Consuming the Nation in urban and rural Paragua

by Kregg Hetherington

In 1998, as a first-time visitor to Asunción, I could never escape the feeling that Paraguay was a country of foreign products. On the narrow highway leading from the airport into town, a line of giant billboards welcomed all visitors to the country on behalf of Nestlé, Panasonic, Visa, MasterCard, LG and Samsung. Out of a dozen advertisements, only one, for a local beer company, had not been erected by a foreign multinational. The largest buildings on my usual down-town bus route were the ING bank branch, the Marlboro plant, the Coca Cola bottling plant, and a number of lavish malls housing international franchises. Many of the ads which caught my eye along the highways and main streets of Asunción were copied directly from American ads without even bothering to translate into Spanish: Lucky Strike cigarettes told Asunceños to “Get Lucky”, and IBM vaunted “Sorry, Kasparov”. Forget ads in Guarani, the language spoken by 90 percent of the population. The only large company I saw trying to use it was McDonald’s, which had found a way to smuggle its infamous yellow M into the local language. Tellingly the word they chose for the Paraguay-flavoured bumper sticker, “Mba’eichapa”, is a formal Guarani greeting, which is rarely used by native speakers, but is generally the first, and safest word which visitors learn.

But Paraguay’s relationship with foreign commodities runs a lot deeper than American advertisements. In a conversation I had with one woman about Barbie dolls, the foreignness objects seemed to be their most important quality: “When we were growing up,” she told me, “we only had the original Barbies from Matel. In the beginning they were even more original, since my aunt bought them in the United States and sent them to us.” Anything domestic, she seemed to be saying, even if it was only bought domestically, was somehow inferior (less “original”) to things foreign, especially from the United States. Eduardo, a good friend and host who lives in the small town of Rica Saty, was completely aware of the irony of this situation. When I asked him about why people consume things from abroad, he told me in almost cynically sociological terms: “If you can buy it from your neighbour and you can buy it from Asunción, you buy it from Asunción. If you can buy it from Asunción and you can buy it from Buenos Aires, you buy it from Buenos Aires. That’s our culture. We follow the example of the rich. It’s a status symbol to have things bought from outside.”

In the summer of 2001, under the aegis of the Culture and Consumption Research Group, I returned to Paraguay to probe these issues further. Under the directorship of David Howes (1996) at Concordia University, the “Culture and Consumption” project aims to track the social lives of a number of key commodities as they make their way across different social terrains, picking up meanings in local contexts which are not preordained by their producers. Eight commodities were chosen for cross-cultural comparison, including telephones, aspirin, alcohol, soap operas and cosmetics, the five which the current paper addresses. Anthropologists were sent to countries as diverse as Iran, Russia, Canada, China and Paraguay to look into the global trajectories of these objects. Although the goal of the project is to produce a volume of studies which provide a comparative perspective on consumption, each of us was given a great deal of latitude as to how to create our own studies.

From my earlier experiences in the country I decided that a useful understanding of consumption in Paraguay could not ignore the stark differences between urban and rural life. Questions of past and future, wealth and poverty, progress and stagnation, are all thickly entwined in the gaze with which people from Asunción look at the rural areas or “campo”, and vice versa. In the month of research which produced this paper, then, I visited people I had come to know in both Asunción and in Rica Saty to get an idea of the differences in the ways consumer goods were used and talked about. Although city and campo, Asunción and Rica Saty are used throughout this paper as shorthand for the relationships observed, they in fact refer to two fairly narrow sectors of an economically diverse population. The urbanites that I know come mainly from Asunción, but also from a smaller city called Villarrica; all are quite wealthy, working either in private businesses or in the growing NGO sector, for very high salaries. Although some of them are only a generation removed from rural land-owning families, most of them spend little if any time in the Paraguayan campo, more often leaving Asunción to travel abroad, especially to the United States. The people I interviewed in Rica Saty are more heterogeneous. While none of them makes more than a tiny fraction of the salary of my Asunción friends, some do have steady form of income as schoolteachers or shopowners. Others are in a more marginal situation, piecing together a living from whatever sorts of farm or construction work they can find. They do not all call themselves “campesinos” (although in the eyes of the Asunceños, they all fall under this category), and their views on economics are by no means uniform, but when placed in relation to people from the city, their ideas about consumption have enough things in common to be worth talking about as a coherent set.

Modernity, Country and City

Daniel Miller (1994) and Richard Wilk (1990, 1995) have argued that modernity tends to divide aspects of cultural life into particular kinds of dualities. In his exceptional study of consumption in Trinidad, Miller shows how the symbolic opposition between Christmas and Carnival, two crucial yearly events, helps to organize a series of modern oppositions between public and private, restraint and excess, past and future. Wilk (1990: 80) shows how consumer culture in Belize has fostered the polarization of the notions of traditional and modern. The following study picks up on this theme by examining the way two seemingly natural contrasts can come to be centrally implicated in the symbolic orderings of Paraguayan modernity. The oppositions between country and city on the one hand, and between men and women on the other, are overdetermined in ways that may be no less abstract than the categories which Miller and Wilk examine. But these shifting symbolic categories may appear to be more concrete and unyielding, because they are also inhabited and embodied.

