REVIEW by Nia Davies

NWR Issue 99

Beyond the Pampas, In Search of Patagonia

by Imogen Rhia Herrad


There’s a pivotal moment in Beyond the Pampas. The author returns to Patagonia on 16 July, an annual celebration of the 1865 arrival of the Mimosa, whose passengers arrived to found a haven of Welsh language and culture, Y Wladfa (The Colony).

Herrad has been in search of the hybridized Welsh, Argentinian and Patagonian culture since hearing about Y Wladfa on the off-chance in Aberystwyth years earlier. Up to this point in the book she has learnt Spanish, made several friends, conquered some of her fear and is now waiting in line at the chapel door in Gaiman to witness the celebratory tea. But once inside, ‘for the first time, I feel like a stranger in Gaiman’ as everyone seems to be related to everyone else: ‘In the face of the gathered clans... I feel rather alone in Capel Bethel.’

Much of the first half of the book has been about looking for some kind of community. It seems that travel narratives must always rest uneasily on the tension derived from the narrator being an outsider but needing to be an insider to convey truthfully.

Herrad grew up in a small town in Germany but moved away from her abusive family as an adult. So for her, ‘community’ is not a naturally comfortable space. In the chapel, she says, ‘Who among those assembled here knows of a woman or a child being beaten behind closed doors, but won’t interfere because the family is more important than individual well-being?’ From here on in, Herrad seeks out the other side of Patagonia, the interior and the indigenous people who have been much oppressed since the Argentinian government launched its ‘desert campaign’ of ethnic cleansing in the 1870s. The Mapuche and Tehuelche people had, up until this campaign (and subsequent ongoing land grab and racism), lived in relative peace with the Welsh. The tribes helped the settlers hunt when harvests failed and the Welsh petitioned to the government unsuccessfully on behalf of their neighbours for clemency during the genocide. The book’s absorbing and detailed factual sections give us this context.

But the more Herrad meets, lives and travels alongside the Mapuche–Tehuelche people, the less sympathetic Welsh attitudes seem. ‘I don’t know how the people of Esquel lived,’ says Mapuche Ambrosio Ainqueo, ‘knowing what was done to us’ in the early part of the twentieth century, ‘they didn’t lift a finger.’

After the Capel Bethel moment, Herrad’s writing seems to gain confidence. In the first half there is a great deal of hesitation. It seems she enters most new situations in a state of unease. After most new meetings she makes an affirmation: that she can now feel comfortable in the company of someone new, that she has been welcomed.

Sometimes her naive surprise in new situations is refreshing, such as the time she tries to conceal her wonder at a gaucho boarding a bus only to find the gaucho staring straight back at her and her blue eyebrows. But did she really expect to get her own bedroom at the home of a Mapuche woman, Joanna Luz, who has invited Herrad to ‘see how we live’? Does she really feel so uneasy before many of her escapades? At first this hesitance made the storytelling seem timid and occasionally clunky. But later I wondered whether this (almost ritualistic) tick is part of Herrad’s own self determined character, or even a narrative trick.

Much in this book, particularly in the second half, absorbed and fascinated me. By the end I felt like I had discovered the indigenous roots of Patagonia along with Herrad. And contemplated a difficult truth: that the Patagonian Welsh, fleeing religious persecution and English pressure on their culture and language in turn helped the Argentines – whether directly or indirectly – to almost entirely eradicate the culture and language of another group of less empowered people.

In twenty-first-century Patagonia, Herrad finds a divided culture. Some of the descendants of settlers have sealed themselves off, becoming indifferent, even contemptuous, to the people who lived on the land centuries ago. Right now the Mapuche and Tehuelche peoples, often living in shanty towns or desert wastes, stand on the brink of losing their culture and language. They and their allies are fighting at much personal cost with the powerful to retain something, anything, of their way of life and wellbeing. Despite the wealth of material written on the region, it feels like Beyond the Pampas could be the beginning of another deeper exploration into this almost circular tale of conflicting cultures.

Nia Davies’ debut poetry pamphlet, Then Spree (Salt) was published in November. Her grandfather, the Hispanist Gareth Alban Davies, travelled to Patagonia in the early Seventies and published a journal based on his experiences which was illustrated by Kyffin Williams, Tan Tro Nesaf, Darlun o Wladfa Gymreig Patagonia.

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previous review: Patagonia – Byd Arall/Otro Mundo/Another World
next review: Then Spree


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