A study by the World Bank shows Afro-Uruguayans are victims of racism, are being excluded and earn much less than the rest of the country.

Uruguayan Olympic athlete Deborah Rodriguez says she has been subjected to racial slurs for as long as she can remember.
Uruguayan Olympic athlete Deborah Rodriguez says she has been subjected to racial slurs for as long as she can remember. (AFP)

Deborah Rodriguez has sprinted down a track that shimmered under a downpour; running is a refuge for the athlete in Uruguay, where her dark skin makes life difficult outside of sport.

The South American 800 metre champion said she has been subjected to racial slurs for as long as she can remember.

"All my life I've had to deal with that," said Rodriguez.

Uruguay has long been held up as an example to the rest of Latin America, scoring lowest on inequality and poverty ratings, and having one of the best social inclusion statistics in the region.

However, people of African descent, the largest ethnic-racial minority, accounting for at least eight percent of the population, according to the latest census, are victims of casual racism and "are more likely to be excluded," a recent World Bank study said.

Poverty among black Uruguayans is twice the national rate at 20 percent, the study showed.

They also earn an average 11 percent less than the rest of the 3.45 million population for the same work, and are 20.7 percent less likely to complete secondary education.

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"Extremely racist"

Uruguay is home to Manchester United football star Edinson Cavani, who recently caused outrage for using a Spanish term for black people deemed a racial slur in Britain, saying it was intended as an affectionate greeting to a friend.

In Uruguay and much of Latin America it is used as a term of endearment, regardless of skin color.

Amanda Diaz, head of the Department of Afro-descendants at the Ministry for Social Development, said that despite social strides as a nation, equality in Uruguay is a myth.

Uruguay is "extremely racist" and uses the "idea of we are all equal" to hide it, she said.

Being black "has a negative connotation," and that is why people of African descent are believed to be under-represented in the national statistics, said Diaz.

"When it comes to defining oneself, if one can get away with it, one does so... That eight percent is certainly 12 or 14 percent."

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Back to her roots 

Until a few months ago, Rodriguez wore her hair straight, but she now sports tight curls under a headband.

"I needed to cut my hair because I need to return to my origins, to return to my identity," the 28-year-old said. "I've been getting my hair straightened since I was 12" in order to fit in.

Romina di Bartolomeo, 29, also spent years striving to fit in with the demands of the fashion industry, straightening her hair to fit conventional beauty standards.

"The situations of racism that I experienced in fashion were related to my physical appearance: my curls, my features, my skin color," said Di Bartolomeo.

The model hosts a weekend radio program dedicated to "la plena," a style of tropical music. Its Afro-Latino rhythm is often mocked, she said.

Pablo Perez, a former basketball player who now earns his living looking after cars for ti ps in Montevideo's city center, said he doesn't pay too much attention to people's motives.

"It's not racism," he said.

"Maybe they see you differently... Some people respect you as you are, others look at you sideways. I was never damaged by it," he said.

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 "Weight of slavery"

According to German Freire, a specialist in social development at the World Bank, Afro-Uruguayans have almost no role models in professional positions.

"If you are an Afro boy, it is difficult for you to get your role models in order to project yourself into the future in management, in academia, in politics," he said.

"It's easier in football, there your path is more or less predetermined for you."

It took Uruguay almost two centuries to elect a person of African descent, in 2005. The country's first black senator, Gloria Rodriguez, was elected only this year.

Despite progress towards equality, the senator from the ruling National Party believes Uruguay is far from closing the gap.

"We already have hard-won rights. Now, we have to fulfill them. Even today, we are carrying the weight of slavery on our shoulders."

When Uruguay abolished slavery in 1842, almost a century after the arrival of the first slaves, traders still slipped them into the country from neighboring Brazil.

Until the mid-19th century, 30 percent of Montevideo's population was African or of African descent, according to historians.

Rodriguez said she is longing for the day when, as a Uruguayan senator, she can talk about racism "in terms of the past" and not the present.

Source: AFP