The Story Behind My Choice of Gualicho
A quick google search will inform anyone interested that a Gualicho (or Gualichu) is a spirit from the mythology of the original people of Patagonia. It’s the kind of evil spirit that every mythology has, and was often used to explain away every misfortune that befell the tribe.
Now, I’ll be honest: I knew very little about the Mapuche people—the native population of parts of Patagonia—until very recently. Argentina is a mainly European country and native populations represent a tiny percentage of the overall population. The history and traditions of the original inhabitants of the country are only superficially studied in school. When one encounters a person of evident native ethnicity, most assume that they are more recent immigrants from Bolivia or Paraguay.
These attitudes are the result of initial wars of conquest followed by a few centuries of assimilation—unlike in other areas, the original sparse native populations succumbed mainly to intermarriage with the much more numerous Europeans.
Nevertheless, I’ve heard the word “gualicho” countless times in everyday conversation. It has lost its original meaning to become synonymous of any kind of magic spell cast by a witch or shaman.
But it survived.
Somewhere in the wars of subjugation of a people who were far from most centers of commerce and population, one concept burned so strongly that not only was it understood by the conquerors, but it survived and entered the dominant Spanish language to live on in the vernacular.
Two hundred years later, an Argentine writer of mainly Italian ancestry (only a quarter of my forebears were from Spain) sat down to choose a traditional monster from South America.
My research identified dozens of candidates, from legendary monsters to native gods and from spirits only a handful of indigenous people ever believed in to entities that frightened the superstitious colonists hundreds of years later.
The process ended as soon as I found the Gualicho. I became fascinated with the fact that a word could morph and survive one of history’s truly definitive wars of annihilation. It must have had some powerful mojo.
As a term that reaches us through an essentially oral evolution, the etymology is pretty confused, but in my imagination, I can see the Mapuches repeating it again and again every time they came into contact with those Europeans who, through firearms or disease, had become so intimately connected to the unimaginable evil befalling their people.
There was nothing else you could call them, was there? Those pale-faced interlopers must have seemed to be perfect stand-ins for the evil spirit that haunted their people.
It must have been a powerful spirit indeed, powerful enough to find a way to survive. But surely a spirit strong enough to be familiar to someone unconnected to the history of the region two hundred years after the people whose legends it had sprung from were gone would find a way to abide, to plan for the time when it could vanquish not only its original victims but also the new interlopers…
But who would it fight? Would it attempt to ally itself with the Mapuche against the new enemy? Would it continue to torment the Mapuche’s descendants?
The answer, once I understood the spirit, was obvious. This thing would fight agains everyone.
Well, to get that answer, you’ll have to read the story.