“Bajando a Montevideo, Canarios y la Ciudad”: When Country Meets City

Acá subo el capitulo entero porque trata de tantos amigos y quiero compartir con ellos.   Hace algunas referencias a cosas que defino en capítulos anteriores. Espero que les gusten.

This is a chapter about the journey from country to city, and how people’s lives straddle both urban and rural worlds.

Ch. 9: “Bajando a Montevideo, Canarios y la Ciudad”: When Country Meets City

Whenever I went back down Ruta 7 to Montevideo, the guarda took my ticket and asked “¿Donde bajás”? I said “terminal” to distinguish from stops before Tres Cruces. Of course the guarda was asking me quite literally, “where are you getting off the bus”. But the journey from the interior towards the city invokes such a profound psychosomatic shift, that there’s a special phrase for it, “bajando a Montevideo”. This rural skepticism of descending upon the city and throwing oneself in the urban cauldron dates from the time of Aparicio Saravia and other stubborn caudillos. At the height of his power before his death in 1904, this rural revolutionary would often refuse to descend on the capital, considering the city a bourgeois “tierra de doctores” (land of doctors). Even today, the reluctance and ambivalence of this journey stems from the fact that it’s often a necessary one. But the journey is only the entrée into the larger story of how canarios—once they arrive—experience the city in a radically different way than montevideanos or gringos.


The connection to the city is so pivotal in a town like Cerro Chato that most people have the bus schedules memorized, and the timing is part of a communal internal clock. On the way back down, the Nuñez makes its first stop in Valentines. A woman shows up to the parada with a wheelbarrow full of animal feed, which the guarda helps her haul into the luggage compartment. You never know what people will load and unload on these trips. The guardas on the Ruta 7 route do an amazing job at their work. There’s the keeping track of prices, which change every few months due to inflation, and which are scaled based on kilometre. It doesn’t matter what time of day or of year you ride, cost is entirely a function of distance on the Uruguayan bus system. The guardas need to remind sleepers that their stop is imminent, and also keep their eye out for people who may be waiting at obscure kilometre markers like 238. But its with the heavy lifting of random objects like the animal feed, or one item that looked oddly like a casket, that earns the guardas their stripes. Compared to their colleagues on the direct routes between Montevideo and the departmental capitals, who take tickets, then sleep themselves, doing the Ruta 7 run is a demanding task.


Loading animal feed from a wheelbarrow onto the Nuñez, Valentines.


The life of a guarda on Ruta 7. You never know what’s coming on board, Cerro Chato.


Their schedule makes it all the more challenging. They’ll start their shift from Melo where most of them live, ride the seven hours into Montevideo, unload all packages, take care of receipts, then sleep for several hours in a pension near Tres Cruces, and do it all over again going the other way. The turnaround for the 5AM departure is particularly brutal. They’ll get a couple days off to be with their families, then rinse and repeat. Life on the road is both extremely social, as you get to know just about everyone in these pueblitos, but also very lonely, as the anonymous nights in the city take their toll. Turismar completes this journey more quickly than Nuñez for a few reasons. First, its drivers exercise a more liberal speed limit policy. Second, as I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t enter the smallest of the pueblitos. But a third reason is both pragmatic and charming.


Back in the other America’s heartland, I’m on the Megabus from Saint Louis to Chicago. We pull off Interstate 55 somewhere south of Bloomington/Normal. The driver, who’d previously introduced himself as Lester and gave us all a warm Saint Louis welcome followed by an exhaustive list of safety regulations, now informs us of our rest stop. He outlines what dining options will be available to us, and repeats numerous times, “If you ain’t back on ‘dis bus at 5:20, ‘dat is twenty minutes after five o’clock, we will leave without you. And no hot food, I repeat, no hot food will be allowed on ‘da bus”.


When the Nuñez slows down coming into Cerro Colorado, it pulls aside, comes to a stop, and the guarda gets up, mumbles “diez minutos” and exits. We are at Parador Restaurant La Quijotada, which doesn’t resemble a rest stop or truck stop. It’s merely another almacén on the road that’s well positioned for travelers, being the logical midway point on the journey. Most passengers exit, and loosely form a queue inside. It’s about 12:15, and that means time for lunch. First things first, my sweet tooth kicks in, and I want an alfajor, the tasty snack cakes filled with dulce de leche. (Are there any Sierras de Minas today? Sadly no, I’ll have to settle for a Portozuelo bañado, and make sure the powdered sugar doesn’t get on my lap). Then I walk over to the fridge, and snatch the last remaining Salus Pera.


