Charruas, Santa Barbara and . . . Tango?

By Jheri

     Lisbeth Bosshart was the Common Ground 191 soil collector in Uruguay. Her parents were put in charge of the shipping. She collected her contribution from the ground in the capital city, Montevideo, in the area of the Cerro de Montevideo, the hill across the bay from the city. Although its top reaches an elevation close to 400 ft., the Cerro of Montevideo does not seem very tall from far away. Many buildings can be seen on it, neighborhoods of mostly European immigrants from Spain, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Armenia and many others who came here during World War I and II.

The Cerro of Montevideo

     It is speculated that someone during Magellan’s expedition (1520) called the area monte vidi, or that a Portuguese captain referred to the area of Montevideo as being the place where he had video (seen) a monte (hill; cerro). So today we see the city on one side of the bay and the cerro looking at it from across the bay. But the Cerro of Montevideo is not a tourist site. It is a poor area.

     Before the arrival of the 14th century Europeans, this hill was significant, perhaps even sacred, to the aboriginal inhabitants of the area, the Charruas, a hunter-gathering people who selected elevated places in which to bury their dead. These ancient people interred their dead with reverence and ritual. Family members often inflicted physical torture on themselves. Weapons and other personal items accompanied the deceased’s journey to the other world. Horses were sacrificed above their master’s tomb.

Museo Militar Fortaleza General Artigas

     As is the story on most of the surface of the earth, Uruguay has its history of warfare, bloodshed, political conflicts and economic fluctuations. In 1808 the last military construction of the colonial period was built on top of the Cerro. Called the Museo Militar Fortaleza General Artigas (Fortress General Artigas Military Museum), it was not originally intended to do anything other than protect the lighthouse on the site. But today the museum houses a collection of rifles and weaponry, with murals depicting Uruguay’s history on the walls. And then, overseeing these armaments, stands the patroness of artillery, the Blessed Santa Barbara. Also patron saint of those murdered, her symbol is a cannon.

* * *

     The Oriental Republic of Uruguay is in the south of South America, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean between Argentina and Brazil. It is slightly smaller than the state of Washington. Suriname is the smallest South American country, followed by Uruguay. Three-quarters of its land is grassland, ideal for raising cattle and sheep. Uruguay’s generally well-to-do economy features an export-oriented agriculture, a well-educated workforce, and high levels of social spending. After a brief recent downturn, the economy was expected to resume growth in 2004.

     With a population of 3.5 million, Uruguay contains one of South America’s most interesting capitals, charming colonial towns, the hilly interior (true gaucho country) and a cluster of internationally renowned beach resorts. It has impressive artistic and literary traditions with international acclaim going to artist Pedro Figari, writer Jose Enrique Rodo and playwright Mauricio Rosencof.

     Speaking of artistic traditions, the people of Uruguay insist that Tango, the dance of beautiful women in tight dresses, elegant men, and sensual movements, was born in their country. People in Argentina disagree. But Tango is also known as the dance of “River Plate Blues”, heavier and sadder, and this is the original Uruguayan Tango.

     Tango music and dance is more than 100 years old, the first song composed in 1886. La Cumparsita*, the hymn of Tango, was written in 1917. The lyrics in Tango songs always deal with life problems—jealous women swearing revenge on men who betrayed them; abandoned men yelling for lost love. Hate, passion and madness predominate in lyrics about lost hopes, broken lives. But the power of Tango lies in transforming all those existential problems into pure energy and joy in living. This highly stylized dance was originally considered dirty, not suitable for the upper classes. Tango is never danced alone, and honest women were not supposed to dance Tango, therefore men danced with other men to practice for their late night adventures. In the 1920’s Tango became socially acceptable and conquered all the dance halls. But the 40’s were the “Golden Decade” of Tango where Tango was in Uruguay, Argentina, the U.S. and everywhere.

     * . . . The masked parade of endless miseries promenades around that sick being that soon will die of sorrow . . .I keep the love I had for you . . . who knows, if you knew that I never forgot you, returning to your past, you would remember me . . .

     We will remember Uruguay, a complex country, by including of the soil of the Cerro of Montevideo into the composite Common Ground 191 fresco. We will remember its history, the Charruas, its artillery museum, art, Santa Barbara, and . . . Tango.








All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved