LOCATION: Venezuela and Colombia
RELIGION: Mixture of Roman Catholicism and indigenous religious traditions
The Guajiros are a people of northeastern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela. They have been seminomadic (not keeping permanent homes) for hundreds of years. They existed before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, although their precise origins are uncertain. The Guajiro people is divided into clans. Each clan is made up of several family groups, with leaders who are recognized as princes.
The Guajiros live in the dry lands and coastal areas of the Guajira peninsula. This area borders the Caribbean Sea to the north and east, and Venezuela and the Gulf of Maracaibo to the west. The Guajiros have traditionally ignored the border that divides Venezuela and Colombia. They roam freely into and out of both countries. Their nomadic habits have been recognized and respected by both countries. They have been given citizenship by both. They have never had to follow the rules and formalities normally required of border crossers.
Reluctance to recognize national borders continues to this day. Members of the same extended families and clans may live either in remote desert areas or in cities such as Riohacha, the capital of the Guajira department (state). They may live in a neighborhood of the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, where some have migrated to find work, or in smaller settlements such as Puerto López at the mouth of the oil-rich Gulf of Maracaibo. Many move from one location to another, freely crossing borders.
Although many Guajiros have had contact with Spanish-speaking people for many years, they continue to speak their own language. They often have three names each: a Guajiro name, a Catholic name given to them at birth, and another Spanish name that they usually use with white people. The Guajiro name is often kept secret. It is used only by close members of the family on the mother's side.
The story of Guajiro lives, their work, their loves and sorrows, and the landscape of sand and boat and sea is often recorded in poetic songs. These are often very sad. For example, in a song about a boat and an anchor, the following line is repeated in a lengthy, sad tone, like the repetitive call of a bird: "Eeeeeeeeee guarapáin tanai, eeeeeeeee guarapáin tanai." Then this sad lament changes into a joyful song.
Although the Guajiro Indians were gradually converted to Catholicism, some beliefs and practices from earlier times persist. Each clan has a symbol, usually drawn from the animal world. It stands for certain virtues and traits with which the clan identifies. This symbol is usually understood by outsiders as a totem. This means that the power, hopes, and virtues that the clan considers valuable are expressed by their choice of symbol. Sometimes this symbol is tattooed on a person's arm.
Religious life for the Guajiros is a mixture of Catholicism and traditional beliefs. These include a different view of the afterlife. The cape at the head of the Guajira peninsula, called the Cabo de la Vela (the Cape of the Sail), is called Jepira by the Guajiros. They consider it a sacred place because they believe that Guajiros who have passed away still wander there.
The Wayúu clan records its origin with this poetic myth: "We were born of the Wind of the Northeast and the Goddess of the Rains." Winter itself is thought of as the brother of the Goddess of the Rains, and the winter is appreciated by all the Guajiro Indians because it brings life-giving rains.
Guajiros who have migrated to the towns have become more involved in the celebrations and religious festivals of Catholicism. The Guajiros also mark special events in their lives according to their own traditions, especially the Guajiro ceremonial dance known as the Chichimaya . This is a fertility dance; it is often performed when a young girl reaches adolescence and is considered able to marry.
The Festival of Uribia mixes dances, songs, and music of African, Spanish colonial, and Guajiro Indian origins.
Many Guajiro infants are not only baptized into the Catholic Church, but also given a private Guajiro naming ceremony. The Guajiro name is part of the special relationships among family members. Clan identity comes to the infant through its mother. Similarly, the Guajiro name is usually spoken only by close family members on the mother's side. Maternal uncles have special authority and importance.
When Guajiros become teenagers, they are separated for a time. When they reach adolescence, girls are kept apart from other people and cared for by their maternal aunts. This is to help girls prepare for married life. For months, the girls have to drink specially brewed herbal teas. It is believed that the tea helps them get rid of childish attitudes and become more mature.
They also improve their skill in crafts such as weaving. This time apart is seen as a rebirth, and each girl is given a new name. After this, they are ready to go out into the world again, to meet the boys who will eventually become their husbands.
At this stage the girls have a coming-out party, and the Chichimaya, the Guajiro ritual fertility dance, is performed. During the dance, which takes place at dusk, a boy takes off his hat and waves it, dancing backward in a circle, daring a girl to catch him. The girl has to dance and chase him, trying to step on his feet so that he will lose his balance and fall.
Greetings can be very friendly and enthusiastic. When guests arrive, hosts hang up extra hammocks so that the visitors will be able to spend time with them—and spend the night if necessary. Then the hosts will ask the visitor, "What news do you bring, waré?" The waré (friend) is expected to provide news about relatives and friends.
The health of the Guajiros depends on where they live. The Guajiros as a whole are in a period of change. Some have migrated to the towns. In larger cities, such as Maracaibo in Venezuela, there is a Guajiro district.