Raymond Williams has argued that “the contrast of country and city is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience and the crises of our society” (1973: 289). In the remainder of this paper, I will argue that this contrast provides a central binary through which Paraguayans talk about the various crises involved in building the modern nation. In the last decade, the fall of the dictatorship, local electoral reform, and a new liberal discourse about political participation, have all conspired to seriously change the relationship between the rich in Asunción and the rural poor. On the one hand lavish campaign parties by urban politicians, the scaling back of police repression, a flurry of rural development projects, and educational and health reforms targeted to rural areas have led many campesinos to see their position differently in the fate of the nation. On the other hand, peasant demands for recognition and welfare through large-scale protests and highway blockades, and an increasing (if still minor) rural presence in the media, have forced Asunceños to take notice of those living outside the capital in ways they have not always been accustomed to doing.

The official discourse about building the modern Paraguayan nation, and the one reflected by the common view that local products are inferior to foreign ones, is that the nation is in a constant struggle for improvement. Newspapers are filled with a discourse of hope for democratic liberalism which has yet to be achieved, and an economy catching up with its modern competitors on the global market. Politicians and public figures continually paint their country as somehow lacking. When it is articulated by Asunción professionals, this view of the struggling not-quite-modern Paraguay usually implies a nation being “held back” by the definitely-not-modern poor, particularly the rural poor. Not surprisingly, then, campesinos articulate a somewhat different concept of the modern nation. Far from being held back by the ignorance or indolence of the campo, as many urbanites will imply, campesinos suggest that Paraguay’s economic life is stunted by government and police corruption, that modern democratic advancement is not in the best interest of the rich who benefit from exploitation and contraband. If Paraguay is poor and undeveloped, the logic goes, it is not because of any lack of general sophistication or “modernity” among Paraguayans, it is because the nation is being held back by a corrupt plutocracy.
However, as this paper will make clear, the relationships between country, city and modernity are never reducible to such simple categories. There is equally virulent condemnation of corrupt officials by liberal Asunceños, and many campesinos who aspire to upward mobility are quick to condemn their neighbours for apathy. These are central uncertainties, in constant tension and flux, and thickly imbricated with questions of class, gender, morality and race. All of these categories, masquerading as simple binaries, are the language through which people talk about their lives. They surface repeatedly in conversations about consumption and commodities, and more often than not, these conversations betray people’s deep ambivalence about the changes they see happening around them and to them. Although most people would like to have greater access to consumer goods, material comforts, and the rewards of an international economy, they appreciate that what is in dispute in the project of modernization is not just the distribution of things, or even political maneuvering. It is people’s very identities, their senses of themselves as Paraguayos, campesinos, or modern subjects.

Cellular phones and social class

In Asunción, cellular phones are ubiquitous and highly visible — advertisements for them are everywhere, and young men display them on their belts. Holders, wires and time cards are hawked on every street corner. In hip middle-class restaurants groups of teenagers and young adults can be seen talking on their phones, displaying them on the table, or just fiddling with the buttons. When asked, Asunceños told me that “everyone has one”. But the implication, often stated outright, was that almost every person, from the wealthiest Asunción businessman to the children of land-poor peasants in the countryside, owned at least one cellular phone. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t entirely true. Although the availability of cellular phones has increased remarkably in the last few years in the campo, only relatively wealthy young men and women tend to have them, and few of them are flaunted.

When I first visited Paraguay in 1998, I was struck by how the clearly the distribution of telephone services marked class and regional disparities. In the district where I worked there were only a handful of telephone stations serving a dispersed population of about 25000 people, and cellular service did not extend past the main highway, some 20 kilometres from town. For most, using the phone was a day-long ordeal, involving long walks and bus-rides to the nearest phone station. But phones were also considered vital — the only semi-reliable way that families could keep in touch with children and siblings at large in the growing migrant labour force. I heard it repeated in several communities that they were disappointed when the government brought electric wires but no telephone wire; they would gladly have taken the latter over the former.

Only 3 years later, by the time of my second visit, cellular service from the most popular company, Telecel, extended to the entire eastern half of the country. Rates had also plummeted, and one could now get a phone free with the purchase of a 25$ phone card, and keep it working for a minimum of about 3$ a month. These prices were staggeringly low, but still a hefty price in areas where daily wages can be as low as 2$, and when jobs are scarce between harvests. But price is not the only reason keeping campesinos from owning cellular phones. In fact, I met almost nobody who owned (or admitted to owning) one of the large awkward handsets available for 25$. Those who did have cellulars, in Asuncion and the campo, had more often splurged on models which ran as high as 200$, and most people had recently replaced their phones in favour of smaller, fancier models. When I asked why, many became sheepish, saying that the only real reason was because the new phones were nicer-looking, or had other features (a bigger screen, a tuneful ring, or video games) that weren’t available on the old models. One woman told me that it was pure vanity, while teenagers told me that the new phones were more like toys than anything else.

Owners and non-owners alike identified two overlapping reasons, more important than price, why one would own a cellular phone: need and vanity. Given these two factors, one positive and one negative, discourse about cellulars can become highly evaluative of cellphone owners. For example, several people, both men and women, suggested to me that the self-indulgent part of the equation was a bit more common among women than among men, highlighting the fact that the relationship between vanity and consumption is highly gendered. But more important than gender, the evaluations are most strongly associated with class and rural/urban differences. While self-indulgence is recognised as an element of everyone’s use and ownership of a cellular phone, the harshest recriminations are placed on the rural poor. Most Asunceños see cellulars as an absolute necessity in the city, and only the expensive style replacements are considered a kind of indulgence. But most of these same people imply that for campesinos, cellular phones are almost exclusively a form of excess. As Renata said to me, “Even the poor have them! Here we have many people who spend their lives trying to get material possessions. They don’t pay attention to their children’s education or feeding them properly!”

