AskDefine | Define Guarani

Dictionary Definition



1 the basic unit of money in Paraguay; equal to 100 centimos
2 a member of the South American people living in Paraguay and Bolivia
3 the language spoken by the Guarani people of Paraguay and Bolivia

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Proper noun

  1. South-American Indian language of the Tupí-Guaraní family; still in use in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

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Extensive Definition

"Guaraní" refers to a group of culturally related indigenous peoples of South America, distinguished from the related Tupi by their use of the Guaraní language. The traditional range of the Guaraní people is between the Uruguay River and lower Paraguay River in what is now Paraguay, the Corrientes and Entre Rios Provinces of Argentina, southern Brazil and parts of Uruguay and Bolivia. There are contemporary Guaraní populations in these areas, though their demographic dominance of the region has been reduced by European colonisation and the commensurate rise of the mestizo. Nevertheless, the Guaraní language is still widely spoken across traditional Guaraní homelands, most notably in Paraguay where it is used amongst all classes and ethnic groups as a symbol of national distinctiveness, and is an official language.


The history and meaning of the name Guaraní is a subject of dispute. Prior to the encounter with Europeans, the Guaraní referred to themselves simply as Abá, meaning "men" or "people." The term Guaraní was originally applied by early Jesuit missionaries to refer to natives who had accepted conversion and thus "civilized", while using the term Cayua or Caingua to refer to those who had refused conversion. Cayua is roughly translated as "men from the forest". While the term Cayua is sometimes still used to refer to settlements of indigenous peoples that have not well integrated into society, the modern usage of the name Guaraní is generally extended to include all people of native origin regardless of societal status.


The history of the Guaraní people prior to contact with European explorers is not well documented. They did not have a written language and their history relied on oral tradition, and as they were a somewhat nomadic and decentralized society there is little in the way of reliable history.
Early villages often consisted of communal houses, of ten to fifteen families. Communities were united only by common interest and language, and tended to form tribal groups by dialect. It is estimated that they numbered at some 400,000 people when they were first encountered by Europeans. They were sedentary and agricultural, subsisting largely on manioc, maize, wild game, and honey.
Equally little is known about early Guaraní society and beliefs. They practiced a form of animistic pantheism, much of which has survived in the form of numerous folklore and myths. Guaraní mythology is still widespread in rural Paraguay. According to the Jesuit missionary Martin Dobrizhoffer, they practiced cannibalism, perhaps as a funerary ritual, but later disposed of the dead in large jars placed inverted on the ground.

European contact

In 1511, the Spanish navigator Juan de Solis was the first European to enter Río de la Plata, the estuary of the Paraná or Paraguay River, followed by Sebastian Cabot in 1526 . In 1537 Gonzalo de Mendoza ascended the Paraguay to about the present Brazilian frontier, and on returning made acquaintance with the Guaraní and founded Asunción (later capital of Paraguay).
The first governor of the Spanish territory of Guayrá initiated a policy of intermarriage of Europeans with Native American women, which gave rise to the Paraguayan nation. He also initiated the enslavement of the natives who had no protector until the arrival of Jesuit missionaries.
The first two Jesuits were Fathers Barcena and Angulo, in 1585, in what is now the State of Paraná, Southern Brazil, who came by land from where 240 years later was to be called Bolivia. Others soon followed, and a Jesuit college was established at Asunción. In 1608, thanks to the Jesuit protest against enslavement of Native Americans, King Philip III of Spain gave authority to the Jesuits to convert and colonize the tribes of Guayrá. It should be noted that in the early period the name Paraguay was loosely used to designate all the basin of the river, including parts of what are now Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.
As usual in Spanish colonies, exploring expeditions were accompanied by Franciscan friars. Early in the history of Asunción, Father Luis de Bolanos translated the catechism into Guaraní language to preach to Guaraní in the neighbourhood of the settlement. In 1588-89 St. Francis Solanus crossed the Chaco wilderness from Peru and stopped at Asunción, but gave no attention to the Guaraní. His recall left the field clear to the Jesuits, who assumed the double duty of "civilizing" and Christianizing the Native Americans and defending them against the cruelty of slave dealers and employers, practically all the European population, lay, clerical, and official. "The larger portion of the population regarded it as a right, a privilege in virtue of conquest, that they should enslave the Indians" (Page, 470). The Jesuit provincial Torres arrived in 1607, and "immediately placed himself at the head of those who had opposed the cruelties at all times exercised over the natives" (ibid).


The centre and depot of the slave trade was the town of São Paulo. Originally, a rendezvous place for the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish pirates, it had become a refuge for criminals of all nations, who mixed with Native American and African women, and who actively participated in capturing Guaranis and selling them as slaves.
To oppose these armed and organized robbers, the tribes had only their bows, since the Spanish government prohibited firearms, even to "civilized Indians". Many Native Americans were slain or enslaved by slave-hunters at large in Brazil during those years.

