Welsh Settlers in Patagonia Keep Old Ways


The Ty Nain Tea House and Museum is a Welsh oasis within a Welsh oasis.

More than a century after a handful of pilgrims from Britain founded the village of Gaiman, a fragile Welsh idea in the vast wastes of southern Argentina, the teahouse prospers. It is clean, comforting, resolutely civilized: a shrine to pioneer spirit and industrious ancestors.

The pioneers' approving ghosts fill the wood-paneled room along with heirlooms and the harmonies of old-country choral music as owner Mirna Jones de Ferrari serves a tray heaped with pastries and tea. Nearby, her 4-year-old grandson, Alan, chatters away with another child, sliding back and forth between Spanish and Welsh.

"We preserve the language because we had hardly any contact with English," Jones says in Spanish. "We even speak two different forms of Welsh, with the accent of the north and the accent of the south, because there were grandparents who came from both regions."

On the surface, the saga of the Welsh here resembles the typical immigrant narrative: migration, struggle, assimilation, cultural dilution. But if you look closely, the story becomes less predictable and more interesting.

Although the great-grandchildren of the pioneers are unapologetically Argentine, their language and customs are in some ways more traditionally Welsh than those things are in modern-day Wales. Steady flows of local exchange students to Wales and teachers from Wales nourish and replenish the culture. The teachers are paid by a Welsh regional government intent on keeping the language and customs alive in a remote corner of the world; some end up staying, enchanted by the time-capsule magic of this valley of villages so far from home.

"I'm able to speak Welsh every day," said Hazel Evans, a teacher from Wales who decided to stay beyond her one-year contract. "If I were in England, I think I would have been longing to go home. But 8,000 miles away, I'm able to live in the culture and the language."

Evans lives in the Andean town of Esquel in the large, and largely empty, province of Chubut about 800 miles south of Buenos Aires. While Esquel and Gaiman have proved most resistant to change, the names of Chubut's biggest cities--Rawson, Puerto Madryn, Trelew--also pay homage to the Welsh who tamed this harsh patch of the region known as Patagonia.

Trelew means "Lewis' Town" in Welsh. The city was named after Lewis Jones, the leader of the first group of pioneers--about 150 of them--who landed here in 1865. Their Mayflower was a clipper ship named Mimosa; they had abandoned the harsh mining towns of Wales, where they felt politically and culturally repressed by English rule, to chase the dream of a Welsh state.


In contrast to the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Jones' group was welcomed with citizenship papers and land by an Argentine government eager to populate the wilderness. The roughest adversary was the flat desert, with its steady assault of wind, dust, cold and desolation. Compared with other Welsh who trekked to the United States or Australia, these settlers had picked a particularly inhospitable frontier.

But their utopian ambitions were not uncommon. South America's wide-open expanses and welcoming societies have attracted all manner of refugees and pilgrims: Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms at the turn of the century populated gaucho towns in northern Argentina. Rural Mennonite communities thrive in Paraguay and Argentina.

Deposed ruling elites have taken refuge on the continent as well. After the U.S. Civil War, a group of defeated Confederates moved to Brazil. During the past three years, about 80 Afrikaner families from South Africa, wary of the post-apartheid government, have relocated to Paraguay--generations after others migrated to Patagonia. And South America played a sinister role as a haven for scores of fugitive Nazi war criminals after World War II.

The Welsh of Chubut built Gaiman and other self-contained communities based on farming and sheep ranching on the banks of the Chubut River. They established a now-defunct railroad and still-functioning irrigation channels. Their way of life combined two traits that do not always go hand in hand: Their town councils were notably democratic--allowing women to vote, for example--while their traditions were stubbornly nationalistic.

"If I didn't speak to my grandparents in Welsh, they wouldn't answer me," recalls Jones, a woman of solid girth and soft gray eyes.

Jones' teahouse (the Ty Nain name means "Grandmother's House") sits behind a white fence just off the town square. Gaiman has the languid, somewhat dilapidated serenity of many Argentine provincial towns and the typical melange of pizzerias, steakhouses and shops with hand-painted signs.

In this bleak part of Patagonia, the economy is precarious, and new arrivals cross paths with departing natives who have decided to seek better opportunities. Several Argentine youths of Welsh origin, including some of Jones' relatives, have gone to Wales to get in touch with their heritage and decided not to return.

Nonetheless, Gaiman's Protestant chapels, ivy-covered brick houses and many trees give the riverfront community an air of coziness and permanence.

The interior of Jones' teahouse is crammed with history: Antique rifles, pistols and swords line a wall. The choir books are part of a vibrant choral tradition whose apotheosis each year is the local Eisteddfod, a festival of song and poetry.

As sheep farming, the textile industry and the region's other economic foundations have crumbled, the celebration of cultural identity has become a matter of profit as well as pride. A handful of well-kept teahouses "sell tradition," as Jones puts it, bolstered by the occasional famous visitor such as the late Princess Diana, who came a long way to have a cup of tea in Gaiman in 1995.


"Our strength is tourism, both Argentine and foreign," Jones says. "The other day a tourist came in, and she couldn't believe what she saw. . . . She turned out to be Welsh, and we spoke in Welsh."

The disbelief is common among the teachers who arrive regularly from Wales.

"It's everybody's dream," says Evans, the teacher who fell in love with the mountain town of Esquel. "I always said, 'I wonder if I'll go to Patagonia one day.' "

The purity of the language spoken here impressed Evans because many of her students did not write or read Welsh. Moreover, some of her most enthusiastic students trace their roots back to Italy, Spain or Argentine indigenous groups.

"What has surprised me are the people who have moved here who have no Welsh background or blood," Evans said. "They have taken to the classes as ducks to water."

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