It's Wales, at other end of world


Patagonia: The Argentine city of Gaiman has a Welsh accent, which it has embraced since the 1860s.

November 23, 2001|By Brian Byrnes | Brian Byrnes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GAIMAN, Argentina - When Macsen Jones is scolded for acting like the mischievous 4-year-old that he is, the message can come at him in a variety of dialects. If his mother, Monica, is setting him straight, chances are he'll hear it in Castellano, the Argentine form of Spanish. If his father, Gwyn, is in charge, Macsen hears the hearty, whiplashed words of the Welsh language.

Of course, his parents might also add some English as a way of weaning their son on yet another language.

An unusual blend of vernacular, yes, but then again, as any one of Gaiman's 5,000 residents will tell you, this is a most unusual part of the world.

Here in the Chubut river valley, the languages, cultures and creeds of people from a world apart have been melding for the past 135 years, helping to create a new and distinct subculture of residents in the heart of Patagonia. Many of these residents feel they owe as much to their forefathers from across the Atlantic as they do to the Argentines who invited the Welsh, seeking to escape religious torment in Britain, to settle in this most inhospitable part of the world in the 1860s.

Nowhere is the evidence of these countries' collaboration more prevalent than in the marriage of the skilled linguists Gwyn and Monica Jones. Gwyn, a native Welshman, came to Gaiman six years ago, having heard about its Welsh descendants and its warm weather.

"In Wales, we go to Spain looking for the sun," he says, "and here you've got Wales, but in the sun."

Here, he met Monica, a teacher and poet and a fifth-generation Welsh-Argentine who speaks flawless Welsh and Spanish. They married in 1995, and Macsen arrived shortly thereafter. The Joneses run Hosteria Gwesty Tywi, a bed and breakfast on one of Gaiman's many quiet side streets, just off its equally quiet main drag and only a few doors down from where Monica grew up.

"We knew that Welsh people would want to come over here and we thought, `What better than putting a Welsh B&B, a Gwesty here where we could receive all these Welsh people,'" says Gwyn, 38.

Since opening the B&B in 1998, the Joneses have welcomed travelers from all over the world, but most have been Welsh folks on vacation, some who have ended up staying for weeks at a time.

"I think people tend to think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a real big holiday here," he says.

Those who come are looking for a balmy retreat, a home away from home, while many others are looking for historical records on trailblazing relatives who made the first journey to Patagonia on the ship Mimosa in 1865.

But more than likely, they are seeking that intangible feeling that comes with spending time in Patagonia, where the windswept trees, snow-peaked mountains and rolling valleys have enchanted everyone from explorer Ferdinand Magellan and naturalist Charles Darwin to modern-day celebrities Ted Turner and Sylvester Stallone.

The onslaught of tourists from Wales and beyond is a relatively new phenomenon in Gaiman, but the residents are embracing it with open arms, especially during these times of financial crisis in Argentina. A tourist center, fancy Web page and new restaurants are all a result of this recent influx of visitors and the money they have spent.

But perhaps the biggest reason behind Gaiman's reputation as one of Patagonia's "must-see" sights is the revival of the teaching of the Welsh language. On the streets in Gaiman these days you will hear Welsh spoken almost as much as you will hear Spanish, but this was not always the case. Until recently, the Welsh language had almost been lost here.

The Welsh Language Project changed all that. Financed in part by the National Assembly for Wales and the British Council, both located in Cardiff, the program has been bringing native Welsh teachers to Gaiman and surrounding towns in Chubut Province since 1997.

"It takes a generation of learners in order to measure success or failure," says Nans Rowlands, one of the five visiting teachers living in Patagonia this year. And by all accounts, success seems to be winning. The Welsh classes are taught privately and in public schools and are extremely popular, attracting students from age 3 to 87.

The majority of the students are teens and, perhaps surprisingly, people of Indian descent, but Rowlands says they are all enthusiastic about learning the native tongue of their town's settlers. A good sign, she says, for the future.

"They enjoy the Welsh culture, sing in the choirs and participate in the Eisteddfod [the province's Welsh literary and music festival], and the natural result is that they want to learn the language."

In addition to government funding from the United Kingdom, the Cymdeithas Cymry Ariannin, the Welsh-Argentine society in Wales, provides support for six residents of Chubut Province to attend a two-month intensive-study language course at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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