Historical Oddities: Y Wladfa

Argentina, like most countries in the Americas, has a long history of European immigration since its independence. The most common immigrants during the 19th century were Germans and Italians fleeing the chaos of Europe in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolutions. Descendants of the Italian immigrants now make up over half the population of Argentina, and include famous Argentines such as Pope Francis (born Jorge Mario Bergoglio) and international soccer star Lionel Messi. One of the smaller groups of immigrants, though, was a small community of Welsh that emigrated from Great Britain to Patagonia in the mid-19th century.

During the 19th century, the series of governments in the United Kingdom enacted a number of policies that disadvantaged the Celtic minorities on the British Isles. Like the Irish that migrated from the British Isles in the wake of the Great Famine, a small group of Welsh left Wales in 1865. At the time, a revival of the Welsh language and culture was taking place in Wales. However, the rapid industrialization of the coal mining areas of Wales brought a large influx of people from England, diluting the number of Welsh speakers in the nation. In 1865, a small number of Welsh people went from Wales to Chubut province in southern Argentina to found a small Welsh-speaking colony away from Wales to protect the language and culture.

With the permission of the Argentine government, 153 Welsh settlers came to a large bay in Chubut province and settled the area. They named the bay and the settlement that grew on it Puerto Madryn, and called the major area of settlement Y Wladfa, Welsh for “The Colony”. Over the next decades, more immigrants arrived from Wales and the colony expanded to new towns along the Chubut River such as Trelew and Gaiman. The colonists soon started growing wheat in the area and the towns flourished. The people of Y Wladfa taught Welsh alongside Spanish and protected the Welsh language and culture in the area. In the 1880s, settlers got permission from Chubut governor Luis Jorge Fontana to expand west and founded the towns of Esquel and Trevelin in a valley near the Andes Mountains. By World War I and the end of Welsh immigration to Patagonia, Chubut province had a Welsh population of approximately 5,000.

The Welsh cultural identity of Chubut went into a decline during the two World Wars and the Perón regime. Starting in 1965 with the centennial anniversary of the original Welsh settlement, however, the identity and language has begun a revival in the province. Now, it is estimated that 50,000 of the 500,000 people living in Chubut province are of Welsh descent. Of these, as many as 12,000 people speak the Patagonian Welsh dialect as their primary language and a further 25,000 people speak it as their second language. The province also has two Welsh language newspapers in operation; Y Drafod, which has been in circulation since 1891, and Clecs Camwy, a monthly newspaper started in 2011. The Patagonian dialect of Welsh also includes several Spanish loanwords, and to this day remains prevalent throughout Chubut province.

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