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In Welsh Patagonia

The valleys in Argentina that have been an outpost of Wales for 150 years

Jasper Rees | July/August 2015

Lunch is over in a primary school on the edge of Trelew. An autumn sun toasts red-shirted children pinging about the playground. It is an ordinary scene, but for the odd compound of languages filling the air. The children flit between Spanish – and Welsh.

“Faint ydy’ch oed chi?” I ask a cluster of schoolgirls how old they are. “Deg,” they say. Ten. It’s an exchange of equals. In order to reclaim my Welsh roots, I flung myself at the language some years back, so even though they’re ten and I’m 50, we’re at the same level. I ask them when they started Welsh, how often they speak it, and with whom. The conversation thrills me more than I can say. To find Welsh dancing on the tongues of children 7,000 miles from Wales is like coming upon a rose garden in the desert.

Welsh Patagonia has always been for me a kind of fanciful Celtic Narnia where Joneses ate bara brith and sang at eisteddfodau. In his celebrated book, “In Patagonia”, Bruce Chatwin shed little light, according the Welsh a mere half-dozen somewhat snooty pages. The place is still a half-kept secret even to Wales itself, though this year’s anniversary may change that.

In 1865, a customised tea clipper called the Mimosa delivered around 150 Welsh men, women and children to an uninhabited corner of southern Argentina. The idea of establishing a Welsh colony was the brainchild of a fervent nationalist from north Wales, the Reverend Michael D. Jones. As a nonconformist minister in Cincinnati, Jones had seen how the Welsh diaspora in North America struggled to keep its traditions alive. He proposed settling in a more remote location where Welshness could flourish away from the dread shadow of the English language. Wisconsin, Oregon, Vancouver – even Palestine – were considered before a valley in Patagonia was chosen.

The emigration literature painted a picture of a promised land. “The Handbook of the Colony” drastically overstated the area’s annual rainfall. The land granted by the Argentine government proved to be bone-dry, except when flash floods destroyed crops and homes. A community consisting of vanishingly few farmers nearly gave up after two years. Yet gradually the Welsh worked out how to irrigate the valley by running an impressive network of drainage canals off the Camwy river. Through much grinding toil, they coaxed the Dyffryn (pronounced Duffrin), as the Welsh still refer to the valley, towards fertility.

For two generations the language flourished too. The wave of immigration ended before the Great War, whereafter Wales quietly forgot about its colony. The centenary in 1965 reawakened the link, but could not stop the language from attenuation. Fifty years on, I’ve come to Welsh Patagonia to see how Welsh it still is.

The Patagonian valleys: the early Welsh settlers fashioned a fertile valley out of the desiccated expanse of the prairies

In Wales there is a standing joke about the chasm in understanding between north and south. Welsh Patagonia has its own equivalent, but between east and west. The first settlers began establishing themselves along the Chubut Valley. As more arrived, the fertile land ran out. So in 1885 a small band of pioneers headed west in search of new pastures at the foot of the Andes. In between the two Welsh settlements is a vast wilderness that, even today, has barely been tamed.

The story begins in a circular bay bitten into the Atlantic coastline. Puerto Madryn takes its name from an estate on the Llyn peninsula in north Wales. It was here that the Mimosa spilled its queasy passengers after two months at sea. A marble monument lists their names and place of origin (two babies were born aboard; four children died). But Madryn is mostly indifferent to its Welsh roots. So I am told by Fernando Coronato as we look across the wide bay where apartment blocks stand sentry under a blustery sky.

Fernando is what some call a Muggle: a Welsh speaker with zero Welsh blood. As a young man he was puzzled about a row of hollows dug out of the cliffs. His hunch was that they were created as rudimentary shelters, prepared by an advance party led by Lewis Jones, a young enthusiast from Caernarfon who would become the colony’s first governor. Fernando learned Welsh, went on to open a disembarkation museum on the shore and founded a biannual conference for Y Wladfa (as the colony is known) studies.

