Steph Davies - Hiraeth

Steph Davies was funded by the Arts Council of Wales among others to travel to Patagonia in 2014. Here she reflects on some of her experiences.

I didn’t learn anything about Y Wladfa as a child. My Nan once told me that there were some Welsh people living a Welsh life in Patagonia in Argentina, but that’s all I knew. She gave me a book that I never read. However, the idea lodged in the back of my mind.

Years later, I decided to explore the story for myself, and the more I found out, the more fascinated I became. Eventually I decided to go to Patagonia. It was coming up to the 150th anniversary of the Welsh colony and it seemed the perfect time to embark on this journey. I felt that there was a story to be told. People in Wales knew about the Welsh in Patagonia, but not everyone knew why they were there, why their ancestors had decided to leave Wales, and whether people still spoke the language. There were so many interesting stories to be told, which were not to be found in textbooks. I decided to create a website where the user could spend five minutes browsing and be guaranteed a new piece of information to take away.

When I spoke about what I wanted to do, many people in Wales responded positively to the idea. I received funding from Arts Council of Wales, Cambridge University, local Welsh businesses and crowd funding from Kickstarter, which led to support from BBC Wales, which created more coverage.

I went to Patagonia and spent ten weeks there. I was surprised and delighted by what I found. Despite being 8,000 miles from home, in a different climate, I had never been anywhere that felt so much like home. Trevelin felt like Cardigan. The place and the people were so familiar. I arrived on the Friday night and on my first Saturday I went to a wedding with my host. The Welsh Patagonians were welcoming and made me feel comfortable and at home.

They were also kind enough to welcome me into their homes so that I could interview and film them. One thing quickly became clear: they were all aware of their history and wanted to share it with me. They were incredibly proud of their culture and heritage and many of them dedicated their spare time to keeping the Welsh language and culture alive in Patagonia.

I was introduced to descendants of the first settlers, to the older generation who had been at the core of the community for a long period of time, to local farmers and to young teachers who had come from Wales to Patagonia to teach Welsh. I interviewed and filmed forty different people who shared their wonderful stories with me, both in the community in the Andes and in the Chubut Valley. They were from different backgrounds, but they all had a Welsh connection, and all had a different tale to tell. I returned to Wales with many hours of film and stories handed over to me to share with a wider audience: stories from a community, stories passed through the generations by word of mouth.

When I returned to Wales, I started working with a small team to create the website Project-Hiraeth.com illustrating, editing film, translating text, designing and building the site. In March 2015, the website was launched and shortly after, to my surprise, I was approached by a publisher to turn the project into a book with the financial support from the Welsh Books Council.

This book has developed from the website. Hiraeth is a celebration of the Welsh Colony established in Patagonia 150 years ago. Those interviewed recall the courage of their ancestors in the face of terrible hardship and rejoice in their own commitment to Welsh language and culture thousands of miles from home. It is a tale of past, present and future, of perseverance, pride and hiraeth. Some of the videos were truly beautiful, as the interviewees discussed what hiraeth meant to them, and pondered when they had felt that emotion.

We have tried in testimony and illustration to convey the fascinating story and spirit of the Wales over 7,000 miles away. I cannot think of a better way to learn about what the Welsh culture in Patagonia looks like today than through the eyes of the people who are living it. In a world where so many minority languages and cultures vanish, this is such a positive story – and the website and book are a celebration of that.

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