MONTEVIDEO – Uruguayans celebrated the African roots of their urban culture with drums and colorful costumes over the weekend in a “candome” parade through the Montevideo neighborhood where the large tenements that for decades were the center of the black community were razed by the military dictatorship in the 1970s.
Almost two months ahead of the Montevideo carnival rooted in European traditions, the “llamadas parade” leads dancing crowds to the site of an older tenement where the Afro-Uruguayan Cultural Center is now located.
“This parade was born nine years ago when Congress passed the Candome, Afro-Uruguayan Culture and Race Equality Act,” Elizabet Suarez, the center’s secretary-general, told Efe.
Barrio Sur and Palermo, the two traditional black neighborhoods on Montevideo’s south side, are the places where candombe thrives with “tamboriles” (drums) of different sizes and “voices,” and black “nations” that trace their cultural roots to different African regions scourged by the slave trade.
On Dec. 3, 1978, the military regime that ruled the country from 1973 to 1985 ordered the eviction of the tenements’ residents, claiming that the old buildings were unsafe.
Afro-Uruguayans saw the order as yet another attempt to marginalize them, push them away from downtown and away from the sea.
“For us, this is a very special day, a date that is much more than a symbol,” Suarez said. “We chose the date for the parade as a vindication of our past and a remembrance of those periods of exclusion, especially under the dictatorship.”
Suarez also talked about the blending in Uruguayan culture of those African roots, including musical expressions such as tango and milonga, with the contribution of European instruments, and candombe rock.
This late spring parade included the classic characters of the “llamadas”: the “Mama Vieja” who personifies “Mother Earth,” and the “gramillero,” or traditional shaman.
When the tamboriles beat on Montevideo’s streets, blacks, whites, young and everyone in between joins in the hip-swaying, slow-walking affirmation of a persistent folk tradition that UNESCO declared in 2009 to be part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.