When I first arrived in Montevideo, I was perplexed by the ethnic makeup of this place every single day. I thought that coming to South America I would be met with strong cultural ties to native ancestry through the art they make, through the food they eat, the plants that grow, simply the way of being. When I was in high school I traveled to Peru for a month one summer and the people of Peru are extremely connected to their indigenous roots there not only through their cultural clothing and the food they eat but majority of people had indigenous features. If you were white, solely european or lighter skinned you stuck out like a sore thumb. While I knew that every part of South America is diverse, I thought I had a little bit clearer idea of what to expect on my study abroad through my experience traveling around Peru. This was not the case in Uruguay though.
Uruguay is overwhelmingly white, they eat copious amounts of pasta, steak and potatoes and sausage, and its difficult to find traces of any non European cultural practices besides drinking Mate. The average Uruguayan is much more connected to their European culture and lineage. Most people here are a bit ignorant about their indigenous ancestry and if you ask someone, they will tell you their family is Italian. Many even have italian citizenship or are in the process of getting it and this is the case for about 40% of the nations inhabitants. The more I learned about modern Uruguay the more confused I became. It is an extremely strange place and I was shocked with every piece of information I learned. A large part of this surprise was based on my own ignorance and preconceived notions that Latin America has vastly shared identity throughout. In reality the cultural and ethnic makeup of Latin America, even just South America is unique everywhere, differing based on deep histories of colonialism as well as mass migration and immigration. Much of the cultural identities of each place vary even depending on the region within the country as the indigenous peoples did not use the same borders that the Spainard and Portugese colonizers did.
After a little deep diving, I learned that one of the indigenous population here is called Charrúa and it was documented to be fairly small with around 5,000 individuals of that community. The spainards conducted a maliscious campaign to eradicate them resulting in the Masacre de Salsipuedes in 1831. During this massacre around 300 Charrúa people were taken prisoner and about 40 were murdered, few escaped. The prisoners were forced to walk on foot all the way from the inland of the country to the coastal capital city Montevideo. Many people believe this did erase their lineage but indigenous peoples were not mentioned in any census during the 19th century so its difficult for many to trace. Charrúa people still exist in Uruguay and more and more people are beginning to reconnect with their ancestry and recognize their lineage. An organization called the Council of the Charrúa Nation, established in 2005, now supports 10 other Charrúa collectives across the country. In the northern part of the country along with Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay you will find the Guaraní indigneous peoples. This is a much larger ethno group than the Charrúa and its culture and language is heavily preserved in Paraguay specifically. The name of both Uruguay and Paraguay are actually words from the Guaraní language, Uruguay specifically referencing a bird native to the river that flows through the country.
I feel that as a white, european american, traveler, its so important to take the time to educate myself about the indigenous communities whose land I am living on and exploring. So much of the world has been impacted by colonialism, there has been so much loss, of life, of culture, of knowledge and by seeking it out and sharing it with people, we are in a small way keeping it alive. This history cannot be removed from the present and it is constantly impacting social and political life. I encourage everyone who travels, even within your own country, to take some time to seek out information about the people who lived on the land before us. These are the people that make each place unique and beautiful. I believe that by educating ourselves and listening to these communities, more of the world will see the importance of their fight to preserve their culture and liberation.