In line, I look to the left and see the guarda and chofer in a room off to the side enjoying their lunch. They were served immediately upon entering, so they can enjoy a semi-leisurely meal before getting back to work. I look past the counter, and see that, like many almacenes, the store lies in front of a family home. Hanging on a divider blocking the view is a poster of Garfield and Odie, with the cat’s trademark thought bubble reading “Nuestra amistad es super genial…Vos sos super y yo genial.” (Our friendship is super awesome. You’re super and I’m awesome.) Once I get to the front of the line, I order my milanesa. The lady behind the counter asks if I want it heated, to which I say yes. She hands it to another lady, whose job it is to zap milanesas and empanadas for a minute in the microwave, shrink-wrap them, and put them in a plastic bag. In this nebulously defined world of ‘diez minutos’, I have time to spare to snap photos of the decaying railway station across the street. There’s nothing like doing fieldwork on a rest stop. Once I’m back on the bus, the non-carbonated sugary pear drink is the perfect way to wash down a breaded cutlet and the alfajor provides proper punctuation.

A break in the action at La Quijotada, Cerro Colorado.


After finishing lunch is the perfect time to nap. I’m woken up only by my friend Miguel the Paraguayan sitting behind me telling jokes to himself aloud (this disregard for keeping a low profile is the first sign he’s foreign), and by the kids in maroon polyester zipper jackets who get off at Casupá to attend their afternoon classes at the Colegio Capilla San José. I almost invariably wake up around Manga, about the time you start seeing city buses—and trash. On these return trips, the gardens of Canelones are obscured in my vision by a mobile siesta. The Ruta 7 schedule is well timed to avoid rush hours, and it’s rarely more than 35 minutes before we’re at “terminal”.


Having reached my destination, it’s been a few hours since lunch, and apparently the milanesa wasn’t enough. My first order of business at Tres Cruces is to step outside, breathe some fresh air, and find my way to the 24-hour “Comidas al Paso” carrito. I take my hamburguesa con queso y panceta with all the fixings, and sit under the jacaranda trees in the triangular plaza just south of the station. The smoothness of a Salus Pera will not do the trick here. Rather it’s the tang and carbonation of Paso de los Toros that washes down this bad boy. This is also a great moment for people watching before joining the throngs. Unlike Cerro Chato, waving from this plaza does no good, as all who pass are strangers. Around Tres Cruces is about the only spot in the country where a sense of urgency isn’t out of place, and by the time I’ve reached my last bite, I’ve seen hippies peddling goods on mats, canarios in boinas headed back home, football fans in town for a Copa Libertadores tie, and Australian backpackers raving about a hostel in Punta del Diablo. I’m back in the city, and while on a mission, I, like the friends I’ve made on La Cuchilla, have brought a taste of the country with me.


Plaza Prof. Dr. Juan José Crottogini, Tres Cruces, Montevideo.


I’ve illustrated the visibility of the Montevideo led city-state in the interior, but how, when, and where does the rural show up in the urban? Just like my journeys on Ruta 7, this exchange is a two way street. In such a small country, Montevideo isn’t an internal tourist destination. The word turista in Montevideo carries the automatic assumption of foreigner. The thought of vacationing there would be almost laughable to anyone from the interior. A headline in El Observador reading “Montevideo es el principal destino turistico del pais ¿Por qué?” illustrates this belief. Rather, the canario’s relationship with the city is much more matter-of-fact. You do your business, and then if you have time before your bus leaves, you go to McDonalds, or take a walk on the Rambla.


The landmarks people use to orient themselves are entirely different depending on where you’re from. For montevideanos, the capital is the essence of civilization, the place from which the Uruguayan gospel is spread inward to the countryside, and outward to the world. Being locals, they have a very precise mental map, and understanding of neighborhood distinctions. To canarios, the capital is much more of an abstract blob, the alien metropolis, where the few reference points are the university faculties, government ministries, or hospitals likely to draw them there in the first place.


One contrast in these two psychogeographies was most recurring and curious. It seemed almost every time I went to the city, people in Cerro Chato would ask me if I’d been to “Barrio de los judíos”. Slightly confused, I would politely say no. There’s no Jewish Quarter, I thought, because all the Jews live in Pocitos. No one could really tell me where this “barrio de los judíos” was, but they all knew it as the place you go to buy things: a lower quality, lower cost alternative to the new shopping malls. Back in the carrito de panchos on the Avenida, I bought a ticket to the Christmas raffle. Continuing an old Iberian tradition, every Christmas Eve, Cerrochateños burn an effigy and call it the “Judas”. That year the target was then-Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Maria José made a big deal that they were bringing fireworks from barrio de los judíos to help with this festive anti-Kirchnerist immolation.


