Juan, Carlos and Maria learn Welsh

November 10, 2000

Robert Owen Jones went to Patagonia to save a dying language. Adrian Mourby reports on the resurrection of Welsh after Perón.

Robert Owen Jones loves his subject, but even he admits that socio-linguistics can become just another academic discipline. He considers himself fortunate, therefore, not only to have studied Welsh, his native tongue, but to have been involved in the preservation of this ancient Celtic language.

"It's extremely exciting," he says, sitting in his Cardiff office. "And it makes greater sense of the academic side."

But it has not been so much as the cyfarwyddwr (director) of Cardiff University's Welsh Language Teaching Centre that Owen Jones has made his most dramatic contribution to Welsh but as the official monitor of a Welsh-language education project thousands of miles away in Patagonia, where he once spent five days under siege during the return to power of Juan Perón.

"I went to Patagonia in 1971 to do six weeks of pre-survey work, establishing to what extent Welsh had survived since 1912 when organised Welsh immigration ended. I went back in September 1973 with my wife and three children for 12 months. We were, in fact, the first Welsh family to arrive and settle in Patagonia for more than 60 years."

As if this event were not significant enough, the Owen Joneses arrived in Buenos Aires the very day that Perón flew back in.

"At midnight you could hear crowds shouting 'Per-ón', 'Per-ón' and guns being fired. We were supposed to travel on to Patagonia, but the following day we were told that everything was on hold and we shouldn't go out. No transport, no food. For five days, we couldn't even get a cup of tea. Fortunately, Welsh people living in Buenos Aires got to hear of our plight, and we were taken to their homes."

Owen Jones's wife, Nesta, was understandably terrified, particularly given that their baby, Lowri, was just a few months' old at the time. "She even had difficulty getting water boiled to make the powdered milk."

After five days, they were allowed to go on their way. They arrived in Chubut province where the fact that Owen Jones was a deacon of his own chapel led people to assume he was a fully qualified Welsh-language pastor. Within a fortnight, he was officiating at funerals while studying the survival of Welsh-speaking communities across southern Argentina and into Chile.

Despite having been accorded a warm welcome, Owen Jones came back depressed. "I felt I had seen the death of a language. The Patagonians spoke Welsh in chapel but not in the street.

"Because of Peronism, there was a terrible gulf between the fourth-generation settlers who spoke only Welsh, their children, who spoke Welsh and Spanish but could neither read nor write Welsh, and their grandchildren, who were monoglot Spanish. These were things that signified extinction, things that smelt of death to me."

The experience caused Owen Jones to change the direction of his academic work. "Prior to Patagonia I was a linguist/dialectolgist, but my interest in the social factors that affect language turned me into a socio-linguist."

These days Owen Jones directs the Welsh Language Teaching Centre. He was also one of those responsible for setting up intensive Wlpan courses that have made Welsh a living language again in Wales. And he was the obvious choice for a government-sponsored project to resurrect Welsh in South America, which began in 1996.

"I was commissioned by the Welsh Office through the British Council to conduct a feasibility study in 1996. I think if someone had gone to Patagonia who had not known the situation as it existed in 1973, they would not have seen the signs of resurgence that I encountered on returning 20 years later."

For the Welsh language did survive Peronism and the generals and Owen Jones has been able to set up a teaching structure and cultural activities in Patagonia that are rapidly reviving the language.

"We've been fortunate that, with a shift away from the centre, the provinces of Argentina are developing their individual identities and the Chubut ID now advertises itself as Welsh.

"The uptake of Welsh is greater than I expected. In 1996, there were 313 students attending Welsh classes. That had more than doubled by 1999, and in the Andes, where I found only 20 Welsh learners in 1996, there are 220.

"At first we had volunteers from Wales going over to teach, but now they're training their own teachers - young people with names such as Carlos and Norma, Juan and Mar!a. I can see Welsh becoming a way of life over there again."


WHAT ARE THE WELSH DOING IN PATAGONIA?

According to Robert Owen Jones, Patagonia (the modern Chubut province of Argentina) is the only Celtic colonial experiment in a generation that did not fail economically or have its identity absorbed into the native culture.

"They went to South America in 1865 to create a place where a Welshman could live as a Welshman. They chose Patagonia because it was 1,000 miles from the nearest Europeans," says Owen Jones.

"From 1847 it was no longer possible in Wales for children to be educated in Welsh. This could happen only in Patagonia."

At first, the Welsh were supported financially by the Buenos Aires government because their presence allowed the Argentines to lay claim to land without settling it themselves.

The Patagonian Welsh irrigated the valley but did not settle the surrounding pampas, which they left to the Amerindians with whom they enjoyed cordial relations.

Organised Welsh immigration ended in 1912. Then there was little contact between Wales and Patagonia because of two world wars, the depression and Peronist years, when it was advisable to keep quiet about Argentina's non-Hispanic roots.

In the 1960s, contact was re-established to mark the centenary of emigration, and Wales began to take a renewed interest in its "colony".

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