Afro-Uruguay: A Brief History

Afro-Uruguayan Soldier, ca. 1865 Image Courtesy of George Reid Andrews

In the following account University of Pittsburgh historian George Reid Andrews provides an introduction to the history of the population of African ancestry in Uruguay.

When we think of the great nations of the African diasporaBrazil, Cuba, Haiti, the United States—the South American republic of Uruguay is not one of the first names to come to mind.  To the contrary: the recipient of almost 600,000 European immigrants between 1880 and 1930, Uruguay has long presented itself to the world as one of the two “white republics” of South America (its neighbor Argentina is the other).  In the national household survey of 1996, 93 percent of its citizens classified themselves as white, a figure significantly higher than in the United States (where 75 percent of the population classified itself as white in the 2000 census).

Yet in common with other Latin American countries, during the last 25 years Uruguay has experienced a significant upsurge in black civic and political mobilization.  Organizations such as Mundo Afro (Afro World), the Asociación Cultural y Social Uruguay Negro, the Centro Cultural por la Paz y la Integración, Africanía, and others have pressed the nation to acknowledge its black past and present and to work toward the full integration of its black and indigenous minorities into national life.

These recent organizations are the latest chapter in a long history of black mobilization that began in the early 1800s with the salas de nación, mutual aid societies organized on the basis of members’ African origins.  Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, was a required port of call for slave ships bringing Africans to the Río de la Plata region.  Most of those Africans continued on to Argentina, but during the late 1700s and early 1800s some 20,000 disembarked in Montevideo and remained in Uruguay.  By 1800 the national population was an estimated 25 percent African and Afro-Uruguayan.

A list from the 1830s of thirteen salas de nación in Montevideo shows six from West Africa, five from the Congo and Angola, and two from East Africa. The salas bought or rented plots of land outside the city walls, on which they built headquarters to house their religious observances, meetings, and dances. They collected money for emancipation funds to buy the freedom of slave members, lobbied public officials, and provided assistance in disputes and conflicts between slaves and their owners.

Free and enslaved Africans and Afro-Uruguayans served in large numbers in the independence wars of the 1810s and 20s and in the civil wars of the 1830s, 1840s, and the second half of the 1800s.  Slave military service was rewarded first by the Free Womb law of 1825 (under which children of slave mothers were born free, though obligated to serve their mother’s master until they reached the age of majority) and then the final abolition of slavery in 1842.

Once free, Africans and Afro-Uruguayans demanded the full civic and legal equality guaranteed by the Constitution of 1830.  In theory, these rights applied equally to all citizens; but in practice, Afro-Uruguayans faced pervasive discrimination and racial prejudice.  In response, Afro-Uruguayans created the most active (on a per capita basis) black press anywhere in Latin America.  Between 1870 and 1950 black journalists and intellectuals published at least twenty-five newspapers and magazines in Montevideo and other cities.  This compares to between forty and fifty black-oriented periodicals during the same period in Brazil, where the black population is today some 400 times larger than Uruguay’s; and fourteen in Cuba (black population twenty times larger than Uruguay’s).

This flourishing of Afro-Uruguayan journalism was at least in part a reflection of the country’s economic and educational achievements during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Exports of meat and wool formed the basis of one of South America’s most successful national economies.  By 1913, Uruguay had the highest per capita GNP and tax receipts, the lowest birth and death rates, and the highest rates of literacy and newspaper readership, anywhere in Latin America.  National educational reforms in the 1870s and early 1900s made Uruguay a regional leader in educational achievement; under these conditions, Afro-Uruguayans were far more literate than their counterparts in, for example, Brazil.

Relatively high educational achievement in Uruguay provided favorable conditions for an active black press, as well as for Afro-Uruguayan social and civic organizations more generally.  Afro-Uruguayans formed social clubs, political clubs, dancing and recreational groups, literary and drama societies, civic organizations, and in 1936 a black political party, the Partido Autóctono Negro (PAN).  The PAN was one of three such parties in Latin America, the other two being in Cuba (the Partido Independiente de Color, 1908-12) and Brazil (the Frente Negra Brasileira, 1931-38).  The PIC and FNB were both eventually outlawed by their respective national governments; the PAN, by contrast, was permitted to function freely but never succeeded in attracting significant electoral support.  During the 1800s and most of the 1900s, Uruguayan politics was dominated by two main parties, the Blancos and Colorados.  Afro-Uruguayan voters split their allegiances between those parties, with most favoring the Colorados. Unable to make any inroads into that two-party system, the PAN disbanded in 1944.