Yet I never heard a montevideano mention “barrio de los judíos”, let alone encourage me to go there. But I did hear about Barrio Reus and its painted houses, which were worth a trek a couple miles north of the Centro. When I visited, I was predictably pleased by the architecture, but also surprised at the overwhelming concentration of cheap clothing and knick-knack shops. It wasn’t until I researched online, months after visiting it from the perspective of montevideanos, and hearing about it from the perspective of canarios, that I realized these two places were actually one and the same thing! In barrio de los judíos, city-dwellers see architectural heritage, while rural-dwellers see commerce. This shows how for canarios, the capital is a site of consumption, because it’s where you get the best selection. But in barrio de los judíos, this consumption is frugal, with deals trumping style.


Fireworks for sale in barrio de los judios, Montevideo.


The Dutch have a saying that they make their money in Rotterdam, count it in The Hague, and spend it in Amsterdam. That Uruguay makes its money in the interior (this is after all, a nation sustained by agricultural exports) and counts it in Montevideo is fairly evident. But where money is spent is not so clear. For canarios, it’s often barrio de los judíos in Montevideo, and the freeshops on the Brazilian border. For foreigners, you have to go two hours east along the beach. Punta del Este is the only place in Uruguay set up for splurging, but its clientele is overwhelmingly Brazilian and Argentine. But for montevideanos, their hometown is hardly set up for splashing cash.


Ever humble, they like to avoid making references to spending money at all costs. When dining out, even amongst well-to-do montevideanos, I noticed they would refrain from ordering anything other than standard entrées. Blogger Tessa Garcia jokes in a post called “Guide to getting along with Uruguayans”, that you shouldn’t go around well dressed. If you have on a suede skirt, tell people it’s because a friend gave it to you, your colleagues donated it to you, or you bought it for two pesos at the street market. Furthermore, she jokes that if you go abroad, it’s because you were gifted the tickets to visit a dying family member. Whether or not you have money, any indication that you like spending it is best kept unseen and unheard.


But Montevideo means much more to canarios than bargains on blouses. In the pastoral city-state, Montevideo IS the capital of the interior. Anything and everything pertaining to the interior has its headquarters here. This makes sense given the country’s geography. Montevideo is by far the most logical meeting place because of the arrangement of transportation networks, and the pre-existing concentration of institutions. Yet it still sounds odd that the Asociación Rural del Uruguay, and the Organización del Fútbol del Interior are based in Montevideo.


This is all the more notable coming from Oregon. In my home state, like Uruguay, we also have 3 and change million people, half of whom live in one city, Portland. Yet Portland and Multnomah County is hardly the epicenter of the Beaver State. The two main public universities, the state government, the state fairgrounds, and the two largest corporations (Nike and Intel) are all located in other counties. Growing up in Eugene, it never occurred to me that I was from a peripheral area, as there’s no corresponding word for the interior of Oregon. Portland was simply another city, albeit larger, with some additional amenities for a fun Saturday jaunt. I would go to Portland to see a museum exhibit, try new restaurants and browse at Powell’s Books. If my family or my class went to Salem, it would be to tour the state capitol building and learn about pioneer history, or to protest in front of the legislature about education funding. Oregon is not unique in this regard. Few US states have the same level of centralization and geographic concentration of institutions as Uruguay. Ironically, the most obvious one is Hawaii, spread out as it is across multiple islands.


Leafing through the Sunday papers while relaxing on the rambla in Mercedes can also tell you a lot about Montevideo’s dominance over rural life. In Gallito, the main classified, there is an entire section devoted to the real estate market, only one page of which covers the interior. Simply put, the real estate market in the interior is minimal not because settlement is informal, but because there is so much inertia in society. Homes are owned, and their owners pay taxes, but when deeds are transferred, it’s between family and friends. My own struggles to find housing when moving to La Cuchilla attest to this phenomenon. Take a look at the cinema listings in El País. 90% of showtimes are for theatres in Montevideo. There is a small section labelled BALNEARIOS, and an even smaller section labelled INTERIOR, with four cinemas, all located in the shoppings of Rivera, Colonia, Paysandú, and Salto, respectively. Interstellar seems to be the hit of the weekend, but my eye catches an Argentine film called Un amor en los tiempos de selfies (Love in the time of selfies).


Cinema listings in El País.


But beyond these administrative, economic, and entertainment distinctions, Montevideo’s pull has transformative effects on peoples’ lives. For everyone but the poorest rural laborers, your life must go through Montevideo at some point. How one interacts with the city is indicative of class and educational background. The stronger connection one has with the nation’s capital, the likelier they are to have more capital of their own. Because Montevideo is within eight hours of anywhere in Uruguay, this phenomenon of trans-spatial lives falls somewhere in between internal migration and commuting. Many people don’t so much settle in one place, as they do go back and forth, involving themselves in both communities, states of mind, and ways of life.


