The Dark Side of Tranquilopa


One could fall in love with Paraguay for it’s tranquilopa attitude, and many have. “Tranquilopa” is a word that is a mix of Guarani and Spanish and could be translated as “tranquil.” But, the word means a lot more than “tranquility.” It is really a way of saying “life is good,” “I am happy with life,” “I am grateful for what I have and my lot is not bad in the slightest,” and “I am satisfied, fulfilled, calm, peaceful, and enjoying the time given to me.” Tranquilopa means all these things, but it’s not just a saying. The word and its meanings summarize the Paraguayan view on life. Paraguayans are grateful for what they have and they let themselves take time to be happy. They have time for their families, a lot of it. They pass long and short hours with their friends. They always look for the next joke and way to smile. They are laid back, generally calm, and not always searching for the next best thing.


As someone who grew up in the hustle and bustle of big dreams, fast and furious work schedules, and endless to-do lists I like the lull of tranquilopa. With practice, I’ve become more patient and accustomed to the slow pace tranquilopa gives to life. I enjoy having time free of an assigned activity in which I can do or not do whatever I want. But, in recent times, I’ve  discovered that tranquilopa has a deep dark side, and it’s not the boredom I sometimes feel drinking terere or chatting and staring into space for hours. I still can’t do nothing as well as my Paraguayan friends, but I’m a lot better at it than when I got here. Doing nothing is an art, and for me it’s a work in progress.

The dark side of tranquilopa is the tendency to turn the other cheek or joke rather than address a negative aspect of life. Tranquilopa sometimes provides an excuse for inaction, and thereby can be a barrier for social change, professional achievement, and project completion. Here are some examples.

Example one

A certain guy is known for being a drunk. He comes to the family party already plastered and drinks more to a point of extreme drunkenness. This man then does one of several things, he could be very rude and hit on whatever women, he could pass out, he could get in a fight, he could piss himself, or he could do something to hurt himself. I’ve seen or heard tell of all these outcomes in Paraguay. With the exception of a stereotypical frat party, most of these actions would be actively addressed in the US, especially because this happened at a party where children were present. But, in Paraguay the most common response is to joke about what happened, and do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Turning problems into a joke is a classic tranquilopa response and is an obstacle in preventing the same thing from happening again.

Example two

Tranquilopa causes one to live in the present, which is good in many ways. Some of us in the US will spend our whole lives overlooking the present, caught in the past and dreaming of the future, until the moment we die and realize that all we wanted was right there in front of us we just forgot to look. But, some things in life require long-term planning to realize. Going to college, getting the career you want (rather than doing just whatever job you can get), starting your own business, completing bigger projects like building a house, saving for larger ticket items like a car or a vacation…the list goes on. And, tranquilopa can deter people from making and following-through on long-term goals. I have found this particularly interesting working with youth. Many of the Paraguayan youth with whom I work struggle to imagine where they will be (in life) in 5 or 10. When I ask what they want to have or do, they give me blank stares. Or, some youth tell me they want to go to college,  but when asked what they want to study, where they want to study, and how they are going to work out the logistics (like paying for it) the students shrug. Tranquilopa creates a sense of security that says, “what is meant to happen will,” and sometimes this idea prevents the efforts necessary to achieve complex goals.


Like most aspects of Paraguayan culture and US culture, I think a half-half mixture of the tranquilopa life philosophy and the US equivalent which I will call “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” would be the ideal for a life of happiness and prosperity. There is no denying the happiness of the people who live by tranquilopa. Paraguayans smile and laugh more than any people I’ve known before, and it’s not because they have it all in term of material goods. But, I also see people in Paraguay suffering more than they have to because tranquilopa is slowing change. Laughing things off rather than fixing them and only thinking about today are good skills, but they must be executed with even-handedness.


Teaching Sex Ed

I never imagined myself teaching sex education before Paraguay. But since late August sex education, focusing on HIV prevention, has been the center of my work world. And, it is some of the most gratifying work I’ve done in my ever-elongating life. What I enjoy most is watching how my students giggle more knowingly rather than awkwardly and show greater confidence as we work through sexual health topics. During my first class, my students wouldn’t say words like “penis,” but now they can tell me exactly how and for what one uses a condom with only a slight smirk betraying underlying tension.

