article from April 4, 2011
by Julie R Butler
Uruguay is a small nation. The Uruguayans fought long and hard for their independence from Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil, guided by the principle of self-determination. They were not interested in being a part of any empire that would not allow them regional autonomy, and even with Argentina and Brazil having battled each other over the territory, Great Britain also trying to take control, and the French involving themselves as well, it was the Uruguayans who came out the winners. Now, while many Argentines regard Uruguay as just another province of their great country, the Uruguayans are secure enough in their own Uruguayan identity to take it all in stride – without even the slightest hint of cultural cringe.
Uruguay certainly has closer ties with Argentina than with Brazil, but the culture is infused with influences from both neighbors. Its most historic city, Colonia del Sacramento, was established by the Portuguese, right across the Río de La Plata from Buenos Aires. But this was a far-away outpost, and the Spanish port of Montevideo grew to be the prominent center for colonial Spanish cattle ranchers who came to make their claims on the surrounding land. African slaves were brought over by the early Portuguese, and due to the lack of large indigenous populations whose labor could be exploited, Africans continued to be brought over by the Spanish through Buenos Aires. Then, during the nation-building period of the nineteenth century, people from all over the Old World came to reinvent themselves in the New World – many Italians, but also a surprising diversity of other ethnic groups. This multiculturalism has been embraced by the people of Uruguay.
I cannot stress how important Uruguay’s National Hero, José Gervasio Artigas, is to the Uruguayan identity. I can’t think of a more principled founding father in the entire world. The man was not contradictory, owning slaves while speaking grandly of all men being created equal, for example. In fact, Artigas wanted to include Negroes and the indigenous Guaraní in society, along with poor Creoles, through land distribution. Influenced by Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the founders of the United States of America, he was a visionary who conceived of a confederation where authority would come up from the people rather than down from the elites of society, where each region’s strengths would be the glue holding together the whole, and where social and religious liberty were unambiguously upheld. Artigas was not only a skilled military leader, but also a renaissance man who was a naturalist, an intellectual, a musician, and a gentleman that every Uruguayan that I ever met looks up to.
All of this matters, because it helps to explain why Uruguayans are so welcoming, so interesting to talk to, so easy-going and upbeat and proud of their country. Uruguay is the epitome of the understatement, not flamboyant or obnoxious, with the kind of beauty that, while obvious on the surface, one must be patient and observant to absorb at its deeper levels. Uruguay possesses a European sophistication mixed with the humble spirit that comes from not being an expansive power, but rather, just focuses on self-improvement from within.
...And, there are very nice beaches, too!
[Photo by Jamie Douglas]
[Photo by Jamie Douglas]
Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler