by Jane E. Spear
Uruguay is a country in South America that measures 68,037 square miles (176,216 square kilometers), approximately the size of the state of Oklahoma. It is located along the South Atlantic Ocean coast of South America, between Argentina to the west, and Brazil to the northeast, sitting south of the Equator. The official name of Uruguay is the "Oriental Republic of Uruguay," or, Republica Oriental del Uruguay. The word Oriental refers to its eastern position on the South American continent. The republic consists of 19 departments, which are divisions similar to states. Montevideo, in the department of the same name, is the country's largest city.
Uruguay's population by 1999 was 3.2 million. Eighty-six percent of the population was of white European descent, 6 percent was black, and 8 percent was mestizo , an ethnic mixture of white and indigenous descent. At that time, the life expectancy was 69.3 years for men; and, 75.7 years for women. The country enjoyed a literacy rate of 95 percent of the population over the age of 15. An estimated 66 percent of Uruguayans are Roman Catholics, although Uruguayan society was secularized early in its history as an independent republic. Church and State were officially and legally separated in 1917. Less than half of the adult population regularly attended church by the late 1980s.
Other Protestant denominations coexist with and have the same legal status as the Catholic church, although Catholics are significantly in the majority. In 1856, Italian immigrants founded one denomination, the Waldensian Evangelic Church of the River Plate, or Río de la Plata, in both Uruguay and Argentina. The Waldensian church began during a religious revival near Lyon, France during the twelfth century, predating the Protestant Reformation that swept through Europe in the sixteenth century. The church is named for the founder of the movement, Valdo, or Valdesius. The 15 Waldensian churches in Uruguay join with 8 in Argentina with a total membership of 15,000.
The flag and coat of arms of Uruguay were both adopted in 1830. The sun is represented on each of them. On the flag it sits in the upper left-hand corner. The flag's nine blue stripes over a white background represent the number of divisions the country was originally divided into upon gaining independence. The symbols on the coat of arms are scales, which symbolize equality and justice; a horse and ox, which represent liberty and plenty; and the hill of Montevideo, representing strength.
The Charrua Indians were the largest group of indigenous inhabitants in the land area that was to become Uruguay. In 1516 when the Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís landed on Uruguayan shores, the Charruas immediately killed him and his crew. Uruguay did not possess the gold, uranium, and other precious metals abundantly present in other South American countries, in demand by the Spanish conquistadors as well as other Europeans. Because of that, very few Europeans had any interest in developing settlements there. Not until Portuguese soldiers arrived from Brazil in 1680 did Europeans begin to settle permanently. The Spanish colonists who founded Montevideo in 1726 did so more to prevent Portuguese expansion into Uruguay than for an interest in the land. During much of the early to mid-1700s the Portuguese and Spanish battled for control of the entire area. By 1777, the year following the United States' declaration of independence from England, the Spanish had managed to settle most of Uruguay. It then became a Spanish colony, a section of the Viceroyalty of La Plata. La Plata included Argentina, Paraguay, and portions of Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile. The natives battled with the Europeans during this period, and were defeated. Those who escaped either death in battle or death by the hitherto unknown diseases the Europeans had brought with them retreated to the interior regions of the South American continent. This accounts for the predominance of the white race in Uruguay even in modern times.
José Gervasio Artigas was a soldier who organized his own army to fight for freedom from Spanish colonial rule. In 1811 Artigas' near-defeat of the Spaniards when he laid siege to Montevideo was thwarted when Portuguese troops arrived from Brazil and attacked the Uruguayan and the Spanish armies. Neither Artigas nor his followers would submit to Portuguese or Spanish rule, so they fled inland to neighboring Paraguay and Argentina, nearly emptying Uruguay of people. When the Spanish surrendered in 1814 and ended Spanish rule, Artigas captured Montevideo for Uruguay. Only two years later, in 1816, the Portuguese again attacked, and this time the struggle lasted four years. At that time the Portuguese made Uruguay a part of Brazil, and Artigas went into exile.
By 1825, when a group of Uruguayan patriots known as "The Immortal Thirty-Three" staged a rebellion against Brazil, the renewed fight for Uruguayan independence emerged. Their armies gained control of the countryside within months, with the support of Argentina. Due to British intervention sparked because of a blockade that threatened British trade, Argentina and Brazil recognized Uruguay as an independent republic. The country adopted its first constitution in 1830. José Fructuoso Rivera became the nation's first president. In 1835 Manuel Oribe followed as second president, but an attempt by Rivera to regain power in 1836 began a civil war. Rivera's troops, known as the Colorados, who were from the cities, and Oribe's troops, the Blancos, primarily landowners from the rural areas, fought for 16 years, until 1852, when the Colorados defeated the Blancos. The two groups eventually developed into Uruguay's two major political parties, and the struggles between the two forces continued for much of the rest of the nineteenth century, with power shifting back and forth between them. The Colorados had gained control in 1865 with Brazil's help. The Blancos subsequently received assistance from Paraguay. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay then joined forces against Paraguay into what was called "The War of the Triple Alliance," defeating Paraguay in 1870. The Colorados became the dominant party, as immigrants flowed into Montevideo from all over South America and Europe.
While some Colorado leaders were dictators, under the rule of the liberal Colorado José Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguay entered an era of social and governmental reform. Batlle held to democratic ideals, and advocated social justice for all. During his leadership, new laws established free education, minimum wages and workers' rights, and free medical care for the poor as well as marriage and divorce legislation. The government took benevolent control of public utilities and factories and established national banks and railroads. It was during his term in office that the church and state were officially separated.
With its stable domestic economy and social welfare programs, Uruguay prospered even during the Great Depression and World War II, when its products, especially meat and wool, were in demand by the Allies, with whom they joined forces. Uruguay had cut all diplomatic ties with Germany, Japan, and Italy in 1942 but did not declare war on them until 1945, near the end of the conflict, and no Uruguayan troops fought in World War II. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, Uruguay became a charter member.
When Uruguayans approved a new constitution in 1951 that abolished the presidency and set up a nine-member National Council of Government. The intention of the new government was to allow the Colorados and the Blancos to share power. But by the next year Uruguay's economy began to collapse. Foreign trade was no longer prosperous due to a loss of agricultural exports. Both inflation and the cost of social programs grew rapidly. The grave economic situation continued into the 1960s. Many Uruguayans left for other countries, principally Argentina, the United States, Australia, Spain, Brazil, and Venezuela. By 1967, the inefficient National Council was abolished in favor of the reestablishment of the presidential government.
Economic downturn gave rise to political unrest. One group of urban guerrillas known as the Tupamaros kidnapped and murdered many Uruguayan officials. When President Juan María Bordaberry was elected in 1972, he declared war on the Tupamaros. He crushed the movement in a few months, but by 1973 Bordaberry was president in name only. The military took control of the government and suspended the constitution. They replaced Bordaberry in 1976 with Aparicio Méndez. General Gregorio Alvarez succeeded him in 1981. At this time, many of the country's artists, intellectuals and politicians, were persecuted for espousing beliefs different from those of the military regime, and consequently went into exile abroad, mostly to Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw political unrest throughout Latin America. Uruguay maintained the highest ratio of political prisoners to its general population throughout the world while other Latin American governments also commited crimes against their people that encouraged some to flee to the United States.
Many Uruguayans who left the country for political reasons chose to return in 1984 when Julio María Sanguinetti, the leader of the Colorado Party, was elected president, signaling a return to civilian government. Sanguinetti faced all of the same problems that the nation had faced since the 1960s, only this time they were worse. Major economic problems, including inflation, foreign debt, and unemployment, were major issues. In 1989 Luis Albert Lacalle won the presidency, and the Blanco party returned to dominance. His plans to privatize companies, taking them out of government control, and his call for smaller wage increases worried the workers, who organized strikes in opposition to such plans. In 1992 the voters rejected the plans to privatize, and in 1994 Sanguinetti was reelected to the presidency.
In 1996, Uruguay XXI, a "non-state public entity" designed to develop Uruguay's economy internationally, was established by law. As Minister of Economy and Finance Luis A. Mosca explained in a special feature titled "Uruguay, A Country to Watch," in the June 5, 1998 edition of the New York Times, the mission of Uruguay XXI was "to foster the internationalization process of the Uruguayan economy by promoting investments and the export of goods and services within the general framework provided by the government's economic policy." In 1991, Uruguay joined Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay to form MERCOSUR, the southern common market. Until the mid-1990s, China was the largest foreign investor in Uruguay; however, the MERCOSUR alliance began to change that. Uruguay also made agreements with Chile and Bolivia and continues to extend its economic rebuilding efforts to the other South American countries and elsewhere around the world. In addition, President Sanguinetti signed a trade agreement with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 1998.
The concerns at the end of the twentieth century were over social welfare policies, such as social security and an inefficient workforce. Sanguinetti moved immediately to reform the social security system when he took office in 1994. According to Calvin Sims, writing for the New York Times on February 19, 1995, "The basic problem was the high ratio of people who depend on or work for the state. About 1.1 million of Uruguay's 3.1 million people are registered workers, while 700,000 people no longer in the work force receive pensions. Uruguay has more than one retired person for every two workers, and about 37 percent of the state budget goes to the bankrupt social security system." Moreover, the pace of economic reform was too slow, according to some observers. The fear remained that Uruguay, suffering from its hesitancy to privatize, would lag behind its free trade partners and neighbors Argentina and Brazil and would be unable to compete effectively. Uruguay's poor economy could lead to an increase in emigration.
Before the 1960s, the economy of Uruguay provided its citizens with middle-class affluence, and emmigration was limited. With a comfortable standard of living, adequate employment opportunities, a favorable social welfare and health insurance system, and democratic freedoms, the need to leave was not pressing. On the whole, even the poorest of the Uruguayans enjoyed certain benefits that kept them satisfied enough to stay in their own country. For those who left the cultural and recreational opportunities of the cities, where 85 percent of all Uruguayans lived, the proposition of going to neighboring countries such as Argentina, with its familiar language and proximity to the home country, was more appealing than moving to the United States. Those who pursued business or educational opportunities in the United States and elsewhere, often returned home, never forsaking their Uruguayan citizenship.
Two factors changed the complacency of Uruguayans. First, there were economic and political problems in Uruguay after World War II, particularly money and employment crises during the 1960s and 1970s. Second, an oppressive military regime took control of the government. Now, there were motivating factors to leave Uruguay, and the people leaving Uruguay in vast numbers were the ones that the country could least afford to lose—well-educated professionals and the young. This, too, marked the beginning of the social security crisis. As the aging population retired, and young people left the country, the burden on the country's financial resources grew. Of Uruguay immigrants from 1963 to 1975, 17.7 percent of them were aged 14 years or younger, 68 percent of them were between the ages of 15 and 39, and only 14.3 percent were over 40 years old. The continued employment problems of the late 1980s represented yet another impetus for the youth of Uruguay to seek employment and new lives elsewhere. Some of them went to the United States, but the largest population of Uruguayan emigrants continued to reside in Argentina.
The most significant wave of Uruguayan immigration to the United States occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. An estimated 180,000 Uruguayans left between 1963 and 1975, when the country's economy suffered a devastating slump. Then, according to statistics from the General Directorate of Statistics and Census of the Republic of Uruguay, between 1975 and 1985, during the period of oppressive military control, 150,000 Uruguayans left the country. And, as late as 1989, only 16,000 of these citizens had returned to their native country. When these two figures are added together, the emigration figure stands at approximately one-tenth of the population.
By the mid-1990s 10 percent of the U.S. population, an estimated 27 million people, was of Hispanic origin. Although Uruguayans constituted 43 percent of all immigrants to the United States coming from Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1990s, they only made up a small part of the large U.S. Hispanic population. The most successful Uruguayan immigrants went to New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island. Two other significant centers of Uruguayan American population are Washington, D.C., and Florida.
Uruguayan Americans are as diverse as their native counterparts in Uruguay. For educated and sophisticated Uruguayan professionals, fitting into a cosmopolitan lifestyle in New York demanded little adjustment, except to climate. In their own country, Uruguayans of several different classes lived a Westernized, cultured existence. The large Spanish-speaking population in the United States has ensured that a variety of multilingual resources are easily at hand, thus reducing cultural adjustments due to language barriers.
Many of the customs of other Latin American nations are observed in Uruguay. When people greet each other, they usually shake hands. Public embraces and the use of first names are used only among close friends and family members. Meetings even among friends are formal, whether in public places or corporate settings. The eased sense of time among Latin Americans is apparent among Uruguayans—meetings often do not start on time, and no one is reprimanded or considered ill-mannered for being late. Even in informal social settings polite custom requires that if invited to a Uruguayan's home, the visitor should send flowers or chocolates to the hostess ahead of time rather than at the time of the visit. Conversation in Uruguay in polite social settings does not include politics. The much-loved national pastime of football, known as soccer in the United States, is always a safe topic. Uruguayans in the United States also tend to follow Uruguayan football and their national teams.
Uruguayans are mainly of European descent and this is reflected in their cuisine, which is strongly influenced by Spanish and Italian cooking. Uruguayans love meat, especially beef, largely due to the large number of cattle they raise. In the 1990s, it was estimated that cattle and sheep estancias, or farms, took up four-fifths of the country's land. Their taste for meat is reflected in a traditional meal of parrillada criolla, a barbecued mixture of chorizo, a Latin American sausage, rinones, or kidneys, and strips of beef. Another meat specialty is marcilla dulce, a blood sausage mixed with orange peels and walnuts. Milanesa is deep-fried steak that has been breaded with Italian-seasoned crumbs. Because much of the population is of Italian heritage, pasta is usually served daily, and is an integral element of a good meal. Uruguayans prefer freshly made pasta to the dry pasta popular in the United States. Another dish reflecting their Italian roots is faina, made with chickpea flour and boiled with oil and salt, similar to polenta (boiled cornmeal) in texture.
Other favored dishes include buseca, which is soup made with calf's tripe, haricot or other white beans, peeled tomatoes, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. It combines Hispanic influences, from the Mexican soup menudo , made with tripe, hominy, and chili powder, with Italian elements, adding cheese and garlic to the soup. Potato fritatas , made with eggs and potatoes, and pascualina , a Uruguayan spinach pie made with Spanish olive oil and cheddar cheese, are two other dishes enjoyed by Uruguayans. Favorite sweet treats include Masas surfidas, the term given to many varieties of pastries, and pasta frola, a pastry cake spread with quince preserves, and varieties of fresh fruit, such as grapes and citrus fruits.
Yerba mate, or simply mate , is a beverage of green tea. Sometimes, a special ceremony surrounds the drinking of mate . A hollowed-out gourd or a china cup is almost filled with the green tea. A metal straw is inserted, and boiling water is then poured over the leaves. The mate is passed around to friends and family seated in a circle, with each person adding more hot water as it is passed. Between 1973 and 1985, the period of military control, people met one another in public squares for this tea ceremony. The ceremony provided a subterfuge, allowing citizens to congregate with less fear that the military police would arrest them on charges of illegal political conspiracy.
Uruguayans appreciate many forms of music, whether it comes from the popular guitar, introduced by Spanish settlers, and the songs of the gauchos , or from a formal orchestra. In addition to the guitar, the accordion is also played along with many of the traditional folk songs and dances. From its African slave ancestral population, candombe reigns as the most popular dance in Montevideo. The drumbeats of the Afro-Uruguayans reach their loudest and most festive during the Uruguayan Mardi Gras celebration.
Uruguayans enjoy opera, as well as the tango. In 1917 Uruguayan composer Gerardo H. Matos Rodríguez wrote La Cumparsita , a tango, a music form as loved in Uruguay as it is in neighboring Argentina, where the tango claims its home. In the United States, the Uruguayan American Chamber of Commerce was a sponsor of The Millennium Gala Concert of the Nations, featuring the Symphonicum Europae, on November 29, 1999, at the Lincoln Center New York City.
