This past Dec. 2 and 3, the Latin American nation of Uruguay celebrated its official “National Day of Candombe, Afro-Uruguayan Culture and Racial Equality.” Established by law in 2006, the Dia Nacional de Candombe, la Cultura Afrouruguya y la Equidad Racial, as it is known in Spanish, is a nationwide attempt to celebrate and recognize the impact African culture and people have had on Uruguay.
It’s part of what appears to be Uruguay’s new, ongoing effort to right the wrongs of African enslavement and subsequent discrimination. Afro-Uruguayans are an estimated 5 to 9.2 percent of Uruguay’s 3.38 million citizens. The majority of Uruguayans–some 70 percent–claim to be of European descent.
And the majority of Uruguay’s white citizens–in this nation sandwiched between the behemoths of Argentina and Brazil–live in a culture that defines itself with an Afro-Uruguayan slant. The popularity of the music of “candombe” (a Ki-Kongo word used to describe local African-oriented dance societies) and its related dance styles led to the creation of the tango in Argentina. To this day, the music of candombe and its tradition of “llamadas” (calls for all to share in the music) determines Uruguay’s Carnival tradition, which from late January to mid-March celebrates the Afro-Uruguayan culture of drumming and dancing.
But while Afro-Uruguayans have helped to define what it is to be Uruguayan, many Black residents aren’t able to participate in their nation’s society. Some 13 percent of Uruguay’s total population is poor, but at least half of the Afro-Uruguayan population lives in poverty.
The Uruguayan network of Black activist groups, the Affirmative Action Coordinator for the Afro-Uruguayan Population (CAAPA), has noted on its blog page that Afro-Uruguayan women to this day represent 47 percent of the nation’s domestic industry and that the Black population, in general, mostly lacks higher-earning labor market skills. Some 47 percent of Afro-Uruguayans never complete primary school and only 25 percent of the population attends university.
With these statistics in mind, CAAPA helped put forward new legislation that aims to advance the lives of Afro-Uruguayans. The Affirmative Action Law for People of African Descent passed in the country’s congressional House of Representatives; in 2013, it will come to a vote in the national Senate. The law is designed to address ongoing problems in education and employment for Blacks in Uruguay. Under the new affirmative action law, Afro-
Uruguayans would be mandated to have some 8 percent of government job vacancies set aside for them. Quotas would be set aside so that Blacks in Uruguay would be awarded more scholarships and have better access to vocational training. This bill would also mandate teaching about Afro-Uruguayan history in schools.
“It is hereby recognized that the Black population that has inhabited this country has historically been the victim of racial discrimination and stigmatization since the time of slave trafficking and the slave trade–facts which today could constitute crimes against humanity under International Law,” Article 1 of the law states. “This act is an act of reparation for historical discrimination.”
The law was unanimously approved in the House, with all 67 representatives voting for its passage. “The discussion in the Senate will take place next year–if God and the Orishas want it so,” commented Afro-Uruguayan author, activist and Umbanda spiritualist Susana Andrade. “It doesn’t look like it will be as easy to get it through the Senate as it has been in the House, though.”