“Pocho Boy Meets World” is a Latinx poetry column written by California poet, Alan Chazaro. The son of Mexican immigrants, he is leaving his home and teaching job in Oakland to pursue living in South America and Mexico for the next year. For each destination, Pocho Boy will search for emerging and iconic Latinx voices to read, while documenting the textures, histories, and influences of each poet’s hometown region. Join him as he eats his share of quesadillas and uses broken Spanish in hopes of connecting more deeply with what it means to be a U.S. Latinx writer in Latin America.
Vol. 4: In Uruguay, Pocho Boy Finds Light Beneath Dark
Turns out Uruguay isn’t just the smallest nation in South America, but also the most politically liberal. The first country in Latin America to legalize abortions and marijuana (unthinkable in Catholic-influenced territories), it felt like a tinier version of Argentina–the countries are separated only by El Rio Plata, and Argentina once had ambitions to incorporate it as part of their own–which is to say that it felt more “European” than “Latino.” This is apparent in the architecture–gothic and baroque stonework that reached for the gods of other lands–and also in the history. But for all of its modern cleanliness and perfection, Uruguay turned out to have an upsetting past.
While there, I noticed the European ancestry of the population–mostly Spanish and Italian heritage–and to be honest, it weirded me out to only see light-skinned Latinos everywhere; I hadn’t met any Afrodescedent Uruguayans (even though Brazil–which is famously AfroLatino–neighbors just to the north). When I asked about this, I was told that the capital city of Montevideo was the biggest port of entry for slave trade in earlier centuries, but only received and shipped Africans deeper into South America (Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, etc.); none were allowed to stay in Uruguay. If that wasn’t bad enough, what was even more surprising and shocking was that I hadn’t seen or heard of any indigenous Uruguayan groups, those who had lived here before European colonization. Unlike countries such as Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Bolivia, for example–places that reflected more typical aspects of how I understood Latinidad, which is largely shaped by brown folks–I literally hadn’t seen a single indigenous face in Uruguay. Maybe they didn’t exist, I thought.
But I dug around and discovered that there indeed was a small indigenous presence–known as the Charrúa and Guaraní–and that the national history books claim they “died out” in 1831. So I went to a local guide and discovered the truth: the indigenous people were systematically killed off in 1831 when president-at-the-time Fructuoso Rivera promised the natives that they would be given land in the north; when they arrived, Rivera ordered the national army to kill them. All of them. Very few survived, which is why it’s nearly impossible to see any descendants, especially in urban areas. It’s a tragedy that rarely gets talked about in the country–or anywhere, for that matter–and there is currently a national movement from young intellectuals and artists to bring this event back into the public’s consciousness. It’s yet another example of the horrific racism and colorism that exists, especially within traditional Latino communities. In certain aspects, I’ve found Latinoamerica to be just as or even more racist than the U.S., especially when it comes to the openly biased mistreatment of darker-skinned Latinos–but that’s a story to be told in another time.
Though I tried, I wasn’t able to find poetry from or about Uruguay’s indigenous groups. I’m sure it exists somewhere, but in the weeks I was there it was too deeply buried and forgotten in the country’s memory for me to reach. After much searching, I gave up and decided I’d try to understand Uruguay from the mainstream perspective that it wants to portray to the world–not of a genocidal dictatorship, but of a progressive, open-minded, and proud people. And truthfully, for all of its terrible secrets, Uruguay was easily among the most organized, quiet, slow-paced, safe, and stable Latino countries I’d ever visited– so much so that I began to think of it more as a European colony rather than a rebelliously independent and expressive nation. The idea of unchallenged national patriotism was apparent everywhere, but especially in the history and fanship of the country’s soccer team (Uruguay was the first team to ever host and win a World Cup, something the nation still proudly clings to, as they should). In short, Uruguayans love Uruguay. So when I asked everyone–from young restaurant workers to old book shop owners–who’s your country’s most cherished poet, the answer was ALWAYS the same: Mario Benedetti.
A mid-20th-century figure, he was known to write unabashedly about his people and tiny (non-troll, it’s legit a blip on the map) country, the type of poet who schools/universities use to teach young children about the glories of their nation. (Sidenote: I wonder who the U.S. equivalent of this would be? Is there even a unanimous poet for this? A nationalistic leader?). I should say that I enjoyed Benedetti. As a heavy reader of contemporary poetry, his work was refreshingly metered, flowery, and declarative in the sort of old-school way that modern poets, including myself, have seemed to move away from. Instead of asking questions, he’s telling you the answers. This is clear from the outset in the title of his book I found at a street market was Noción de patria (1963), or Notion of Country. In the title poem, which is the first in the book, he goes on to declare how he’s traveled the world–listing pages of his movements, from the chateaus and museums of Europe, to the carnavals of Brazil, to celebrations in New York City–but ends by always returning back to his Uruguayan love, Montevideo. “[S]iempre se vuelve… donde el aire es mi aire… y cuando miro el cielo/ veo acá mis nubes” (“I always return… where the air is my air… and when I look at the sky/ I see my own clouds”). The entire poem sings this note, making “Noción de patria” a poem about loving your country, because, after all, it’s what you’ll always have. But it’s not just blind love he seems to get at–it’s a reminder that in order to know and love our own home, we have to have left and explored the homes of others, to have sweat in the shoes of others, to have stood in solidarity with faraway struggles (“sudé en Dakar por solidaridad”). And this was the lesson I took away from this and his other poems.
In many ways, I was relieved to read Mario Benedetti (I ended up reading two of his books on a bus ride to the eastern coast of Uruguay). His poetry wasn’t only a declaration of love for his home, but of escaping your reality only to return with a more complex and layered understanding of who you are and what you’ve inherited through nationality. Though I would’ve liked to have come across a poet who questioned, challenged, and fought to rectify the wrongs of his/her nation’s history, I found it refreshing to read a poet who was able to simply embrace his own secrets, his own pride, his enthusiasm for a life and country he has been given and now has to navigate, without the constant condemnation of a past he cannot change.
I left Uruguay feeling better, having eventually found a neighborhood of Afrodescendant immigrants who had moved to Montevideo from nearby countries for a better quality of life, and where they played drums in the streets every weekend and welcomed outsiders like me to march in rhythm, drinking and partying until nightfall as one. I realized that In my travels abroad and back home in the States, I’ve never discovered a place that wasn’t built upon some horrible truths. And though I do genuinely believe that artists and poets have a major role in pointing out where things have gone wrong and re-imagining a world with more creative and healthy practices, it’s also okay and sometimes necessary to look at the good that has endured and survived, to celebrate the light, even when it is completely surrounded by dark.