In Uruguay, the church and state are separate, and therefore holidays are secularized (non-religious). For instance, Christmas Day is celebrated as "Family Day" rather than as a religious holiday. Other holidays that Uruguayans celebrate include Kings' Day (January 5), commemorating the visit of the Three Kings, with presents sometimes exchanged; Semana de Turismo, or Tourism Week, which coincides with Easter; Desembarco de los Treinta y Tres (Landing of the 33, April 19), commemorating the fight by 33 Uruguayan patriots for independence from Portuguese-Brazilian occupation in 1825; Labor Day (May 1); Artigas's Anniversary (June 19), celebrating the national hero José Gervasio Artigas, who began the struggle for independence in 1811; and Todos Santos, or All Souls Day, on November 2. Mardi Gras, or Carneval , is celebrated in Uruguay as in other Latin American countries, although not with as much vigor as it is in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Spanish is the official language of Uruguay. As much as one-third of the population is of Italian descent in the coastal areas, and Italian is widely spoken in these regions. A colloquial tongue known as Rio de la Plata consists of Spanish with Italian influences is also used. English is taught in schools and is heard frequently, especially in the coastal areas, where tourism was flourishing at the end of the 1990s.
When adjusting to life in the United States, Uruguayans often find Spanish is the language, next to English, most frequently spoken. Because of this, some Uruguayans do not find their adjustment to life in the United States as difficult as it is for other immigrants.
As early as 1900, the patriarchal tradition was beginning to disappear in Uruguay. Following the legal decree making divorce legal in 1907, on which divorce could be filed by a wife on the grounds of the cruelty of her husband, and in 1912 when women needed no specific reason to file at all, women became socially emancipated. By 1919, women were allowed to keep their own bank accounts separate from their husbands, and they were already beginning to enter the workforce. Because of the other reforms of José Batlle as early as 1902, health care extended to nearly the entire population of the country.
Uruguay became country with a large middle class long before World War I. Family ties remained strong, particularly among the rural population, where birth control was not as widely practiced and the families were much larger. Also in the rural areas, some of the more traditional machismo, an aggressively strong masculine character associated with patriarchy, prevailed. Still, with a pronounced equality between spouses more predominant in Uruguay than in other Latin American countries, and with education considered a priority for both males and females, the tone of family life centered around the bonds of parents and children. Among the working classes, it was common to find married children in their thirties still living with their parents, and perhaps grandparents, in an extended family setting. However, among the more affluent Uruguayan Americans this practice was infrequent.
At the end of the twentieth century, Uruguay had a literacy rate of nearly 95 percent for people over 15 years of age. Education is mandatory by law for children between the ages of 6 to 15 years, and public education is free to all Uruguayans through the university level. However, rural communities have only elementary-level schools, so children must go to the cities to attend high school or university. There is only one university in Uruguay, the University of the Republic in Montevideo, which has approximately 35,000 students, but there is also a teacher training institute and a nationwide system of vocational, or trade, schools. Education is prized in their native land, and consequently many Uruguayan Americans pursue education and professional careers in the United States.
Baptisms are particularly common among the rural peoples of Uruguay. Babies had godfathers, or compadres , who were usually of a better social class. This was part of the practice known as compadrazgo, which was intended to provide important social connections for the children as they grew and into their adult life. The godfather would help the godchild find employment when necessary, and the godchild would provide a vote for the godfather when necessary. Among Roman Catholic Uruguayan immigrants, each child to be baptized traditionally has two godparents, a man and a woman, charged with the task of nurturing them spiritually and assisting the parents in raising the child in the faith.
The long history of the separation of church and state in Uruguay from its independence in 1828 to even before the formal declaration of its policy in 1917 established a tradition of civil marriage in the country. From 1837, civil marriage was recognized by the government, which diminished the influence of the Catholic Church. Yet weddings, particularly among those who are practicing Roman Catholics, continue to be celebrated traditionally with both religious and civil ceremonies. Among Uruguayans in the United States, celebrations are dependent on the individual disposition of the couple and family and their religious practices.
