- The Grandchildren of Solano López: Frontier and Nation in Paraguay, 1904–1936 by Bridget María Chesterton
On October 22, 1931, thousands of students took to the streets of Asunción in protest of the Liberal regime of President José Guggiari, in particular for his failing to take action against the Bolivians on the Chaco frontier. Unsatisfied with the previous day’s events, students, workers, women, and children gathered in front of the National School the following morning and marched on the presidential palace, where they were met by marines guarding the building. When the protesters began harassing the marines, two trucks of police arrived. Then a gunshot went off and eight students were killed. The deaths of eight young people marked a major turning point in the national consciousness of Paraguay, bringing about a growing awareness of hostilities on the western frontier. Increased tensions led to open warfare and a formal declaration of war between Paraguay and Bolivia in 1932.
The Chaco War (1932-1935) was the only full-scale conflict between two American states in the twentieth century. Chesterton argues that its most important cause for the Paraguayans was nationalism. In this engaging study, she underscores that Paraguayan agriculturalists considered themselves to be soldiers willing to defend the lands they diligently worked and considered their own. She contends that the soldier-agriculturalists fought against the Bolivians to redeem national honor and vindicate Paraguay’s fallen hero, Francisco Solano López, in memory of the nation’s devastation in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870). At the same time, Paraguayan soldiers took pride in their Guaraní heritage. Then and even today, most Paraguayans, in particular the rural classes, are monolingual speakers of this indigenous language. Poets paid tribute to Solano López, as the Guaraní language became a “national” language on the battlefields of the Chaco frontier—the language of the arts and the people of Paraguay, in no way relegated to the margins of the nation.
While incursions into the Chaco had been making front-page news for many years, Chesterton argues that it was the experiences of scientists, naturalists, military advisors, and religious groups in the region that reshaped Paraguayan nationalism so quickly and profoundly during the Chaco War. Descriptions of the landscape were also highly visible [End Page 368] in the geography textbooks and in literature, poetry, and song lyrics. Additionally, the arrival of Anglicans, Salesians, and Mennonites gave the impression that the indigenous peoples of the Chaco could be “civilized” and made into “Paraguayan citizens.” Scientific nationalism of the early twentieth century focused its attention on similarities between the Guaraní peoples of eastern Paraguay and the Chaco Indians, rather than highlighting distinctive features of these cultures.
The end of the Chaco War in 1935 provided an opportunity for missionary groups to expand their presence into this wilderness area. Survivors of the conflict, however, planted powerful images in the minds of the Paraguayans that this was an inhospitable area. The Chaco did not become an attractive area for resettlement. Only Mennonites, who had arrived in the late 1920s, eked out an existence in the region until the 1950s, when General Stroessner took a personal interest in the colonists and built the first road to connect the colonies to Asunción and promoted their agricultural production.
While Chesterton has made an impressive study of Paraguayan history, politics, and elite culture, one would like to have learned more about the human costs of the Chaco War among Paraguayans. Chesterton considers Paraguay the winner of this conflict, but other scholars such as Leslie B. Rout Jr. have made it clear in Politics of the Chaco Peace Conference, 1935-1939 (1970; p. 45) that the Paraguayans lost some 30,000 soldiers and never reached Bolivia’s rich oil fields. Also, how did the madrinas de guerra (war godmothers), usually the wives, sisters, aunts, nieces, and other female relatives of Paraguayan officers and soldiers, manage to send care packages...