Maria Laura’s partner, Gaston is in his late 20s and studying for an MBA. Given his height, a career in basketball could also have been an option. During the week he works for a large insurance company in Ciudad Vieja and goes to class in the evenings at one of the private universities. On Fridays, he bolts from the city and catches the 8PM Turismar. Saturdays are time to spend with his parents, Laura, and their 8-year old son. Gaston is technically the owner of Peques, and Saturdays are also a chance for him to have a trial at running a business. While Maria and Maria Laura are busy chatting with visitors and selling cute baby clothes, Gaston is keeping the books. On Sundays, the white-collar work disappears, and he’s out on his parents’ campo castrating bulls and caring for horses. But come 1 AM, he’s back on the Nuñez, and arrives in the city in time for a couple more hours sleep in his apartment that Laura affectionately calls the Castillo de Goes.


Valentín is the only canario I met who’s familiar with my neck of the woods. In high school, he went to Vancouver, Washington on a two-week exchange facilitated by the US Embassy, and came back with fond memories of Multnomah Falls. His pattern is very similar to Gaston’s. During the week he studies hard for his international relations coursework. He’s able to get off earlier on Fridays, and can catch the 2:30 Turismar from Tres Cruces, and get back to Cerro Chato in plenty of time to spend his evening drinking with buddies on the escalinata and going to a peña folklorica. But Saturday, he’s at work on his parents’ campo, wearing a boina and getting his boots dirty. On Sundays he suits up in the white and blue stripes of local soccer club La Cuchilla, before heading back in time for Monday classes. He may be studying a more global subject than agroveterinary medicine or agronomy like many of his friends, but he is still intimately connected with the agrarian way of life.


Miguel Noble is the computer teacher at the Liceo in Tupambaé. His cousin’s name is Germán Caballero Noble, and Miguel likes to joke about being related to a “noble knight”. “Que Barbaridad Che” is his catchphrase, an all encompassing, hands in the air exclamation of wonder or disgust depending on the situation. Luis Suárez scoring two goals against England, and government corruption equally merit a cry of barbarity. Miguel’s love for 80s music and action movies has made him quite the English autodidact. He enjoyed having me around, because for the first time in his life he had a native speaker who could actually talk back to him. I often had trouble understanding him, not because he spoke incorrectly, but because I had no knowledge of the pop culture he was drawing from. “Good morning Samuel Jackson”, he would greet me as we met at the liceo, the J in Jackson becoming an elongated Rioplatense “sh”. For good reason, Miguel doesn’t risk driving his 1992 maroon Volkswagen Gol down Ruta 7. Instead, every Thursday after teaching his last class, he catches the Turismar that will get him to Montevideo around 8:15, and takes a cab to his aunt’s apartment just off 18 de Julio. He spends all day Friday and Saturday morning sitting in a class that will get him a certificate that gets him more teaching hours and eventually more money. It’s a special institute for training informatics teachers, and the courses are only offered in the capital.


When Miriam was working to set up TupambaéPlan to provide a non-profit that addressed various social needs in the town, her biggest obstacle was not fundraising, nor finding people to join the team. It was the frequent, and lengthy trips back and forth to Montevideo get papers signed, and meet with ministry officials. On one occasion, she and two other integrantes left Tupambaé at 3:45 AM on the Turismar, travelled five plus hours, and had to wait at least five more before being let into their destination to plead their case. The bureaucrats in Montevideo aren’t cruel, but according to Miriam they are often insensitive and oblivious to the fact that canarios have to travel long distances, pay bus fares, and take time off work simply to try and achieve their objectives. Miriam is eternally grateful to Echar of Flor de Maroñas. Without him being on the ground in the capital, many of these trámites would have posed significantly greater hurdles.


Tamara is genuinely fluent in both urban and rural spheres. More than almost anyone I know, I’ve seen her relate to Uruguayans of all walks of life. She is just as comfortable in a concert hall in Montevideo mesmerized by Brazilians Seu Jorge and Ana Carolina as she is dancing dos y uno despacito to Chacho Ramos at a raid on Ruta 7. She showed a good deal of academic promise as a teenager, and the liceo in Cerro Chato clearly wasn’t providing the quality of education she wanted. So at 17, she came to the city and found lodging in a pension. “I didn’t know how to cook at first, and would burn pasta” she jokes. Starting her studies in Social Education, she became active in politics, joining the same Tupamaro movement where José Mujica earned his initial fame.


