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February 5, 2004

Lecture provides glimpse into black activism

“Tango,” by Uruguayan artist Ruben Galloza

“Tango,” by Uruguayan artist Ruben Galloza

The annual carnival in Montevideo, Uruguay, has had two queens since 1956: one white and one black. Yet, for at least 100 years before 1956, there was only one queen and she was always white, according to Reid Andrews, Pitt Latin American scholar and historian.

“It’s not news that black people faced barriers in Uruguay over time, just as they did in all Latin American countries, but what is significant is how people of color have organized themselves and acted collectively in all kinds of ways: through colonial militias, African religions, mutual aid societies, political parties, civil rights movements and so forth,” said Andrews, who is professor of history and research professor at Pitt’s University Center for International Studies.

Andrews drew on research for his forthcoming book, “Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000: Black History in Spanish America and Brazil,” in his lecture last week titled “Black Movements in Latin America: A Life.” The talk was one of the Center for Latin American Studies-sponsored lunchtime lectures.

Andrews focused on the life of Ruben Galloza (1926-2002), an artist by trade and activist by disposition, whom he met in the mid-1970s and again in 2001 when he interviewed Galloza in his native city, Montevideo.

Andrews said that Uruguay in the 1930s and ’40s was a country ripe for effective black movements. “It had one of only three black political parties in Latin America, along with ones in Brazil and Cuba, and it had on a per capita basis one of the most active black presses in Latin America, fully comparable to the black press in the United States and Cuba,” he noted.

Andrews pointed to parallel movements in the late-1940s among Uruguayan black intellectuals, including Galloza: attempts to form black organizations in response to whites-only clubs, and attempts at recovering African cultural traditions and heritage, not unlike a comparable movement among African Americans in the U.S. “In the first half of the 1900s, black middle class organizing [in Uruguay] consisted of presenting yourself as white, refined, cultivated, civilized,” in other words divorced from African culture, Andrews said. But that was changing.

After failing to establish their own club, Galloza and his friends tried to join the Asociación Cultural y Social Uruguay (ACSU), Montevideo’s most influential black organization of the 1940s and ’50s.

These associations faced a dilemma in defining their membership, Andrews said. “While they wanted to be somewhat inclusive, they didn’t want to be totally inclusive when they were defining themselves as black middle class organizations, which means specifically not the black working class. In the case of ACSU, you could not come to their activities unless you had two last names,” a common indication of middle or upper class status.

This irritated Galloza and friends, who wanted the organization to reach out to more working class people. While attempting to join the association, they discovered that the ACSU founders, the Suarez-Pena family, had been misusing funds raised by the club. The scandal led to an overhaul of the organization and, in 1954, Galloza was named ACSU’s secretary general.

Galloza worked to reach out to the black working class population, and to de-emphasize the European influence on the club’s dances, which had featured waltzes and fox trots. He wanted to re-establish the primacy of the African drum-based musical form condambe, which was the mainstay of African associations in the 1800s.

“They continued holding dances, but opened them up to the public, including whites, and they became a great success in the 1950s,” Andrew said. The city, at ACSU’s request, agreed to incorporate condambe into the annual carnival.

“Forty-five years later, when I talked to Galloza in 2001, his feeling was that this had been a big mistake,” Andrews said. “The move to carnival in effect cut condambe loose from its real historical roots, turned it into something secular for tourists, into entertainment and competition, with awards going to the best drumming, best marching, best dancing, best-costumed show girl.”

Andrews has heard similar reactions from other black activists. “They’ve told me that for legitimizing many black cultural forms, as soon as the state comes in and takes it over and uses it for its purposes, principally tourism and money, those forms became considerably transformed, though interestingly, it tends to be those activists themselves who initiated that process.”

Not content with the progress made to include the black working class in ACSU, Galloza left the club in the early 1960s to found another club, Negrocan.

Because of Galloza’s friendship with the then-mayor of Montevideo, Negrocan was given a substantial budget and its own building.

“But in 1969, that mayor leaves office, and the funding was immediately cut off, so Negrocan collapses and Galloza is left with no job,” Andrews said. Galloza then left Montevideo and wandered around South America, making a meager living as an artist.

“That rise and fall of Galloza is an analogy one sees in many black organizations: There is the effort to get money from the state, which is great when you can do it, but leads to a dependence on state funding, which when cut off can be devastating,” Andrews said.

In their last discussion, shortly before Galloza’s death, the two discussed the overall progress toward equality in Uruguay, Andrews said.

“In a country of 3.4 million, where about 6 percent of the population is black or mulatto, the black movement, particularly through a group called Mundo Afro, which was founded in 1988, has been effective in getting the government to acknowledge discrimination and inequality as a problem,” Andrews pointed out. “In 1996, for the first time in 150 years, race was a category on the national census, which is very important for establishing racial discrimination. There’s hope for a national anti-discrimination law, and the government now is even talking about, as in Brazil, enacting affirmative action programs to overcome the past treatment of black people,” he said.

But Galloza was more skeptical of the success of black movements in Uruguay, Andrews said. “‘Look where their money comes from’ he told me. And the sources are all international, like the Ford Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank, the left wing of the Catholic Church, and from European foundations. He spoke of the difficulties of running a black organization when international funding is the only available source. Their fate could be just like Negrocan in the 1960s: to collapse when the funding runs out.”

—Peter Hart

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