed the menace that had hung over us all day. Lightning shredded the clouds and the thunder was deafening! The sandy road turned into a torrent of red mud as we raced back to camp and into the shelter of a tin-roofed pavilion. Luckily we had not yet set up our tents.

The storm passed just as the sun was setting. In the west, the tattered remains of clouds suddenly bloomed pink, orange, and gold while in the east a brilliant rainbow etched itself across the darkening canvas of the sky. Our supper of meat and soup sizzled on the fire while we watched the majesty of a day ending.

After dinner, we left the pavilion to look at the pristine night sky. It was a moonless night, but the sky glistened with stars. So far from the city and with no light pollution I could see that the stars went on forever. In that moment, I could feel my grandmother looking down on me from among those stars and smiling to see me enjoying the haunts of her childhood. How I wished I could tell her then how all her stories had come to life for me!

By the light of the stars, I set up a hammock and crawled in, with a blanket on top to ward off the army of mosquitos. The voices of a thousand night insects from the jungle all around sang me to sleep.

This article was originally published in Spanish.

Emily Thomson lives at Villa Primavera, a Bruderhof in Asuncion, Paraguay. Comments

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