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Afro-Uruguayans to rebuild culture center

By Inès Acosta | Last updated: Dec 18, 2009 - 5:59:45 PM

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Mama Vieja (L), El Gramillero (R) and drummers perform during the first day of the “Llamadas,” one of the main parades that takes place during carnival in Montevideo, Feb. 5 2009. Photo: Miguel Rojo/AFP/Getty Images
MONTEVIDEO (IPS/GIN) - Contrary to popular belief in Uruguay, the capital city's Black population is no longer concentrated in neighborhoods like Barrio Sur, Palermo and Cordûn, which were historically home to the majority of African descendents and remain heavily steeped in Afro-Uruguayan culture.

This is what makes the efforts of Black Uruguayan women to move back “home” to these areas especially meaningful.

Over recent decades, a sustained process of evictions and discrimination pushed Black families out of these urban neighborhoods towards poor neighborhoods on the city's outskirts, where they were largely out of sight, and cut off from essential services as well as their cultural roots.

In more recent years, however, the concerted efforts of the Afro-Uruguayan community, combined with positive signs from the country's first ever leftist government, led by President Tabarè Vazquez, have paved the way for the first steps on the road to reparations that will allow Black Uruguayans to return to the birthplace of Afro-Uruguayan society and culture.

Much of the momentum behind this movement stems from the need of Black women to provide a decent home for their families.

“We have always faced discrimination for three reasons: we are women, Black and poor. Most of us are the heads of our families, because our community has historically developed under a matriarchal model,” said Alicia Garcìa of Mundo Afro, an Afro-Uruguayan organization founded in 1988.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is the difficulty of providing our families with decent housing,” Ms. Garcìa told IPS.

To tackle this problem, a group of women joined together to promote the creation of housing cooperatives, with the support of Mundo Afro, in the southern Montevideo neighborhoods where the Afro-descendent population was historically concentrated: Barrio Sur, Palermo and Cordûn.

These neighborhoods were originally settled by immigrant laborers and freed slaves who rented lodgings in “conventillos” or tenement housing, in which entire families shared a single room.

The conventillos were the birthplace of Afro-Uruguayan culture and particularly candombe, a percussion-based musical genre with African roots that has become quintessentially Uruguayan.

In the 1970s, however, the rising property values in this central area of the city spurred the forced eviction of many Black families to make room for growing urban development—a gentrification process that was further stepped up during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship.

“As far as we are concerned, what happened during those years was an act of genocide and outright racism. Many of the houses in the neighborhoods where we lived had been built many years before. The de facto government at the time issued an announcement that repairs would be made to run-down houses if the occupants reported the poor conditions of the places where they were living,” recalled Ms. Garcìa, who was 12 years old at the time.

“People went to file reports so that their houses would be repaired, but it was all a trick: the military government gathered up all these reports and used them to condemn the houses as uninhabitable, and then started evicting the occupants based on these grounds. It was all a terrible deception,” she added.

From forced eviction to a dignified return

Ms. Garcìa highlighted the dramatic case of the Ansina conventillo, located in the Palermo neighborhood, where many of her relatives lived. “Ansina” was the nickname of Joaquìn Lenzina, a freed slave and poet who is best known as the “right-hand man” of national hero Josè Artigas, whom he served until his death in exile in Paraguay.

“It was near the end of the year, when people were getting ready for the holidays, when the eviction notices started to arrive. Everyone was crying, and a few people even died before it was time to leave, because they couldn't bear to be uprooted from something that was such a major aspect of their life,” she recounted.

“It was terrible to watch them carrying everyone off in trucks. I was separated from my family and friends for a long time, because I stayed back in the neighborhood, but there was no one else left,” she explained.

Ms. Garcìa reminisced about what was once a tightly knit neighborhood, where solidarity eased the sting of poverty and “everyone shared everything.”

“It broke my heart to see the trucks taking my relatives and friends away. They took them to the outskirts of the city, to places like storage sheds and old factories, where the living quarters were divided with shower curtains or pieces of furniture, and people had to report in every time they entered or left the premises,” she added.

The arrival in power of the leftist Broad Front government led by Vazquez in 2005 inspired the women of Mundo Afro to step up their efforts to reclaim their place in the neighborhoods from which the Afro-Uruguayan community had been forcibly uprooted.

Their first success was the government's decision to compensate the last residents of the Ansina conventillo, who were evicted by the dictatorship in 1978 and 1979.

With the assistance of Ms. Garcìa as a representative of the Afro-Uruguayan community in the Ministry of Housing, an agreement was signed between the national government and the local government of Montevideo for the construction of a 15-unit housing complex in the Palermo neighborhood, specially designated for former inhabitants of Ansina and their children.

“The reparations program was a major step forward and was met with full agreement. In the past when we brought up the subject of reparations with previous governments (led by the conservative National and Colorado Parties), it was like we were talking about something evil,” commented Ms. Garcìa.

In fact, these efforts to reclaim a space in the birthplace of Afro-Uruguayan society and culture date back to 1998 and the creation of a housing cooperative project known as Mundo Afro Family Units (UFAMA). The initial goal was to build a housing complex in Barrio Sur on the site of Medio Mundo, another conventillo that fell victim to the dictatorship.

Very little progress was made until 2007, when a representative of the Afro-Uruguayan community was designated within the Ministry of Housing. This speeded up the process significantly, and it is hoped that by the end of the year, new housing will be available for 36 Black families.

More recently, the women of Mundo Afro created the UFAMA Cordûn cooperative to build housing for the former occupants of the Gaboto conventillo in Cordûn, also forcibly evicted by the dictatorship.

Where the drums still beat

The dictatorship uprooted a large part of the Black population from Barrio Sur and Palermo, “but they couldn't take away our drums and our culture,” Ms. GarcÌa states with pride.

“On days that are important to us we always go back to those neighborhoods, because that's where the heart of our community is. Now we want to make up for all of the lost time, reclaim a part of our culture, and be able to live closer to one another,” she said.

For his part, Broad Front lawmaker Edgardo Ortuòo, the first Afro-Uruguayan member of parliament in this country's history, told IPS that the neighborhoods of Barrio Sur and Palermo have major symbolic importance for the Black community.

Mr. Ortuòo emphasized that in addition to the efforts to begin a process of reparations for the forced evictions and other acts of racial discrimination dating back to the dictatorship, progress has also been made in raising awareness of the discrimination that Afro-Uruguayans continue to face today.

“The government and parliament have embarked on a line of action to promote the recognition and appreciation of Afro-descendent society and culture, as a means of overcoming our invisibility and the false conception that the Uruguayan population is essentially European, a view that ignores the presence of people of Black and indigenous descent,” he said.

“The damages suffered by African descendents during the dictatorship, which were violations of human rights, just as other abuses were, were not fully recognized as part of the damages suffered during this period,” he added.