Just like in the States, many families and schools in Paraguay skim or entirely skip sex education because adults are embarrassed or don’t know how to discuss the topic with youth. As a result, “sex education” is learned through experiment. It’s not that experiment is entirely bad but when it comes to sex, experiment without some basic knowledge and protection can often lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Because I’m using a program that focuses on HIV prevention, I talk about condoms a lot. As you know, they are the only form of birth control that prevents pregnancy and STDs. Just like in the States, condoms are under utilized in Paraguay even though they are widely available and often free. You might ask, “Why?”

Unlike in the US where there is a poisonous link between condoms and religion in some circles, the officially Catholic country of Paraguay, for the most part, does not view condoms as a negative thing. Myths and mistaken beliefs about condoms are one reason many Paraguayan men are reluctant to use condoms. Myths like one can not feel pleasure during sex when using a condom. Another, and perhaps more important reason, is that many people, both genders, are too embarrassed to talk about sex or get information about how to protect themselves that they just go for it. It takes confidence to get a condom and then ask your partner to use it. And, that’s where I think sex education enters the picture.

Sex education is partly explaining how things work, like how to use a condom, and telling what resources are available, like the different forms of birth control. But, I think almost more importantly sex education is a time to clear the air and help young people become more comfortable talking about their bodies. I like to think that my students don’t only learn how to protect themselves from HIV, but also become self-advocates so that if faced with a partner who asks them to take a sexual risk they don’t like they can stand up for themselves. One can know about all forms of protection and the ins-and-outs of sex, but if one is too nervous to say what he or she wants in the moment it does no good.


The Bosses

One knows when elections in Paraguay are on their way because public works, so long neglected, magically get finished in record time. The muddy street next to my school got cobblestones and it took less than a month. In a few weeks the highway by my house got repaved. The candidates also advertise themselves with signs plastered on every power pole and billboards propped above faithful business fronts. Conversations about what needs to happen in the community become more pointed, people of the same party meet to discuss politics, and candidates start visiting their supporters.

In other words, when elections are around the corner in Paraguay it’s not so different from September of a US election year. But, it is different when the elections are over and everyone is settled into their winning posts.

Paraguay is still a land with a mark of political corruption and political bosses —I guess you can argue the same for the States in some areas. Corruption by nature is often hard to see, especially from my view as an outsider, but Paraguayans grumble about it. The mayor a few towns over from my site was found guilty of taking large sums of money from the town coffers, yet I think someone told me he might run again. While I will leave the judgement of how much corruption there is among politicians in Paraguay to someone who has quantifiable data, political bosses are hard to miss for even someone like me who tries to steer clear of all Paraguayan politics.

Like most places, or at least the limited list of places I know, the best way to get a job in Paraguay is to know someone who has an “in” and who can help one by-pass the black pit of faceless applications. This is particularly important in a high context culture like Paraguay, where who one knows or is related to is often more important than what one achieved. Relationships in Paraguay are built over long conversations that develop slowly. Time saving and directness are not part of the traditional culture. But, in Paraguay there is often a deeper level of connectedness that will win one a good job, not just an okay job, and that is the political boss. If you’re like me and know US history by way of the different immigration movements and development of labor unions, you will know that politicians in the States had a long history of giving out jobs to win votes and saving the best posts for their most fervent supporters. And that is Paraguay today in a nutshell.

I don’t mean to say that without a political connection it is impossible to work in Paraguay, because that is not true, and I can’t speak for all Paraguayan towns when it comes to politics and work. But, this is what I can say. I’ve talked to a mother about her visiting the mayor so her daughter doesn’t have to…and the daughter ends up with a job in the city government. I know families that tow the party line and get side jobs in the local government, to supplement the money they already earn. I have seen families take steps to ensure that someone from their family is always at the political meetings and that the candidates they support pay them a visit to hear the family’s ideas. I don’t yet know first hand what will come of the political meetings and candidate visits, but if unemployed members of those families get work when their candidate wins, that will make me think a political boss had something to do with it.