Celsa Rutan was only 9 when a coup brought down the 34-year regime of General Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay in 1989. The transition brought about tremendous changes not only for the Rutan family, which had been persecuted under the military regime, but for the entire country that had found itself isolated from the rest of the world.
"It was chaos, even before the actual coup," said Rutan. "Everyone was glued to their radio and TV trying to understand what was going on. We knew everything was going to change, especially freedom of expression."
During the Stroessner regime, political liberties were extremely limited, and the opposition was persecuted. Rutan's parents were among those who escaped to nearby countries, she said. Her family went back and forth between Paraguay and Argentina until Stroessner fell.
The fear of another coup has plagued the 6 million citizens of Paraguay until recently, said Rutan, who has worked as a journalist in Paraguay and now lives in Denver.
In 2008, former bishop Fernando Lugo was elected president in a historic election in which the Colorado Party lost the presidency after 70 years in power.
In light of such dramatic changes, Paraguay's bicentennial celebration on May 15 may mark a new day in the history of the South American country. The government is taking the opportunity to promote Paraguay like never before, with activities in the capital city of Asunción, in Washington, D.C., and in Philadelphia.
"With the bicentennial, we want to introduce people to Paraguay, showing off aspects of the culture, the economy and our natural resources," said Rigoberto Gauto Vielman, the Paraguayan embassador to the United States in a statement from the Paraguayan Bicentennial Committee of the USA.
Denver's Paraguayan community will also celebrate with a gathering in Washington Park on May 14 where about 60 people plan to play volleyball and enjoy the traditional food and drink of their homeland, including sopa paraguaya, a corn bread, and chipa bread, according to Natalia Alvarez a Paraguayan who lives in Littleton.
There are few Paraguayans in Denver, about 30 families, Alvarez says, though only 40 individuals are registered with Paraguay's Consul General in Los Angeles.
"Paraguay is a very beautiful and very small country, but there is a lot of ecotourism. I hope the bicentennial will make more people aware of the country," said Alvarez.
The Republic of Paraguay is made up of two distinct regions separated by the Paraguay River: the East, which is the most populated, and the West, which is part of the Chaco Boreal. Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina surround Paraguay, which doesn't have a coastline but has liberal access to the ports of Uruguay.
The defining charasteristic of the Paraguayan culture is the use of both Spanish and the native language of Guaraní, a combination known as Jopara. The persistent use of Guaraní has created a culture that values both the indigenous and the Spanish cultures, Caen said. Guaraní is a part of our daily life and emotions, she said.
"For me and other Paraguayans, the gift of speaking two languages has always made us feel special," Alvarez said. "There is nothing like Guaraní, no other language in which we can express ourselves clearly. We can't tell jokes in Spanish. They have to be in Guaraní or they're just not funny."
Alvarez, 35, has taught her three daughters the value of speaking many languages. They speak English, Spanish, a little Guaraní and a little French, thanks to their father, Gerome, who is French.
Daisy Schmeda, 40, who was born in New York to Paraguayan parents, said she set out to learn Guaraní when she studied in Paraguay as a child.
"I am very proud of my ability to speak the language because it's very difficult to learn, but it's so rich and beautiful we would like to share it with the world," she said.
Two of Schmeda's three children will travel to Paraguay for the first time in June to visit family. They grew up with Paraguayan food and culture and are excited to experience more, said German, who is a 15-year-old student athlete at Columbine High School in Littleton.
"It's going to be amazing. I love chipa and sopa paraguaya," he said. "I think I speak Spanish well, but I'm going to learn Guaraní while I'm there."
According to Rutan, since the political situation has stabilized, many young people who had emigrated to the United States, Spain and Argentina to study are returning to Paraguay to continue promoting democracy. Rutan, 35, visits her parents in
Asunción regularly and tries to help poor communities there.
"I always say, I'm not going to stand around here with my arms crossed, waiting to see what will happen in my country. I'm going to do something, even if it's something small," she said.
She added that both the Latino and anglo communities in the United States could learn something from Paraguay in that the country has succesfully fused two cultures and two languages for more than 200 years.
Rutan admitted being surprised at the resistance of various groups and some politicians to Spanish as a second language in the United States, considering that the language is part of their history.
"Speaking two languages does not kill either of the two cultures. It shouldn't be seen as a lack of patriotism. I believe in the fusion of the cultures, and Paraguay is a good example of this. It is a fusión of the indigenous culture with the European. It is a perfect example of how you can live and let live with different cultures and make the best of it," she said.
CAPITAL CITY: Asunción, with more than 2 million inhabitants.
LANGUAGE: Official languages are Spanish and Guaraní.
INDEPENDENCE: May 15, 1811.
POPULATION: More than 6 million people (2009)
GOVERNMENT: Paraguay is a democratic republic with a multiparty system. The government is divided into the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
EDUCATION: Primary school is free and obligatory for nine years. The literacy rate is 93.7 percent.
MONEY: The Paraguayan guaraní is the official currency. The exchange rate is currently 4.145 guaranís per U.S. dollar.
ECONOMY: Paraguay experienced the largest economic expansion in South America in 2010, with GDP growth of 14.5%.
GEOGRAPHY: Paraguay is located in South America and is surrounded by Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia.
1 stick of butter
1 onion, chopped fine
2 cups of shredded muenster cheese
2 cups of corn meal
1 can of creamed corn
1 can of whole corn
1.5 cups of milk
Salt to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Beat eggs with butter, add corn meal, milk, onion and cheese. Mix well. Pour mixture into a greased 13x9-in. pan and bake for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown.
Recipe courtesy of Daisy Schmeda
For more information
For information about the bicentennial celebrations of Paraguay:
In the United States: mre.gov.py/bicentenarioenusa
In Paraguay: bicentenarioparaguay.gov.py