During the 1940s and 1950s Uruguay experienced its most intense period of economic growth and expansion.  Exports to the Allies during World War II, to a shattered Europe in the years after the war, and to the US during the Korean War, sustained a boom period remembered today as a golden age, the years of “como Uruguay no hay” (there’s no place like Uruguay), a semi-official slogan at the time.  Those years should have provided ideal conditions for black upward mobility; but prejudice and discrimination continued to obstruct black advancement.  A celebrated case of discrimination in 1956, in which an Afro-Uruguayan schoolteacher suffered blatant harassment from two principals at schools to which she was assigned, provoked a national debate on racial conditions in the country.  A journalist investigating employment conditions in Montevideo at that time found that of 15,000 service workers (hairdressers, waiters, hotel chambermaids, bus drivers, etc.) in the city, only eleven were Afro-Uruguayan—less than one per thousand in a city that was probably 5-6 percent Afro-Uruguayan.  The country’s leading university, the publicly funded Universidad de la República, was found to have awarded degrees to only five Afro-Uruguayans between 1900 and 1950.

Conditions had apparently changed little by 1980, when a Uruguayan writer reported that in the downtown commercial districts of Montevideo, “in dozens and dozens of shops, the total number of black employees does not reach ten…  There are no black hairdressers… Except for very low-class bars, there are no black waiters, nor in hotels, restaurants, or cafes.”  During the 1980s and 90s, however, Uruguay experienced the same wave of black civic mobilization that swept over much of Latin America at that time.  In Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and other countries, Afro-Latin Americans organized to combat racism and discrimination.  The most important such group in Uruguay was Mundo Afro, founded in 1988.

Demanding that Uruguay recognize its black minority as an equal member of the national community, Mundo Afro successfully lobbied the national government to gather racial data (for the first time since 1852) in the national household surveys of 1996 and 2006.  Those surveys showed Afro-Uruguayans constituting either 6 percent (1996) or 9 percent (2006) of the national population (3.3 million in 2006).  And as in Brazil and the United States, where racial data are routinely included in national censuses, the two surveys left no doubt concerning levels of racial inequality in the country.  Afro-Uruguayan incomes are on average 60 percent of white earnings; whites are twice as likely as blacks to have a university degree; black poverty rates are double those of whites; black unemployment rates are 50 percent higher; and so on.

In the face of such conclusive data, and in preparation for the 2001 U.N. Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Xenophobia, held in South Africa, Uruguay’s government committed itself to policies aimed at combating racial discrimination and inequality.  In 2003 the municipal government of Montevideo created an advisory Unit for Afro-Descendent Rights; at the national level, President Tabaré Vázquez (2005-10) appointed a presidential advisor for Afro-Uruguayan affairs and created programs for Afro-Uruguayan women and Afro-Uruguayan youth in the Ministry of Social Development.

Paralleling and at times converging with the history of Afro-Uruguayan civic mobilization is the history of Afro-Uruguayans’ role in creating Uruguayan popular culture.  To summarize very briefly, one of the principal functions carried out by the African salas de nación in the first half of the 1800s was to hold candombes, public dances for their members.  In the 1860s and 1870s, the Africans’ Uruguayan-born children and grandchildren combined African musical elements (particularly the use of African drums and other percussion instruments) with instruments, chords, and rhythms from Europe and the Caribbean (especially Cuba) to create a new musical form called both tango and candombe.

This new, syncopated music proved wildly popular—so popular that young white men wanted to get into the act as well, creating their own tangos and candombes.  The vehicle through which they did so were the comparsas: musical groups that paraded in Carnival each February and March, playing music composed especially for those events.  Seeking to imitate their black models, the white comparsas paraded in blackface make-up and “African” costumes.  The result was a “troubling hall of mirrors,” to quote historian John Chasteen, in which white performers imitated blacks while black performers in turn imitated whites’ imitation of blacks.

By 1900, previously segregated black and white comparsas had fused into racially integrated groups that in most cases were, and are today, majority white in composition.  They present themselves to the Montevideo public as sociedades de negros, “black” drummers, singers, and dancers performing the “black” music of candombe.  In so doing, they have become the most popular and applauded element of Montevideo’s Carnival.  But the images of black life that they present hark back a century or more to racial stereotypes dating from the late 1800s.  Blackness is presented in highly sexualized ways and as having a special relationship to primitive powers of rhythm, dance, magic, and sex.

The worlds of politics and candombe have often intersected.  Some of the best-known comparsas have been closely tied to the Colorado party; in the 1960s groups of candombe drummers appeared with Afro-Uruguayan Senator Alba Roballo in her electoral campaigns.  In 2006, Afro-Uruguayan Congressman Edgardo Ortuño proposed the creation of a national holiday, the Day of Candombe, Afro-Uruguayan Culture, and Racial Equality.  Conceived as a Uruguayan version of similar commemorations in the United States (Martin Luther King Day) and Brazil (Black Consciousness Day), the Day of Candombe (celebrated on December 3) is intended to provide space for a day of reflection on racial conditions in Uruguay and the road remaining to be traveled to achieve true racial equality.  Whether the holiday will serve that purpose remains to be seen; but certainly it provides clear evidence, if any were needed, of the centrality of candombe and Afro-Uruguayan culture in Uruguayan national life.