Even those who do not live permanently in towns are going more often to medical doctors in the cities and towns.
Guajiros who have not migrated to the towns still live in simple circular huts. Traditional house building is done by the community. The whole family lives under one roof, often in small groupings of huts with other members of their clan.
The role of the woman is very important among the Guajiros. The society is matrilineal. This means that the family name is passed on from the mother to children. The mother's relatives are very important. Most important are the maternal uncle and the maternal aunt.
If a boy wants to marry, his family has to offer a generous bride price. This may include thirty more goats. The Guajiros regard goats as extremely valuable assets.
Guajiros usually look for wives from a different clan. If a wife is unfaithful, the husband can return her to her family and her family must return the gifts they had received. If a husband has been unfaithful, he has to pay her family with a gift that equals the original bride price.
When a woman is expecting a child, her husband is required to protect her in specific ways. For instance, he has to ride ahead of her to search out dangerous snakes that might harm her or the unborn child.
Traditional clothes are striking and distinctive. Women wear long, flowing, flowery dresses down to the ankles. They fit loosely and therefore are cool in the hot climate. They also protect the skin from the sun.
Men are often tall and thin, with strong limbs. Their traditional loincloths are sometimes decorated with bright tassels and pompoms. They also wear pompoms on their sandals as a sign that may indicate their rank as a prince. When they go to town, they wear simple cotton shirts and trousers, as do other town dwellers in the hot climates of South America.
Corn and products made from corn meal are part of the basic diet. Protein is obtained from fish caught in the coastal waters of the peninsula. Turtles sometimes provide a source of protein and are considered a delicacy. On festive occasions, meat (usually goat meat) is grilled on simple open fires. Some Guajiros also keep pigs and hens.
The first efforts to provide schooling for the Guajiros were begun by missionaries. Literacy (ability to read and write) has been low. But in the last few decades this has been changing, as more Guajiros have migrated to towns, where education is more widely available.
Many young Guajiros do not go beyond primary school. Others may have just a few years in primary school without completing it. Those who have moved into towns are able to complete high school.
Parents who stay in isolated villages feel it is important for young people to survive in that environment. For them, education does not mean going to school but rather learning to herd, hunt, or fish; to build simple shelters; and to weave.
The Guajiros have preserved important parts of their own culture as they have absorbed belief systems and attitudes from the surrounding culture. The ritual Chichimaya is a ceremonial dance that has been preserved. Traditional instruments, such as flutes, rattles, and drums, are still in use.
Their myths, which often deal with their origins as a people, are preserved in storytelling and song.
For centuries, the Guajiros have dived for pearls around the Cabo de la Vela. They have also mined salt on land that traditionally belongs to them. Much of this land was taken over by the Colombian government, which then hired the Guajiros as paid labor. Guajiros do not usually like long, regimented working hours. They are used to working in a freer pattern, and working just enough for their basic needs. Relatives often share the same shift on a single job.
Some Guajiros have found work in coal mines, since Colombia has rich coal deposits in the region. Others work in the oil-rich area of Maracaibo in Venezuela.
Children who are adapting to town life are also beginning to enjoy Western-style sports.
In the traditional way of life, spectator sports do not exist. Elements of sports and athletics are included in dances and rituals during festivals, or in the tasks of daily life.
Town dwellers enjoy local radio and television programs and go to movie theaters. But the aspect of popular culture that people living along the Caribbean enjoy most is the carnival. Guajiros enjoy fiestas and carnivals as much as everyone else. The best-known fiesta in Guajira is the yearly event in Uribia. The Guajiros come in all their finery. Women wear jewelry and colorful flowered dresses, their faces dramatically made up with ceremonial paint. In Uribia, they mingle with other (non-Guajiro) peoples living along the coast, enjoy the dancing, and admire the ceremonial elegance of the Guajiros.
Weaving, jewelry making, and crafting musical instruments such as flutes and drums form part of Guajiro life. Their hammocks are well-known and are now sold in coastal towns. The women make their own dresses. Their specific cut and choice of flowery prints are much admired. Guajiros also make dugout canoes and basic fishing equipment such as nets, rods, and spears.
In the early 1990s, constitutional reform in Colombia allowed representatives of indigenous (native) peoples to serve in Congress. This is an important step forward. But it is still too early to know what effect this will have on the Guajiros and their problems. These mainly have to do with changing lifestyles and the growing differences between the people who live in towns and the rural people who continue to live in poverty.
De Friedemann, Nina S. Fiestas . Hogta: Villegas Editores, 1995.
Los Pueblos Nómadas, National Geographical Society. Mexico: Ediciones Diana, S. A., 1978.
Zalamea Borda, Eduardo. Cuatro arìos a bordo de mi mismo. Bogota, Colombia: Compañia Gran Colombiana de Ediciones S. A., 1959.