But don’t worry, Tamara is no guerrilla operative. This day in age, the Tupamaros are an ideological group within the confines of the Frente Amplio. Rather than robbing banks or restaurants, Tamara’s work as a tupamara is more akin to community organizing and event planning. Her political involvement also afforded her a first trip outside the Southern Cone, a two-week Pan-American young left conference hosted by Hugo Chavez in Caracas. But despite her urban experience, the pueblo always calls her back. “I miss the Rambla and the concerts” she tells me, “but there’s something special about the pueblo”. Even for this passionate socialist, there is no better place to find solidarity than in rural, tradition-steeped, family oriented Cerro Chato.


What these stories—and countless others—have in common is that Montevideo is the place canarios go first and foremost to be serious. “Una ciudad de trámites, Montevideo is synonymous with paperwork, whether it’s to start a non-profit, register for classes, or rent an apartment. For students, I noticed the stereotype that they are always studying while in the city. Being there means getting things done that help you get ahead. When you’re back home is when you can relax, be with family, and help out on the ranch. This corroborates my overall impression of Montevideo as the grey city, where fun, spending money, and leisure are secondary concerns, and where nightlife on Sundays through Thursdays is rather dead. Yet despite the extreme cognitive dissonance in the journey and the destination, my friends’ lives exhibit a fluidity I admire greatly that’s facilitated by excellent public transport, and like so many other things in Uruguay, small-scale.


Much has been made about how rural life is visible elsewhere in urban Latin America. The great industrial cities of 20th century Brazil were built by the cheap migrant labour of nordestinos. In Rio de Janeiro, these migrants from the Northeast would gather in their spare time at the great market, Feira do São Cristóvão, sharing their native food and music. This feira is now presented a must-see in tourist guides, and academia has extensively documented how the industrialization and modernization of Brazil is so intricately tied with these migration flows. Even today, this phenomenon continues. Grêmio, one of two giant clubs in Rio Grande do Sul—the state that borders Uruguay—built a new 55,000-seat stadium in 2012. A whopping 80% of the construction workers came from out-of-state, mostly from the Northeast. On site, the jerseys of nordestino clubs like Bahia and Vitoria clashed with the ubiquitous light blue of Grêmio. The rare domestically-led large-scale infrastructure project in Uruguay has no such geographically disadvantaged underclass to draw upon, thanks to the historical prevalence of equality, and population growth figures as minimal as many European nations.


Slums next to freeways and fancy new arenas are a much more common sight in Brazil than Uruguay. This stadium was built mostly by migrant labour from the Northeast. Arena Do Grêmio, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil


In Mexico, that the rural poor come to state capitals and Mexico City for work has been a well-known fact for centuries. The great cities of the Mesoamerican empires had their regional and ethnic quarters much like the Old City of Jerusalem. When I lived in Oaxaca in 2012, this multiethnic indigenopolis was readily apparent in the city’s artistic, culinary, and touristic offerings. For example, I would regularly eat my tacos al pastor at a taquería run by Mixes from the mountainous east. In Argentina, Buenos Aires is chock full of empanderías tucumanas y salteñas, and the Feria de Mataderos touted in guidebooks is a weekly commodified exhibition of rural life brought to the metropolis. But in Uruguay, a unitary and homogenous state with no explicit regions per se, the representation of the interior in Montevideo is hard to find unless you know where, and how to look.


Cuisine from Tucumán for sale at the Feria de Mataderos, Buenos Aires, Argentina.


At first glance, you probably won’t even realize there’s an interior. Even in Montevideo, all roads lead to Montevideo. This is both a benefit and drawback of the lack of freeways. In terms of signage, there’s almost no indication that other places exist. The city is built on peninsulas, but sometimes you feel it might as well be an island. In a country full of pragmatists, if necessity resides in Montevideo, and leisure resides on the beach, then montevideanos have no reason to go inland. And most of them don’t. Their attitude towards the interior is not one of disdain, but benign ignorance. If I have nothing to gain from going there, and don’t know anyone there, why should I go? Talking to montevideanos about my ambitions to discover the interior, I noticed they sensed mythical qualities in this great beyond. Even the way they said the word interiooooor, with an elongated o made it sound almost spooky.


Perhaps the most obvious spot to notice the country in the city is the Monumento al Gaucho in the middle of Av. 18 de Julio. José Luis Zorrilla de San Martín’s 1927 bronze sculpture of a gaucho on horseback contrasts with the modernist black glass edifice behind it that houses MIDES, the Ministry of Social Development, coincidentally a Frenteamplista creation that has done a lot to bring social services to the interior. But this monument is mere historical artifact.


Monumento al Gaucho, and headquarters of MIDES, Centro, Montevideo.


For real time events, ExpoPrado is the place to be if you’re looking for the highest concentration of boinas in Montevideo. It’s the highlight of the year on the social calendar of well-heeled canarios and any kind of productor rural. In a country where precision is often found wanting, the Expo is a nice change. Proceedings follow a stricter schedule, and signs with details to satisfy the nosiest of breeders accompany the animals on display. There are separate pavilions for bovines, ovines, equines, swines, birds and rabbits, all of them with exquisite columns designed in 1913 by Catalan architect Gaietá Buïgas, famous for his Monumento a Colón in Barcelona. At the Rural del Prado, even the animals deserve quality architecture.


