Uruguay, Mon Amour (English)

Para una versión de este blog en español, haga click aquí.

It’s been a whirlwind six weeks since my wife, kids and I moved to Montevideo for nine months. We have found an apartment, moved in, and hunted down things like  sheets, toys, a crib, and a desk with which to transform the servicio, or maid’s room, into our Global Headquarters (also known as an office). We have enjoyed time with friends and relatives. We have visited our son’s future preschool, and softened the blow of his transition with new joys such as splashing in the Río de la Plata and riding the Gusano Manzanita roller coaster at Parque Rodó. We have walked the city for hours with baby strapped to one of our backs. We have found 100-year old magazines at a street fair that are priceless research materials for the novel I’m working on. And we have worked our behinds off producing the documentary that brought us here in the first place.

The film is called Afro Uruguay: Forward Together (you can see a five-minute trailer here or at the end of this post). My wife, Pamela Harris, received a Fulbright Fellowship to spend nine months here, directing and producing this film about afrouruguayos, their culture and history and music and struggles for uplift. It’s been eight years in the making, a true grassroots labor of love. I am honored to be co-producing this film, which really means that I volunteer and serve however I can. I have no talent at all for gadgets but I’ve gotten better at monitoring sound without sitting on the equipment. I wear big headphones, translate, conduct interviews, make phone calls, translate some more, follow subjects around, and listen. Above all, listen. Documentary, I am learning, is a form of Deep Witness. And there is so much here to be witnessed, that deserves to be told.

The Uruguayan activist Tania Ramírez

Two days before we arrived in the country, a young Afro Uruguayan, Tania Ramírez, was severely beaten in the street by four women who called her a “negra sucia,” among other racial epithets (you can read more about the incident here). Tania’s liver was perforated, among other severe injuries; she was hospitalized for a month, and is still recovering. She is also an activist and respected public figure, and for the past month the case has made headlines, filled airwaves, and shaken the nation into talking about race. Just yesterday, a judge handed down a verdict on three of the aggressors: he ruled them guilty, but stopped short of calling the attack a racist incident or hate crime.

Pam and I have been following this case closely, from the inside. I’m not quite ready to go into the details, out of respect for the people we’re working with, but I will say this: we were outside the courthouse with Tania’s loved ones on Tuesday, while she was inside giving testimony (under the Uruguayan legal system, no loved ones were allowed to enter with her, which seems cruel and unusual from the perspective of a former rape crisis counselor like me). We stood in the oppressive summer heat with them, huddling in the shade of the grand Teatro Solis. We filmed, listened, waited. A half block away stood a cluster of the defendant’s friends and relatives, and another cluster of men with big cameras. They were television reporters. They stared at Tania’s loved ones, filmed them from afar, but did not interview them. Not. A Single. One.

On that night’s television news, one of the perpetrators’ mother appeared, interviewed on the street, just yards from us. She railed on and on, defending her daughter and what she called just a “street fight.” The news spot gave her almost two minutes. They showed footage of Tania’s loved ones, but gave them no voice. One might think, watching the news, that Tania’s loved ones were unwilling to speak to the press.

But I was there, I saw it. Tania’s loved ones were not asked. Every major TV station was there, but the only people who interviewed Tania’s loved ones on camera that particular day, the first day of proceedings, were Pam and myself.

Ours is a long-term project, and that footage will take a year or more to reach the world. Meanwhile, the topic of race in Uruguay is so complex and maddening that it’s almost enough to break my heart. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a Uruguayan say that there’s no racism here. Not to mention that there are no black people here, that “this is a nation of Europeans.” These are utter staples of the nation’s self-definition, cultural mantras, and the people who say them are often well-meaning, kind, even progressive. It’s true that this heartbreak is personal for me, as a Uruguayan married to a black woman, with multiracial kids for whom I wish the freedom to embrace both their blackness and their Uruguayan roots—but it should also be all of our heartbreak. Inequality hurts all of us, even if in different ways.

I want something different for this beautiful, idiosyncratic, beloved country. I want it to be able to burn down its racism and rise from its ashes. It’s possible that the messiness and outrageous denials and omissions in the dialogue over Tania’s case are part of that burning; I’d like to think they are. Backlash is often a sign that a movement is working. We’ve seen that in the States time and time again, with the feminist movement, gay rights, and struggles for racial justice. We are still living inside those backlashes in the U.S., of course, but they haven’t stopped the movement forward. On the contrary: as those retrograde voices become anomalies, they show us how far we’ve come.

