Traditions Still Cherished : Welsh Colony Fading Into Argentina's Melting Pot

Times Staff Writer

The high-peaked Bethel Congregational Church, seemingly more suited to an American suburb than the Argentine outback, is an artisans' pride of polished pine and crisp red brick. From a fundamentalist altar, four solid ranks of pews stare into yesterday.

"When I was a girl, the pews were filled; all of them every Sunday," said Moelona Llwyd Roberts de Drake with a smile at once nostalgic and apologetic. "Now we get only about 20 worshipers, and the Sunday School classes are in Spanish."

A tenacious colony of Welsh pioneers who brought muscle and music to a wilderness and democracy to a continent is sliding gracefully into history here, wrapped in poetry and song.

Mission Accomplished

"Wedi llawn lanw ei burpas," the old folks say in their ancestors' tongue--mission accomplished.

The story of the lost Welsh colony of Chubut province in the desert of southern Argentina is a lesson in out-of-step nationalism and slow-motion assimilation.

The New World wins again. Belated but inevitable Welsh surrender to the melting pot, thereby creating a pot of a different texture, is an Argentine variation on the immigrants' international theme.

The nationalistic reasons for the Welsh colony's founding are irrelevant here today even as they assert themselves in Wales and elsewhere where linguistic minorities struggle to preserve their heritage and sense of self.

The heart of immigrant culture, the Welsh language, is dying in Chubut, but a certain Welsh essence has seeped melodically into the fabric of provincial life deep in the South Atlantic.

Transplanted Tradition

Just as there are a lot of blue-eyed Gonzalezes in Chubut today, so is there a disproportionate number of down-home choruses ready to sing in four-part harmony, a tradition transplanted from coal valleys of Wales.

The Eisteddfod, a Welsh festival of poetry, recitation and song, is a fixture of cultural life for descendants of settlers from Cwmammam, and those whose grandparents hailed from Calabria. In Chubut, eisteddfod is a Spanish word.

"The Welsh tradition is now our tradition," Lidia Rodriguez de Martin, secretary general of the Chubut provincial government, said.

There was a memorable eisteddfod last month marking the centenary of Trelew--Lewis' Town--a prosperous Chubut city of 60,000. President Raul Alfonsin came to say a few words before the nearly completed statue of founder Lewis Jones.

The Welsh of Chubut were glad to see Alfonsin. Schoolteacher Luned Roberts de Gonzalez, Jones' great-granddaughter, greeted him in Welsh and was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek. Habitues of the Welsh teahouses of Gaiman and Trelew reckon that Alfonsin is one-eighth Welsh, given the probable, or at least wishful, origins of one of his great-grandparents.

'We Are Argentines'

It is not, mind you, the Welsh anymore who fill the cold Chubut nights with doubled-consonanted European hymns and South American pasodobles.

"Visitors come from Wales and talk of nationalism, but they don't understand. We are Argentines. Our country is Argentina," Clydwin Ap Aron Jones, the maestro of provincial musical education, said.

There is a frontier universality in the roots of Chubut's Welsh; a saga complete with shipwreck, flood, covered wagons, hostile Indians and a dogged quest for nonconforming independence.

If that sounds more North American than South American, it is only just. A majority of the Welsh pioneers came from towns like Llandrillo, Ffestiniog and Rhosllannerchrugog. A minority came from Scranton, Pa., Oshkosh, Wis., and New York City.

Become Americanized

"I guess you could say we've become Americanized--again," said John Sturdee Rogers, who runs a bakery and teahouse in Trelew. Rogers, 60, speaks Welsh and English but would rather gab in Spanish about his great-grandfather, Capt. William J. Rogers, a Welshman turned American turned Patagonian pioneer.

William Rogers lived 14 years in Civil War-era Pennsylvania, but found it too American. "He was a nationalist. He feared loss of identity," John Sturdee Rogers said.