The bovine pavillion at Rural del Prado, Prado, Montevideo.


Blue ribbons for a New Zealand rabbit at ExpoPrado, Uruguay’s equivalent of a state fair.


In an election year, political discourse also brought touches of the interior into the city, and at less than two months from the general election, the ExpoPrado was by no means immune to the frenzy. While campaigning is banned inside the grounds, immediately outside the gates I am reminded that the Frente Amplio is courting the rural vote that had long eluded them. A life-size cutout features a man in gaucho costume; only his poncho is red and features the flag of the FA. The text below reads “El Gaucho del Frente”. Outside the nation’s largest agricultural expo is exactly the place to target your desired rural demographic.


The ironic image of a rural socialist is further compounded by what lies down the block. A banner hanging between telephone wires shows the logo of a Lacalle Pou list, a black woman, and the words “Somos Vos, Somos Tu Voz” (We are you. We are your voice), a clever rhetorical device that only works in Rioplatense Spanish. At face value, this is funny because the Blancos are literally the White Party, but also because historically, Afro-Uruguayans have tended to vote for the Colorados and now the FA, aligning themselves with other non-Spanish immigrant groups against the party of nativist undertones. In a tight race, any device to court possible voters beyond your base becomes a necessary effort.


“Gaucho del Frente”


“Somos Vos. Somos Tu Voz”. The “White Party” courting the black vote?


Just above the Rambla at the end of Calle Juan Manuel Blanes is a large wall is painted with the words “8 hs para el trabajador rural. Uruguay no se detiene” (8 hours for the rural laborer. Uruguay doesn’t stop), and the logos of the Frente Amplio, and Pepe Mujica’s list 609. This artistic political expression is a stark reminder of how it was the urban party and not the rural party who enacted the 2008 law that marked a profound shift in rural labor relations.


“8 hours for the rural laborer. Uruguay doesn’t stop”. Parque Rodó, Montevideo.


But the mostly likely reference to rural Uruguay you will find in Montevideo’s public sphere has to do directly with La Cuchilla. Aratirí is not just the issue du jour in a few small towns, but a matter of national importance. The possibility of iron mining is highly controversial and has generated countless op-eds from leading columnists. But compared to the signs along Ruta 7, the discourse in Montevideo is more about scale, and less about land rights and maintaining traditional livelihoods. In the city, Aratirí graffiti is everywhere. In fact, the only words more common in the streetscape are Manya and Bolso, the nicknames of Peñarol and Nacional.


In multiple instances, Aratirí is linked with a regasification plant to be built in the bay. “Ni Aratirí, Ni Gasificadora” reads the wall outside Unicom, a computer hardware importer in Cordón. Tagged onto a construction site in Parque Rodó are the words Contra Aratirí y Todos los Megaproyectos (against Aratirí and all megaprojects). The overwhelming message here is that large scale-projects are un-Uruguayan. The interior may be anonymous to most montevideanos, but it is still a battleground for the country’s struggles with and against the world. Ironic in all of this is that Mújica, the darling of socialists world over is in favor of this endeavor of private foreign capital, while the supposedly more neoliberal parties oppose it on the grounds that it disrupts rural tradition.




Anti-Aratirí graffiti, Montevideo.

At Liceo Impulso, David introduces me to a colleague with the mannerisms and accent of a lifelong montevideana. The exchange that follows—like how I learned the story of the Agencia Turismar in Tupambaé while talking to a repatriated German-Uruguayan at Bar Bremen—illustrates how Cerro Chato is sometimes closer to the capital than you think.

“So are you also working in Montevideo?” she asks me.

“No, I’m just in town for a couple days. I’m living in a pueblito several hours up Ruta 7.”

“Which pueblito?”

“Cerro Chato. Do you know it?”

“En serio!? Mirá! That’s where some of my family is from. Please say hi to my cousins to the Silveras!”

“Which Silveras? Half the town is called Silvera!”

“The ones who live by the agroveterinaria”

“Dale. Un gusto. A las ordenes”


Carolina is getting ready to start her first year at the Facultad de Medicina. Coming from Cerro Chato, she needs a place to live. As an excellent student, she has the chance to live in the hogar estudiantil for students from Treinta y Tres Department. But demand is high, and space is limited to sixty students, so she’s anxiously awaiting the decision. These hogares are a hallmark of young canarios life in the city, and more than anything they speak to the government’s ability to enable urban-rural connections in the pastoral city-state. Top students from the interior already getting a free education paid for by the national government get their room and board paid for by the Intendencia of their home department. For kids like Carolina, hogares are a way of adapting to the city with a preexisting support network of people you already know.


