Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Like A Candle In The Wind

Growing up in a country that is part of the Commonwealth, it was normal for me to see photos and hear stories about English monarchs. But when I walked through the doors of a tea house in Gaiman, Argentina, I hadn’t expected the Princess of Wales would be staring straight back at me.

Set in Argentina’s Patagonia region, Gaiman is home to the descendents of Welsh immigrants who arrived on these windswept plains in 1865. Back then, the Welsh were looking for a way to protect their lifestyle that had become endangered by the English. The Argentine government wanted to promote immigration to Argentina and offered the Welsh 100 square miles of land along the Chubut River in southern Patagonia. In exchange, the Welsh made a deal that the Argentines would respect their language, religion, and traditions. Who knew that years later, the Argentines would have their own issues with the English when it came to the Falkland Islands (or las Islas Malvinas, as the Argentines call it)?

The settlers arrived on a converted tea-clipper and found they had been given false promises. The supposed fertile land was arid, and little food was available. Floods washed away their crops and hampered construction of towns. The Argentine government introduced conscription and insisted the Welsh men drill on Sundays, even though it went against the Christian principles of the settlers. A wide rift grew between the Welsh and the Argentine government, but it wasn’t enough to stop more Welshmen from travelling to Argentina over the next 50 years. By the time immigration stopped just before World War I, approximately 2,300 Welsh had arrived.

As I strolled through the streets of Gaiman back in 2000, it was difficult to remember this was an Argentine town. The concrete block buildings found in Argentine suburbia weren’t common in this quaint town. Instead, Gaiman’s streets were lined with weatherboard houses with white shutters, lush gardens were in full bloom, and the air sagged with the scent of roses. Tea houses surrounded the settlement and Welsh tea, accompanied by pastries, cakes, and other delectable delights were on the menu.

In a hallway of the Ty Te Caerdydd tea house, Princess Diana of Wales is honored at a shrine of sorts. A large photo of the former princess in royal regalia is framed by bunches of roses and the original tea set she drank from when she visited the establishment sits under her picture. The day Diana visited, a children’s choir sang in Welsh, and she shook the hands of each child. She drank tea and ate pastries and when she left, despite being forbidden to accept flowers for security reasons (!!), she took a red rose from a bouquet.

On the 31st of August every year, the anniversary of her death, the Welsh descendants gather to pay their respects to the Princess of the People. The Argentine Welsh have an undying love for an English woman, which is ironic, given they once had such contempt for the English. Maybe their adoration for Diana was a result of her charm, or perhaps it was because she appeared to be a thorn in the side of the “real” royals.

The Eisteddfod, a Welsh tradition, is held every year and plays an important role in Patagonian heritage. Choir singing, poetry, and dancing competitions are held during the Eisteddfod, and keep the Welsh tradition alive. The water channels the Welsh built were Argentina’s first man-made irrigation system and are now used all over the country. It is one of the reasons Argentina has thrived in the farming arena for so many years.

I’ve often wondered why my connection to Argentina has always been strong. When I discovered my own Welsh heritage and its connection to Argentina, everything fell into place. No wonder this invisible umbilical cord that attaches me to Argentina feels like it could never be severed.

How about you? Have you ever travelled somewhere and realized the bond with the place is because of your ancestry?


  1. Unfortunately, yes, and it wasn't any place as glamorous as any of these. I was shocked to realize I had such ties to California's Central Valley, always thinking of myself as a SoCal beach girl. :)

    But I did see an Anthony Bourdain episode on this area and found it fascinating! Great post!

  2. Thanks, Kathy! I think discovering our heritage (good and bad) can help us sometimes work out who we are (or don't want to be). And I'm sure your a SoCal beach girl through and through, Kathy!

  3. Alli, do the people in Gaiman still speak Welsh? Or English, for that matter? I am always fascinated to see places like this, where one culture is so well preserved against the backdrop of another, and it makes me think how much effort goes into preserving it.

  4. What a fascinating story! I didn't know anything about this. My Spanish teacher is from Argentina (and currently *in* Argentina), and I will forward her your post.

  5. Thanks so much, Gerhard! I was surprised when I first learnt about the Welsh in Argentina, too. Do you know what part of Argentina your teacher is from? I used to live in Mendoza.

    Heidi, a lot of the people I met in Gaiman were bi-lingual, and sometimes tri-lingual (English being the third language). I guess it depends on whether someone is from a family that is determined to keep the Welsh language alive. I heard a story about a teacher from Wales being sent to Gaiman to encourage Welsh speakers to continue with the language.

  6. Fascinating, indeed. So it's like a little Welsh town in Argentina. What are their livelihoods and connections with the "old country"? I always thought Italians were the predominant second culture in Argentina, or maybe I just assumed that from colonial times.

  7. Nice post. At least this place still survives, unlike a few other ill-informed efforts like these:

    New Australia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Australia

    Charlotta - http://natalee_now.tripod.com/pages/charlotta.html

    Brook Farm - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brook_Farm

  8. Awesome links, Dave! I wish I had of known about the New Australia when I was in South America. Now that would have been an interesting visit.

  9. Here's a place where tourist could stay when they visit Argentina.

    Hostels in Bariloche