Fernando is one of my companions the next morning in a middle-aged walking party following an historic route. From Madryn the settlers had to get to the Dyffryn, 45 miles to the south. Most endured a horrific journey sailing round the headland. A smaller party trekked across the paith (prairie), a roasted expanse of scrubland covered in a tangly profusion of leg-scratching jarilla plants. It’s a hot slog for several hours, with the northern sun relentless at our backs.

Queen of the waves: Luned Gonzalez presents a weekly radio programme in Spanish about the Welsh community

Among my fellow hikers is Nadine Laporte, a descendant of both Michael D. Jones and Lewis Jones. In her 20s, as soon as things calmed down after the Falklands war, she joined the trickle of Argentines funded to learn Welsh in Wales. She still hasn’t forgotten the initial impact of the old country. “When I first saw how beautiful Wales was,” she says, “it was only then that I realised how important a thing it was that the Welsh settlers had done. I imagined them arriving in this country. Wow! It must have been terrible.”

How green was their valley? The satellite image of the Dyffryn shows a green wedge in a desiccated expanse of soft sedimentary rock. I clamber up its fossil-rich southern rampart. Under a big sky, I look down on gleaming pastures criss-crossed by poplars and cypresses planted by the Welsh as boundary markers and windbreaks. Its beauty is entirely man-made.

The Lower Chubut Valley is up to five miles wide and 50 miles long. Dotted along it are the settlements founded by the Welsh. Trelew, named after Lewis Jones, sprouted ten miles inland. A gridded sprawl with an outgrowth of shanty shacks, it is much more than a formerly Welsh town. But look and the signs are there: literally in Avenida Miguel D. Jones and other streets named after settlers. St David’s Hall is modelled on a flank of St David’s Cathedral in the far west of Wales. There’s the Welsh school, Ysgol Yr Hendre, and next door to it is Moriah, the most beautiful of the colony’s 16 Welsh chapels. In its cemetery, many of the Mimosa’s passengers are buried. The last of them, Daniel Harris, died in 1950. The many bare oblongs of earth tell another story – of Welsh farmers who could not afford a headstone.

The beating heart of the Dyffryn is another ten miles up river. Gaiman is a small town with a single main drag, home to the oldest surviving building (1874) and a selection of Welsh tea houses. Plas y Coed is run by Ana Chiabrando Rees, a descendant of settlers via three grandparents. Her grandmother is the source of the recipes for the crowd of cakes delivered to my table. Ana is the closest I meet to a Patagonian paragon. She went to Wales to study the language in 2006 and last year graduated with a degree in Welsh. She now volunteers as a teacher in Ysgol Yr Hendre and tutors adults. I tag along to one of her evening classes. Her pupils include a Welsh descendant or two, a chorister eager to brush up her Welsh and Ysgol Yr Hendre’s Argentine head teacher. “Dw i’n hoffi Cymraeg,” explains one teenage girl: I like Welsh.

 

I attend a cheerful choir practice where perhaps half of the choristers and the conductor are Welsh speakers. In a shop I explain that my Spanish sucks. “Siarad Cymraeg!?” exclaims a woman in her 60s. Speak Welsh? And we chat, accents heavily influenced by our first languages, about her rural upbringing.

One sun-drenched morning I visit the farm of a septuagenarian bachelor called Aldwyn Brunt, who gives me a tour of pigs, horses, merino sheep and maize, while mosquitoes feast on my forearms. Aldwyn, who has beautiful blue eyes, lives with his taller, shyer, younger brother. I’m reminded of the inseparable twins in “On the Black Hill”, Chatwin’s novel set in the Black Mountains. They speak Spanish to each other, but spoke Welsh to their mother until she died.

On Sunday afternoon, as shadows lengthen, I drive towards Dolavon, the last Welsh settlement before the Lower Chubut Valley narrows, and park at Bethesda chapel. I am welcomed by a friendly congregation of Spanish-speaking nonconformists. The hymnal is in both languages. We embark on “Fy Mugail yw yr Argl­wydd Iôr”, sung pronunciation all but perfect, then repeat the sentiment in the next verse: “Es el Señor mi buen pastor”. At my request, we finish on “Calon Lân”, the loveliest of Welsh hymns whose charms barely diminish even when we flip to Spanish. Imagine “Auld Lang Syne” in Portuguese. Or “Danny Boy” in Dutch.

