In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Guaraní and Their Legacy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The 16th Century
  • The 17th Century
  • The 18th Century
  • Guaraní Religious Adaptation
  • Guaraní Folklore and Native Expression
  • Native Leadership and Elites
  • The Guaraní People, Independence, and Nation Building
  • Contemporary Guaraní
  • Environmental, Regional, and Community Studies

Latin American Studies The Guaraní and Their Legacy
Barbara Ganson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0222


Caught between tradition and modernity, more than 100,000 indigenous Guaraní-speaking peoples currently reside in southern South America in what is today Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia. With the exception of the Chiriguanos in southeastern Bolivia, few colonial and 19th-century documents make reference to the names of the different Guaraní groups now recognized. Among the Guaraní groups are the Pai-Tavytera, Mbyá-Guaraní, Avá-Chiripá, Ñandeva, and Kaiowá. Like their ancestors, the Guaraní today experience a clash of cultures and new social values and conflicts over land, religious beliefs, and their need to defend their identity and independence. These indigenous peoples also face new issues such as deforestation, the loss of hunting and fishing sites, and even suicide among young male Kaiowá adults in southern Brazil. Traditionally, scholars, such as anthropologist Elman Service, thought little remained of Guaraní culture other than the language. However, some academics now underscore the significance of the popular beliefs in Guaraní folklore, knowledge of botanical plants, use of curanderos by peasants, and how the native Guaraní language is spoken far more widely than Spanish in Paraguay. In 1992, the Guaraní language (which belongs to the Tupí-Guaraní linguistic family) became one of Paraguay’s official languages, along with Spanish. The Guaraní peoples also represent a central element in the national identity in the region with numerous soccer teams named Guaraní in Argentina and Paraguay. The national currency of Paraguay is the Guaraní. The airport in Santo Angelo—Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil—is named after Sepé Tiarajú, one of the major leaders in the Guaraní rebellion against Spain and Portugal in the 1750s. The Guaraní have also been depicted in films, such as The Mission (1986) and Terra Vermelha (2008, released in 2010 in the United States as Birdwatchers.)


In recent decades, historians, anthropologists, linguists, and archaeologists have taken a more critical look at the present and past experiences of the Guaraní-speaking indigenous peoples in what is today southeastern Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Indeed, scholars have begun to document how the European encounter posed a series of crises for these indigenous peoples who historically have been subjected to processes of “ethnogenesis.” According to anthropologist Jonathan D. Hill: “ethnogenesis can be understood as a creative adaptation to a general history of violent changes—including demographic collapse, forced relocations, enslavement, ethnic soldiering, ethnocide, and genocide—imposed during the historical expansion of colonial and national states in the Americas.” (see Jonathan Hill, ed., History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492–1992 [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996]). Ethnohistorians have demonstrated a tendency to use a wide variety of primary sources, rather than rely solely on printed accounts, to illustrate how the Guaraní shaped the history of southern South America. Recent studies have also shown how the Guaraní were active participants in the development of the Franciscan and Jesuit missions in the region, as well as retaining more of their culture than the traditional historiography suggests. The Guaraní certainly did not simply fade into the forest following the Jesuit expulsion. Most scholars have also moved far beyond the common stereotypes of the noble savage and the notion of utopian communities to make better sense of the Guaraní peoples’ rich past, especially their ability to resist conversion, European expansionism, and even the Incas. Recent studies also serve to illuminate the major events in the lives of the Guaraní, their migration and employment patterns, leadership qualities, political participation, cultural resiliency, daily activities, gender, and ability to adopt aspects of European technology and culture for their own benefit. Finally, growing numbers of scholars have begun to examine the writings of the Guaraní themselves and pay closer attention to capturing native voices through careful analysis of Jesuit and other accounts.

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