Black Uruguayans still marginalized in a country of ‘inclusion’

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Montevideo (AFP)

Deborah Rodriguez sprinted on a track that sparkled in a downpour; running is a refuge for the athlete in Uruguay, where his dark skin makes life difficult outside of sport.

The South American 800-meter champion said she had been the victim of racial slurs for as long as she could remember.

“I have had to deal with this all my life,” Rodriguez said.

Uruguay has long been seen as an example to the rest of Latin America, scoring the lowest on inequality and poverty, and having one of the best social inclusion statistics in the region.

However, people of African descent – the largest ethnic and racial minority, making up at least eight percent of the population, according to the latest census – experience occasional racism and “are more likely to be excluded,” according to World According to a study by the Bank.

Poverty among black Uruguayans is double the national rate at 20 percent, according to the study.

They also earn an average of 11 percent less than the rest of the 3.45 million people for the same job and are 20.7 percent less likely to complete high school.

Uruguay is home to Manchester United football star Edinson Cavani, who recently sparked outrage for using a Spanish term for blacks seen as a racial insult in Britain, saying it was about a loving greeting to a friend.

In Uruguay and much of Latin America, it is used as a term of affection, regardless of skin color.

Amanda Diaz, head of the Afro-descendants department at the Ministry of Social Development, said that despite social progress as a nation, equality in Uruguay is a myth.

Uruguay is “extremely racist” and uses “the idea that we are all equal” to cover it up, she said.

Being black “has a negative connotation,” which is why people of African descent are said to be under-represented in national statistics, Diaz said.

“When it comes to defining yourself, if you can get away with it, you do it… That eight percent is definitely 12 or 14 percent. ”

– Back to his roots –

Until a few months ago, Rodriguez wore her hair straight, but now she sports tight curls under a headband.

“I needed to cut my hair because I needed to go back to my origins, to find my identity,” said the 28-year-old. “I have had my hair straightened since I was 12 to fit in.

Romina di Bartolomeo, 29, has also spent years struggling to adapt to the demands of the fashion industry, straightening her hair to meet conventional beauty standards.

“The situations of racism that I experienced in fashion were linked to my physical appearance: my curls, my features, my skin color,” said Di Bartolomeo.

The model hosts a weekend radio show devoted to “la plena”, a style of tropical music. Her Afro-Latino rhythm is often mocked, she says.

Pablo Perez, a former basketball player who now makes a living tending to cars for advice in downtown Montevideo, said he didn’t pay too much attention to people’s motives.

“It’s not racism,” he said.

“Maybe they see you differently… Some people respect you for who you are, others look at you sideways. I’ve never been hurt by it, ”he says.

– ‘Weight of slavery’ –

According to German Freire, a social development specialist at the World Bank, Afro-Uruguayans have hardly any role models to follow in professional positions.

“If you are an Afro boy, it is difficult for you to find your role models to project yourself into the future in management, in academia, in politics,” he said.

“It’s easier in football, there your path is more or less predetermined for you. ”

It took Uruguay nearly two centuries to elect someone of African descent, in 2005. The country’s first black senator, Gloria Rodriguez, was only elected this year.

Despite progress towards equality, the ruling National Party senator believes Uruguay is far from closing the gap.

“We already have hard-won rights. Now we have to respect them. Even today, we carry the weight of slavery on our shoulders. ”

When Uruguay abolished slavery in 1842, nearly a century after the arrival of the first slaves, traders again slipped them into the country from neighboring Brazil.

Until the mid-19th century, 30% of Montevideo’s population was African or of African descent, according to historians.

Rodriguez said she looked forward to the day when, as a Uruguayan senator, she could speak of racism “based on the past” and not the present.

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