Elections, Dulce de Leche, and Cat-Calls

Bethany and I have arrived in Uruguay, and we are beginning to acclimate. Tonight we fall asleep to the sounds of fireworks, as Uruguay’s primary election was today. (Results are in. An estimated 38% of the population voted in this primary, compared to 40% in the previous primary. Tabaré Vázquez won the primary for the ruling party, Frente Amplio — but I don’t yet understand the full significance of that, though I know his election posters featured him and his good friend Hugo Chavez.)

We arrived Friday, sleepy but excited and not as cold as we’d thought we’d be — it’s autumn here, similar to mid-October in Philadelphia and late November in Atlanta (my reference places). Leaves are falling, crunchy under our feet as we walk around la Ciudad Vieja (Old City) where we are living and el Centro, the city center nearby.

We are staying in a hostel of mostly young people. Tonight we celebrated Lorna’s birthday, singing to her in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, and Slovakian and feasting on a chocolate cake covered in dulce de leche — a regional specialty — and pomegranate tidbits. We are in a new place, but still in the international landing pad of ex-pats and travelers. My Spanish skills are the weakest of the three of us in our team, and I find it much easier to practice with others for whom Spanish is not a primary language — but I have managed to discuss abortion access as well other political issues and the finer points of Brazilian food with our lovely new friends.

Walking around, we see a city that contains multitudes: broken-down buildings next to, or even below, clean buildings with intricate metalwork balconies. Glass buildings shape parts of the skyline and plazas are scattered throughout the city, with green space and benches and water fountains and occasionally Wifi. One plaza has an art museum called Subte that displays art in an area under the plaza, entered by walking down what look like stairs to a subway. The museums here are mostly free; we have been to any yet, but we have lists of those we want to see.)

Bethany just popped in from brushing her teeth to ask me how old I am, reminding me that my birthday is in a matter of minutes. So far away from my family, I’m excited to celebrate here with these amazing Italian postres (desserts) we saw nearby and hopefully watching tango in this, the city where the tango was born. But tomorrow we also start work: we will be meeting with our field supervisor for the first time. In preparation, this evening Bethany and I took a nice walk to the office where we’ll meet; it’s about 2km away. There are two routes to walk, one on tree-shaded quiet streets where gentlemen told us with abandon what they thought of our looks and our bodies, another route on a well-lit and busy promenade where children played near their parents and everyone looked fairly relaxed. Truthfully, people look relatively relaxed everywhere we’ve been. This is fascinating to me.

Though it wasn’t part of my field work plan for my Survey Methods class, I received extra feedback on my survey today. A young man on hostel staff looked over my shoulder at my encuesta (survey) and asked about it, so I ran through it with him. He gave me pointers on pronunciation and some thoughts on word choice; previously I had pre-tested the encuesta in Spanish with native Spanish-speakers, but not with anyone fluent in Uruguayan Spanish, and shared the print encuesta with our field supervisor who gave written feedback.

I have been lucky to meet an Uruguayan knowledgeable about the political history of abortion laws in Uruguay. He told me about how the law was proposed six years ago, but the president at the time vetoed it — the first presidential veto in 25 years. When the law decriminalizing first-trimester abortion was up for a vote again under President Mujica, the current president, Mujica’s party — Frente Amplio — had 50 of the 99 parliamentary seats. If the party had consensed on its stance on the law, it would have had the power to pass the law it desired. However, the party was not unified on the topic, so — according to my informant — proponents of the law sought the votes of the other party. In order to get those votes, the bargain was that abortions would require a five-day waiting period following a counseling session with a gynecologist, social worker, and a mental health expert. (We knew the resulting policy, but we didn’t know the whole process.)

I promised to tell you all about Eduardo Galeano. My mother gave me a copy of his Open Veins of Latin America, a political and economic history of Latin America. Galeano is Uruguayan, though he spent I think twelve years of his life in political exile. According to Isabel Allende, Galeano knows more about Latin American history than anyone else, and so far I’m finding him to be a gripping and beautiful writer. I look forward to understanding more of the historical context of Uruguay, women’s rights, and public health and hopefully seeing him at a cafe and getting to chat with him.

In the next post, look forward to a report-back from our first in-person (non-Skype) meeting with our field supervisor!

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