But not everyone lives in hogares. Many, such as her cousin Florencia the raidista, have the luxury of staying in apartments of extended family, or owned by their parents. Others less fortunate will live in pensiones, and given the cost of living in the capital, this can cause a vicious financial cycle. More than once, I met people who took weekend jobs so they could pay their kids’ rent in the capital. There is still a prevailing attitude amongst many canarios that while public university may be free, the hidden costs that come with distance from home are a huge barrier for kids without connection to the city.



Hogares estudiantiles for students from Treinta y Tres and Artigas Departments living in Montevideo.


The first thing that welcomes many college-bound canarios is a guidebook directed just for them. The primary author of the Guía Para Estudiantes del Interior is not the university, but MIDES. Matías Rodríguez, director of INJU (the National Youth Institute, a wing of MIDES) writes in the guide’s prologue that MIDES’ “principal objective [in the guide] is to help you and integrate you to the city, for you to know it better, and be and feel more a part of it”. The ministry is encouraging bright students to make the most of the city, and by extension, be abiding members of the state.


Guide (of Montevideo) for students from the interior.


Our next musical interlude speaks directly to this phenomenon of rural students adapting to the city. The acoustic guitar duo Larbanois Carrero plays in front of a rock organ, bass and drums.

SONG: Larbanois Carrero – Exilios:

He came from the North at the beginning of autumn

Looking for a place at university

He was an adolescent, not much more than a kid


He went to live at a pension of students

Integrating in the great legion of canarios in the capital


Everything scared him, the city weighed on him

More than once he prepared to return

He needed the fire, the kiss of home



Weekend hopes in the encomienda [care package]

That alleviated a bit the distance and the anxiety

And the opportune letter that comes

To give him strength to continue


He said goodbye to his student notebooks

Without finding what to do in the city

The unease and disenchantment

Pushed him towards being one more exile


But he still resists moving

Dreams wasted in the missteps of his gait

Because despite all the sorrows

He wants to keep growing in his place


In the winter of 2015, one such exílio made national headlines. 22-year old José Ignacio Lucas Cortondo hails from Arévalo, a town of a couple hundred people 30 miles up a dirt road from Tupambaé. After four years of studying in the capital, he felt encaged (enjaulado). Receiving his degree meant bajando a Montevideo on Ruta 7. He did so not in the Turismar or Nuñez, or even a family automobile, but on the back of his late grandfather’s mare and two other horses. On his two-week trek, he spent lots of time with hospitable folk along Ruta 7 who shared stories of caudillos past, and provided warmth and shelter for his livestock. The story received national attention, and by the time he reached Plaza Independencia to pay homage to Artigas, camera crews were waiting, and bystanders gave him a round of applause. With his father and uncle waving the national flag along with the flag of Cerro Largo, José Ignacio accepted his degree in agriculture and livestock management wearing the birrete, toga, and poncho of the gaucho underneath his academic gown.


José Ignacio is not the only student used to the freedom of the campo that feels enjaulado in Montevideo. But if you do stay in the city come Friday nights, there are ways to get out of the cage. Maria del Huerto invited me to dances put on by her class at the Faculty of Agroveterinary Medicine, an institution predictably dominated by canarios. Agrovets look sexy in boots and overalls, are versed in all kinds of anatomy, so they must be worth pursuing on the dance floor. Unfortunately, I was never in Montevideo the weekends these dances were happening.


It was mid-December, and my last weekend in Montevideo. Raid season was over, but I still needed my tropical fix. Gabriel, who studies at the Facultad de Arquitectura, invited me to come to El Rancho, a club I’d heard many stories about, and I couldn’t turn down one last chance to hear Chacho Ramos. Boliche “agro” is colloquial term for a club whose clientele, music, and names are decidedly rural. There is a fascinating lineage of these establishments, and El Rancho is the biggest and newest. But what they all have in common is the intention of bringing the music and nightlife of the interior to the city, and specifically to cater to students who want a familiar environment. As humor magazine MiráVo describes it, boliches “agro” are embassies for the legs of tired students to show off their Level 5 PhD of cumbia plena 2×1.

My initiation into El Rancho couldn’t have been more jarring. I’d just come from a basketball game and a literary festival, two very montevideano activities. But more so, I accidentally entered the wrong club first. I went in the building that said El Rancho on the outside and was due to meet Gabriel and his friends on the second floor balcony. I was immediately thrown off by the lack of familiar music and dress. After about five minutes of texting back and forth (“I’m on the second floor balcony, and you?”) we finally pieced together that we were in different places. I rushed out 200 pesos shorter, and made my way to the other side of the building, entered, and hurried upstairs to find Gabriel cracking up, “You went to the other club, 2AM, jajajajaja”.


