When Lewis Johns met the boatload of his Welsh countrymen at the muddy bayshore north of here in 1865, he had already warned them not to expect any ready-made miracle. The wintry wastes of Patagonia, home to desert rats and armadillos, were an unlikely spot on which to found a new and independent Wales.
This dusty, busy town was named after Lewis Johns, the prefix "tre" meaning village. Now in Treocki, Trevelian, Puerto Madryn, Gaiman and a dozen more communities founded by the Welsh along the Chubut River, the old religion and the Gaelic language are finally fading, surrendering to the Argentine melting pot after more than a century of resistance.
"It'd be nice to find a Welsh girl, I suppose, but I don't go looking for she," said Cesar Roberts, 33, a blue-eyes greatgrandson of the colonists. sunglasses perched atop his curly blond hair, Roberts speaks only Spanish and works here as a taxi driver. He is typical of the new generation of Welsh in Argentina in that [WORD ILLEGIBLE] cultural interest stops with the Eisteddford a festival of Welsh music and poetry patterned after the one in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and held here each October.
At the last Eisteddfod, more than 1,000 jammed the public halls of the Red Brick Society of St. David Building fighting over tickets to hear the orders from Welsh communities all the Argentina. But some of the songs were in Spanish, as was all the commentary, and at least one choir wore ponchos while they sang. Roberts said he enjoyed the dancing the most - but the dancing was all to Argentine music.
You're asking about it 30 years too late. Everyone's dead now," said a lanky older woman in the doorway of her ornate brick home. Like several of the second generation here, she did not want to talk about the assimilation process.
The woman running the Welsh tea shopper Camwy Te Gales, said, "I do my work and know little of the community ." Her work includes making apricol and strawberry jam to go with the seones, served in small room with posters of Wales and the red dragon flag. In the walls, fresh flowers on the red and greeen-covered tables. Scones, black Welsh fruitcake and tea served on English ironstone crockery costs 50 cents. "We're Argentine first now and it doesn't matter about the language, she said.
The Welsh did not always feel that way. It was nationalism that brought the first pioneers here aboard the converted tea clipper Mimosa, determined to halt the decline of the language and customs in Wales. An earlier attempt to colonize southern Brazil had failed, its settlers going to the United States - but even theer the Welsh were succumbling to the new ways.
An early report had promised rich forests, wild cattle and fertile land here in Patagonia, as well as a political vacuum that Welsh nationalism might fill. Lewish Johns was one of the two advance scouts that dampened these hopes, reporting accurately that the area was a semi-arid desert of scrub bursh, whistling wind and dust. Even so, determination brought the pioneers here in the teeth of winter after a two-month voyage, ill prepared for what they would face.
"If it weren't for the Indians, they all might have died," said Evelyn Roberts, an historian who has translated several Welsh works into Spanish. Fewer than half a dozen colonists had done any farming, and it took a flood to teach them that the land would produce only if it were irrigated.
"Altogether maybe 2,000 or 3,500 persons came from Wales over the years," she said. "The important thing they did was to begin trade from here with Buenos Aires (800 miles away) and Europe, colonize the Andes foothills and begin mercantile activity . . . The surprise is that they did so much and lasted so long with so few people."
Scarcely three months after the first pioneers had arrived in what is now Puerto Madrynn, the Argentine government representatives came and hoisted the blue-and-white flag over the settlement at Rawson, thus dimming even the dream of a new Wales.
But Argentina was big and empty, and the quiet Welsh were left alone to grow their wheat and tend their dairy cows while rowdier immigrants from other nations surged in around them, seizing millions of acres and holding the land by force. The Welsh lands were always small compared to the huge sheep-growing estancius that even today divide up the prairie.
Those first immigrants are buried today in the weedy, overgrown cemetery behind the Morrila Chapel, off the main road out of Trelew along the river west. Insects swarm in the thorns crowding the tombsomes that recount in Gaelic the deeds of the families Parry, Jones, Berwyn, humphreys and others, most of whom died in the 1880s.
Once a year, on July 28, the tin-roofed church opens its square white pews to serve tea and cakes to the Trelew community in honor of the day the immigrants stepped ashore at Puerto Madrynn. "That's probably all most of them know about the Welsh," smiled Tegai Roberts, great-granddaughter of Lewis Johns and proprietor of the tiny museum in Gaiman.
It is little Gaiman with its dusty main street that has preserved the most Welsh flavor, its distinctive redbrick buildings and the gleaming chapel. Edith MacDonald, director of Gaiman's 16-member choir, hopes to raise the money to take it to Llangollen, pronounced Then-Goth-Lyn, Wales, for the Eisteddford there in July.
"I'm proud of speaking Gaelic and I use it with my children so they will know it too." she said. "But the most important thing is to preserve the traditions of music and poetry."