Campesinos themselves, even those who own cellular phones, seem to consider them a frivolity more than anything else. They also point out that people are less likely to share cellular phones than they do the land phones in their houses. So while it is perhaps campesinos who have the strongest claim to “need” them (having so little access to other kinds of phones), they are also the most likely to be disparaged for owning them. The irony is of course that only a small percentage of rural people, mainly those who have government jobs in Rica Saty, are even capable of affording one in the first place. The few campesinos I asked outside of Rica Saty whether cellular phones were common in their villages all but laughed at my question.

This example is a simple one, and as such it is only a beginning to our discussion. It highlights not only the way consumption is used to mark social categories, but also the way discourse about consumption is used to further direct the connotations of those categories. Cellular phones provide a perfect example of the way expensive modern commodities enter economic hierarchies at the top and diffuse down into lower classes and disadvantaged spaces (from rich to poor, from city to country) over time. Their presence, heightened by customary display, constant advertisement, and a sense of novelty, becomes a symbol of the undifferentiated reach of modernity: “everyone” owns one. And yet this creates a new version of the tension between country and city, where the privilege of one class is legitimated as need, and the new inclusion of campesinos into that system of privilege is denigrated as a kind of vice. There is always an element of vanity in owning a cell-phone, but the point at which it becomes unacceptable is when the cost of the phone exceeds a certain percentage of a person’s monetary means. Below this, money exhausted on cellphone purchase and use is a little indulgence. Above it is tantamount to an abnegation of the primary responsibilities of the adult, and buttresses the popular myth that campesinos are incapable of managing their own lives.

Aspirin, Country and City

During my last visit I was fortunate enough to get quite ill in the homes of two different friends, one a lower-middle class family in Rica Saty, the other quite well-off and living in Asunción. In both cases I was given dolanet, a Paraguayan analgesic. Despite this treatment, when I asked about what I was being given, both of my would-be healers said they considered pain-killers in pill form to be totally inadequate and even harmful forms of medicine. Moreover, this attitude is shared by many of the people I spoke to. Mild over-the-counter analgesics are often referred to as examples of “modern medicine”, and although almost everyone I spoke to has used these products at some point, some of them very frequently, most consider them bad in some way. On the surface, the reasons given for distrusting them is similar in Asunción and in Rica Saty, but the implications of this distrust are very different in both contexts. The conversations I had about aspirin therefore begin to show people’s complicated feelings not only about the relationship between modernity and medicine, but also between country and city.

The first place I got sick was in the home of Sonia, a teacher living in Rica Saty whose father is a natural healer respected by many people in the community. When I began to complain about headaches and a fever, she gave me a glass of hot grapefruit juice and an “aspirina” which turned out to be a tablet of dolanet. She then told me to take a hot shower without getting my hair wet, to dry myself completely, and go straight to bed with many blankets. Sonia has healed me of far worse ailments in the past, and I faithfully followed her advice. Sure enough, by the next morning I was feeling better. But when I started asking her about where she had learned this remedy, or what it was meant to cure, she was unusually reticent. She kept saying that she and her family didn’t actually take aspirin, she just thought that I would want it (and couldn’t explain why she had it in her fridge). She and her family only took natural remedies. The grapefruit juice, the shower, and the warm bed, she told me, were the real reasons I was feeling better.

This was an attitude I heard expressed a lot in Rica Saty. Although Sonia’s knowledge of medicinal plants and procedures is more developed than most, everyone has some knowledge of natural medicine and knows where to obtain several different herbs. Local medicinal practices are based on a complex humoral system for managing hot and cold influences on the body. Every day, almost everyone in the campo drinks infusions of yerba mate, a tea-like leaf grown extensively in Paraguay and Argentina. Depending on time of day and season, the drink can be taken cold, as “tereré”, or hot, as “mate”. There is at least one secondary herb, from a repertoire of dozens, is added to the yerba. Each one of these is classified as either “hot” or “cold”, and has different effects on digestion and circulation. Foods are also all classified as hot or cold, as are various activities or body states. The basis for staying healthy is not mixing cold and hot substances too often, and knowing how to manage an appropriate balance of these substances over time. In addition, specific ailments call for specific foods, herbs, usually also taken as a concentrated infusions, and the subjection of the body to extreme hot or cold temperatures.

This is a vast oversimplification, but it indicates the vague outlines of a complex medicinal system, which includes much contestation and disagreement, and different levels of adherence. Into the mix, however, come what people call “calmantes”, including analgesics like aspirin and dolanet, anti-inflamatories and fever suppressants, which have been available in the campo for about 15 to 20 years. The word “calmante” is indicative of how people understand these sorts of substances: they calm symptoms, relieve stress and pain temporarily, but they do nothing for the systemic problem causing the symptoms: “they don’t cure you” I was told repeatedly, in contrast to home-made remedies which do cure. The other word used to describe pharmaceuticals which isn’t used for herbal medicines is “droga”. Like illegal intoxicants, which are very rare in the campo, aspirin connotes something foreign, modern and urban, a new and suspicious substance which is generally bad for you and potentially habit-forming. Those who take calmantes, I was told, tend to take them all the time, at least once a day. They start by calming a problem, and they end up perpetuating it.

