42 Poorly Kept Secrets About Montevideo
1. Old people.
They spend the whole afternoon on this park bench, watching the water leap in the blue-tiled fountain. They strike up a conversation with you in an instant. Their anecdotes grow to epic proportions, spanning decades, their voices overlapping like a fugue. By the time sunset glows pink behind the Ferris Wheel of Parque Rodó, you are like family.
2. Empty factories.
The buildings are desolate but they take up great space: large, silent, riddled with broken windows.
Green, hot, bitter. Sucked from a gourd through a metal straw. The family on the stoop, the couple on the beach, the man washing his car—they carry their thermos, pass the gourd, pouring boiled water over green leaves, over and over again.
4. The city.
It contains one million people. By far the largest city in Uruguay.
5. The river.
El Río de la Plata was named after the silver that conquistadores thought they were about to find. The water is not silver; it is brown and thick with silt. It snakes against the city, wide as the sea.
“El sur también existe.” (The south also exists.)
“Que se jodan los Yanquis.” (Fuck the Yankees.)
“¡Viva Tabaré!” (Long live [leftist president] Tabaré!)
7. Poorly kept secrets.
Poorly because no one keeps them from the world. Secret because the world cannot know what it does not see.
Montevideo can be found on many. South of Brazil, east of Argentina, hovering at the Atlantic. A capital city, drawn with a star.
9. Morcilla dulce.
Sweet blood sausage is a delicacy: a blend of walnuts, sugar, orange peel, pig’s blood.
Bull testicles are a delicacy: small, flavorful, no part is wasted.
11. Empty space.
The land around Montevideo is flat, gentle, green. There are no steep cliffs, no winding caves, no thick-knit jungles. This simplified the task of genocide: when Spaniards came, the Charrúa people had no place to hide.
The man behind the counter was raised to run this shop. He has been wrapping hunks of gorgonzola for fifty seven years. He ties each one, carefully, with a pale blue string. He knew his customers’ grandparents: what they ate, what they drank, and how often.
Youth press into the narrow booths at cybers, chainsmoking as they pull up page after page of the worldwide web. Rock bands, chat rooms, movies from the U.S. Looking forward. Looking outward. Looking out.
A balding man will approach your car as you back into a space. He will wave his hand to let you know when you have room behind you. He will signal when you are close to the curb. In exchange for this assistance, he will wait for you to get out of your car and hand him a few pesos. You will not ask, and he will not tell you, whether he was once a doctor, an accountant, or an engineer.
Next to birthday and wedding versions, goodbye cards are for sale: greeting cards designed for loved ones who leave Uruguay with one-way tickets.
Some weddings in Montevideo serve both dinner and breakfast, since the party often lasts well past dawn.
The gourd makes another round, from hand to hand.
Conventional wisdom confirms that ice cream aids digestion. A healthy serving is indicated after dinner. Ice cream comes in brick-shaped boxes and is sliced with a knife. Or it is dolloped at late-night parlors in high scoops, a tonic in a cone.
At 5 o’clock every afternoon, the hoofs of hungry horses ring against the cobblestones and asphalt. Carts creak in from the cantegriles: shirtless men and barefoot children, scanning for garbage bags to carry home, to be pick through for food and other finds.
The first ones arose in swamps outside of town. Now they press against the edges of the city: rows and rows of cardboard-and-tin homes, spreading outward, crammed with people, garbage, horses, laundry, dirt, life.
In the early 1900s, Uruguay was famous for its near-socialist state. An eight-hour workday. Public schools. Votes for women before the U.S.A.
The green sprigs are a cornerstone of Uruguayan cooking. They also make a tea that induces abortion. Women pin them to their shirts to protest laws that keep abortion illegal.
In the 1800s, a large black population lived enslaved. Many died fighting the war against Paraguay. They had been promised freedom in exchange for their military service.
88 % of uruguayos are of European descent. 8 % have some indigenous ancestry. 4% are Black — except this latter number slips and slides to 8%, to 10%, depending on who’s reporting, how they collect the data, how they ask.
Trapdoors open on flat roofs. Women climb out of their homes, balancing laundry baskets at their hips. Clotheslines and plant pots fill the little rooftop patios, private spaces in full view.
Tomato salad is a plate of sliced tomatoes. Carrot salad is a pile of shredded carrot. Vinegar and oil must be requested. Mayonnaise is likely within reach.
Served with beef, chicken, toast, and boiled potatoes; tossed in rice, salad, anything else tossable. Mayonnaise goes with everything except sweets.