The Spanish explorers brought the Roman Catholic religion with them to Uruguay. The faith did not play as important a role as it did with Uruguay's neighbors, even in the early colonial days. Uruguay's indigenous population resisted the conversion imposed upon the natives of other areas, giving the Catholic Church less influence in Uruguay. After independence in 1828, the secular influence pervaded. Still, the Catholic population enjoyed their own parochial schools and even their own political party and movements. The Union Civica del Uruguay (Civic Union of Uruguay) was founded in 1912, although it never won any significant percentage of the national vote. The party changed its name to the Partido Democrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party, or PDC) in 1962, along with the increasingly progressive trends of Catholicism following Vatican II. The second conference of Latin American Bishops, held in Mexico in 1979, had a radical impact on Uruguay. The bishops called for a "preferential option for the poor," inspiring Uruguayan Catholics to provide temporary hospice for the radical Tupamaros when they were given amnesty in 1985.
Other faiths represented in Uruguay include Protestantism and Judaism. Protestant denominations grew in prominence throughout the twentieth century. By the late 1980s, the Protestant population in Uruguay was estimated at two percent or slightly higher. From 1960 to 1985, the number of Protestants increased in Uruguay by 60 percent. The Jewish population of Uruguay settled primarily in Montevideo and accounted for approximately two percent of the population. Beginning in 1970, the Jewish population began to decrease, mostly due to emigration.
The majority of Uruguayans have long held a middle-class lifestyle, with women as likely to be in the labor force as men. Many citizens who emigrated to the United States and elsewhere left because economic conditions did not allow them to continue to maintain their affluence and secure employment. Regarding those who left Uruguay from 1963 to 1975, the following statistics were available: 12.8 percent of the emigrants were professionals, technicians, managers, and administrators; 16 percent were office employees; 12.4 percent were salespeople; and 47.6 percent were drivers, skilled and unskilled workers, and day laborers. The divisions of labor and professions for those Uruguayan Americans living in the United States were not determined officially by the U.S. government census figures.
Uruguayans, whether living at home or abroad, follow the politics of their native land. For many of the political exiles of the 1980s, democratic freedoms were crucial to their decision to leave. The return of those freedoms likewise were a major factor in their decision to return.
Uruguayans, under the direction of David P. Michaels and President Sanguinetti, formed the Uruguayan American Chamber of Commerce (UACC) in 1996 to further business and economic ties between the United States and Uruguay. The UACC has offices in Miami, Florida, and in New York City.
The Embassy of Uruguay to the United States.
Contact: The Honorable Dr. Alvaro Diez de Medina, Ambassador.
Address: 2715 M Street, N.W., 3rd floor, Washington, D.C. 20007.
Telephone: (202) 331-1313.
Fax: (202) 331-8142.
Uruguayan American Chamber of Commerce. Founded 1996.
Contact: David P. Michaels.
Address: 1710 First Avenue, Suite 333, New York, New York, 10128.
Telephone: (212) 722-6587.
Fax: (212) 996-2580.
Online: http://www.uruguaychamber.com .
Uruguayan-American Foundation (Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia area).
Contact: Mr. Mario Casilla.
Telephone: (703) 821-0614.
Fax: (703) 821-1323.
Uruguay Trade Bureau.
Contact : Minister Enriqueta Suzacq.
Address: 747 Third Avenue, 21st floor, New York, New York 10017.
Telephone: (212) 751-7137/7138.
Fax: (212) 758-4126.
Finch, M. H. J., and Alicia Casas de Barran. Uruguay, 102. World Bibliographical Series. Oxford: Clio Press, 1989.
Solari, Aldo, and Rolando Franco. "The Family in Uruguay." In The Family in Latin America. Edited by Man Singh Das and Clinton J. Jesser. Ghaziabad, India: Vikas, 1980, pp. 46–83.
Taglioretti, Graciela. Women and Work in Uruguay. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1983.
Taylor, Philip B., Jr. Government and Politics of Uruguay. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Weinstein, Martin. Uruguay: Democracy at the Crossroads. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988.