Trevelin: the little bit of Wales in Argentina
Monday July 17th 2017
“Trevelin is unique,” says Clare Vaughan, learning co-ordinator of the Welsh Language Project, a programme promoting the study of Welsh in Patagonia. “I think they are the only people to have trilingual road signs in Welsh, Spanish, and [the indigenous language] Mapuche.”
Vaughan arrived in the Chubut province of Patagonia some 12 years ago to help with the project, which began in 1997 and is funded by the Welsh Government, the Wales Argentina Society, and British Council Wales.
153 Welsh settlers
Nowadays, some 50,000 Patagonians claim Welsh heritage. And other towns with Welsh connections include neighbouring Esquel, as well as Trelew, Gaiman and Puerto Madryn, but Trevelin appears to be epicentre of unlikely Welsh culture in the one of the most remote places on earth.
The story really began back in 1865, when 153 Welsh settlers landed in Patagonia aboard the converted tea-clipper Mimosa on the invitation of the Argentine government, which wanted to populate the plains of southern Argentina with European farmers.
The settlers landed on the Atlantic coast before making the perilous trek towards what is now Trevelin, a name taken from the Welsh Trefelin, meaning “mill town”. Trevelin sits in a valley where the first mill was established more than a century ago.
With its population of just over 7,000, Trevelin’s tea rooms feel straight out of Aberdare. Few buildings, now dusted with snow in the southern winter, are more than a storey high. “This is Welsh life,” Vaughan, who grew up in Wrexham, says, pointing to a collection of cups and saucers. “There are so many things here that I’ve seen in my grandmother’s house.”
Children at a local school bilingual school, Ysgol Y Cwm, where lessons are taught in Welsh and Spanish, wear their red and green uniforms with pride. They move from singing in Welsh to speaking in Spanish effortlessly. For a typical Argentine barbecue, lamb gets the nod instead of beef.
“I don’t think there is anyone who says they feel Welsh, but they feel different,” Vaughan says, responding to a question as to what comes first – Wales or Argentina. “It’s something that they have, that others don’t. That makes them proud.”
The language project was originally supposed to last three years but is still going strong.
Success is evident. In 2016, ahead of the 20th anniversary, the project celebrated a record 1,270 students. The Patagonian dialect, Vaughan says, is distinct from Welsh in the UK, incorporating Spanish words here and there. However, in older generations, the accent has been also been preserved.
“In Wales we are terrible, we use lots of English words,” Vaughan says. “Here, they use Spanish instead. [The accent] is lovely, but some of the older ladies have accents that could come from North Wales.”