Jesuit missions

With the royal protection, the first Guayrá mission, Loreto, was established on the Paranapané by Fathers Cataldino and Marcerata in 1610 . The Guaraní flocked there in such numbers, as the mided the only possible protection against enslavement, that twelve missions rose in rapid succession, containing in all 40,000 Indians. Stimulated by this success, Father Gonzalez with two companions in 1627 journeyed to the Uruguay and established two or three small missions, with good promise for the future, until the wild tribes murdered the priests, massacred the neophytes, and burned the missions.
Slave raiders saw the Guaraní missions as "merely an opportunity of capturing more Indians than usual at a haul" and as "nest of hawks, looked at their neophytes as pigeons, ready fattening for their use" (Graham 57). In 1629, an army of Paulistas surrounded the San Antonio mission, set fire to the church and other buildings, killed those who resisted or were too young or too old to travel, and carried the rest into slavery. San Miguel and Jesu Maria quickly met the same fate. Eventually, reinforcements, gathered by Father Cataldino, drove off the enemy. Many other missions were not as fortunate. Within two years, all but two of the establishments were destroyed, as 60,000 Christian and "civilized" converts carried off for sale to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The attacks were usually on Sunday, when the whole mission population was gathered for Mass. Usually, the priests were spared, but several were killed while ministering to the wounded or pleading with the murderers.
The survival of Guayrá missions were in jeopardy. The few thousand Indians were left from nearly 100,000 just before the Paulista invasion. Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya purchased 10,000 cattle, and was able to transform the Indians from farmers into stock raisers. Soon, work began to prosper, and under Fathers Rançoncier and Romero the Uruguay missions were re-established. However, in 1632 an the old enemy, the Mamelucos, discovered a new line of attack from the south. In 1638, despite some successful resistance, all twelve of the missions beyond the Uruguay were abandoned and their people consolidated with the community of the Missions Territory. In the last raid Father Afaro was killed.
In the same year Father Montoya, after having successfully opposed the governor's and Bishop of Asunción's attempts to reduce the liberties of the Indians and the mission administration, sailed for Europe. On his trip he was successful in receiving a letters from Pope Urban VIII forbidding the enslavement of the mission Indians under the severest church penalties, and from King Philip IV of Spain, permitting Indians to carry firearms for defense, and to be trained to use them by veteran soldiers who had become Jesuits.
When the next Paulista army, 800 strong, attacked in 1641 they were met by a body of Christian Guaraní armed with guns on the Acaray River. In two battles, the Paulista army suffered a defeat that warded off invasions for ten years. In 1651, the war between Spain and Portugal encouraged another Paulista attack intended to gain territory for Portugal. Before Spanish troops could arrive to help defend the missions, the fathers themselves led a Guaraní army against the enemy. In 1732, at their greatest prosperity, the Guaraní missions were guarded by a well-drilled and well-equipped army of 7,000 Indians. On more than one occasion this mission army, accompanied by their priests, defended the Spanish colony.

Mission layout

The ruins of several of the missions still remain. The missions were laid out in a uniform plan. The buildings were grouped about a central square, the church and store-houses at one end, and the dwellings of the Indians, in long barracks, forming the other three sides. Each family had its own separate apartment, but one veranda and one roof served for perhaps a hundred families. The churches were of stone or fine wood, with lofty towers, elaborate sculptures, richly adorned altars, and the statuary imported from Italy and Spain. The priests' quarters, the commissary, the stables, the armory, the workshop, and the hospital also usually of stone, formed an inner square adjoining the church. The plaza itself was a level grass plot kept cropped by sheep. The Indian houses were sometimes of stone, but more often of adobe or cane, with home-made furniture or religious pictures, often made by the Indian themselves.

Life at the missions

Smaller missions had two priests, whereas larger missions had more. Populations varied from 2,000 to 7,000. In the morning, the rising sun was greeted by a chorus of children's hymns, followed by Mass and breakfast, after which the workers went to their tasks. "The Jesuits marshalled their neophytes to the sound of music, and in procession to the fields, with a saint borne high aloft, the community each day at sunrise took its way. Along the way at stated intervals were shrines of saints where they prayed, and sang hymns between shrines. As the procession advanced it became gradually smaller as groups of Indians dropped off to work the various fields and finally the priest and acolyte with the musicians returned alone" (Graham, 178-9). At noon each group assembled for the Angelus, after which came dinner and a siesta; work was then resumed until evening. After supper came the rosary and sleep. On rainy days they worked indoors. Frequent festivals with sham battles, fireworks, concerts, and dances, prevented monotony.
Aside from the farm each man would typically had his own garden. In addition to agriculture, stock raising, and the cultivation of the maté. Jesuits introduced many trades and arts that were a part of Europe. It was not uncommon for missions to have many different types of trades within their communities. Cotton weavers, tanneries, carpenters, tailors, hat makers, coopers, boat builders, silversmiths, musicians, painters, and turners could sometimes be found in these communities. They also had printers to work their printing presses to print the many books and manuscripts produced, such those made by the monks in European monasteries (Graham).
The goods that were produced at the missions, including that from the increase of the herds, were sold in Buenos Aires and other markets, under supervision of the fathers. The proceeds earned were divided between a common fund, the workers, and helpless dependents.
A high degree of emphasis was put on education as early training was regarded as the key to future success. (Page, 503) Much of the instruction was conducted in Guaraní; which was still the prevailing language of the country, but Spanish was also taught in every school. In this way, the Jesuits hoped to transformed the Indians into communities of peaceful, industrious, highly-skilled Christian workers among whom idleness, crime, and poverty were alike unknown.
In 1732, the Guaraní missions numbered thirty, with 141,252 Christian Indians. Two years later a smallpox epidemic killed approximately 30,000 of these. In 1765, a second outbreak killed approximately 12,000 more, and then spread westward through the tribes of the Chaco.

