Updated: Oct 7, 2020
My dear Uruguayans, here I lovingly describe the unique essence I see in you...
The employee who works in the women’s locker room at the local club does so much more than formally greet everyone who comes in to suit up for their workout. She addresses each of us by our first names. She talks to us, about our lives as well as her own. She helps elderly and disabled members change clothes and then personally ensures they arrive safely to their class.
She once said she doesn’t call these moments work: she calls them part of having a day that matters.
To me, Veronica is characteristically uruguaya. Uruguayans are polite, direct, considerate and hospitable. They also view giving the same in return as a matter of common courtesy. Regardless of their origins or present circumstances, the uruguayos I know interact with each other and everyone else as if they were equals. As it should be.
As of October 3, 2020, I have lived in this beautiful country for three years (I am originally from California). During this time, I have met and gotten to know many Uruguayans who have generously shared their culture, perspectives and ways of thinking. Many who have moved here from elsewhere have affirmed the beautiful and endearing qualities they see in this small, quiet, green corner of South America.
The Uruguayans I know are of every age and come from every background imaginable: young and elderly, wealthy and struggling, highly educated and street smart. Some I run into in town or see during English lessons, and others have become close friends. Despite the marked differences in their lives, every one I have met feels a connection to their fellow uruguayos.
Each of them has the desire to understand different perspectives, a keen sense of fairness and a collaborative spirit.
Those who have the means are well travelled and deeply curious about other cultures. It is said that Uruguayans tend to look toward new horizons because half of the country faces outward along its Atlantic coast and the River Plate. Places the people I know have visited include India, China, Japan, and Azerbaijan as well as European countries. One of my former English students was a surfer who spent six months in Indonesia.
In addition to looking outward, they look to each other for inspiration and new ideas. This is evident in the Geopolitical Group I joined here almost two years ago. Every Friday since May we have been meeting on Zoom (due to the pandemic). During our meetings, which are devotedly organized by volunteers, speakers from Uruguay and other countries give presentations and lead discussions on current events. The group’s membership is mostly comprised of retirees (at 52, I am the youngest member).
Depending on the topic, discussions can lead to animated debates. Despite the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that exist among us, I have never witnessed an untoward or disrespectful exchange of opinions. In fact, most of these geopolitical discussions culminate in a discussion about fairness, both on the global stage and in every day life.
What do they think fairness in daily life looks like? To my friend Natalia, fairness is evident in the existence of a certain property tax, whose proceeds go to providing hot meals to public school children. To my student Teresa, fairness is a matter of mutual respect, the teaching of which she believes needs to be revived throughout the public school curriculum. All education worth its salt, she asserts, begins here.
The above examples represent thoughts and concrete steps taken toward manifesting ideals. In Uruguay there is as much economic, cultural and educational disparity as almost anywhere – especially with the current economic situation worldwide. In the department of Maldonado where I live, vast wealth (both inherited and earned) exists a stone’s throw from young people who juggle bowling pins and wash car windows at stoplights for cash.
Nonetheless, I feel people care deeply about rectifying these disparities for everyone’s sake. Take for instance the Uruguayan teenagers to whom I have taught English and who come from relatively privileged backgrounds. They are not spoiled kids as may have at first crossed your mind. They do chores at home, are grateful, well mannered, culturally aware, and particularly enthusiastic about contributing positively to the country they will inherit.
The 6th graders I had the good fortune to work with as a substitute teacher at a wonderful school in the neighborhood were, in my experience, unusually collaborative. For example, when one child struggled with answering a question of mine to him, his fellow classmates called out answers – which they directed to him, not to me. They were more concerned about their classmate’s success than my approval. As it should be.
As a foreigner and North American, what I have described are some of the positive attributes I see, the pretty threads that stand out as part of the fabric of Uruguayan life. Of course, much more is woven into it than meets the eye. And it takes listening to locals to make you stand back and appreciate the whole swatch.
There is Nathan, the friend who one day said something to me seemingly out of context (I was shopping at the market he works at), but squarely on point. That something was this: “You should do something related to conflict dynamics, right here in Uruguay.” He continued, “For the most part, people here don’t have the tools to resolve or manage personal conflicts. It’s something we need.”
Strangely, at that very moment he said this, I had been internally and quietly contemplating something along those lines. Although I am not in any way an expert in conflict dynamics, I thought maybe I could facilitate a broad, ongoing conversation here and beyond by bringing diverse minds together. This is what I will try to do, anyhow.
Compared to many other places at this moment in time, I feel a sense of promise here – confidence that civil society will endure and progress. The people I have gotten to know listen to other points of view with an open mind and earnestly engage in discussion. They do so in hopes that everything will eventually become more fair. They want to collaborate on solutions although, like all of us, they are struggling with how best to do so.
This is what inspired Hemispheric Fit.
The names of anyone mentioned in my blog posts have been changed to protect their privacy.