After Teen Suicides, an Argentine Tribe Outlaws ‘White’ Vices

Sara Miller Llana, Christian Science Monitor, November 2, 2007

Every Saturday night Victoriano Espindola would dance, drink, and often end up in a fight. He lost his left eye in one brawl.

But now the 21-year-old spends quiet nights with his parents and six siblings in this indigenous village in a tropical corner of Argentina.

The village is in the midst of a quarantine called for by the cacique, or traditional leader, after two teens shocked the community by committing suicide in September. All members now must be home by 7 p.m., alcohol is strictly forbidden, and all youths must attend traditional dance classes and consultations with elders.

The cacique, Silvino Moreira, says that the white culture that surrounds the village on all sides has encroached on their Guarani culture and that they must protect themselves from all its many “vices,” including alcohol, drugs, and even the radio. It’s an issue indigenous groups worldwide have faced for centuries, but the unusually drastic measures Mr. Moreira has enacted are key to preserving their culture in today’s world, say community members here.

“When I was young, we sat around as a family when it got dark and drank maté [tea] together,” Moreira says. “Now the youngsters want to go to the center of town, watch soap operas or play on the computer. Then they want to smoke and drink. We have to teach them about their traditions and strengthen our spirituality before we lose them.”

Fortin Mborore, a town of about 750 residents, is just miles from one of the most visited tourist sites in Latin America, the waterfalls of Iguazú. Homes, which dot expansive fields of red earth, are made of wooden planks. The village contains no stores, and its only school ends at the seventh grade. Most residents, who speak to each other in a dialect of Guarani, live by selling necklaces made of seeds to tourists at the waterfalls.

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Teen suicides new to the community

It is this collision of cultures that the community says is ultimately to blame for the suicides of the two teens, who both hanged themselves within a week of one another in September. “This has never happened before,” says Rosendo Moreira, who coordinates the youth education program, which includes teaching traditional dance, their religion. The program also teaches respect for one another, their elders, and the forest in which they live.

He says that as teens adopt the lifestyles of Westerners, even with such seemingly innocuous acts as surfing the net, they are more alienated from their roots and lose of sense of identity and purpose. “Our culture is sacred for us,” he says.

Edgardo Barchuk, a local reporter who covers the indigenous communities of Misiones, agrees that the effort is a positive step for a community whose loss of culture is evident, as teens are often found in the center of town drinking. “They sit in the very middle, surrounded by non-indigenous communities,” he says. “They cannot handle alcohol the way whites can. This is an effort to save their community.”

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A teenager’s hard lesson

Despite the fact that his cousin and good friend were the two young people who committed suicide, Delfino Benitez says the curfew, which requires that he be at home with his family each night at dusk, is unfair.

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The local police round up teens found in the center past curfew and take them home, says Ramón Armando Irala, who heads one of the police departments in Puerto Iguazú.

“Underage drinking is a problem in all of the state, but it’s accentuated in Fortin Mborore because they are losing their roots,” he says. “We fully support their initiative.”

Those in Fortin Mborore say that already, just a month into the experiment, family life has improved. “The adolescents need to sleep more and go to church, not drink and fight,” says Maria Felipa Espindola, Victoriano Espindola’s mother. “Now we are all together. There is more happiness.”

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