The Guarani resilience

“All of a sudden the white man arrived. No one knows where he came from. We were all scared, so we ran into the woods. We went there to hide, because the Indian is afraid of the white man.”

Cláudio Barros lays his hands on his lap. At 98 years old, he’s living proof of the resilience of the Guarani. He is the oldest member of the oldest indigenous village in the region – the only one that was able to retain a small portion of its original territory through all these years, albeit without legal title to the land. Born in Guaíra during a time in which it was virtually uninhabited by non-Indians, Cláudio experienced firsthand the changes that drastically shaped the course of his life and his people.

In 1939 the federal government created the Iguaçu National Park to “guarantee the preservation of ecosystems for future generations.” The project, which delineated park boundaries in an area largely populated by the Guarani, led to the violent expulsion of the indigenous families who live within its 185,262.5 hectares.

In the early 1940s, a campaign to colonize the region began. During the following decades various Guarani villages were invaded and ransacked by the colonizing companies that took over the area. In the process many indigenous families were killed. Fearing for their lives, the Guarani began to flee Guaíra, some immigrating to Paraguay, others dispersing to the nearby states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Santa Catarina and São Paulo.

“We watched many people leave. They would take off in the middle night, so the white man wouldn’t know. They would disappear into the woods. We wouldn’t hear from them until many years later,” he remembers.

Cláudio’s voice is faint, sometimes hard to hear – a distant sound in the midst of the cacophonous rooster choir that surrounds us. He switches back and forth between Guarani and Portuguese, speaking the words that come most naturally to him, as he needs them. He tells me about the fear, the confusion, the sense of not belonging.

“For many years we worked without getting paid. We were scared. We watched what happened to the people that confronted, the people that demanded they be paid. They were killed.     One by one. And sometimes their families too.”

Starting in the 1950s, Paraná became one of Brazil’s agriculture powerhouses. To this day, the state is one of the largest producers of soy and corn in the country, not to mention the nation’s leader in chicken production, accounting for 30 per cent of chicken slaughtering in 2012.

The region’s vital role in the country’s economic growth was reinforced in the 1970s with the construction of the Itaipu Hydroelectric Dam, a bi-national energy project between Brazil and Paraguay. The project, concluded nearly a decade after it began, inundated many indigenous villages, leading to the further displacement of the Guarani. To this day the plant is the largest operating hydroelectric facility in terms of annual energy generation, supplying 17 per cent of all the energy consumed in Brazil.

Cláudio is quiet. Other men have joined in the conversation and he doesn’t feel the need to continue talking. He looks up at Ilson Soares, the husband of one his granddaughters. The fight is no longer his. It belongs to a new generation. And maybe that’s for the best. He’s tired and, by now, skeptical of what can be achieved. It’s time for someone else, someone younger with new ideas, to stand up for the Guarani. He’s done his part.

My rainy Saturdays

I am not quite sure how to begin this story, because what I’ve heard I don’t know to be real or true. My grandfather, Luis Gomes, was born into the original dysfunctional family. His father never cared too much about his 16 children or his dedicated wife.

Luis was a handsome young man, my grandma says. Every morning women waited for him to walk by their doorstep on his way to work. Luis was tanned and strong. His straight black hair hung above his dark brown eyes.

My grandparents met at a wedding. Rosa Latuf was only 15 years old when she stumbled upon the person she’d spent the rest of her life with. The third daughter of a Lebanese and a Brazilian, Rosa fell in love young and was married by the time she turned 17.

It was a rainy Saturday. On January 6, 1953 at 6:07 p.m. church bells rang announcing the union of this new couple. Even now that my grandfather is no longer here to tell me his version of the story, their love is palpable.

Luis began his studies late in life, after putting aside enough money to go to law school. By then he was married with three kids, awaiting for the fourth.

My mom nearly died during birth. Cassia Rosana was born on April 15, 1963 weighing one kilo, seven hundred and forty eight grams. On the other side of the world, in Yamaguchi, Japan, my dad, Kenji Sasagawa, was starting Pre-K.

My dad likes to think of himself as a free spirit. He says by the time he was 15 he already knew his dreams that couldn’t fit inside the small town he had grown up in. After a year studying International Business in Tokyo, he decided to go abroad to learn a new language.

My parents met at a friend’s fifteenth birthday party. My dad didn’t understand Portuguese at the time, but they decided to date anyway. He used to carry around a notebook where he wrote down everything my mother said. When he got home, he would look up the words he didn’t know in the dictionary and make sense of her ramblings.

Time flew when they were together. Before they knew it, it was time for my dad to go back to Japan. My parents wanted to get married, but their families vehemently opposed the decision. My mom was 17 at the time and my dad 21. They couldn’t make it on their own — at least not then. Cassia and Kenji tried a long distance relationship but it didn’t last.

Two years went by from the day my dad had left Brazil and my dad finally graduated from college. My mom was 19 now. She was still trying to move on with her life when the past knocked on her door. My dad had never forgotten her, he says. Right after he had finished university he returned to Brazil.

One day, unexpectedly, she stumbled upon my dad sitting at her doorstep. That same day they decided to commit their lives to each other. They married nine months later, upon my grandfather’s request. He didn’t want anyone to think his daughter was marrying to cover up a pregnancy. It was a rainy Saturday. A day after the wedding, they hopped on a plane and moved to Japan.

I didn’t have a glorious entrance into this world. It was a rainy Saturday at 7:37 p.m. My mom was in labor for more than 16 hours. The doctor kept on telling her it wasn’t my time. When my heartbeat began to decelerate, she was taken to the nearest emergency room. Waiting outside, my grandmother followed the doctor’s advice and had started praying. I was born a purple baby, but quickly recuperated from my traumatic arrival, after all I was born in a loving home.

Rainy Saturdays have always been a part of my life and if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be here today. Every storm washes a soul and prepares it for the next drought. That’s how I feel every time it rains. It allows me to create a new beginning for what could have been an end.

The first story

I was seven when I wrote my first collection of short-stories. It was a three-month project, involving a Windows 97 desktop computer and dial-up internet research for inspiration. At the time my characters were restricted to personified fruits and vegetables, interspersed with the occasional animal.

Sitting on the floor of my family’s entertainment room, I cut out faces, letters and maps from my parents’ magazine collection, making a collage for a book cover. I pestered my mother everyday for a week until she agreed to take me to a printing shop.

I took it all very seriously. I selected a sample of font types, sizes and colors and tested them on my target audience — a handful of neighbors and family friends. With 10 bound-copies in hand, I went door-to-door, trying to sell my self-published tales. Even then, there was no doubt in my mind one day I’d become a storyteller.

Sixteen years later, with a Master of Journalism and four years of professional experience telling stories, I am fulfilling that childhood dream. I have met individuals with great stories — a traveling hatter, a retired marijuana grower, a Marathi cotton picker and a 92-year-old tailor.

This blog is an attempt at sharing some of the stories I’ve been so privileged to hear.