Embarassment and laughter behind us, we settle into the evening. At about 2:30, a folklore group from Tacuarembó took the stage. We run into other folks we know from Cerro Chato. This really does feel like a reunion of exilios. After the two guitarists finish, there’s no sign of Chacho, and a DJ plays Lucas Sugo while we drink whisky from highballs and nervously eye groups of co-eds. Because this is the city, and a bar geared towards university students, the social status of the clientele is more limited than in a raid, but the same laid back nature and music persist.


The long awaited act arrives at sunrise as Chacho and his band take the stage directly in front of the Rambla and Playa Ramirez. This was perhaps the most beautiful moment of the year, where country and city, sea and land, day and night, friends and strangers align. Chacho welcomes us with a cumbia-fied rendition of a Zitarrosa classic, Pa’l que se va, the perfect song for a group of ambitious canarios in the city. The word pago has nothing to do with payment, but is a Rioplatense word that means both home and “neck of the woods”.[1]

SONG: Alfredo Zitarrosa—Pa’l que se va


Don’t forget the pago

If you go to the city

The farther you go

The more you must remember

Certain there are many things

That can be forgotten

But some are just things

Don’t throw out in your bags

What you’re not going to use

The road is longer

For those who are burdened

Now that you’re young

And already work so hard

Don’t ever change your path

Even if you don’t have anything to smoke

And you feel sad when you look back

Don’t forget that the road

Is for those who come and go


Chacho follows this tribute with a rousing yet calming rendition of his signature tune Hablale y Dile (enjoy the accordion riffs!), and then yells out names of places across the interior, including Cerro Chato, upon which my friends and me give a huge holler! He asks the audience for anyone from frontera to put their palmas arriba. The fine folks from Artigas, Rivera, and Cerro Largo oblige, and Chacho and his band grab their attention by changing the lyrics to Portuguese and the beat to polka and xote. All is well at the edge of the middle.


Chacho on Montevideo’s Rambla at Sunrise.


The voyages, trans-spatial lives, and cultural practices that come with the pastoral city-state are so different from Oregon or anywhere else I’m familiar with. I would bet a case of pinot noir that the following ideas have hardly crossed Oregonians minds:

-A dorm at U of O or OSU for kids from Curry County paid for by the county government? Even before the timber crisis?

-A club that plays the traditional music of rural Oregon, bringing in artists from across the state?

-Bus schedules that people have memorized in collective consciousness, let alone buses in the first place?

Upon closer examination, what is very pragmatic in Uruguay seems nonsensical in a different environment. This illustrates how Uruguay is decidedly defined by an urban-rural relationship that is both dichotomy and synergy. Montevideo is so universally urban, and the interior is so universally pastoral, yet there’s not a third suburban strand present in Uruguayan culture and demographics that blends and balances both the other elements. For a canario, Montevideo and a pueblo in the interior profundo are points in an infinite plane where time and distance hardly really matter. One’s existence is defined by this spatial reality, and the extent to which the two worlds collide is contingent on one’s background and ambitions.


Over the course of 2014, I became this existence. With each time I came to the city, I felt less and less like a gringo, and more and more like a canario. My montevideano friends took note. “Samu sos recriollo. Hablás medio gaucho”, people would tease, making fun of my adopted accent. In Uruguay, the world creole doesn’t just imply native, but is more closely associated with the shielded interior than the immigrant city of gringos y gallegos. Ada is one of the finest sopranos I’ve ever sung with. She lived in Guichón in Paysandú Department until she was 10 before moving to the city, and thus knows a thing or two about life in pueblitos. She was highly amused by my choice of words to describe ‘kids’ “mirá Samuel como dice gurises, que gracioso”.


There are a lot of linguistic ticks that distinguish city from country, but the word gurí is my favorite. In my first two months in Montevideo, if someone was referring to a kid, they would say chico, chiquilín, or botija. Sitting in my first meeting in the liceo in Tupambaé, I kept hearing this word over and over that made no sense. In the more elided speech of the interior, I couldn’t pinpoint where it fell in a sentence. But given the setting and context, I finally surmised that gurí (m.), gurisa (f.), and gurises (pl.) meant boy, girl, and kids respectively. Here’s to the brave guríses who make both city and country their home.


[1] For another example of context, the motto of Treinta y Tres Department is El Pago Mas Oriental. There are multiple meanings going on. 1) Treinta y Tres is located at the eastern end of Uruguay, 2) it was named after the 33 Orientales, and 3) it is very proud of its outsized contribution to patriotism.


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