The majority of the 190,000 Afro-Uruguayans live in Montevideo (UN and World Bank estimates). Economically they remain among the poorest sectors of Uruguayan society: most are non-qualified workers employed in the construction industry, domestic service, or cleaning and porter services. There is high unemployment among young Afro-Uruguayans. The music, dance, art and writing of Afro-Uruguayans have played a major role in the evolution of national culture. African folklore is particularly prominent during the Carnival celebrations in Montevideo, and popular speech in the country has incorporated many words of African origin.
In the colonial era, Uruguay (or the Banda Oriental as it was then known) was integrated into the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, and Buenos Aires, rather than Montevideo, served as the main entry point for African slaves. During the eighteenth century the slave trade gained increasing importance in Montevideo, but Uruguay had no large rural establishments which permitted the cultivation of cotton, coffee or sugar-cane, thus most African slaves worked as domestic servants or day labourers. Slavery was abolished gradually between 1842 and 1852. Despite their positions of trust and the fact that many died fighting for Uruguayan independence against Spain (1816-1821) and Brazil (1821-1825), Afro-Uruguayans were marginalized and many came to accept the negative stereotypes of the dominant culture.
During the 1930s Afro-Uruguayan intellectuals founded the Partido Autoctono Negro (PAN) to elect Uruguayans of African descent to congress, but this failed because most Afro-Uruguayans rejected the idea of a race-based party, preferring to vote for one of the two mainstream political parties. As a result of this electoral disaster the ethnic-based association disappeared, and by the 1940s – despite the efforts of NGOs such as the Asociación Cultural y Social del Uruguay Negro – Afro-Uruguayans were reported as largely uninterested in their African heritage.
In the 1980s Afro-Uruguayans again formed their own organizations, such as Mundo Afro, which in 1994 hosted a regional conference on xenophobia and racism in Montevideo. In recent years an increasing number of grassroots organisations have emerged to promote the recovery of African culture. There are also many groups involved in local development projects in the poorer areas of Montevideo; some of these specifically focus on – and are led by – Afro-Uruguayan women.
In 2006 there is one Afro-Uruguayan representative, Edgardo Ortuño, in Congress. He has spoken publicly about racial discrimination in Uruguay on many occasions, and has done much to get debates about positive discrimination on the political agenda. In response to his demands, the government recently declared 3 December to be the ‘National Day of Candombe [ancestral African ritual dance], Afro-Uruguayan Culture and Racial Equality’.
In 2002 – to tie in with ‘International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination’ – a special programme on Afro-Latin education was launched in Montevideo. Numerous workshops were set up, involving both teachers and students, to discuss subjects such as slavery, Afro-Latin music and human rights. Access to education and the quality (content and methodology) of education have continued to be an important subject of debate for Afro-Uruguayan organisations in 2005/2006. The majority of Afro-Uruguayans complete primary school, but only a few go to university.
Despite improvements in cultural awareness, the majority of Afro-Uruguayans continue to live in humiliating social environments. The quality of housing is still a major problem for those living in the poorer areas of Montevideo, as it is for those living in the countryside – they are often without access to safe water and sewage. Local human rights organisations express a particular concern for Afro-Uruguayan women, who are victims of double discrimination.