First black member of parliament, undersecretary and interim minister of industry and energy, champion of Afro-Uruguayan culture—those are Edgardo Ortuño’s historic achievements in a country where the marginalization of Afro-descendants, comprising approximately 10 percent of Uruguay’s population, remains a major challenge.1
Ortuño, 45, who grew up in a working- class neighborhood in Montevideo, leveraged his years of student activism and teaching to become a champion of human rights and racial equality. By 29, he was elected to Parliament as a member of the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA).
Two years before graduating from the Artigas Teachers Institute, where Ortuño was studying to become a history teacher, his parents separated and his sister took over the household while his mother worked as a maid. Halfway through his university career, he began to teach and never looked back, refusing to be discouraged by racism. Although his election to parliament in 2000—and his subsequent election as a national deputy in 2005—made headlines, he had already shown a dedication to civil service as a political activist—first as a student delegate of his class and later in the Federación de Estudiantes de Secundaria (Federation of Secondary School Students—FES).
In the immediate aftermath of Uruguay’s 12-year dictatorship, Ortuño was one of many fighting for student transit subsidies, human rights, justice, and the liberation of political prisoners. He rallied against the Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensión Punitiva del Estado (Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Claims of the State), a 1986 amnesty law that barred the Uruguayan military from prosecution for dictatorship- era abuses, which was later overturned in 2011.
Ortuño says it took time for him to develop a black consciousness.1 After being elected deputy, activists demanded to know whether he would just be a black politician, or a real voice for Afro-Uruguayan rights. Ortuño didn’t hesitate: he chose the latter. He is the author of the 2006 Ley del Candombe (Candombe Law), which established a national holiday honoring the Afro-Uruguayan tradition of Candombe drumming on December 3— the same day that military authorities condemned the historic Conventillo Mediomundo, an important Afro-Uruguayan cultural center, to destruction in 1978. Ortuño’s growing political stature earned him a cabinet position.
Today, Ortuño is president of the Casa de la Cultura Afrouruguaya, a cultural center that promotes racial equality. One of its initiatives, a multimedia campaign called Borremos el Racismo del Lenguaje (Let’s Erase Racism from the Language), featured videos of prominent Uruguayans calling for the Real Academia Española to remove racist expressions from its standard dictionary. Ortuño says that the Afro-Uruguayan community is still “under construction.” By building solidarity for an agenda of social transformation, Afro-Uruguayans, he believes, can take their rightful place in society. As he puts it, “Changing the rules will change the course of history.”