REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r19

Memoir and Identity in Welsh Patagonia Enterprises. Voices from a Settler Community in Argentina

by Geraldine Lublin

When General Julio Roca undertook the conquest of the desert during the 1870s, members of the fledgling Welsh colony on the Chubut river could only look on, impotent and afeared, as the Tehuelche – the indigenous people that had occupied the land for more than 14,000 years and lent vital support to the initially clueless incomers – were wiped out.

For his exploits, ‘Remington’ Roca became a national hero and in 1898 the president of Argentina. The annihilation of the original Patagonians was part of a broader campaign by which Buenos Aires sought to assert national sovereignty over its scarcely populated southern territories, not least to ensure the equally bellicose Chileans didn’t get there first. It also signalled the beginning of an unstoppable process that would see Y Wladfa, as the colony was known in Wales, subsumed into the Argentine body politic, with its associated civic and mythic values.

Over the next fifty years or so, the original 1865 hope of a new Welsh homeland would become as arid as the Patagonian steppe. As immigrants poured in from war-torn, destitute Europe, the creole ruling classes imposed the Spanish language and required Welsh settlers to engage in Sunday military drills beneath the sky-blue-and-white national flag. With the election of Juan Domingo Perón in 1946 came an insistence on an education system espousing Roman Catholic morals and a populist anti-British jingoism that could not but perturb the second and third generations. Perón banned non-Spanish names, closed the mill at Trevelin, transferred ownership of the canals that the Welsh had dug with their bare hands, and encouraged urbanisation. Some of the settlers fled to America and New Zealand. Those who stayed kept as low a profile as possible.

Yet, as we know, the colony, or settlement, or whatever exactly Y Wladfa is, persisted. Two years ago, the 150th anniversary of the landing of the Mimosa was celebrated with multiple cultural exchanges, town-twinnings, events on both sides of the Atlantic and a general upsurge in good feeling.

There have been many books about Welsh Patagonia. That a small, exceptional (or, at least, exceptionalist) colony should produce such a lot of writing should not surprise anyone. While British outposts have largely been construed as part of a global imperialist power-grab, the ‘gesta galesa’ or ‘Welsh feat’ as it is known in Argentina, is routinely romanticised as a story of exile, utopianism and heroism in the face of extreme hardship.

The present volume, by Swansea University Spanish lecturer Geraldine Lublin, stands out for a number of reasons. As a genuinely trilingual author, she is uniquely positioned to offer multiple readings of the narratives produced about Welsh Patagonia. She approaches the subject through memoirs or ‘life-writing’, but always with a keenly critical eye; she overtly problematises the texts, raising questions about their value as documents of witness and noting the special function that diaries and memoirs have among exile and expat communities. She acknowledges that, given Patagonia’s ‘mythic aura’ – as articulated in travel writing, in the Argentine collective memory, in literary accounts and in photographic works –‘there is a sense that mere residence in the region implies some kind of history-making.’
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Lublin chooses to focus on four memoirs that will be obscure to most readers, three by authors born in the 1910s – and recently passed away – and a fourth by a living author, born in 1953. Two main reasons guide her selection: one, we get to hear the voices of Welsh Patagonians, rather than academics, visitors, outsiders, or ordinary ‘Argentines’; two, rather than revisit the oft-analysed early settler years, we are presented with a survey of the twentieth century, a period of turmoil and renaissance for the Welsh community in Chubut.

The book is squarely aimed at a specialist, academic readership, and comes with the requisite hesitations and arcane prose, as well as a blizzard of supporting references. It comes to life, however, as soon we enter the texts of the memoirists: Valmai Jones (the one woman author); Fred Green, Juan Daniel Moreteau and Carlos Luis Williams. These four names, like a free-verse poem, give some sense of the toings and froings – mental and physical – of being a Welsh Patagonian. Jones’ Atgofion am y Wladfa – published in 1985 by Gomer after the author had spent thirty years in Wales – captures the anxieties and ambiguities of being neither one thing nor another. One excerpt expresses her excitement at preparing a gift for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1927 and subsequent disappointment when she found no mention of it in his published diaries. She refers repeatedly to the pull of the ‘old country’ and how, while all yearn to see it, many ‘fail’ to do so. Lublin highlights the mimicry undertaken by re-patriates as they struggle to fit in and lose – or find – themselves in the re-adopted homeland.