And yet this attitude cannot be written off as a distrust of the new, the modern or the foreign, because when I asked wealthy Asunceños the same set of questions, I was surprised to hear people telling me very similar things. In fact, when I got sick in Asunción, in the Laura’s plush house, I had an eerily familiar experience. Laura works in an NGO in the capital, and is not outwardly disparaging of campesinos. If anything, she sympathises with their plight, albeit from a distance, and romanticizes the golden days of pastoral life which her grandparents enjoyed. But she does not drink mate or tereré, all of her friends are decidedly upper-class, and none speak Guarani. I was still feeling like I was in a completely different world from Sonia’s house, when I was struck by a terrible fever and headache. Laura immediately had the maid prepare me a glass of hot grapefruit juice with honey and a dolanet, sent me to take a hot shower, dry myself off and get into bed. As I scuttled off to take my shower, her husband winked at me and whispered “Guarani wisdom”.

In the days that followed, as I asked Laura and her friends about aspirin and dolanet, I was again surprised to hear them disparaging these drugs, but this time for quite different reasons. These people also consider aspirin a mere calmante that does very little for you, and use this as a lens for criticizing modern medicine in general. But for them, these medicines represent a thing of the past, and many are looking instead toward what they call “alternative” medicines. The “new” medicine of wealthy urbanites consists of expensive imports and specialists from all over the globe. The day I fell ill, Laura, her husband, and the couple living next door had started a drastic “detoxification” diet recommended by their new Chinese doctor. German heart therapies, Canadian wheat sprouts, Chinese herbal supplements, not to mention, physiotherapy, massage, reflexology, irisology and acupuncture, are all talked about as a new way of thinking about the body which is being imported from abroad.But one woman was quick to point out that “alternative medicine” is not the same as “traditional medicine”. “We’ve forgotten all that,” she said, “all that’s left of traditional medicine is remedios refrescantes” (medicines classified as “cold”).

In both of these cases, then, over-the-counter pills are taken to stand for an element of modern medicine that people consider bad: it is localized and specific, and unable to deal with systemic problems. But in describing a rejection of aspirin, campesinos and urbanites also implicitly reject each other. For campesinos, aspirin connotes one of those steps toward modernity that they don’t need and should stay away from. This is not an easy rejection: when I was there, Sonia’s 5 year-old daughter was taking powerful anti-histamines and anti-inflamatories prescribed by her doctor. Sonia could not understand the label, and distrusted and disliked the urban doctor who wouldn’t explain the medicine to her. Yet she was genuinely frightened by her young daughter’s persistent respiratory problems and was ready to do anything that might help. For urbanites, the rejection of aspirin is a step beyond modernity, a further step away from the campo, to embrace a new wave of foreign cures and fads. But they too, when it comes to serious problems, and even inconvenient aches and pains, fall back on what they consider to be the trustworthy medicines of the pharmacist. Moreover, if Laura’s family is any indication, much of the medicinal “common sense” practiced in the home is very much the same as that practiced in the campo.

Alcohol in the symbolic system

As anywhere, there are hundreds of different kinds of alcohol available in Paraguay, of extremely varied price ranges, strength and flavours, and their use breaks down quite evenly along certain social divisions, serving as easy markers of class distinction (cf. Bourdieu 1984). Whisky, especially Scotch, is the drink of choice among most wealthy men, and it is usually drunk “on the rocks” (a phrase I heard repeated in English several times). Younger kids often mix it with Coke to make “Whiscola”, a favourite at parties. In fact, although whisky connotes a certain sophistication among the upper-class, it is the drink of choice for almost all men in the country. Local brands of whisky, like “Old Tradi” and “Aristócrata” are about a fifth the cost of their cheapest Scotch cousins, and though most Asunceños I know wouldn’t touch them (“It’s like putting a hammer to your head!”), they are very popular among the less well-heeled. Below that, but considered part of the same spectrum by campesinos, is caña, or cane alcohol, which is extremely strong tasting, and very cheap. Whisky and caña are also used by campesinos for certain external medicinal purposes, and it’s a rare house in the campo that doesn’t have a bottle of caña with herbs floating in it which can be rubbed on bruises, sore throats and heads. Certain herbs added to whisky also enhance the flavour, heighten one’s appetite, and prevent hang-overs.

Beer is probably the most common alcoholic beverage in Asunción, where a wide variety of Paraguayan, Argentine, American and German beers are available. Again, the distribution of beer is predictable according to price. Among wealthy Asunceños, German beers are very popular, and American beer in aluminum cans (particularly Miller and Budweiser, and Labatt Blue, sold as “Canada’s #1 export”). Somewhat cheaper are Argentine, and then Paraguayan beers which are usually sold in 1-litre bottles. These are available everywhere and are popular among urban youth. The cheapest of these, Pilsen, is the only really common beer in Rica Saty. In 1998, when the recession wasn’t quite so bad, cans of Budweiser and Labatt were also common there, but these are becoming rarer as people find themselves with less money to spend.

