“The heart of South America” is how Paraguayans describe their landlocked nation with its strong roots in the Guaraní culture. When the first Spanish settlers arrived in the 16th century, the peaceful indigenous communities welcomed them. The Spanish made it a policy to inter-marry with the Guaraní, and the two cultures began to meld into one. Today, 95% of the population is classified as “mestizo” or mixed-race Amerindian/European. Spanish and Guaraní are the two official languages of the country. In practice, each language is influenced by the other, and the majority of Paraguayans speak both to some degree. Paraguayans are friendly, welcoming people. Their resourcefulness knows no bounds, and they are remarkably creative with the material possessions they have. They are particularly family-oriented, and relationships are always of the utmost importance. The national drink is an herbal infusion with ice-cold water called tereré. It is common in the summertime to see groups of people sitting together and sharing a cup of tereré in the shade of a mango tree. The custom of drinking tereré or mate (the same herb, mixed with boiling-hot water in the winter) is not so much about the drink as it is about spending time with family and friends.
Paraguay’s fertile soil is one of its greatest natural resources. While Brazilian and multinational grain companies have exploited this to great effect, the majority of people in the rural areas are subsistence farmers. As long as the rains are reliable, they can eke out a precarious living, but life gets very hard when there is a drought, or when someone needs costly medical care. Nearly a third of Paraguayans live below the poverty line. Many people move from the countryside to the city, where work is also in short supply, and they often end up living in shantytowns. Many more emigrate: Approximately half a million Paraguayans live abroad.
A large part of Paraguay’s economy is based on the informal sector: All kinds of goods can be bought on the street, or from a neighbour or colleague.
Ninety percent of the population are Roman Catholic, and the priests are highly respected in their communities. Superstition and the ancient Guaraní deities also influence the religion that most Paraguayans practice. In 1992, the Church was completely separated from the State, and religious freedom was enshrined in law.
However, the Catholic Church still exercises significant power in society. Protestant churches have seen huge growth in the cities since the 1990s. The most popular churches are Pentecostal, though there is a strong Mennonite presence, and there are many independent congregations. In the rural areas, however, there are very few Protestant churches. The Muslim population in Paraguay is growing rapidly.
*South America Mission currently has no missionary personnel in Paraguay, but our networks remain open there and we are actively exploring new ministry opportunities in Paraguay for sending missionaries.