Uruguay, Mon Amour

Guest Blog (originally published Jan 31, 2013 at CarolinaDerobertis.com)

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 with him at Parque Rodó. We have walked the city for hours with baby strapped to one of our backs. 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). 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 faces a three-month physical recovery. 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 usual 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 a “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. The only people who interviewed Tania’s loved ones on camera that day 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. 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.

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 above). 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. Let’s break them together. Let’s set our sights on making a better, brighter Uruguay for everyone.

From Carolina De Robertis, Novelist and Co-Producer of AFRO URUGUAY: FORWARD TOGETHER

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