28. Dulce de leche.
All sweets are served with dulce de leche. It is the mayonnaise of the dessert world.
Clownish paint lights up men’s faces. In jester-suits, to piccolos and high-pitched drums, they belt out this year’s murgas. They mock politicians, flaunt their wit, and mime their takes on current events. A grinning hero from the not-yet-privatized phone company. A youth with a suitcase, back turned to his mother, boarding a plane.
30. The longest carnaval in the world.
Though not, of course, the most dramatic. Only the most unrushed, and the most prolonged.
Sixty drummers gather in the street. They set newspapers on fire in the gutter, and tip drums toward them to tighten their skins. Women of all ages shift from heel to heel, dancing already. The music starts: pounding, polyrhythmic, African. Shaking the people out of their homes to follow this open-air rehearsal through the barrio.
The gourd makes another round, from hand to hand.
33. The naming.
“I see a mountain”, the Portuguese sailor yelled, the first European to spy this land from his ship. I see a mountain: Monte vide eo.
34. El Cerro.
El Cerro, the mountain after which the city was named, is low and subtle, the shape of a fried egg.
35. Chivito canadiense.
Canadian-style chivito, though few (if any) have ever been spied in Canada. Contains the following: bun; mayonnaise; steak; cheese; ham; a fried egg; bacon; more mayonnaise; the other side of the bun. A favorite at late-night chiviterías. Served with fries.
A woman stands on her high-rise balcony, smoking. She watches a neighbor emerge onto the street below. The neighbor smiles and waves; the woman is careful to keep her mouth closed as she smiles back. Before she joined the Tupamaros and took up guns for the revolution, she’d had the prettiest smile in her high school. Since then, fourteen years in prison took half her teeth.
In affluent Punta Gorda, select basements were used as torture chambers during the dictatorship. Sound-proofing lined the bottoms of generals’ homes. They were trained by a former Indiana police chief, courtesy of the C.I.A.
The mall at Punta Carretas features Gap, Radio Shack, a range of products far out of reach for most montevideanos. It is built on the renovated grounds of the prison where political prisoners were held.
The bodies of disappeared people from both sides of the river (Argentina, Uruguay) have decomposed into its waters.
Every year, on February 2, the beach becomes a temple for Iemanja, the Yoruba goddess of the sea. Everybody comes: umbandistas with their boats adorned with cakes, flowers, and other offerings; children in torn clothes, selling candles for two pesos each; TV cameramen, panning across the throng; droves of skeptics who light candles and say furtive prayers at the waves.
41. A las brazas.
Meat roasts over hot embers: a slow and tender heat. A man rakes and turns the orange coals. There are hours left before the beef and chorizos will be ready to eat. Meanwhile, there is this: pure flesh cooking, the warm scent of animal life.
42. La Rambla.
Walking along the shore of the city is free. All you need is a thermos, a gourd of mate, and a pair of willing legs. At sunset, at midnight, at three a.m., the cream-and-wine-colored bricks of La Rambla welcome those who tread them, and never rush anyone away. The stars glint above, and the city behind; depending on the moon, even the river may sparkle with light.
Gionni Ponce (Nonfiction Editor): In an email exchange with de Robertis, she writes, “It’s incredible to reread this and see how much Uruguay has changed! First trimester abortions are now legal, youth aren’t fleeing abroad like they were, the internet is on people’s phones. And yet, so much stays the same.” It’s important to note such differences when sharing pieces from the archives in order to give places in our essays the space they need to grow. Our cities and homes and rivers change, but essays like “42 Poorly Kept Secrets About Montevideo” can act as a time capsule from our past, reflecting aspects of our present and future.
Since this publication, de Robertis has gone on to have a very successful career. We’re proud to have been one of the first to publish her and to feature Latina writers.
This piece appeared in Indiana Review 28.1 in Summer 2006.
Carolina De Robertis is the author of the novels The Gods of Tango, Perla, and the international bestseller The Invisible Mountain. Her books have been translated into seventeen languages, and garnered a Stonewall Book Award, Italy’s Rhegium Julii Prize, and numerous other awards. She is also an award-winning translator of Spanish-language literature, and editor of the anthology Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times. In 2017, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts named De Robertis on its 100 List of “people, organizations, and movements that are shaping the future of culture.” She teaches fiction and literary translation at San Francisco State University, and lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children. Her fourth novel, Cantoras, is forthcoming in September 2019.