Montevideo is one of the quietest cities I’ve seen, but colourful events such as fairs, temporary food markets or street parades happen weekly.
In my neighbourhood people will meet once or twice per week in order to rehearse for the carnival parade. All members of the community, regardless of age and gender, participate. A group of young girls marches on the streets while performing a kind of synchronized dancing, followed by the group of musicians who play a type of big drums called tambores. Some people watch from their windows or balconies, but most of them go outside to see the performance, accompanied by kids and pets and always drinking mate.
The first African slaves bought to South America arrived in Uruguay. The black influence can be seen in manifestatations such as the candombe (described above) or the carnival. I believe that from this point of view Uruguay is similar to Brazil.
However, the carnival in Uruguay is a lot more varied than the one in Brazil. There are several isolated events that occur on different dates over the summer. It is considered the longest carnival in the world as it lasts for about 35 days (between the middle of January and the end of February). It has both European and African origins and it includes three sections: the musical-theatrical groups, the parades and the dances. Unlike all the other carnivals in the world, the uruguayan one can be compared to a huge theater festival.
The carnival starts with an inaugural ceremony (Desfile del Carnaval) where all the groups (murgas, comparsas, humorists), the queens and the sponsors of the carnival march on the main avenue. The crowds can also admire the alegorical carts. One day after all the samba schools march on the same avenue. This parade is the closest to the brazilian carnival.
About a week after the celebrations continue with the parade of the comparsas, known as the “Parade of callings” (“Desfile de llamadas”) where beautiful dancers march on the Isla de Flores Street, from the Palermo neighbourhood, on the hypnotic rhythm of the candombe. The spectacular clothes of the musicians are inspired by the traditional ones, but the girls wear glamourous revealing outfits similar to the ones seen during the brazilian carnival. The “comparsas” are formed of people that perform dances while accompanied by live music.
The last part consists of a competition between the musical-theatrical groups that occurs throughout February. This time the events don’t take place on the street, but in the Carnival Museum or in the Summer Theater. The actors are organized in “comparsas” or “murgas”, but there are also humorists and groups of variety thater (teatro de revista). For each type of performance there is elected a winning group.
The “murgas” are groups of 13 to 17 men or women, usually wearing the same suit, that interpret events that happened over the year and criticize them from a socio-political perspective. The choire is accompanied by a group of singers that play a rhythm called “marcha camion” that could be declared cultural heritage of the nation.
Considering the influence of the african culture in Uruguay I was disappointed to learn that the celebrations dedicated to the african Godess of the Sea, Iemanja, were imported from Brazil only a few years ago. However, the phenomenon had such a big impact that the municipality decided to build a statue of the pagan godess on the Rambla, which caused a lot of controversies.
One day a year most people gather on the Ramirez beach to bring offerings to her. I am sure that 95% of the people present are catholics, but they still embrace this cult once a year. There are several religious groups on the beach, dressed in white clothes, that perform ceremonial dances and rituals, as well as purification rituals and blessings for the people present there. Because the goddess was betrayed by her lover, you cannot ask for her help in love matters.
The offerings are similar to the ones I’ve seen in Copacabana in the New Year’s day. They bring candles, fruits, brushes and flowers and put them on small boats that they launch in the water. If the offerings return to the beach it means that the goddess did not receive the prayers. Most boats come back because of the currents. I believe this is why some choose to burry their offerings in the sand, creating an impressive view after the night falls. The view is not so nice the next morning, when you can see all the garbage that was left on the beach and in the water.
I was lucky to witness all these events that prove the cultural richness of the country. Although Uruguay is one of the smallest south-american countries, the influences from all over the world give birth to amazing traditions and to a socio-ethnical variety that make it unique.