MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- On Sunday nights, the drummers of Barrio Sur assemble by firelight at an intersection of this historic black neighborhood in a tranquil corner of South America.
Flames dance in a gutter bonfire lighted to tone the hides of the drums. Bottles of red wine change hands. Children cavort. Rows of drummers pound down the street in a blur of muscle, sweat and sound, filling the night with an African-derived rhythm known as "candombe."
"The drummers live here, or they used to live here and on Sundays they come back," says Ruben Rada, a heavyset musician and television personality who watches with the reserve of an elder statesman. "James Brown is different than Chuck Berry, right? Well, it's the same with the drums. Every neighborhood has a different beat."
The street-corner ritual is part of a neglected chapter of the African diaspora. The drums tell a story of the profound impact that African culture has had in Uruguay and elsewhere in Latin America. In fact, Afro-Uruguayans celebrate an often-ignored piece of history: The tango, a dance that was born in Uruguay and neighboring Argentina and is a centerpiece of South American culture, is believed to have African roots.
Throughout Latin America, black communities are asserting themselves after years of marginalization and seeming invisibility. In Brazil, where black and mixed-race people make up more than half the population, two breakthroughs are symptomatic: the election last year of the first black mayor of Sao Paulo and the appointment of Pele, the beloved former soccer star, as minister of sports.
Black minorities in other nations are making their presence felt. Voters in Colombia have recently elected to Congress politicians who emphasize their African heritage rather than deny it, as in the past. Blacks from Costa Rica to Peru to Uruguay are increasingly active in politics and new organizations that promote black culture.
"There is a re-emerging Afro-Latin consciousness," says James Early, director of cultural studies and communication at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "Past movements were based mainly on identity politics, a kind of archaeology of identity. Now there is more of a move toward political and educational access, protest of racism, access to capital."
The rise in activism results partly from economic and political stability, which allows societies to concern themselves with the disadvantaged and allows the disadvantaged to press their demands.
The progress of African-Americans in the United States also has exerted an influence on Afro-Latins, Early says: "There is so much from U.S. music, sociological images, e-mail, fax, CNN. There is a movement toward knowing each other."
In one of the few regional studies of its kind, the Inter-American Development Bank published an estimate in 1996 that as many as 150 million Latin Americans, about one-third of the region's total population, are descendants of African slaves. Other estimates are lower because many people of mixed race do not define themselves as black, according to the report.
Beginning in the 1500s, the slave trade brought as many as 6.6 million Africans to Latin America. After the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, African cultural influence remained especially strong in countries such as Cuba and Brazil, which have large black populations.
But many nations have yet to acknowledge the plight and contributions of blacks in the way they have recognized oppressed indigenous cultures.
"While the [500th anniversary] of Columbus' encounter resuscitated the Indian as mythical, there has been marked silence on the issue of blacks," the 1996 study concluded.
That void has existed in Uruguay and its larger neighbor to the west, Argentina, nations so similar that Uruguay has been described as a province of Argentina. The populations of both countries are descended mostly from Southern European, Jewish and Middle Eastern immigrants and once included considerable numbers of Africans.
Argentina's black population all but disappeared, decimated in the 1800s by yellow fever, intermarriage and massive military recruitment of blacks, who then died in wars. In Uruguay, people of African descent accounted for about half the population two centuries ago; they now number about 189,000 in a nation of 3 million.
Traditionally, Afro-Uruguayan culture received little attention -- inside or outside the country -- except during Carnaval, the pre-Lenten festival when costumed candombe drummers and dancers take to the streets.
Recent years, however, have brought an awakening. Books and academic conferences on racial themes proliferate. An outspoken black leader -- a former maid who has become a writer and activist -- ran for Congress in 1996 on the ruling Colorado Party ticket. This year, Rada, a musician and television star who still hangs out with the drummers in Barrio Sur, became hTC the first black actor in memory with a prominent role in a prime-time television series here.
And in a gesture of recognition, the capital, Montevideo, erected a waterfront statue of Yemanya, the goddess of the sea in the African-based Umbanda religion, which has adherents across the ethnic spectrum.
"There are more and more institutions devoted to African culture, some younger and with international connections, and others that are more traditional and conservative," says Ruben Galloza, 71, a painter and candombe composer in Barrio Sur.
Organizations such as Afro-Mundo, in which Galloza is active, have established bonds with other black communities in Latin America and the United States. The region has become a fertile field of study for U.S. experts on African-American culture. Although many Americans know very little about Uruguay, black scholars have shown keen interest, organizing academic conferences and specializing in themes such as the work of Afro-Uruguayan literary figures.
In contrast to Argentina, where dark-skinned people are referred to insultingly as "negros" (blacks), little Uruguay -- known as the Switzerland of South America -- prides itself on a history of prosperity, social welfare and tolerance. Unlike its conservative Roman Catholic and class-stratified neighbors, Uruguay legalized divorce long ago, welcomes political refugees and offers quality education to all.
That atmosphere has kept race conflict to a minimum. Many Afro-Uruguayans see no need for racial politics or alliances. A U.S. diplomat who organized a luncheon here for black women professionals, a minority within a minority, discovered to her surprise that many had never met.
But there are few black university graduates or government officials in Uruguay. Poor health, housing and job conditions are the result of paternalistic racism, according to Galloza.
"The racism is not direct as it was in the United States, where black people, upon being rejected, organized and became strong," Galloza says. "Blacks in the United States fought and demanded. In contrast, in Uruguay, we don't demand. We are dominated and allow ourselves to be dominated."
Pub Date: 5/02/98