The Paraguayan Ministry of Education recently bestowed a medal upon Oswego State Professor Tracy K. Lewis. The medal recognized Lewis’ lifetime of work advocating for the country as it transitioned into parliamentary democracy following decades of military dictatorship.
Lewis, a professor of modern languages, was presented with the medal at a conference at the Universidad del Norte in Asuncion in August. Lewis was first told of the medal by his friend and Universidad del Norte President Juan Manuel Marcos, who told Lewis that the medal was the highest honor the ministry could bestow.
“It is very moving and important to me personally,” Lewis said. “I have spent so much time trying to illuminate the people of Paraguay, so it is a big honor to be recognized by them in this way.”
Lewis said his interest in the little-publicized South American nation, wedged between larger and more populated countries Argentina and Brazil, was sparked when he met Marcos at a conference in Louisiana in 1985. Marcos was politically exiled for views opposing the Paraguayan dictator at the time, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, and was teaching in the United States.
Shortly after being allowed back into Paraguay in 1987, Marcos published the novel “El Invierno de Gunter,” that portrayed Stroessner and the Paraguayan government in a negative light.
Stroessner took control of the Paraguayan government in 1954 and held it in a continuous state of siege for most of his 35 years as dictator. During Stroessner’s dictatorship, political freedoms were limited and opponents of his regime were often harassed and persecuted by government forces. During the 1980’s, Marcos was a part of increasing opposition to Stroessner regime.
Lewis attended a conference in Paraguay in 1988, a year after the release of Marcos’ novel and a year before the fall of Stroessner’s regime.
“There was still the familiar odor of paranoia in the air, and regime informants were liable to be anywhere,” Lewis said of the political and social climate in Paraguay at the time of the conference. Lewis said he was frisked at the airport in his time there, and that he believes part of the reason was that he had attended the conference, which was run by opponents to Stroessner.
On this visit, Lewis also received his first copy of Marcos’ novel, which he would eventually translate into English in 2001. This was only the third piece of Paraguayan literature to ever be translated into English at the time. Lewis said translating the book was especially gratifying because the English version has now been translated, or is in the process of being translated, into several other languages, allowing more attention to be brought to Paraguay worldwide.
“The world is filled with places we know so little about,” Lewis said of the lack of worldwide interest in Paraguay. “It is symbolic of our tendency to ignore places until they become the source of a problem.”
Lewis said what makes Paraguay unique is its adoption of its indigenous language, Guarani, as an official language.
“It would be like if Americans adopted the language of the Mohawk tribes before them,” Lewis said. Lewis said a big part of his ability to advocate for Paraguay was being able to teach himself Guarani, a language known by very few worldwide but plays an important role in Paraguayan culture.
Paraguay is a bilingual country, with both Spanish and Guarani as official languages. Guarani is spoken by almost 90 percent of the population, but Spanish is used almost exclusively in government and business. Lewis said there have been recent efforts to integrate Guarani into the previously strictly Spanish-speaking Paraguayan education system. An effort, Lewis said, that can be of interest to educators in the United States.
“There is a lot we can can learn from them,” Lewis said of Paraguay. “Their experiments in bilingual education are very interesting, it’s a cultural dynamic we can learn from ourselves.”
Lewis was also a recipient of a 2012 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching this Spring, an honor to recognize the highest standard of teaching in the SUNY system.