In the centre of the city of Montevideo is Plaza Independencia. The plaza is dominated by a statue of Jose Gervasio Artigas. Most people consider him be the founding father of Uruguay. As my new Uruguayan friend Alberto described it to me, Artigas is an important part of Uruguay’s mythology. That is, his story is important to the cultural identity of Uruguay.
Artigas fought for independence from Spain, and then from Argentina, and then from Spain again. Although he was exiled from Uruguay one year before the country gained independence in 1828, he is considered the father of the country because of his visionary leadership and because of the way people followed him and took up the cause of an independent Uruguay along with him.
There was no statue of Artigas in the plaza until the 1970’s. It was Uruguay’s dictatorship that decided to place his statue in the centre of the city. This is confusing. You can imagine that the Uruguay that Artigas fought for and the Uruguay that the dictatorship had in mind were totally different things. Artigas wanted independent states and freedom, and the dictatorship wanted centralized power and control. So why did they place that statue so many years after Artigas had been exiled and after Uruguay had signed its own constitution?
It is about stories, just like almost everything else. The dictatorship needed Uruguay’s national story. It needed to unite the people around the historical figures and the mythology that would make people feel like the dictatorship had the best interests of the citizens in mind. The dictatorship had to give the impression that it wanted the same things that Artigas did. Since Artigas had been dead for over 100 years, it was kind of hard for anybody to argue. All they knew was the legend of Artigas, and he was such a well liked figure, a legend, really, that the dictatorship knew it could use his popularity to their advantage.
So, the dictatorship placed his statue in the middle of the Plaza where it stands today. Unlike many other statues of historical figures, there are no words anywhere to be found either on or around the statue. There are no quotations from Artigas’s speeches to the people. There are no mottos or sayings that are attributed to the great leader. The dictatorship could not find one sentence or phrase that Artigas spoke that they thought was safe. The words of Artigas encouraged people to unite and work together to gain power and freedom. That, of course, was the last thing the dictatorship wanted the people to read about. After all, who knew what the people would do with those words? Words, after all, are unpredictable. They need to be interpreted by each individual reader. Controlling how a person experiences words is impossible. It doesn’t matter if the person is a dictator, a teacher, or anybody else. Words are wild things, and they can not be reigned in just because people are scared of their power.
The words of Artigas were deemed too dangerous for the people by the dictatorship of Uruguay in the 1970s. If you travel to Plaza Independencia in Montevideo today, you will see the really beautiful statue. You will see, carved into the base of the statue, pictures of people following Artigas through the countryside. However, you will not find any words. Words, in this case, were too dangerous.
Assignment 5: Write about one way you can thing of that words can be dangerous. You might give an example from your own life, or an example for the wider world. Be creative!