First, I heard screams and thunderous applause from down the hall. Moments later, I saw it for myself… Santiago Bueno drilled a penalty kick past the keeper to give Uruguay a victory over Portugal and a birth in the semifinal match of the U-20 FIFA World Cup. Within seconds, those listening via the radio in their cars caught word of the final result and a fury of horns blared outside the window of the Montevideo apartment, waking up anyone in the city who hadn’t elected to wake up at 6:00 AM for the match.
It was early for a Sunday morning, and these were just amateurs – 18 and 19 years old – playing nearly 20,000 kilometers away in Seoul, South Korea. Nonetheless, in Uruguay fútbol is king and there are few things that bring Uruguayans more pride than the Celeste. This pride exists with good reason, as Uruguay consistently ranks among the elites internationally despite having a population of just 3 million inhabitants.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Uruguay is somewhat buried between giants – Brazil and Argentina – but I’ve come to recognize that there is a unique sense of pride shared among Uruguayans that I can only describe as something between affectionate self-deprecation and “having a chip on their shoulder.”
Uruguayans really do have a lot to be proud of, and I can sympathize with the frustration they feel for being referred to as “Argentina’s little brother.”
Students always ask me what US Americans think about Uruguay, and they’re generally pretty disappointed when I tell them that the vast majority of “us” really don’t think about Uruguay much, and that Americans know little if anything about Uruguay. (Hopefully this blog is at least making a dent!)
On the other hand they light up when I tell them that I love their country! ¿Te gustó Rivera? (“Have you enjoyed Rivera?”) More than anything I praise its’ people in my response, who have made me feel welcome from day one. From there I touch on all the staples: asado, mate, the countryside-feel and beautiful scenery this city provides, and of course, dulce de leche.
Speaking of dulce de leche, this past week I visited Confitería Metropolitana, where I purchased Postre Rivelí, a nationally-beloved dessert produced only in Rivera. The name for this unbelievable cake, which traditionally comes filled with dulce de leche, meringue and peaches, comes from the “twin cities” nearest its’ birthplace: Rive from Rivera (Uruguay) and lí from Livramento (Brazil).
Daniel, my host dad, was the one who introduced me to this delicacy, and while it it is incredibly delicious (read: unreal) I think part of Riverenses’ love for this treat stems from the fact that it is theirs. It’s made right here, just down the street, in a bakery that couldn’t fit more than 5-6 customers at one time because it’s so small.
Students and teachers, friends and strangers love sharing local and national treasures with me and I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy learning about Rivera and Uruguay. Another example came this past weekend when Sandra and Daniel brought me to La Fortaleza General Artigas located atop the Cerro de Montevideo.
It was brisk (low 40’s Fahrenheit) and there was a bite to the wind due to the elevation, but the spectacular views of Montevideo and its’ impressive port on the Río de la Plata made it worth the trip! The fort’s museum gave me the chance to touch up on my knowledge of Uruguayan heroes and history. It was the fort’s namesake – General José Gervasio Artigas – who led a successful revolution against the Spanish in the early 19th century.
Artigas established La Liga Federal in roughly 1815, a nation comprised of eastern Argentina, southern Paraguay, southwestern Brazil, and all of Uruguay, although the union didn’t last long. When the Portuguese invaded years later, a new group – the Thirty-Three Orientals – fought back and gained control, declaring independence for Uruguay on August 25, 1825. There’s your history lesson for the day… (Hey Diego, how’d I do?)
I couldn’t help but laugh when we visited the fort’s jail. As you can see picture below, the mannequin prisoner is drinking mate. That’s classic nice guy, Uruguay. We’re going to keep you locked up in a dark, damp, confined space, but at least they’ll let you sip on yerba while you suffer.
Today, the rivalry between Uruguay and Argentina is strong. Who has the better dulce de leche? Who has better fútbol?
Uruguayans are quick to point out that their country is more stable and less corrupt than that of their Argentine neighbors, and I’ve been conditioned to think of Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) in a certain way.
For example, I once heard this joke told in Uruguay:
How can you spot an Argentinian spy?
He’ll be the one wearing a sign on his back that says, “Best Spy in the World.”
My point for is this: Uruguayans have nothing but love for their roots, their country, their heritage. In Spanish, you can combine all these ideas into one simple concept: la patria. Following the dramatic victory over Portugal, you better believe Uruguayans sung their praises via the National Anthem: ¡Orientales, la Patria ó la tumba! “The homeland or the grave!”
Reflecting upon the idea of la patria, has made me think a lot about my own patria, the United States. For the record, the United States also played in the U-20 World Cup Quarterfinals on Sunday, falling to Venezuela 2-1… but I’m sure you knew that already considering how popular soccer is back home.
Students always ask me to name the biggest differences between life in Uruguay and Minnesota, and in reality, it’s gotten more and more difficult to do. Obviously there are many differences (like the fact that we prefer football, basketball and baseball to soccer), but if I just list these somewhat trivial differences then I miss the opportunity to tell them that we’re really not all that different. With some minor exceptions, my life in Uruguay is quite similar to my life in Minnesota and I want my students to recognize that we are far more alike than we are different.
On the flip side part of my job is to share elements from American culture and for this reason I sometimes find myself walking a fine line. My job requires a bit of diplomacy, and I work really hard to paint an accurate picture of the United States, Minnesota and Wisconsin in particular. After all, some of these kids may never talk to a US American again!
I have really enjoyed working with the high school students and the questions they have asked me have really made me think. What is school like in the United States? What are some typical foods from the United States? What’s it like to live in the United States? Is everything more expensive in the United States? Is there poverty in the USA? Is everyone rich in the United States?
I ask you, then, to think about how would you answer those questions. With regards to the last question, I always tell students that the average salary in the USA is much higher than the average salary in Uruguay. However, US Americans pay thousands of dollars for universities whereas in Uruguay tertiary education is paid for by the national government.
Likewise the cost of products fluctuates tremendously in the two countries. A iPhone 7 (32GB) costs roughly $650 in the United States, but here in Uruguay the same phone sells for more than double the cost. Little by little I try to emphasize that it’s really difficult – and potentially problematic – to make broad generalizations about an entire country.
Far and away, the most common question I receive from students is this:
“What do you think about your President?”
How would you answer that question diplomatically in 30 seconds or less to a class of 15 year-olds? That’s not a rhetorical question… I’m really curious to hear how you would handle that situation. I’m asked about President Trump on a daily basis, I’d love for you to step into my shoes and share with me how you would respond to the above question. Email me (email@example.com) your thoughts, and do keep in mind you should use language that could be understood by a beginning English learner.
One final question students always ask me is this: “Do you miss your country?” It’s a simple question, but one that is quite difficult to answer. Do I miss being able to spend time with family and friends? Yes. Do I miss being in the United States? Not necessarily!
That’s my answer! I enjoy the same freedoms here and it hardly feels as though I’m in a different country anymore. We have lots to be proud of in the United States, and I have nothing but love for mi patria, but for now I’m loving life in Uruguay.
A las ordenes.