At Puerto Iguazú: From Myth Back to the Future
According to the old Guarani myth, the Guarani people who inhabited the land around the Iguazú River, were bound to appease the powerful river god M’Boi, son of the supreme god Tupa, by sacrificing him every year the most beautiful virgin of the tribe. One year, the serpent god M’Boi was struck by the young maiden Naipi, who was betrothed to the warrior Taruba. Even though she had not been intended for the sacrificial rite, the elders of the tribe decided that they could not refuse M’Boi’s demand. Taruba and Naipi agreed to meet in secret and escape. As M’Boi spotted them in the river, the serpent god got so convulsed with rage and envy that he swelled until he became as wide as the river and, slithering and squirming, changed its course in endless bends and curves. He then split the river bed, tossing Taruba out of the boat and onto the embankment above, while Naipi crashed down in the boat towards the hurling waters below. M’Boi transformed Naipi into a rock, and changed Taruba into a palm tree, so they could never reach other. The legend says that the jealous god is keeping watch over the two lovers separated by the translucent waterfall, so they can see each other in their immobilized agony but cannot touch or run away. And yet, it is precisely over the Devil’s Gorge, where M’Boi lurks vengefully, that a magnificent rainbow forms, starting at a palm tree on the Brazilian side and reaching over to a rock on the Argentinian side, thus enabling Taruba and Naipi to show each other love and unity.
Puerto Iguazú is not only the stuff of legends and tales. Over the course of the twentieth century, it has become the object of geographical fascination, poets’ obsession, and international competition in nature’s miracles. Writing in 1901, as a Post Scriptum to his travelogue De Buenos Aires al Iguazú, the journalist Manuel Bernárdez set out to justify his epithet for Iguazú Falls as the Marvel of Americas:
“People deemed it disrespectful to apply the title of the Marvel of Americas to the Iguazú Falls. – And what about the Niagara Falls? they would ask.
“The Niagara Falls, I will concede, present an astounding sight. But Iguazú is so much more. This statement was only tentatively brought forward, with self-conscious courteousness, as if not to sound gratuitously boastful. And those who would hear it, judged it as such, believing it is merely an easily accountable exaggeration due to Latin temperament, notoriously given to magnifying impressions. And yet: no. The truth was indeed on the other side. Which can be proven by a simple comparison of conclusive figures.”
An Argentinian patriot and amateur geographer, Santiago Pusso wrote in his travel memoirs Viajes por mi tierra that the very best site to admire the primordial unearthly beauty of the Iguazú Falls can be found at the conjuncture where the waters from the Argentinian and the Brazilian side embrace in what has become known as the Union Americana:
“It is necessary to devote to each spot, out of the countless ones unfolding gradually to the visitor’s eye, sufficient time to uncover and take in its secrets; while in the act of viewing, the spirit, ready to get overpowered by sensory impressions, soaks in beauties that had been hidden even from its dreams. Consequently, it is necessary to linger and dwell in these locations for at least fifteen days and commit to serene and focused observation of the boundless curves and bends in the vegetative border over which the river rushes and leaps with fierce abandon. At times of flooding, the river’s golden edge swells into a mesmerizing sinuous sash.”
On board a steamboat on the way to the Iguazú Falls along with a pleasant company of distinguished lawyers, doctors and merchants, Pusso grappled against jolts and fears evoked by the natural sublime. The view of the majestic terrace of cascading waters rendered him uncharacteristically speechless:
“At the end of the road, we were sprinkled as if at the baptismal fount by the crystalline iridescent droplets filtered through the sunlight – an initiation into the sacred for the fortunate traveler who gets close enough to contemplate the divine landscape. Could I even attempt to describe its magnificence when so many other wise men and intellectuals haven’t dared to? I wouldn’t do it out of respect for its grandeur, as well as out of consideration for all those who had their impressions published; I only wished to express in the private pages of my journal, which only my Andrea and my children will see, how proud I was to have braved so many dangers, partially accounted for herein, in order to admire this masterpiece of nature. Nature, in whose creative force, man, otherwise its most intelligent creature and best equipped to comprehend its magnitude, precipitates himself into the abyss of awed paralysis at the infinite potency of Nature’s material beauty. What I would give to be able to put into words all that felt at this moment roiling through my mind and throbbing in my heart! The man who loves the beautiful feels like the slightest atom before the grandeur of a sight which he cannot describe; but this force of attraction that overpowers him is not like a vertigo, that would pull him down toward unconsciousness or death even; rather, it raises his gaze towards the heavens, searching for something that cannot be found on earth and that would help him grasp such a place. Whatever we might wish to name this force, it exists and endures; it teaches us that man’s passions for ephemeral goods are worthless and vain, and that the path toward truth is only taken in the study of nature.”
As the glory of the Iguazú Falls spread in travelers’ and scientists’ circles, and just as the old Puerto Aguirre was establishing itself as world-famous tourist destination, with the complete infrastructure of a self-contained small town, Iguazú was also becoming literally the matter of Spanish language instruction in North American schools. J. Warshaw, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Missouri, combined educational and pedagogical mission in teaching high school and college students in the US to develop proficiency in the Spanish language, as well as cultivating a sophisticated understanding of South American culture, nature, and political history. In the Spanish-American Composition Book (1917), Warshaw included an abridged article on the Iguazú Falls, adapted from Harriet Chalmers Adams’ writing for the Bulletin of the Pan American Union in 1914, as the study and discussion material for the lesson on the position of object pronouns and idiomatic uses of haber. The article ends with an enthused paean to the beauties of the Iguazú River and its environs as the “youth of the world” that might be on the brink of danger:
“All this, without doubt, will have to change in the future; as the progress of civilization must set in motion the exploitation of the Iguazú Falls in the service of industrial development.”
And yet, that has not been the case. While the majestic Itaipu Dam attests to the economic advancement of both Paraguay and Brazil, Puerto Iguazú is a thriving city accommodating its residents and welcoming tourists in its unique combination of vibrant local culture and dramatic encounter with nature’s primordial excess.
Bernárdez, Manuel. De Buenos Aires al Iguazú; crónicas de un viaje periodístico a Corrientes y Misiones; con numerosos grabados, un panorama y un plano de las grandes cataratas. Buenos Aires, 1901.
Pusso, Santiago. Viajes por mi tierra: al Iguazú, a Nahuel Huapi, por las costas del sur. Barcelona, 1912.
Warshaw, J. Spanish-American Composition Book. New York, 1917.
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