Last night I watched the BBC documentary Patagonia with Huw Edwards. It is all about an historic Welsh community in Argentina.
Quirks of History
My travel interests are largely encapsulated in this site’s tagline: “Mostly about travel, lesser known destinations and curious quirks of history”. Thus, my first foray into travel writing was my book exploring the tiny principality of Andorra.
If ever a destination can be described as a quirk of history, this 150 year old community in Argentina’s Patagonia that retains its Welshness to this day is surely such an example.
As a boy reading about Patagonia it seemed to me a distant, mysterious and rather dangerous land (my views were no doubt tinged by the famous boyhood literary character Biggles who had several adventures there). Later I read about the Welsh Patagonians and was fascinated that they retained their identity and still spoke Welsh.
The Welsh in Patagonia
In the film Huw Edwards, who is Welsh and a familiar face on UK television as a senior BBC New presenter, visited the community in Argentina. The documentary traces the establishment, history and many hardships the Welsh encountered and overcame. Throughout its existence the settlement has remained thoroughly Welsh, including language, customs, style of chapel worship and schooling their children in their culture and language.
Later the colony and its unique identity came under threat as the Argentine authorities sought to create a national identity and foster a sense of national unity. Inevitably the Welsh language and schooling came under threat. Nonetheless, despite much difficulty the community, its culture, faith and language survived. It is a fascinating piece of history.
Edwards (a Welsh speaker) mentions some of the unusually accented Welsh spoken. In the film it was also evident that the Welsh spoken by some was not as fluid as others. At one communal event some of those present often switched between Welsh and Spanish. It is clear it has taken (and continues to take) determined effort to retain this linguistic identity, particularly when no doubt it would have been easier to succumb to the dominant Spanish-speaking culture.
Yet survive they did and this unique communal history and culture, together with their willingness to accept a wider Argentine existence, has resulted in the community now being regarded by Argentines with fondness, something to be protected and cherished.
Indeed, the film included scenes of non-Welsh Argentines studying the Welsh language. Particularly noteworthy was the chapel minister, a native Spanish speaker, who had worked hard to become fluent in Welsh to serve the community in a Welsh chapel that was thousands of miles away from Wales.
I think the film and the Patagonian Welsh community teach us three lessons. First, it is possible to fight and work hard to retain successfully your culture and identify, even when surrounded by a dominant culture.
Secondly, however, to do so is not easy. Far from it, as the film demonstrates, with the various adversities, pressures and external influences encountered by the Welsh in Patagonia. It takes determined effort and sometimes considerable hardship to survive and flourish in such circumstances. A classic example is the survival of the Jewish people despite centuries of often brutal history and the most extreme circumstances and adversity.
Third, in a world of globalisation and increasing migration, arguably cultural enclaves are here to stay. I’m fascinated with little territorial enclaves that are quirks of history (for example, the Spanish enclave of Llívia surrounded by French territory). But as people increasingly travel and migrate there are bound to be various cultural and linguistic enclaves that set up across the globe.
Keys to Survival
In time many will be increasingly integrated into the wider culture, some may continue with their cultural identity largely intact. It seems an important approach to ensure success is what the Welsh did: to embrace wholeheartedly one’s religious, cultural and linguistic identity yet eschewing unnecessary enmity with the host culture.
I have not visited this part of the world but, together with Buenos Aires and the Falkland Islands, it is most certainly on my travel bucket list. If you can find it, watch Huw Edward’s film. It is certainly an hour well-spent.
The lovely image featured at the top of this page is by Luis Dalvan and available at Pexels.