After teen suicides, an Argentine tribe outlaws 'white' vices

In a tropical corner of Argentina, a Guarani chief has set a 7 p.m. village curfew and prohibited alcohol.

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.

Argentina's 'European' culture

Argentina's capital city, Buenos Aires, is by most accounts the most cosmopolitan of Latin America. It is commonly referred to as the "Paris of Latin America." When discussing Argentina's genealogy, the starting point usually begins at European immigration at the end of the 19th century. The nation's indigenous population, numbering between 1 million to 1.5 million, according to the National Institute for Indigenous Affairs, is much smaller than in neighboring countries. And while the indigenous have gained rights from Bolivia to Ecuador, here in Argentina they are largely forgotten.

There are almost 90 Mbya Guarani communities in the province of Misiones, where Fortin Mborore lies. But this community is particularly vulnerable because it sits at the "three frontiers" of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and its population constantly fluctuates. Residents here leave most days to sell their crafts at the waterfalls. They even invite tourists to the community.

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."

Many of the young residents seem to favor the plan, although a few say privately that no one in the community would speak out against the cacique. "We forgot our religion," says Mr. Espindola. The hardest part for Espindola is a measure to turn off radios once it turns dark. "Now we are better off."

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.

Fifteen-year-old Delfino, who began drinking and heading to the center of town at age 13, says the shock of what happened has made the villagers realize how much they had lost. "It was hard to give up going out, very hard, but I support it," he says.

When the community met in September to discuss the crisis, a group of teachers, police officers, and workers from the local hospital in Puerto Iguazú also signed the cacique's plan.

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."

Residents in the neighboring Mbya Guarani community of Yriapu – one of two in this immediate area – say they haven't experienced the same problems as Fortin Mborore. Raúl Correa says they still drink in their community but that it's always responsibly done. Whereas Fortin Mborore stopped their traditions, such as dancing, Yriapu didn't. He says it's in part because their community of 300 is much smaller. Even though he can't see his friends from Fortin Mborore in the evenings anymore, he supports the effort. "This is a preventive measure. The suicides could happen again," he says.

IN many ways Moreira's measures have been just as hard for him to follow. The cacique has been drinking almost as long as he's been head of this village – some 17 years – but the recent suicides made him realize how dire the situation has become.

"This is a hard change for the teens," he says. "You can't just say something and expect they will do it, you have to do it too," he says. "It's very hard for us. We have to abandon these vices."

Last week, the community voted to extend the quarantine for another 60 days. "My vision is for my people to be free, so they aren't used by white people," says Moreira. He says he doesn't blame white culture but his tribe's inability to resist it.

Despite lofty goals and enthusiasm, though, it is Moreira who admits that the task ahead will be a tough one.

The police have brought adolescents who sneaked out of the community back home. Some older community members have flat-out refused to participate, says Moreira.

As the sun sets on a Saturday night, the radios go off. Children begin streaming back to their homes. Fires light up and smoke hugs the surrounding forest like morning mist.

There is hardly a sound. And then the Cumbia music comes wailing from a simple home, and Moreira does nothing but shrug.

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