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Book extract: Ambassador of Nowhere: A Latin American Pilgrimage

30 Mar 2024 4 minute read
Ambassador of Nowhere by Richard Gwyn is published by Seren Books

We are pleased to publish an extract from Richard Gwyn’s latest book, Ambassador of Nowhere: A Latin American Pilgrimage in which he criss-crosses the continent of South America, driving through lunar landscapes and travels to a town that may. or may not exist.

Here he visits Puerto Madryn in Patagonia, where the Welsh first landed after crossing the South Atlantic on the Mimosa.

Survival

However, despite their stubborn insistence on remaining Welsh, the immigrants did not harbour expansionist colonial ambitions, and their relations with the indigenous population, while mutually suspicious at first, were crucial to their survival; they would not have managed had they not befriended the local Tehuelche people, who taught the newcomers how to find fresh water and hunt guanaco, a native camelid closely related to the llama, alpaca and vicuña.

But all this lay ahead; the first days and weeks were extremely arduous, as the new arrivals sought to establish their settlement and find ways of acquiring sufficient food to secure their continued existence through the southern winter.

Caves

We are given a tour of the museum, and then descend to the beach where we see the caves in which, Fernando explains, the settlers spent their first nights, many of them making these damp, rocky recesses their homes for months to come.

Later that evening we are welcomed by the Asociación Cultural Galesa (Welsh Cultural Association) of Puerto Madryn, in Tŷ Toschke, where they also hold weekly Welsh language and cookery classes.

Our hosts are quietly proud of their cultural inheritance, in a way that blends their identities as both Welsh and Argentinian.

Nostalgic nature

I was sceptical, at first, about what seemed to me the essentially nostalgic nature of Welsh Patagonia.

I felt that the affiliation with the mother country had developed into a kind of collective fantasy, and there was a strong sense that the idea of Wales that many Welsh Patagonians entertained was very far removed from the reality that, for instance, my daughters grew up with in the multicultural environment of contemporary Cardiff.

Theirs was a pastoral and romanticised vision, lodged conceptually in ideas of hearth, home and hiraeth and, geographically, in the hinterland of rural west and north Wales.

Language is key

The Welsh language was key to this, the glue that held the concept together, and the identity package was tempered by an Argentine nationalism that brought the Welsh population in line with the rest of the country.

I was confused and slightly ashamed by my ambivalence towards the Welsh Patagonians: they were, by and large, kind and generous people without great financial resources, trying to get on with their lives, and I had no right to make uninformed judgements about them.

To compound my discomfort, my spoken Welsh was rusty, to say the least, never having acquired fluency, and neglecting to speak the language for some years; consequently I was more at ease speaking Spanish with the locals.  

Cultural identity

Our ethnic allegiance is a matter of chance – we have no say as to which ethnicity we are born into – but our cultural identity is a matter of choice. As for race, the very idea, at least as I understand it, is a myth, and even ethnicity is a can of worms.

Perhaps cultural identity is all we need to consider, and that too, at times, presents a headache. We have a heritage, both in our genes and in our culture, and they are by no means the same thing.

Hybrid

An Ancestry.com test has revealed that 83% of my DNA is a blend of Welsh, Irish and Scots, and the remainder is 7% Jewish, 6% German, 3% English and 1% Scandinavian.

Thus I might choose to represent myself, if I were a tourist brochure, as a hybrid of predominantly Celtic provenance, with a dash of Jewish melancholy and a flash of Germanic steel.

The cultural affiliation I have made, however, is with the land of my birth. The extent to which any of the DNA material becomes absorbed into my chosen identity is up to me.

I cannot escape the pure randomness of this inheritance, just as I cannot escape the current significance of my cultural identity, here in a place where ‘being Welsh’ has been grafted curiously onto the fact of ‘being Argentine’, or rather, the other way around.

Ambassador of Nowhere: A Latin American Pilgrimage by Richard Gwyn is published by Seren Books. It is available from all good bookshops.


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Crwtyddol
Crwtyddol
10 days ago

Interesting take on Y Wladfa. However, nationality is a state of mind, nothing else.

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