Felix Jimenez spoke only Guarani, Paraguay's indigenous tongue, until he started school at the age of six. His zealous schoolmaster had resolved that his young charges would speak only Spanish, so he would strike Jimenez on his hands with a ruler for using his native language. But the humiliation only served to galvanize the youth’s loyalty to Guarani. Felix Jimenez, now 77, calls himself Felix de Guarania.
In addition, he has published numerous books, poems, and stories in Guarani. His life reflects Guarani's dramatically shifting position in Paraguay’s history: once branded as the language of the impoverished and ignorant, it was later declared the country's second official language.
Unlike in other Latin American countries, where indigenous languages are spoken largely by indigenous peoples, Guarani is spoken widely throughout Paraguay. A 1992 census indicated that 39 % of the population spoke only Guarani, 60 % spoke only Spanish, and 49% spoke both. Linguists attribute this broad base of speakers to developments during Paraguay's colonial history. When early Spanish explorers failed to find precious metals to plunder and take back to Spain, many of them simply settled down, taking wives from among the indigenous people and having offspring who embraced the language of their mothers.
Now, many Paraguayans are experiencing a literary boom as writers turn to Guuruni to craft poetry and prose of great beauty, transforming the traditional use of the language, which was once almost entirely oral. Professor Mario Bogado opened a Guarani bookstore in 1996, and sales are on the rise. He believes that the impetus behind book sales is a growing desire among Paraguayans to reconnect with their heritage-a reaction against the sweep towards globalization, “Paraguay is a nation that is very pressured from outsider,” worries Carlos Martinez Gamba, a leading writer. “The Paraguayan people discovered taking refuge in the language to be a very effective manner of protecting themselves,”
Another writer, Tadeo Zarratea, wrote his first Guarani novel as the result of a bet he made with some classmates while studying law in the late 1970s. The group of students had observed that, up until that time, Guarani was mainly the linguistic medium for poetry and theater, but not for prose. A wager ensued as to who could write the best novel in Guarani, and Zarratea won. Pacifying his publisher's trepidation about how well a Guarani novel would do on the market, Zarratea's work sold well.
Like Felix de Guarania, Zarratea's devotion to the language stems from his own schoolboy memories of Spanish-only rules. Even though he came from a Spanish-speaking family, he witnessed the injustice inflicted on Guarani children. “I said, “The Paraguayan system is very mistaken. Here, many talents are lost.” Years later, Zarratea would have the opportunity to rectify past inequities by helping draft the new constitution, which designated the rich and colorful Guarani tongue as Paraguay's second official language.