Obituary: Josefina Pi

PARAGUAY COULD have done with more women like Josefina Pi, the Spanish-born writer and artist who lived most of this century at her humble suburban home in Ascuncin. Not that Paraguay is short of courageous women in its recent history. It was women who held the country together when the male population was reduced to one tenth in the Triple Alliance war (1865-70), and then severely cut down again in the Chaco War in 1935.

But Josefina Pi was special. She kept an open house for all visitors who wanted to discuss history, literature and art, and equally for those who came to threaten her for her persistent opposition to the dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled from 1954 to 1989.

Born in the Canary Islands in 1909, she went to Ascuncin in 1926 as the teenage bride, aged 15, of a Paraguayan potter and ceramics artist, Andres Campos Cervera. From him she learned to paint and make pottery.

She began to piece together the shattered history of Paraguay in the 1930s, when nobody seemed interested in anything but surviving hunger. By the time she died she had published over 150 books of history, essays on links between Spanish and Paraguay's native Guaran, studies of native and colonial art, and volumes of poetry and short story.

She lived near poverty most of her life, but she described herself as immensely wealthy in the knowledge of two languages and two cultures, and amused by the product of miscegenation encouraged by personal example by the first Spanish governor of Ascuncin, Domingo Martnez de Yrala.

In the Spanish-speaking world, her writing put her on a par with the Uruguayan Juana de Ibarbour, and Chile's Gabriela Mistral. But in surviving them and in virtually rebuilding the history of a country's art and culture, she stood alone.

The academic world and Latin Americanists will remember her for her main works of poetry, some of her theatre, and for her essay on what she called "Hispanic-Guaran baroque". But a wider potential audience should also note her remarkable exploration of the history of British residents in Paraguay, who were largely responsible for building the basic grid of Ascuncin. The British in Paraguay, 1850-1870 was published in London in 1976, largely thanks to the effort and translation of the former British ambassador in Ascuncin, B.C. MacDermot, and the support of St Antony's College, Oxford. Drawing on archives that survived the wars, Pi traced the lives and work of the engineers and skilled craftsmen who built the railways, shipyard and government house for Paraguay.

I first met Josefina Pa in the late 1970s, when Stroessner was still strong in power and she in her language about him. Our subject was always the British in Paraguay. But she too faded, feeling herself on the sidelines of a trendier Latin America beyond the life of Ascuncin.

Josefina Pi, poet, historian and artist: born Las Palmas, Canary Islands 9 November 1909; married 1926 Andres Campos Cervera; died Ascuncin 11 January 1999.