One day as I was walking up to one of my favorite señora’s house I saw her out in her yard chopping at the ground with a machete. Now, machetes are perhaps the most used tool in Paraguay, and it’s quite normal to see people just casually walking around with them. I was not particularly surprised she was using one. I thought she was weeding or mowing her patio…a common use of machetes. But as I got closer, I realized her motion she was not right for weed control. Finally, as I stood next to her I saw a zillion little crosses that she’d etched in the sand.
“What are you doing?” I asked, not hiding my confusion. Paraguayans are nice about explaining things, and by this point the people with whom I hang out most in my community are quite used to my questions, which I’m sure seem ridiculous to them.
“I’m drawing crosses,” she said.
“I see that, why?” I said.
“Ants. They were all over. You know they come out with the rain. I didn’t see them and they bit me when I walked to the sink!” she said. Her clothes washing sink is outside. The patio, like most in my community, is sand.
“Oh, I see them. Wow, there are a lot,” I said. The mean biting ants covered part of her patio, moving around like electrons. Between the rains the ants come out in droves. They can turn your whole floor or wall black or brown with a moving army of little six-legged devils waiting to bite you. Some Paraguayans call them a free cleaning service. After the rain they will pass through your house, or whatever path they choose, and eat all the dead bugs and delicious refuse in their path. “What do the crosses do?”
“They stop the ants,” she said.
“How?” I asked.
“The ants won’t cross the line of the crosses. Once you draw the crosses they leave quickly. Look, they are already leaving,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. I knew I sounded like a toddler in that questioning stage of life, but there is always a deeper answer to why my Paraguayan friends do things I don’t understand.
The señora straightened her back and looked at her handy work. She squinted at me. “Ants are creatures of Satan. The crosses send them away,” she said. The conversation about ants ended there as we prepared to drink terere.
The ants moved. Within twenty minutes of drawing the crosses not an ant wandered the area where they had once swarmed. I told myself that the x’s must disturb their communications signals—I read or heard somewhere that ants use their antennae to communicate to each other. I’m not sure if that’s the right explanation either, however.
The lore of señoras has given Paraguay a special place in my heart. I love stories. Often the ends that señoras predict come to pass even if their reasoning and science have different explanations. Of course, some beliefs create obstacles for health and equality to reign, especially when it relates to sexual health, but Paraguayans have a trick for everything. I’m surprised how often ideas I think are ridiculous at first work.