MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — I didn’t travel to Uruguay to see a revolution.

Angela Cesere
Carnaval musicians heat their drums in front of a fire before a parade in Punta del Este. (Photos by Gabe Edelson, Page Design By Alison Go)
Angela Cesere
A young girl eats a snack (bottom) near a shelter in the impoverished neighborhood of El Cerro on the outskirts of Montevideo.

I didn’t plan on watching a house in an impoverished neighborhood burn to the ground in a matter of minutes, its former residents walking away from the scene in tears. I wasn’t expecting to meet the U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay either. Celebrating Carnaval and befriending an up-and-coming South American rocker-slash-painter also failed to make my pretrip itinerary.

The real reason for my spending a week and a half in this beautiful yet troubled country — sandwiched tightly between Brazil and Argentina — was the University’s Hillel and Hillel Uruguay’s collaborative Alternative Spring Break effort. The endeavor, which stretched from Feb. 24 to March 7, combined the Ann Arbor-based Hillel program “Jewish Perspectives on Globalization” with the Uruguayan “Programa de Justicia Social” or Social Justice Program. The trip’s aim was to volunteer in Jewish and non-Jewish communities racked by economic hardship stemming from a series of social and financial shocks over the past five-plus years.

But ultimately, the stated humanitarian goals made up just a part of an unforgettable and eye-opening experience. After all, sometimes it’s the unexpected that makes the most indelible mark.

 

A Reason for Hope

Three and a half million people live in Uruguay, and it seemed to me that all of them packed the streets of the capital, Montevideo, through the day and night of March 1. Thousands of red, white and blue partisan flags waved in the air, mixing with the celebratory shouts and songs from optimistic mouths.

The occasion? A historic change of government was taking place. The flags surrounding me were those of the triumphant Socialist “Frente Amplio” Broad Front Party, whose presidential candidate, Tabaré Vazquez, was elected last October and was sworn in during the afternoon as Uruguay’s first-ever leftist leader in its nearly 180 years of independence. Previously, the government had been headed by conservative regimes, with sporadic stints of military dictatorship thrown in for good measure.

Ché Guevara’s face was plastered on flags, T-shirts, signs and posters. Banners read, “Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel!” — drawing comparisons to the Communist island in the Caribbean. I was especially moved by the giant words “Lenin vive!!” (“Lenin lives!!”) scrawled across a high wall on a main street near the city center.

An open-air rock concert blared into the early morning hours as I moshed with revelers who were excited for change.

In talking to Uruguayans in Spanish and English, I came to understand that nobody knew exactly what to expect from the new administration. But for the time being, most everybody hoped for an improvement from the life they had grown accustomed to. A life where, despite recent encouraging economic growth, inflation ran rampant from 1998 until the last year or so. A life where, a mere two years ago, nearly one-third of all Uruguayans — and more than half of all children under six — were living in poverty, according to Hillel Uruguay’s statistics.

Many of these people, I realized, had nothing but optimism for a brighter future. And on March 1, if only for a day, that hope rested squarely on the shoulders of Tabaré Vazquez.

It may not have been Lenin’s total deconstruction of the system or Castro’s violent coup — though a sporting goods store across the street from my group’s hotel was broken into and robbed around four o’clock in the morning — but it was a revolution nonetheless. Those of us who were there knew it was history in the making.

 

Back to Work

Three and a half million people live in Uruguay, and it seemed to me that all of them packed the streets of the capital, Montevideo, through the day and night of March 1. Thousands of red, white and blue partisan flags waved in the air, mixing with the celebratory shouts and songs from optimistic mouths.

The occasion? A historic change of government was taking place. The flags surrounding me were those of the triumphant Socialist “Frente Amplio” Broad Front Party, whose presidential candidate, Tabaré Vazquez, was elected last October and was sworn in during the afternoon as Uruguay’s first-ever leftist leader in its nearly 180 years of independence. Previously, the government had been headed by conservative regimes, with sporadic stints of military dictatorship thrown in for good measure.

Ché Guevara’s face was plastered on flags, T-shirts, signs and posters. Banners read, “Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel!” — drawing comparisons to the Communist island in the Caribbean. I was especially moved by the giant words “Lenin vive!!” (“Lenin lives!!”) scrawled across a high wall on a main street near the city center.

An open-air rock concert blared into the early morning hours as I moshed with revelers who were excited for change.

In talking to Uruguayans in Spanish and English, I came to understand that nobody knew exactly what to expect from the new administration. But for the time being, most everybody hoped for an improvement from the life they had grown accustomed to. A life where, despite recent encouraging economic growth, inflation ran rampant from 1998 until the last year or so. A life where, a mere two years ago, nearly one-third of all Uruguayans — and more than half of all children under six — were living in poverty, according to Hillel Uruguay’s statistics.

Many of these people, I realized, had nothing but optimism for a brighter future. And on March 1, if only for a day, that hope rested squarely on the shoulders of Tabaré Vazquez.

It may not have been Lenin’s total deconstruction of the system or Castro’s violent coup — though a sporting goods store across the street from my group’s hotel was broken into and robbed around four o’clock in the morning — but it was a revolution nonetheless. Those of us who were there knew it was history in the making.

 

The Renaissance Man

El Cerro wasn’t the only locale at which my group volunteered. We also spent two days at the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Montevideo. Some students painted murals in the courtyard to spruce up the aging building, while others painted and re-upholstered chairs for the facility’s beauty salon.

The task sounded easy enough, but the circumstances surrounding the residents’ situations were quite difficult. Because of the economic setbacks that have plagued Latin America in recent years, many families in Uruguay became unable to look after their older parents and grandparents. As a last resort, in many cases, the seniors became inhabitants of the retirement community. Some were happy to be there. Others weren’t as pleased. One man whom I talked with expressed sadness at the financial impossibility of visiting his daughter and three grandchildren in Miami, yet he still received visits from his other daughter and grandchildren in Montevideo. That man was relatively lucky when compared with the many residents who aren’t visited at all by relatives or friends.

It was heartwarming to spend time with these unfortunate individuals. All they seemed to want was a smile, an eager ear and a pleasant greeting. I like to think that we brought happiness to them for a time, albeit a brief one.

The complex’s courtyard is where I met Diego Drexler, whose mural design would be implemented on several discolored white walls around the edges of the enclosed area. Almost immediately, it was made known to me that Diego’s older brother, Jorge, had made history just two days earlier in becoming the first Uruguayan to win an Academy Award — he had taken home an Oscar for the theme song to “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which he composed.

I found Diego to be affably reserved and open to criticism and new ideas from the group of students concerning the mural’s design. He was also tremendously talented and multi-faceted, as I would discover. Diego isn’t a full-time painter and artist; he’s actually the lead singer and guitar player for Cursi, an emerging alternative rock band that plays in front of raucous crowds. Cursi’s newest album, “Corazón de Hotel,” instantly became a popular souvenir for members of the trip. We even took in a show around three in the morning, when Cursi held the stage at Almodobar, a club in downtown Montevideo.

Let’s see what we’ve got: a revolution, a house fire, and a rock star. But we weren’t done yet.

 

Timing is Everything

My group was also fortunate enough to arrange a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Martin Silverstein in the American Embassy. Silverstein discussed Uruguayan politics, family, and what it was like to lead a life in the foreign service. I found his easy manner and flowing speech impressive and his insight into the Uruguayan situation both revealing and candid.

We stepped back into local culture with several parades in honor of Carnaval, which was underway throughout the trip. Add in the fact that the Argentine national soccer team was on our plane from Buenos Aires to Washington for the second of our three flights home, and the journey can be summed up in four words: Right place, right time.

 

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