This article was written to 1993. Today, there are 300,000 Afro-Uruguayans 60 percent of whom are poor. 50 percent of Afro-Uruguayan women still work as domestics.
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Montevideo Journal; Uruguay Is on Notice: Blacks Want Recognition
By Nathaniel C.Nash
May 7, 1993
Beatrice Santos says she doesn't face openly hostile racial comments every day, but there are enough to make her uneasy. The journalist said that recently, as she was boarding a bus, she heard the ticket collector say to the driver, "If I let this little black lady pass, maybe my luck will change." Miss Santos said she shot back, "Your luck will change, but you'll have bad luck," to which the man replied: "You're the unlucky one because you're black. I'm lucky because I'm white."
At first glance, it may be hard in this quiet, small country to think of racial problems. Uruguay, once known as the Switzerland of South America, prides itself on its tolerance and tradition of being a haven for political refugees. But whether it is a response to a growing racial resentment against the 180,000 blacks in this country of three million, or just an awakening among the blacks that as an ethnic group they are far behind whites, Uruguay is seeing a vibrant black political movement still in its infancy. Often more divided than united, more than half a dozen groups have sprung up in the last few years. Some are devoted to ending discrimination. Others are trying to promote black education. Still others are concentrating on black cultural identity, mainly through their music, called candombe.
"Candombe is the only original folkloric music in Uruguay, and it is a product of the black community," said Julio Olivera, an artist and head of the Association for the Development of Afro-Uruguayan Art and Culture. "But we are in a society in which we have lost our dignity, our sense of self-esteem. The law says the blacks are equal but really we are not equal. For that reason we have to figure out who we are and candombe is a way to do that."
Every year, a week after the beginning of carnival, on a narrow street in old town Montevideo, Uruguay's blacks celebrate their one day of glory. Young men beat their hands bloody pounding out a throbbing beat on wooden drums that once announced the days when their enslaved ancestors did not have to work. Others twirl colorful flags on long poles or bob up and down with glittering images of the moon and stars. Others portray the central figures of the joyous dance -- the gramillero, an Uncle Remus-like figure who was the slaves' sage and medicine man, and the mama vieja, representing the matriarch of the culture.
Much of the city turns out for the procession. Networks carry it live. "The only time Uruguay notices the black community is during carnival," said Miss Santos, who heads the Cultural Center for Peace and Integration. "The rest of the year we walk the streets and we are faceless." Unspoken Discrimination
For many white Uruguayans such commentary hits a discordant note. But prominent blacks insist that they fight an unspoken discrimination, a benign neglect that has kept a vast proportion of Uruguay's blacks in menial jobs like that of laundry worker, maid, gardener and chauffeur. "Indifference is probably worse than discrimination, because it creates no real evil against which to fight," said Ruben Galloza, a black artist. "If we had had open racial opposition, we might be further ahead than we are."
Most black leaders say the effects of the discrimination can be seen in statistics. Only 65 blacks, representing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, have graduated from college. There are no black members of Congress. No black political leaders. No black union leaders. The number of black professionals is fewer than 50. "Seventy-five percent of our women are maids," said Romero Rodriguez, head of Mundo Afro, the most radical of the black groups here. "We get the worst jobs. We live in the most marginal areas. The only reference in textbooks is that blacks came here as slaves."
A spokesman at the Ministry of Education, when asked for the name of an official who dealt with the problems of the black minority, said: "I don't think there is anyone here who would have information on that topic. It is just something we don't follow." History of a People To be sure, the incidents of open discrimination are few, and over all the plight of Uruguayan blacks has been less severe than, for example, those in the United States and Brazil.
The first slave ships docked in Montevideo in 1751, with blacks destined to work in the silver and gold mines of Bolivia and Peru. But many were kept in Uruguay and served as domestic help. At one point in the late 18th century, blacks were more numerous than whites here.
By 1842, Uruguay abolished slavery, but blacks continued in many of the same functions. What kept their identity as much as anything else was candombe. Sara Caetano Esquival, a senior corporate lawyer at the Government's telephone company, said the fault for the lack of development rested on the shoulders of the blacks. "We cannot find apartheid here because it does not exist," Miss Esquival said. "All minorities need to project themselves, but that does not mean attack the rest of society. What are they looking for, aggression from the other side?"