Fred Green is described as the ‘Welsh Patagonian Gaucho’, loading his persona with yet another heavyweight myth. In Argentina, the Gaucho is widely regarded as the humble, long-suffering spiritual founder of the nation. The ‘national’ epic poem, Martín Fierro, turns on the life of a much-abused gaucho warrior. It’s the author, Green himself who purveys this colourful self-image and much of his memoir, Pethau Patagonia (1984), is taken up showcasing the degree of assimilation achieved by men of Welsh extraction when challenged to work the land and round-up herds on the Patagonian steppe. He enjoys the approval of non-Welsh soldiers and, like many of his peers, adopts the loose pantaloons and girdle of the Gaucho. But Lublin teases out the fact that in narrowing his gaze to the flag-less locales of the open range and his cowboy-like antics, Green is also dissociating himself from wider, political narratives and, simultaneously, tying himself to the older stories of the Tehuelche.

Moreteau’s self-published Tres etapas de una vida (Three stages in a life, 1997) is the work of an octogenarian and a record of antagonism and alienation. Born in Buenos Aires, of French descent on his father’s side, he resists attaching himself to Welshness, to any kind of formal religion and to the founding narratives. He expresses frustration at not being able to develop his intellectual abilities in a harsh, remote, rural setting, and, at the same time, resents those who do find time to read and improve. He respects the Welsh for their honesty and simple moral values, but ultimately imbibes the Argentine nationalism that flourished during his formative adult years; born in 1915, he would have been in his early thirties when Peronism paraded through the avenues of Buenos Aires.

The treacly title of Carlos Luis Williams’ Puerto Madryn y el triunfo de mis Padres: El Amor (Puerto Madryn and the triumph of my parents: love) gives the lie to its two pseudo-arguments: that ‘every human being should become as virtuous as [his parents] and appreciate the beauty of [Puerto Madryn].’ Published in 1988, with support from the Puerto Madryn Council, it also seeks to enlighten us – the non Patagonians, non Welsh – on the wonders of belonging to this exclusive enclave. In this respect, it lacks an assured audience, unlike the first two memoirs, and reflects the later era of the author.
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Lublin concedes that the memoir is unlikely to have been published had it not been for the ‘new prestige enjoyed by Welsh culture in the wake of Chubut’s establishment as a Province in 1955.’ She is being polite. Williams’ book is a poorly written piece of self-regarding sentimentalism. ‘Dear reader, you are penetrating the magical world where my parents were born,’ he writes. And, further on: ‘The landscape, and the isolation… gradually mark [Welsh settlers’] spirits until they become a human copy of the country.’ Williams mixes up this self/place identification with the well-worn trope of Patagonia’s ‘uninhabited’ state – as if it were waiting to be filled with Welsh people, storytellers and wonderful mams and dads.

Through these four texts of varying literary value, Lublin illuminates a variety of reworkings on the Patagonian story. From the outset, she is eager to contend R Bryn Williams’ elegiac prediction – in 1962 – that the epic of Y Wladfa would soon be little more than a memory of glorious failures. But postmodernism has taught us that nothing ends, quite. The Welsh language is not by any means secure in Chubut, but heritage tourism is likely to continue growing. Our four memoirists serve us rather like the layers Darwin saw in the Patagonian coast: the stories pile one on top of the next, and if the Welsh plan faltered a century or so ago, the Welsh dream continues to reconfigure its contents. Geraldine Lublin’s timely book invites us to apply a critical distance when reflecting on the alluring mythologies nurtured in, and exported from, distant lands.

Chris Moss is a travel writer.

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