• Tuesday, September 2, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    DEVELOPMENT: Afro-Uruguayan Women Find Their Own Way Home

    By Inés Acosta
    MONTEVIDEO, Dec 7 (IPS) Contrary to popular belief in Uruguay, the
    capital city’s black population is no longer concentrated in
    neighbourhoods like Barrio Sur, Palermo and Cordón, 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 neighbourhoods towards poor
    neighbourhoods 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 Tabaré Vázquez, 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 García of Mundo Afro, an Afro-Uruguayan organisation founded
    in 1988.

    "One of the biggest challenges we face is the difficulty of providing
    our families with decent housing," García 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 neighbourhoods where the Afro-descendent population
    was historically concentrated: Barrio Sur, Palermo and Cordón.

    These neighbourhoods were originally settled by immigrant labourers 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
    neighbourhoods 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 García, 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

    García highlighted the dramatic case of the Ansina conventillo,
    located in the Palermo neighbourhood, where many of her relatives lived.
    "Ansina" was the nickname of Joaquín Lenzina, a freed slave
    and poet who is best known as the "right-hand man" of national
    hero José 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 neighbourhood, but there was no one else left," she
    explained.

    García reminisced about what was once a tightly knit neighbourhood,
    where solidarity eased the sting of poverty and "everyone shared
    everything."

    "There were more than 300 families, most of them really big families,
    who lived together in a single room, in very cramped quarters," she
    recalled.

    "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.

    "After a while they gave them emergency housing in Cerro Norte (a
    poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Montevideo), where there was a
    whole mix of all kinds of things, because they took people there who had
    been evicted from other places in the city, and they were all mixed up
    together," García noted.

    The arrival in power of the leftist Broad Front government led by
    Vázquez in 2005 inspired the women of Mundo Afro to step up their
    efforts to reclaim their place in the neighbourhoods 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 García 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 neighbourhood, specially designated for former inhabitants of
    Ansina and their children.

    "The reparations programme 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 García.

    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 Cordón
    cooperative to build housing for the former occupants of the Gaboto
    conventillo in Cordón, 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," García states with pride.

    "On days that are important to us we always go back to those
    neighbourhoods, 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 Ortuño, the first
    Afro-Uruguayan member of parliament in this country's history,
    told IPS that the neighbourhoods of Barrio Sur and Palermo have major
    symbolic importance for the black community.

    "This is where they made their cultural, social and economic
    contribution," he stressed. "This is where the Afro-Uruguayan
    community developed its most significant cultural expression,
    candombe."

    These neighbourhoods combine both tangible heritage, in the form of
    historic buildings "that should have been protected and not
    destroyed," as well as the intangible heritage of candombe and other
    Afro-Uruguayan cultural expressions, said Ortuño.

    "We no longer live there, but we have managed to keep up a series of
    pilgrimages to these places, where we have developed our culture, a whole
    symbolism that they were not able to destroy," he stated.

    Ortuño emphasised 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 recognised as part of the damages suffered during this period,"
    he added.

    Ortuño underlined that the advances made have largely been achieved
    through the efforts of Afro-Uruguayan organisations to place this issue on
    the public agenda, with important support from international organisations
    such as the United Nations.

    The shift in government to the left and the election of the first
    Afro-Uruguayan to parliament have also played a part.

    "We are trying to make our way back, and part of the
    government’s policies are geared towards paving the way for a return
    to these neighbourhoods. We have a long way to go, but the process of
    reparations has begun, and things have been done that were never done
    before," said Ortuño.

    Nevertheless, he noted, although "a lot of progress has been made,
    there is still a lot left to do."

    "More resources need to be allocated, in order to benefit a greater
    number of people. It’s a good start, and now we need to keep moving
    in this direction," he concluded.

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