Uruguay missions saved

In 1750, a treaty between Spain and Portugal (the Treaty of Madrid) transferred to Portugal the territory of the seven missions on the Uruguay, and the Indians were ordered to be removed. However, those Indians knew the Portuguese as slave-hunters, and refused to leave and the Spanish and Portuguese armies. Seven years of guerrilla warfare killed thousands of Indians and nearly ruined the missions (see Guarani War). The Jesuits secured a royal decree restoring the disputed mission territory to Spanish jurisdiction. Two missions in 1747, and a third in 1760 were established in the sub-tribe of the Itatines, or Tobatines, in Central Paraguay, far north of the older mission group. In one of these, San Joaquin (1747), Martin Dobrizhoffer ministered for eight years.

Jesuits expelled

In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish dominions, by royal edict. Fearing the event, viceroy Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa entrusted the execution of the mandate in 1768 to two officers with a force of 500 troops. Despite the mission army of 14,000, the Jesuits submitted without resistance.

Decline of the missions

The missions were turned over to priests of other orders, chiefly Franciscans, but under a code of regulations drawn up by the viceroy and modelled largely upon the very Jesuit system which he had condemned. Under divided authority, uncertain government support, and without the love or confidence of the Indians, the new teachers soon lost courage and the missions rapidly declined. The Indians went back by thousands to their original forests or become vagabond outcasts in towns. By the official census of 1801, less than 45,000 Indians remained, cattle, sheep, and horses had disappeared, the fields and orchards were overgrown and cut down and the splendid churches were in ruins. The long period of revolutionary struggle that followed completed the destruction. In 1814 the mission Indians numbered but 8,000 and in 1848 the few who remained were declared citizens.
However, the Guaraní people and culture persists. Nearly all the forest tribes on the borders of Paraguay are Guaraní. Many are descendants of mission exiles. In Paraguay Guaraní lineage predominates in the population and the Guaraní language is spoken in most provinces to this day.


The Guaraní language has been much cultivated, its literature covering a wide range of subjects. Many works written by the fathers, and wholly or partly in the native language, were issued from the mission press in Loreto. Among the most important treatises upon the language are the "Tesoro de la Lengua Guaraní"(Madrid, 1639), by Father Montoya, the heroic leader of the exodus, published in Paris and Leipzig in 1876; and the "Catecismo de la Lengua Guaraní" of Father Diego Díaz de la Guerra (Madrid, 1630).
The Guaraní were also later described, amongst many other historical documents in existence today, in 1903, by Croatian explorers Mirko and Stjepan Seljan. Several English words can be traced to Guaraní roots, such as "tapioca", "toucan" and "jaguar."
Presently, the language is still the main binding characteristic of Guaraní people. The Argentinian communities speak mainly the mbya-guarani as opposed to the tupi-guarani spoken in Paraguay and Brazil. However, these two varieties are mutually-intelligible. Paraguay is a bilingual country and some of its Spanish speaking population learn Guarani and vice-versa. The Guarani villages located in the south of Brazil and in the north of Argentina are more marginalized due to a European immigration following the First and Second World Wars. Many Guarani do not speak Spanish and the European immigrant population do not speak Guarani either. The Mbya-Guarani still live in secluded villages and only the "cacique" and some other officials in their community will learn Spanish. Recently the government of Argentina has partly financed bilingual schools in the northern province of Misiones.
Guarani Poets & Writers


Guarani in Guarani: Guarani
Guarani in German: Guaraní (Volk)
Guarani in Spanish: Guaraníes
Guarani in Basque: Guarani
Guarani in French: Guaraní
Guarani in Korean: 과라니족
Guarani in Croatian: Guaraní
Guarani in Bishnupriya: গুৱারানি
Guarani in Italian: Guaraní
Guarani in Lithuanian: Gvaraniai
Guarani in Hungarian: Guaranik
Guarani in Dutch: Guaraní (volk)
Guarani in Japanese: グアラニー族
Guarani in Norwegian: Guaraní
Guarani in Polish: Guarani
Guarani in Portuguese: Guaranis
Guarani in Quechua: Waraniyi runa
Guarani in Finnish: Guaranit
Guarani in Turkish: Guaraníler
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