Yearning to join the Welsh colony founded by 155 settlers in 1865, Rogers gathered 30 Pennsylvania Welsh families and sailed with them to South America. After their ship, the Electric Spark, foundered on the Brazilian coast, Rogers went back to the United States for another ship and more settlers. They made it to Chubut finally in 1874 in the schooner Luzerne, named after the county in Pennsylvania's coal country.

Where He Wanted to Be

Rogers wound up just where he wanted to be, hundreds of grueling desert or sea miles--weeks--from the nearest neighbors of European origin. The Welsh had deliberately chosen remote, empty Chubut as a place where they could preserve their language and culture in an agrarian society built around Protestant chapels.

"There is a case for supposing that modern Welsh nationalism began with the Patagonia colony," British writer Bruce Chatwin noted in his book "In Patagonia" after a visit to Chubut.

Trekking 40 desert miles inland from their landing at Puerto Madryn, the first settlers carved the fertile 5-by-50 mile Chubut River Valley into family farms. Until Argentina asserted governmental authority from far-off Buenos Aires around 1885, the Welsh flourished under a liberal constitution built around the concept of universal suffrage. Welsh historian Glyn Williams notes that the Chubut colony "has been heralded as the first functioning democracy in South America."

By 1885, the colonists had dug nearly 100 miles of irrigation canals with pick and shovel and Chubut wheat had won gold medals in international expositions in Paris and Chicago. By 1889, the settlers had built a narrow-gauge railroad linking valley settlements and an offshoot Welsh colony had sprung up around the towns of Trevelin and Esquel hundreds of miles to the west, in the Andean foothills near Argentina's border with Chile.

2 Tons of Wheat Per Acre

By 1908, runaway Welsh-American William Rogers, a white-bearded patriarch of 84, would boast of two tons of wheat per acre and the success of a dream.

"We have in Patagonia the true spirit of Welsh nationalism," Rogers told a visiting Welsh reporter from the Llanelly Mercury. "We have the Eisteddfod and the Welsh system of education. We preserve the purity of the language, and, despite the thousands of miles, we are 100% Welsh."

The colony's success in a forbidding region where other settlers had not dared venture proved the undoing of its founders' hopes for an autonomous Welsh province. The Welsh presence enabled Argentina to effectively assert sovereignty over what until then had been empty desert. Welsh immigration stopped in 1911 at around 3,000, but Welsh prosperity attracted other settlers. By 1915, Spanish and Italian immigrants outnumbered the Welsh.

Their descendants have lived peacefully together ever since, yoked by Welsh-imported traditions of respect for culture and religious and political tolerance. Otwell Williams of Alfonsin's Radical Party is mayor of Trevelin. Hector Williams, an opposition Peronist, is mayor of Dolavon.

Proud of Its Roots

Here in Gaiman, the most Welsh of the valley communities, the mayor and two of four city councilmen are of Welsh descent, and the city of 5,000 supports its own music school. Gaiman is proud of its roots, the Welsh museum, the old railroad tunnel hacked by hand, but is more concerned just now with becoming the site of a new wool-washing plant. That would mean jobs.

"This is a special place. The Welsh came to do more than make money. Religion, language and ideas were all more important," Benito Owen, a 42-year-old farmer and city councilman, said.

"This is a poor man's house, but look there," Owen added, pointing to the family piano.

These days, about 1,500 elders still speak Welsh to one another but Spanish to their grandchildren. There were only two poems in Welsh at this year's eisteddfod, but more than 60 in Spanish. Poet Irma Hughes de Jones says the circulation of her quarterly Welsh-language newspaper Y Drafod--The Mentor--is around 350.

"We are losing the language, but it is a miracle to have preserved the traditions after more than a century," said May Williams de Hughes, organizer of this year's festival.

Musing over the home-baked bread and cream cakes that decorate their teas, Argentina's Welsh have already decided what will be the last spoken legacy of ancestors who tamed an improbable frontier. They predict it will be the word nain-- grandmother.

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