Excerpt from chapter on the journey from Montevideo into Uruguay’s interior profundo.
Despite it’s remoteness, Ruta 7 has not escaped Uruguayan musical consciousness. Jorge Nasser’s Ruta 7 is an ode to the road. The former leader of rock band Niquel describes this part of the country, beautifully and accurately, touching on the state of the road, the landscape, the history, the train, and even makes fun of the absurd town names Cerro Chato and Fraile Muerto. An opening guitar riff kicks us into gear like the Turismar leaving Tres Cruces.
Song: Jorge Nasser – Ruta 7
Ruta 7 snakes
through deep Uruguay
clean air, grass and sky
through the outskirts of the world
Just like my life
good parts bad parts
lots of heavy traffic
with lots of curves and speed bumps
Who flattened the hill?
Who killed that monk?
Who said that jacket
couldn’t be borrowed for the dance?
Little towns are accommodated
which cluster at the side
windows of innocence
desolate rock faces
These towns are where died
the last pulperías
where stayed owing
There are nine grade crossings
of a train that passed a long time ago
How lonely are the tracks
In the elbows of silence
It’s not for the weak to walk yourself
Ruta 7 meanders
You will sleep with Saint Peter
if you make the effort
Continuing up Nasser’s codos de silencio, “elbows of silence”, the next settlement of note is Illescas (pronounced ee-SHEH-ca). Illescas’ population of 121 quadrupled during a raid corto I went to in August. Like many other tiny towns in Uruguay, Illescas is a tale of two halves. On one side of the track is a main street with old houses, a few basic services, and a small church that makes glorious use of concrete. Before the race, there is a very animated cattle auction in the bar. But on the other side of the track is a more contemporary landscape. I’ve come to the race with my friend Silvina, because her dad is on police duty, and her brother-in-law is jockeying. There are a couple dozen white houses identically sized and evenly spaced. We pull up next to the house closest to the Ruta, which houses the town’s police office, and pick up the other officer working the race.
MAP: ILLESCAS GOOGLE AERIAL (A tale of two towns. MEVIR is in the upper right)
IMAGE: ILLESCAS CHURCH
IMAGE: ILLESCAS HIGH STREET DURING A RAID CORTO
IMAGE: CATTLE AUCTION DURING A RAID, ILLESCAS
IMAGE: ILLESCAS POLICE STATION IN A CASA MEVIR
IMAGE: THE SUNSET FROM ILLESCAS AS THE RACE EMPTIES
Uruguay’s little white houses on the prairie are called MEVIR (Movement for the Eradication of Insalubrious Rural Housing). The same Dr. Gallinal of carillon fame started the movement in 1967 to provide dignified living quarters to rural laborers. Today, you can find MEVIR in practically every town in Uruguay. MEVIR is a housing initiative that transcends the notion of housing. Unique in its nationwide reach, it has marked important shifts in settlement patterns, economic development, land tenure, social policy, architecture, the family, and the role of the state. As the countryside depopulates, people aren’t moving to Montevideo at nearly the rates as in much of the developing world, and the incentive of MEVIR is a big reason why.
MAP: MEVIR EXISITS ALL ACROSS THE ORIENTAL REPUBLIC (source: mevir.org.uy)
MEVIR is a demand driven, participatory mutual help scheme governed by a board appointed by MVOTMA (Ministry of Housing and Spatial Planning). A parastatal organization, it operates under private law using public resources. Families that qualify for a vivienda based on income and occupational thresholds put sweat equity into building the houses, with each family contributing an average of 96 hours per month over 18 months. Technicians supervise their labor, following an architect’s plans. Once the houses are finished, there is a sorteo (drawing) to find out which houses will belong to which families. The sorteo is an important community event, and a ceremony with music, flags, and dignitaries. Owning a casa MEVIR is a point of pride for a family, and additional functions at the MEVIR community center, such as dances and auctions are well attended across the socioeconomic spectrum. MEVIR’s influence on rural culture is strong enough that it even has its own magazine!
IMAGE: MEVIR IN NUEVA HELVECIA, COLONIA
The houses have double brick walls, are almost always painted white, bear number plaques with MEVIR’s logo, and are placed in the middle of each lot with open space on all four sides. Despite the unanimity, residents are allowed to add their own touches to the exterior and the landscaping. Up to 70 % of the cost is subsidized by the state’s FNV (National Housing Fund). Residents cover the remainder over the next 20 years, with payments adjusted annually based on salary. Once they’ve paid up, they are full owners. In 2009, only 5% of families defaulted. What’s perhaps most remarkable about MEVIR is its sustenance across partisan lines. Colorado, Blanco, and Frentista regimes, in both dictatorship and democracy, have been on board MEVIR since its inception.
IMAGE: SIGN FOR NEW MEVIR IN CASTELLANOS, CANELONES
After raid, MEVIR is the most important discovery I made in my time in Uruguay. It’s a quietly convincing and successful piece of policy. But despite MEVIR’s impact in Uruguay, it is barely documented outside the paisito. The only English-language analyses focus on legal and management issues, largely to the ignorance of geographic, architectural, and cultural ones. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Gallinal and architect Juan Pablo Terra, the outskirts of towns in rural Uruguay are nothing like trailer parks, slums, or Taylor Wimpey homes. Instead, the public sector provides quality housing, citizens work together to make it happen and gain valuable skills, the notions of neighborhood and access to services are paramount, and previously impoverished rural laborers have a direct path to property ownership. MEVIR has fundamentally changed the social and spatial fabric of rural Uruguay for the better, and it’s time the rest of the world learns about it.
IMAGE: THE PATIO OF SILVINA’S MEVIR, NICO PEREZ, FLORIDA