The most idiosyncratic alcohol in Paraguay, however, is wine. In the 1930s when German immigrants came to settle the agricultural interior of the country, they brought with them viticulture. The climate being a bit too hot for grapes, Paraguayan wines have never been particularly celebrated by international standards, but in periods of recession and isolationism, several German communities made their fortunes on wine, only to lose them again with the opening up of international markets in the eighties and nineties. One such community is not far from Rica Saty, and there are still a few wineries in business. Although a few wines are considered good for the table, the biggest business is in bulk wine, which is sold locally by a number of individuals. It is rarely drunk straight; instead, one litre of red wine is mixed with one litre of cola and a block of ice to make a “par” or a “pareja” (pair or couple), which is by far the most common alcoholic beverage in and around Rica Saty. At 0.25$ a litre, the only thing that makes this wine prohibitive is the 0.35$/litre you have to spend on Brazilian Xelacola to make it drinkable. The fancier version of this drink is made with “real” Coca Cola, which sells for about 0.45$/litre.

In Asunción, Paraguayan wine is the subject of countless jokes which are meant not only to deride the campo, and Germans, but Paraguayan products in general. Some Asunceños interested in rural development have recently begun to buy the most expensive Paraguayan brand, but in my experience it is always served as a token, a single bottle of Yvytyruzu wine (served with some kind of comment like “see, it’s not that bad”) followed by several bottles of Chilean, Argentine or French wine. When I asked people in Asunción if they had ever drunk wine with cola, a few people had heard that it was done in the campo, but others were either appalled or didn’t believe me. Fully aware of this attitude in the city, men from Rica Saty told me they were embarrassed to order wine when they went to bars in the city. But at home they took great pride in serving me pares, showing me how to mix them, what kinds of wine and cola went best together and so on. In another town I visited, pares were made of white wine and Guaraná, a light-coloured soft drink made in Brazil. I was told that every town had its own special par of which they were very proud (although I only ever saw these two basic variants).

While the kind of alcohol one is likely to be found drinking clearly marks people off according to class and place, there are more subtle aspects of the drinking ritual itself which also marks distinctions. In Rica Saty, alcohol consumption follows many of the same rules as drinking tereré and mate. For starters, tereré and mate is always shared by a group of people drinking from a single cup called a guampa. One person fills the guampa from a thermos and passes it to each member of the group in turn, counterclockwise. A guampa will go around like this, sometimes for hours, until everyone indicates to the server that they’ve had enough. Whisky, pares and beer are all drunk in the same way. A single person holds the bottle or pitcher, and serves a single glass which makes its way around the circle. In this way, although people will sometimes drink pares or beer all afternoon on a hot day, they drink very slowly and do not get drunk. People I know in Rica Saty place considerable importance in this tradition, and offering mate or alcohol is the most important sign of hospitality in any house. As Carlos said to me one afternoon, “here in Paraguay, this is how we drink, all from the same glass. That’s really sharing. That way the other person is almost part of you. That’s how you show true friendship”.

In the city I have never seen people sharing a glass in this way. Although some upper-class Paraguayans drink hot mate (as they do in Argentina), tereré is strongly associated with the poor and the campo, and images of campesinos passing around a guampa are often used to evoke laziness. The only time I saw wealthy Asunceños passing glasses of beer around was when a number of them gathered for a birthday party in Rica Saty. The party was for a successful Asunción lawyer who had grown up in Rica Saty, and most of his friends had never been to the campo before. As people passed the beer around, they never held to an orderly system, and people often began new glasses, bottles, and even cans, throwing these into a mix of meandering vessels. For the lawyer’s campesino family, this point was not overlooked when talking about the party the next day. The hosts were quite annoyed with many of the guests for what they saw to be their rude manner. “They come into your house and they don’t even introduce themselves”, one of them said to me. “They are so educated, and yet they don’t know better!” The same went for the odd way in which these men drank, seemingly unable to even share alcohol properly.

I’ve also seen drinking rituals get disrupted in Rica Saty when aluminium cans are introduced into the mix. At large parties where a lot of young men are present, a few cans will invariably surface, and although they usually get passed, they rarely do so in an orderly manner, perhaps because they don’t always have to be refilled from a single bottle. If, as Carlos and many others told me, passing a glass of beer around is central to the “Paraguayan” way of showing friendship, the points where this breaks down are indicative of unsettling changes, either from the city or from abroad, in aspects of the social order that people hold quite dear.

Men, Alcohol, and Violence

There is a final distinction between drinking in the city and campo which picks up a vital thread undergirding much of the discourse on consumption in Paraguay. While in the city men and women drink together and relatively equally, in the campo, very few women drink at all, except for unmarried teenagers, and those who do drink seldom. When asked why this is so, very few campesinos, men or women, said it was only a matter of individual taste. But some did mention the fact that Paraguay is a very “machista” or “macho” place, and that this is one of the reasons men like to drink so much. Machismo is not, of course, unique to Paraguay, but Paraguayans consider their country to be more machista than any of their neighbours, a claim which has both positive and negative connotations.
Machismo does not only relate to male dominance, but also to the values of masculine self-control, of providing for and protecting a family, and showing inner poise, wit and strength. But it is not by any means considered only a good thing. The past ten years have had a huge impact on the position of women in Paraguayan society; their declared “equality” under the 1992 constitution, and the opening of thousands of new jobs in traditionally female sectors like education and medicine, have meant that women have entered the workforce in record numbers. Women’s “liberation” is often cited as one of the best parts of the new political order, and I have heard very few people disparage it. This has the effect, in some contexts, of turning machismo into a sign of backwardness, which again is often associated with the rural poor. It is very uncommon for me to hear people in the city say “Paraguay is a macho country” without qualifying it with something like “especially among the poor”. One of the first things I ever heard said about machismo in the campo was by Victor, a very liberal-minded man who works with campesinos all the time. “Ten years ago,” he told me, “a campesino man would shoot you just for looking at his daughter, without even asking who you are.”

