All year long, I couldn’t avoid this man with sideburns, combed back hair and a pointy nose. His name and image were more present than any other in the public sphere. A quick perusal at the shelves of a Montevideo bookstore will reveal more tomes on this man than any other human, dead or alive. Don José is symbolic of his nation, not because of his supposed bravery or ideas, but because of his place in the world. Uruguay’s most recognized individual had almost no bearing on world history outside the paisito, and few people abroad have heard of him. For example, Wikipedias in languages as widely spoken as Japanese, Farsi, and Thai don’t even have a page for him. Courses on Independence movements in Latin America in North American universities are likely to gloss over him in favor of Bolívar, San Martín and Morelos.
Statue of Artigas in Mercedes, with the Artigas flag, the national flag, the flag of the 33 Orientales, and the departmental flag of Soriano
In a fabricated buffer state without Gods or kings, the state must give citizens heroes to believe in, and in Uruguay, the omnipresent busts of handsome Artigas play this role with aplomb. In the words of Juan Rial, “The constant historic commemoration of the Artiguist cult accentuates the independence of the Uruguayan, its difference, and at the same time, a myth of equality, confused with democracy imposed by way of consensus”. Historian Jaime Yaffé adds that the historical confusion around who Artigas was makes him more flexible in the construction of this myth. “When Artigas was placed as the father of the nation, the country was living amidst civil wars between Blancos and Colorados and the state needed identifying elements that would supersede the divisions of the time”. Historian Carlos Demasi states that role of Artigas as maximum hero came in 1910, as diplomatic conflict with Argentina coincided with the centenary of one of his great battles, “Reclaiming the figure of Artigas also implied the reclaiming of rivalry with Argentina”. In other words, it’s not what Artigas did that makes him so special, but the need for a figure to convince the nation that it has a reason to continue existing independent of internal divisions and external pressures. Thus, Artigas has the distinction of being both the national personification (i.e. Marianne or Lady Liberty), and the founding father.
Protector of the Free People, High School in Cerro Chato
As the father of a nation, the way Artigas presides over Uruguayan public life is closer to Kim Il-Sung or Atatürk than George Washington. Perhaps Rial is right to use the word cult. Artigas’ bust surrounded by the words “Jefe de los Orientales”, “Protector de los Pueblos Libres” greets you at the entrance to the high school in Cerro Chato. In the junta of Cerro Largo, a framed photo of the hero in his later years below an inscription of his famous quote, “para mi nada más lisonjero que los pueblos expresen su voluntad” presides over democratic deliberations. On a plaza in the interior, chances are the statue in the middle is of him. Indeed, the centerpiece of the most important plaza in Montevideo—and by extension the country—is his mausoleum, where every Friday at noon, there is a military ceremony paying “homenaje al prócer” (homage to the hero). Until 2011, all Uruguayan coins featured the number amount on one side, and the profile of Artigas on the other (The latest line has opted for native fauna instead).
The hero presides over a meeting about rural affairs in Melo
Artigas’ name pops up all across the public sector. The state-owned central railway station is named after him, and the IPA, where so many of my friends were trained as teachers stands for the Artigas Institute of Teachers. Even private businesses use the hero to great effect. The bus company EGA, which is one of the few Uruguayan lines with successful international routes, stands for Empresa General Artigas, despite the fact that it was started over a century after his death. The general on horseback makes the ultimate military hero of the conservative dictatorship, yet even the most hardline communist faction (PCR) of the FA has the Artigas flag next to the hammer and sickle on their website. Demasi jokes about the many faces of Artigas, that “there are books where he’s feminist, pro-indigenous, environmentalist, and everything”. In a highly secular country, people of all ideologies try to claim him as their deity, something aided by his historiographic malleability.
The Blandengues de Artigas regiment perform their weekly Friday noon homage to the hero at Artigas’ mausoleum on Montevideo’s main square, Plaza Independencia
SONG: El Cuarteto de Nos—El Día Que Artigas Se Emborrachó
He got drunk!
because he lost the war
He got drunk!
because someone betrayed him
He got drunk!
and the fatherland thanked him
Artigas’ universality does not mean he has been immune to criticism. As you may have noticed, El Cuarteto de Nos likes to take the piss out of things. Using wordplay from famous Artigas quotes that lead to lyrics describing the hero’s drunken exploits like “that day he got ten girls pregnant, got married to his cousin who was half retarted, the quartet’s 1996 song “The Day Artigas Got Drunk” takes the cake of sacrilege. Responding to his critics, lead singer Roberto Musso claims he wrote it to demystify the teachings of Artigas he received growing up in the dictatorship. Ironically, amidst the cult of democracy for which Artigas is the greatest symbol, this has been the only song subject to censorship in post-dictatorship Uruguay. The Ministry of Education and Culture denounced it for defaming the national hero and took it to court, but the prosecutor annulled the case, as the song wasn’t committing any crime. Nevertheless, the INAU (the body of MIDES in charge of protecting the rights of minors) made it illegal to buy the disc it appeared on if you were under 18.
EGA bus company stands for Empresa General Artigas, Punta del Este
As this musical controversy shows, it’s not like saying anything mean about Artigas will get you jail time, much less you and your entire family beheaded. When I asked a friend about whether there are any anti-defamation laws regarding Artigas, the response I got was “I haven’t thought about that. I guess they just teach us in school that he’s the prócer and we leave it at that”. My observation from the Liceos is that kids learn about Artigas by rote. There’s a series of facts and dates, and “ya ‘ta”. Don José is simply there, almost taken for granted, so deeply woven into public life on the Eastern Bank.
Promoting the 250th anniversary of Artigas’ baptism, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo
Uruguayans can debate endlessly about the minutiae of his life and legacy, and different strands of society will continue molding his image to fit their arguments. But despite all this talk, Artigas himself is a victim of the mercadito interno. He hasn’t been commercialized or commodified like Abe Lincoln or Che Guevara. You’re not going to find shirts with his image in shops, and no locations associated with his life have been turned into expensive tourist sites. While outsiders come to Paris to see the city of Napoleon, Delhi to see the city of Mughals, and Philadelphia to see the city of American independence, few are those who come to Montevideo to see the city of Artigas.
General Artigas Central Station, Montevideo