 

Young Patagonians may be learning Welsh in school, but those who were brought up speaking Welsh are now elderly 

“You have to remember that we are not Welsh. We are Argentine people who speak Welsh.” Y Wladfa’s uncrowned queen is an owlish, not-quite-octogenarian called Luned (pronounced Li-ned) Gonzalez. Born a Roberts, Luned is the great-granddaughter of Lewis Jones. “My father who never went to Wales spoke about it as if he had been there,” she tells me over a pot of tea. For 40 years Luned was headmistress of a school in Gaiman and did her best to keep Welsh alive among her pupils. Her older sister Tegai, an ency­clopaedic repository of Y Wladfa’s history, ran the Welsh museum in the old railway station until her death last year. Jointly they would broadcast a weekly radio programme about the Welsh community on Radio Chubut. Now Luned has a rota of helpers. On the hot afternoon I tag along to the studio in Trelew, her co-host is a boy of 14 who is learning Welsh. They read out news (in Spanish) of births, marriages and mainly deaths of people called Williams and Evans and Jones.

“We are burying one each week,” says Luned, “and I’m the next to be axed!”

This is a worry for the health of the language. Young Patagonians may be learning Welsh in school, but those who were brought up speaking Welsh are now elderly. In both the Dyffryn and the Andes, I meet old ladies who convene every week to yak in their mother tongue. Mostly they didn’t pass the language on to their children, either because they married “out”, or because of the discrimination they suffered growing up. It wasn’t just teasing from classmates. From the 1930s right-wing governments discouraged the speaking of Welsh in schools. That attitude seeped out into wider society. “There was a time when Welsh farmers were looked down on by the rest of society,” recalls Luned. “People would say, ‘Why do you speak Welsh to your children?’” Luned’s son Fabio, who now runs the museum, learnt Welsh as an adult.

Sometimes the Welsh looked down on their own too. Later in my trip I meet an elderly woman called Rini Griffiths, who speaks lovely Welsh, but shrieks in mock horror at the memory of the doltish Welsh boys she knew. “At 16 I didn’t want to go out with a Welsh boy! They all worked on the farm. They didn’t go to the cinema, didn’t go to the sea, didn’t dance. They had just choir and chapel!” (It occurs to me that Aldwyn Brunt and his brother must have been two such boys.)

Thus it is that in two weeks in Y Wladfa I encounter no one of my own age whose Welsh was ingested with their mother’s milk. Parents in Trelew who could not speak Welsh to their own children decided to found Ysgol Yr Hendre in 2006, first as a nursery and later a primary school. It costs parents $2,600 a year. But no minority language can survive on private finance alone. To get a clearer picture of the future of Welsh in Patagonia, I need to head west.

Paragon of Patagonia: Ana Chiabrando Rees in her Welsh tea house in Gaiman

In 1885 a 29-strong band known as Los Rifleros trekked across to the Andes. Theirs was a gruelling journey on horseback through terrain of unimaginable splendour. It took them six weeks. I do it in two days in an indestructible 4X4 driven by Jeremy Wood, an Irish-New Zealander who was drawn to the Andes by midlife love. As the car pounds along untarmacked roads, dust blooming in its wake, he spills tales of charismatic Welsh adventurers and their deadly scrapes with Tehuelche Indians and Butch Cassidy’s gang. There are frequent stops to gawp at ancient carvings, at lonely Welsh graves, at jagged crags shoved this way and that by vast volcanic forces.

Our only company comes from guanacos and rhea birds, vultures, hares and, though we can’t see them, pumas. This wilderness was less hospitable to Los Rif­leros and the settlers who would follow. But eventually they came face to face with the Andes. Before them spreads a valley of surpassing pleasantness. One of the riders said as much and ever since it has been known as Cwm Hyfryd, lovely valley. When I stand on the same spot 130 years later, it looks ravishing. Snaggle-toothed peaks span the west. Beyond them is Chile. This is a different place from the pacified plain of the Dyffryn.