This paper cannot do justice to the complexities of masculine subjectivity in a context where machismo is the site of both intense pride and debasement. But by looking at the role that alcohol plays in the creation of masculine identities, we can get an idea about how some of these struggles play themselves out. The first inkling I had that this might be an important relationship was when I overheard someone in Rica Saty ask my host if I knew how to drink. This was a direct question about my masculinity: implied were questions about my body and what I could or couldn’t do with it, and how I stacked up on maturity, machismo, strength and responsibility.
As I later learned, to know how to drink is, first and foremost, to know how not to get drunk. I have learned over time that drinking to the point of inebriation or “perdida de control” (loss of control) is strongly looked down upon. Younger men, so long as they are above the age of about 15 and younger than about 25, are excused frequent shows of drunkenness. It is expected that marriage or the onset of maturity will take care of this, and at a certain point the behaviour becomes unacceptable. Most mature men do occasionally drink excessively, but these occasions are seen by both men and women as brief moments of slippage in character. But there is another category of men that are also expected to overindulge: the poor. It was not uncommon, for instance, for people in Asunción to tell me that in the campo, drunkenness was very common, and that when it did happen in the city it was primarily among lower-class youths. In Rica Saty people named other people, almost always of lower economic status, who might get drunk, and then violent.

The question of violence brings up another aspect of drinking which came up frequently. I tried in most of my interviews, to ask people about alcoholism in the community, and most said that it didn’t exist. They knew what I was talking about, and a few mentioned American movies with tragic alcoholic heroes, but they said they had never heard of any cases themselves. Some people, instead, drew my attention to another way of understanding drinking as pathological. In Rica Saty there are two reasons a man might drink, because he is happy, or because he is sad. While the first is considered normal, even when it leads to occasional excess, the second is something to be concerned about. Drinking from sadness, also called “drinking for the wrong reasons” more often leads to loss of control, and is associated with men who are increasingly unable to carry out their family duties, who cannot support their children or who are liable to become violent when drunk. This ties several negative connotations to drinking: drinking from sadness, drunkenness, and violence are all inextricably related to poverty, an inability to carry out masculine duties, and a loss of control of the self.

One of the common ways that violence, or the possibility of violence, is exhibited, is when men shoot pistols into the air after a long night of drinking. Manu, who runs the only bar in Rica Saty, has made it a policy that guns are not to be drawn in his establishment, which is also the front room of his house. His repeat customers respect this rule, and at the end of long nights will sometimes go out the front door to shoot their guns outside. This doesn’t bother him too much: “people just get overexcited,” he told me. But he also said that things sometimes get out of hand. Whatever symbolic violence is distilled and then diffused by firing at the stars, sometimes results in drunken brawling. Customers have been known to fight with knives in the park in front of the bar, again, according to Manu, because “they’ve had a bit too much; they are very macho”.

In one conversation with Manu he also added another layer to the relationship between poverty, violence and alcohol. He was having trouble with a neighbour, a lawyer (and consequently one of the richest men in town) who repeatedly complained to the police about the noise at the bar. Although Manu himself is one of the people who most denounces getting drunk as a loss of control, he defended his customers on this point and identified with them. “They are poor” he said, “and this is one of the only escapes they have. I don’t think [my neighbour] has any right to tell them what to do, or how to act. He can say that because he has money”. Implicit in this statement is, of course, resentment at a rich man who is trying to close down Manu’s meager business. But it also cogently underlines the ambiguities in the relationships between poverty, loss of control, masculinity, and a kind of release in symbolic and real violence. Drinking is a masculine activity, and an understandable escape from poverty and other problems. Drunkenness is bad, because it leads to loss of control, which is a mark of poverty and also unmasculine. Either way, poorer campesino men are caught in a double bind. On the one hand their masculinity is constantly called into question, on the other hand, even the value of masculinity is in question, and their macho displays are taken as the worst example of the wider social problem of machismo.

What is most interesting about this situation is that many people consider it to be a “new” phenomenon. Those who make this claim will blame it either on the economic recession, which throws more men into depression and drinking, or to the greater availability of alcohol. The vice of drunkenness, when invoked by Asunceños about campesinos, is seen as the fault of the rural poor. But when invoked by campesinos themselves, there is far more ambivalence about this, and the “problem” is seen as coming from somewhere else. One young man from Rica Saty even suggested to me that men his age are more likely to get violent while drinking American beer from a can, rather than local beer from a bottle. He thought this had to do with an additive that is put in the can which makes people behave irrationally. Whatever we may think of his chemical explanation it is well worth asking why there would be a connection between American beer and violence, or why someone would choose to see such a connection. For now I will chalk it up to just another particularly evocative reminder of the complex relationship between modernity, economics, individualism and masculinity in Rica Saty.