Today, in Uruguay, there’s plenty of fuel for optimism. The radio waves and talk shows and supermarket aisles are full of conversations about race. Black and white Uruguayans alike tell me they haven’t seen anything close to such attention to the topic in their memory. While the voices of denial are there, it’s also true that many, many people are outraged about what happened to Tania and speaking out on behalf of increased awareness, respect, and racial justice.

Logo for La Casa de la Cultura Afrouruguaya

And, in recent weeks, La Casa de la Cultura Afrouruguaya has been making waves with a highly public campaign to persuade the Real Academia Española to remove racist language from the dictionary (you can watch the inspiring and star-studded TV commercial here). The two news stories are separate, but they have fused in the public imagination, often mentioned in the same breath, stoking the same fire.

Uruguay, mon amour, keep moving forward. You are lovely beyond compare, a small gem hidden in the great pirate chest of the Americas. You have a singular rich history of progressive movements and ideas. You are odd, grumpy, large-hearted, unparalleled in the realms of soccer, mate, and uses for mayonnaise. And yet, like so many nations, you are also riddled with a racism that is a direct legacy of centuries of slave trade and colonialism and silences that, for all their power, can be broken, mon amour, mi amor, my love. Let’s break them together. Let’s set our sights on making a better, brighter Uruguay for everyone.

Here’s a five-minute clip of our film-in-progress that we made last year:

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22 Responses to Uruguay, Mon Amour (English)

  1. Emma A Johnson says:

    Kudos Carolina! you had my heart and mind in a firm grip from the very beginning, You my dear, are an exemplary writer! you can take me from happiness to tears in a heartbeat; so love to read what you write. This history of Uruguay is interesting, especially when you put it into context with all that has happened in the US, and the fact that we now have an African American for President. You and Pam keep up the excellent work you are doing with your work, your children, and your lives, love to you all!

    • Carolina De Robertis says:

      Emma, thanks a million for your kind words and beautiful thoughts. Honored for you to read. Yes, these are optimistic times in many ways, from the U.S. to Uruguay, even as there´s still work to be done. Onward we all go…!

  2. Flavia says:

    True, I was talking to my Uruguayan dad yesterday and he was telling my husband that there is no racism in Uruguay, that he had black friends, that people call them Negro + their name, or just Negro affectionately, but there is no bad intention…I know what he means (I myself I’m called “negrita” by some aunts and uncles, and my mom “negra” affectionately, although we are not black, more like native mixed with Portuguese and Spanish!), but I’ve also seen people disrespecting black culture, black people as if it was the most natural thing. (Just yesterday when a black football player missed a penalty shot for Uruguay, people’s comments on facebook were a bit more cautious, some sarcastic about the use of the term “Afro-Urugayan” , and many still using crude racist language…sad but true…)

    • Carolina De Robertis says:

      Flavia, thanks for these thoughts – your experiences capture some of the complexities of how we talk about race in Uruguay, which are different from the United States. What´s beautiful is that the conversation is increasingly taking place within the context of Uruguayan customs, habits, and so forth. Not just from outside, looking in. Again, thanks for writing (and reading!).

  3. joan lester says:

    beautifully written essay about such a difficult, heartbreaking topic. thank you, carolina. you have such a gift for this. be well, and flourish!

  4. Lisa Hayes says:

    Love the clip! Can’t wait to see the completed film. It definitely looks like a film I can show my social work students! Much ache!!!

  5. Elsa says:

    Visited Uruguay a year and a half ago, fell in love with the country, it’s beauty, it’s generous nature, it’s people. My surprise was to find very few black faces in most of the areas and places visited, and in general diversity of peoples was almost nonexistent. I had one opportunity to open up a conversation about race and race relations with a lovely elderly owner of a record store in a small town where we were staying. I was buying copies of some CDs from old originals which were not for sale and had to wait quite a while to have them copied. To make the wait more pleasant, the owner and some of his staff made conversation and we talked about both our countries, music, culture, the arts etc. When I mentioned the diversity in my city and the still lingering problems with race relations, this well educated, charming, funny and generous man told
    me that “in Uruguay, people were aware of the racial problems that existed in the U.S. but that fortunately, in his country they did not discriminate against anybody” “We accept and treat everybody the same; we have descendants from Italy, Spain, England, Germany, etc.” He said. Since I did not the the breakdown of races in the country and because I was a guest in his country and a very welcomed guest at his store, I only mentioned my observation of lack of visible diversity, specially in the smaller communities and said that things were changing all over the world because of technology and more movement of people. Conveniently, we moved to a different subject, but that conversation made a strong impact on me. The denial of the existence of a problem does not erase the problem. I am wishing Uruguay a smoother transition to race equality and social justice for all her inhabitants, than other countries have had. The work you are doing is not only timely, but absolutely necessary! Should be disseminated widely! Uruguay has a very special place in my heart! Thank you.