Not forgotten: the cemetery at Moriah Chapel, last resting place of many of the early settlers

Cwm Hyfryd is home to two towns wedged between steep slopes: Esquel and the more diminutive Trevelin. The farmers I meet have a more rugged aspect. Cwm Hyfryd’s symbolic link with its rugged past is an 85-year-old gaucho called Vincent Evans. The slopes of his face are 100% Welsh, but he wears a flat wide-brimmed hat and a massively buckled belt. He speaks Welsh from another age of which I understand every other word. On my second Sunday he and his wife Clara drive me 50 miles past vast fields to a neighbouring valley to attend an asado – a barbecue. Beforehand, we lean against the fence of a corral and watch gauchos lasso black calves to be branded. Hooves spit up clouds of dust and white steam sizzles off branded flesh. Beefy farmers in outsized flat caps cast shadows as the sun slants over the mountains. Vincent hollers every time a calf puts up a struggle.

One of the gauchos is Alejandro Jones, a handsome farmer in his early 30s who has become a poster boy for Welsh Patagonia, having learnt Welsh and won prizes at eisteddfodau for his singing. At the asado he slices his lamb with the kind of knife that everyone wears sheathed in their belt. I ask Alejandro if he dreams in Welsh. It happened, he says, “the first time I arrived in Wales. I began to dream in Welsh after a month and a half. And I think in Welsh. Dw i’n hoffi iawn yr iaith.” He greatly loves the language.

Alejandro is a product of a revival in schools that began in the early 1990s when a couple of holidaying teachers, noting the decline of Welsh, took sabbaticals to volunteer. From 1997, the Welsh Office (after devolution in 1998, the Welsh Government) funded a formal programme. Its budget allows salaries for a programme co-ordinator and three teachers from Wales to teach in Argentine state schools and out in the community, plus travel money for locally based volunteer teachers like Ana Chiabrando Rees. But the funding has taken no account of Argentina’s rampant inflation, which means the money has to stretch a third further every year. It’s up for renewal this year, and some feel strongly that the Welsh government should not splash out on anniversary celebrations unless it is prepared to offer more generous support to the Welsh language in Patagonia.

Over another Welsh tea I meet Clare Vaughan from Wrexham, the programme co-ordinator for the whole of Y Wladfa. She came to Trevelin for a year’s teaching a decade ago, and stayed. “This project has a lot more to teach Wales,” she says. “After 150 years Welsh learners come here and say, ‘Hang on, people are making a real effort.’ This is the only place outside Wales where the language has survived. And it’s a lesson for the world. Why do we all have to speak the biggest language? Why can’t we speak a language that talks to you about connections, about history?”

No one knows for sure how many adults here have the language – no more than a few thousand – but the future is in the hands of the (nearly) 900 Patagonian children who are now learning Welsh. There are grounds for optimism. Gaiman’s state primary is now offering Welsh in year one, Trevelin is building a Welsh school, and there are numerous after-school lessons. In the chapel in Esquel one evening I sit in on a private lesson of two brothers with no Welsh background at all. The teacher from Bangor makes it fun, and they giggle as they learn.

This seems baffling. The desire of Argentines to give Welsh to their children prompts me to ask one teacher who assists in Ysgol Yr Hendre. Why? Why this loyalty to a language which confers no economic advantage? She beams. “Because it is our culture!”

A sickle moon rises over the Andes as Vincent Evans drives me back after the asado to his home ringed by mountains. I sip tea in his kitchen and listen spellbound as the Welshest gaucho in Cwm Hyfryd massages old Welsh tunes out of a squeeze box and croons in a characterful baritone. I ask if we can finish with the famous anthem, composed less than a decade before the Mimosa set sail. Initially he lets me sing about the land of our fathers but soon he joins in and together in the gloaming we holler the anthem’s final entreaty: “O bydded i’r heniaith barhau!” O may the old language endure. In Patagonia, so far so good.  

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