Soaps, Make-up and the professionalization of women

If rural men are burdened with all these contradictions of shifting gender dynamics, the pressure on women is no less great. In the realm of public consumption, the contradictions of modernity born by young women are considerably more acute. As in many other parts of the world (eg. Stoler 1995; Abu-Lughod 1990) women in Paraguay are charged with bearing the public faces, the good and the bad, of modern society. As I’ve already mentioned, the declaration of women’s equality under the 1992 constitution is not just some neutral occurrence — many people brought it up in conversation before I had even considered it relevant to my research. Most people I have spoken to about this consider it to be a positive move toward making the state more “democratic”. On the one hand, then, equality in the job market and the political spheres is presented as a sign of a modernizing state. On the other hand, both men and women in the campo pointed to young women drinking and smoking as a sign of degeneracy and decadence in the community. While behaviour of this kind is usually excusable for men, when women indulge in the same way it is seen as a sign of moral deterioration. After violent crime, immoderation by young women is the most commonly mentioned reason campesinos have told me they wouldn’t want to live in the city. In Rica Saty people were afraid that their community might be going in the same direction now that high-school girls had begun to drink along with the boys.

Nor is the line between the good and the bad of feminine modernity easy to pinpoint. Rosa, who lives in Villarrica, talked about them as part of the same general movement. Drinking and smoking among women started in her town around the time the medical school was established, almost fifteen years ago. The opening of the medical school in Villarrica was one of the big moments in the growth and modernization of Villarrica, bringing with it money, attention from the capital, students from all over the country and even from abroad, and a vibrant youth drinking culture. It brought young women to Villarrica who were on their way to becoming doctors, one of the most sought-after jobs, and these same women were also known, more than any Villarriqueñas, to drink copiously in public.

Another curious way in which this ambivalence about modern gender roles arose during the research was in relation to soap operas, or novelas, distinct from North American soaps because they have a finite run, usually between six months and a year. Although no novelas are produced in Paraguay, novelas from Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil dominate the public airwaves night and day, and it is very common for families and neighbours to crowd into the master bed together to watch them. Most people talk about soaps as mindless entertainment, and as when they talk about cell-phones, they are self-conscious about how much they watch them, considering them a kind of indulgence. Two men used exactly the same words when I introduced the topic: “Oh, soap operas. Even I watch soap operas! Our country is addicted to them!” But with women there is an added depth to the way in which watching soaps is constructed as a vice. When I asked what sort of people watched soaps, two answers were usually given: since they are on all the time, families watch them together at night, and unemployed or “lazy” women watch them during the day. If cellular phones are considered a little indulgence, a waste of money, soaps are in some ways worse: they are a waste of time. This is the one thing that a modern woman cannot permit herself. Many of the women I know in Paraguay are mothers, take care of their parents, do all of the housework (or coordinate a maid’s duties), hold a full-time job, and take night classes of one form or another. Meanwhile, while men are excused enormous amounts of time drinking, playing soccer, volleyball, or cards, most female social activities involve work of some sort, like cooking.

Modernity, and the relation between country and city does not just affect who watches soaps, it also weighs heavily on which soaps people watch, and how they watch them. Rolando, an upwardly mobile man from Rica Saty, told me that Paraguay had been so long saturated with soaps that people have become sophisticated consumers, expecting a well-made product with original plot-lines, characters, and even camera-work. In a fascinating conversation I had with Rosa and Suni, they divided soap operas into two quintessentially “modern” categories: one of traditional rurality, the other sophisticated urban futurism. Rosa prefers the Mexican soaps, because she says that they focus on tradition, on returning to one’s roots, on traditional values. “If I could go anywhere in the world to visit,” she said, “I would go to Mexico, because I can see they really care for their culture and their history. Not like here. Here we forget everything and all our values”. Mexican soaps are usually set in rural settings and follow a standard romantic story-line. Suni, on the other hand, represents a far more common view: she hates Mexican novelas because they are too sentimental and old-fashioned. Her favourites are Chilean soaps which tend to focus on the daily tribulations of young, rich urban men and women. But these also have a fantastical element, always “unpredictable” like alien visits and other supernatural phenomena. While Rosa looks back to an idealised pastoral Mexico and Suni looks forward to a modern, urban Santiago, both enjoy soaps which take them to another place or time, somewhere outside of the humdrum of a Paraguayan present caught in the struggle of development.

Since there are no soaps made in Paraguay, whether they depict “tradition-loving” Mexican towns or the adventures of dilettante Santiagueños, every soap opera offers the viewer with an image of how “other people” live. This aspect was a particularly important in the smash hit novela of 2001, Betty la fea (literally “Betty the ugly). This Colombian production was coming to an end while I was last in Paraguay, and nobody failed to mention it when I brought up the topic of soaps. Nobody could remember a single television show that had been so popular amongst all levels of society, and whether they loved it or hated it (few had no opinion) people, newspapers, and even the six-o’clock news talked about it as an astonishing social phenomenon. The story-line of Betty la fea is not that surprising: a disadvantaged young woman struggles to win the perfect man (powerful, rich, but sensitive), and after a few months of tribulations ends up marrying him in a lavish final episode. But two variations on the theme make Betty like no other soap. In the first place, the heroine is highly successful professionally, climbing the corporate ladder from inauspicious beginnings to finally becoming the leading man’s professional equal. Secondly, the greatest hurdle she has to overcome is her “ugliness”. As Betty becomes richer, she also learns to style her hair, wear makeup, and dress smartly. In the final wedding episode she has her braces removed, and just before saying “I do”, removes her glasses and stares into the camera as the picture of beauty.

