Uruguay Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Uruguay is unique amongst Latin American nations in several ways. In this lesson, we'll talk about the ethnic groups of Uruguay, and see what diversity has meant in this nation.


Does size matter? Not to everyone. The nation of Uruguay is the second-smallest nation of South America, but don't let that fool you because they are also one of the most stable nations of Latin America. It is also one of the only countries in which all citizens have constant access to clean water, and has one of the highest rates of education in the continent.

However, it's not like everything is perfect. Like many Latin American nations Uruguay spent years under a dictatorship in the mid 20th century, but the nation does boast high scores on most development indicators. It's worth noting that this development has thrived in the absence of ethnic conflicts that make politics much more complex in other nations. Size may not matter, but population might be significant.


Amerindian Ethnicity in Uruguay

We're going to start with the statistically smallest populations in Uruguay, and go from there. In many nations of Latin America, ethnic struggles have existed between governments and Amerindian citizens who often lack full political representation. Uruguay does not have this problem. It's not because Uruguay is better at granting a political voice to its Amerindian citizens, it's because so few are left.

What is now Uruguay was traditionally home to the Charrúa people. The Charrúa were largely decimated by Spanish colonialism, but several communities survived and continue to fight.

Today, very few people in Uruguay still identify as Charrua

The Charrúa became targets of violence once again in 1831, when Uruguay's president, Fructuoso Rivera, ordered the massacre of the Charrúa's most influential chiefs, as well as many other leaders. Many remaining Charrúa fled the nation, and those who remained faced substantial pressure to abandon their culture and adopt white Uruguayan practices. So, Uruguay has almost no people of purely Charrúa heritage today, and the nation has struggled with deciding how best to reconcile this tragedy in their past.

Uruguayans of African Descent

With so few Charrúa, Uruguay's main ethnic minority are people of African descent. About 4% of Uruguayans identify as either black or mulatto, of mixed African/European ancestry. The difference between these terms is important. With such a small Amerindian population, Uruguay's national identity is highly rooted in its European heritage. We'll come back to that idea in a minute. This means, however, that there is some social pressure to identify with some European ancestry.

Uruguayans who identify as mulatto tend to be seen more as part of the nation, while those who identify as black are sometimes viewed more as the heirs of immigrants from Brazil or the Caribbean, places where pride in black identity is stronger.

Mestizos in Uruguay

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Uruguay's ethnic composition is another minority group, the mestizos, or people of mixed European/Amerindian ancestry. Throughout the majority of Latin America, mestizos have been historically elevated as the most 'authentic' citizens of the nation because they represent both sides of the nation's past. So, in most Latin American nations mestizos are a sizeable majority. However, in Uruguay they make up only 8% of the total population.

Why? Well, pressures on the surviving Charrúa in the 19th century to assimilate may have discouraged the development of a strong mestizo national identity. The simple fact that most Charrúa either fled the nation or were killed also meant that in terms of pure numbers, Uruguay had less chances for a strong mestizo group to develop.

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