    • Carolina says:

      Elsa, thank you so much for sharing your story on this page. Your experience reflects much about Uruguayan culture, from the warmth and openness to the various myths about race that so many people here truly believe. A shift in collective consciousness is always a long journey, but exchanges such as these are part of making them possible. Thank you for your well-wishes and, too, for keeping Uruguay in your heart.

  6. Gorgeous, moving, important trailer. Big congratulations to your whole family for doing the work and living large. May your coming months be filled with inspiration and joy.

  7. The most moving arts comes from hard truths and the artists and her producer :) have to carry it to the world. We are gifted by your positioning there and anticipating the beautiful outcome. In the meantime, is my room ready?

  8. daisy hernandez says:

    Carolina, what a beautiful post and call to action! I’m so happy that you’re blogging while the movie is in progress. It feels like we’re with all of you and Tania, too, as you tell the larger, longer cinematic story. abrazos from Miami, Daisy

    • Carolina says:

      Daisy, thanks so much – it’s particularly wonderful to think that you can feel yourself “with” us. And as a Kickstarter supporter of this project, I know you definitely are, in more ways than one. abrazo from Montevideo…

  9. Pingback: Afro-Uruguay: Forward Together

  10. Serena says:

    Being in the U.S., I often find that our news is too centered on ourselves…and I know nothing of this incident, but it seems that like most places, the media is focused on the story they think will garner them the biggest response and ratings….And not to allow loved ones in the courtroom with the victim is just ridiculous.

    • Carolina says:

      Thanks for your comment, Serena. It’s true what you say about the lack of international news or even perspective in the U.S., and I’m learning so much from being here in Uruguay and witnessing news cycles in both hemispheres.

  11. Carolina, thank you for your wonderful writing, and your attention to this issue. I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with the Carnivale tradition, because it is not the tradition of modern Uruguayans. Instead, it’s the tradition of the people that their ancestors forced out of the country.

    I have been living in Uruguay for the past 19 months, loving every minute of it, but have identified an additional complexity to the racism issue: The Caucasian expats themselves. A few weeks ago, I was at an asado with some expat friends, a Canadian gentleman remarked — in front of his Afro-Cuban wife, I might add — that he enjoyed living in Uruguay because “there were not so many black people.” Another woman, who considers herself to be a stark raving liberal, agreed.

    I fear that new expat trends, such as the gringo ghettos in Piriapolis and the new Trump Towers in Punta, might encourage a new type of racism, triggered by people who see Uruguay as “South American retirement for white people.” Let’s hope I’m wrong!

    • Carolina says:

      Lisa Marie, thank you so much for this thoughtful comment. The trend you’ve identified among Caucasian expats in Uruguay is deeply disturbing, and painful to hear. It certainly opens up a new layer of complexity to this issue. I too hope that this does not become a new trend of racism, or that, at least, those of us who hold a different vision for Uruguay and for people of color everywhere can continue to hold and articulate a different vision of human dignity. Every one of us can be part of the positive change!

  12. Thanks for this touching, important essay. Wish you and your film were here. There is a great struggle against women of color here too. It is our same struggle wherever it is. We need supporters to buy tickets, $15, IN ADVANCE, to support our May 4 event and to cover travel expenses at least for Sergio to get here from Uruguay. He and President Mujica are among the honorees. Please read this press release and support us so we can support other women social entrepreneurs like Carolina. http://www.prweb.com/releases/womenworldculture/womenofcolorday/prweb11727562.htm
    President Bachelet-Chile; President Mujica-Uruguay(Nobel Nominee); Mayor Brown-Compton, CA; Carlos González Gutiérrez, Consul General Mexico Honored @ Women of Color Day
    Women of Color Day/Diversity Event to Honor Local Sacramento/Northern California Women and Men, noted State and International leaders and Celebrate Communities in Americas. Event also Launches WomenWorldCulture, New Global Network
    See also: http://www.womenofcolorday.com and the book, “The Constructive Extermination of Women of Color: Consequences of Perpetual Socio-Economic Marginalization.” So many people talk the talk of support, but are now walking the walk and keeping commitments. Uruguayans/Mexicans/Chilenos and other Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and our allies and justice supporters from all groups in California and elsewhere are needed to attend this unique, once in a lifetime event. Either we are a community working together or a bunch of excuse makers who help those who marginalize the rest of us. This is a sincere call to immediate action and support. Please contact those you know are able to help, especially those nearby. All our futures depend on it.

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