This soap, the only one I really watched while I was there, was really disconcerting to me. It seemed to me that it’s message was contradictory: on the one hand, a modern woman asserts herself in a liberal society and proves to be on equal footing with men; on the other hand she is judged in greater proportion by her appearance, and her success as a professional is equated with her success at applying cosmetics. People repeatedly told me that the actress who plays Betty is a one-time Miss Colombia pageant winner, and is not only “not ugly” but represents the absolute pinnacle of beauty as defined by Colombian society. When I tried to bring up this apparent contradiction with people, only one woman partially agreed with me, saying that using the word “ugly” sent mixed messages. The rest saw Betty la fea’s message as a doubly emancipatory for women: Betty’s transformation did not reflect the sexist mores of society, but rather the notion that beauty is constructed individually, and therefore, like the liberal meritocratic ideal, is available to anyone who has a bit of money for make-up and is willing to put in the effort to better themselves.

Betty reinforces for many the changing social role of cosmetics in Paraguay as more women become professionals. There are different ways of wearing make-up for the home, for social gatherings and for work, and these also vary according to age and whether one lives in the campo or in the city. But in all of these contexts wearing “too little” make-up is seen as a sign of “not caring for yourself”, and is associated with indolence, poverty and the campo. But wearing too much is seen as self-important and immature, or is associated with rural women “acting like they live in the city”. Somewhere between these two forms of cosmetic impropriety is the competent modern woman who can make herself attractive in ways which are appropriate to the different contexts she negotiates. Betty la fea teaches that any woman can achieve this competence, all the while achieving success in the new (professional) and traditional (domestic) spheres of her life. In short, she can become the “kind of woman” who doesn’t watch soap operas.

Consuming modernities

Consumption is a medium through which people can reflect on their social identities as manageable fictions, and buying, displaying and giving goods become ways in which subjects evaluate, manipulate, and express their “selves” in social arenas of value. This idea has been around for some time in the anthropology of consumption. A structuralist reading of consumption, like that proposed by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (1980: 59) suggests that goods make “visible and stable the categories of culture”. This is similar to Bourdieu’s (1984) now famous argument that consumption practices mark the patterns of distinction between economic classes. But the examples given in this paper suggest that far from stabilizing cultural categories, many commodities may be infused with those cultural meanings, associated with modernity and change, which are anything but stable. As Richard Wilk poses it, consumption is a kind of social dialogue, in which meaning is milled and controlled but never stabilized.

This is because in the dialogue of goods ... meaning is always in dispute. Verbal language only works when we agree on the denotative meanings of words. A dialogue is a difference of opinion communicated with a common code. The consumption of goods, in contrast, sends a message even when the sender and receiver do not agree on what the message means. (1990: 83)

Consumption is a dialogue in which connotation figures more prominently than denotation, because despite the best efforts of advertisers to pin down the meaning of their commodities, those meanings are always and constantly up for contestation by consumers (Howes 1996).

Timothy Mitchell has recently argued that “the modern is always staged as representation”, by which he identifies “forms of social practice that set up in the social architecture and lived experience of the world what seems an absolute distinction between image (or meaning...) and reality, and thus a distinctive imagination of the real” (2000: 17). The “modernity” of commodities is therefore a reference to the very process of evaluation whereby “objects ... come to be organized as systems of consumption, requiring them to represent some value, idea, or imaginative realm beyond themselves ... so that everything presents itself as the reprentation of some prior value, some larger meaning, or some original presence.” (Ibid: 22). Commodities become useful “objectified” (cf. Miller 1987) but never fixed reference-points in the dialogue about social relations.

However, in deploying theories which see modernity as flow (Lash and Friedman 1992), as dualism (Miller 1994), as dialogue (Wilk 1990), or as an idiom or representation (Mitchell 2000; Miller 1987) we must remember that modernity also has vernacular forms (Appadurai 1996; Kahn 2001). Modernity is itself a category in local value systems which adheres to everything from a sophisticated world-views to cellular phones and aluminium cans, and connotes a kind of symbolic capital which is desired, controlled and accumulated (see Friedman 1990). Furthermore, by articulating with the languages of country and city, male and female, modernity is spatialized and embodied in ways that constantly blur the boundary between representation and naturalization. Richard Wilk (1995) has powerfully argued that as the arbitrariness of one cultural form becomes visible — usually that marked as “traditional” — the very shape of modernity begins to appear more natural and immutable. The present paper has suggested that modernity as a concept is never completely natural, nor transparent. It may appear from different angles to be arbitrary or immutable; self-evident or contradictory; resistible, inevitable, or already present, all at once.

Without losing sight of consumers’ agency in recoding the meanings of the objects they consume, we must recognise that meaning is viscous and repetitive, it accumulates but rarely goes away, and is hardly ever entirely novel. By deploying discourses on country and city, modern and traditional, male and female, Paraguayans are not just confronting objectified social categories or manipulating the meaning of objects, but entering themselves into complex and shifting arenas of value in which they are always already implicated as subjects (see for example Abu-Lughod 1990). Rapid changes in the political economic climate of the country force people to question not only the nation they live in, but their own relation to it. Nor do people feel universally secure in these shifting trends. The hopefulness with which most Paraguayans regard the future is always offset by a feeling of uncertainty, of instability, of possible futures of drunkenness, individualism, and selfishness which they would rather not visit. In some cases this manifests as a desire to turn forward or back, as shown by people’s comments on aspirin and soap operas. In other cases it creates situations of scape-goating, as with cellular phones and alcohol, or the complex attempts at reinventing the self, experienced by women across all sectors of Paraguay. Whatever route Paraguayan society takes through all these contradictions and ambiguities, the examples presented in this paper suggest that much of the negotiation will be played out far from universities and academic presses, in the every-day realm of commodity consumption.

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