Feature | A guide to the colonisation of my mother tongues




Literal translation / Closed hand

a. Ten in Charrúa.

b. Place both hands up, you come in peace, emptyhanded. Say, ‘Yú’ (pronounced shoo)—‘One’, and as you do, lower your left pinkie, go on. Now work your way through each finger from left to right; remember not to linger: sam, detí, betúm, betúm yú, betúm sam, betúm detí, betúm artasam, baquiú, until you reach guaroj. Now close your hands tight. Position them ready to fight. Feel the fury of your knuckles. Feel the pain of our struggles. For what you hold is worth tenfold. How many Charrúa words left? Around sixty-eight? In your palms lie ten. Not many Whites convicted for its theft … feel the weight? There’s value in a closed hand.


In 1492, Spain believed itself to have discovered the New World, as they referred to Abya Yala. Even in European terms this was not a discovery, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson having travelled through North America in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Archaeologists, historians and academics still dispute when Abya Yala was first inhabited. The earliest credible evidence of human presence—the footprints of children and teenagers at the White Sands National Park in New Mexico—has been carbon dated to between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago.

As the Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist Eduardo Galeano explains in The Open Veins of Latin America (1971), in 1492 Spain was heavily in debt, having been bankrupted by nearly eight centuries of Reconquista, the zealous xenophobia of which also informed the Spanish expansion of ‘God’s reign over the earth’.

Thus, three years after Columbus accidently stumbled onto Abya Yala, he started a military campaign; he baptised the natives of Haiti into ‘Española’ in an attempt to assimilate and or eliminate them. Before doing so, soldiers on this Requerimiento mission were obligated to read out, before a public notary, without an interpreter, the following:

If you do not, or if you maliciously delay in so doing, I certify that with God’s help I will advance powerfully against you and make war on you wherever and however I am able, and will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their majesties and take your women and children to be slaves, and as such I will sell and dispose of them as their majesties may order, and I will take your possessions and do you all the harm and damage that I can.

No wonder, today, Abya Yala’s filled with Christians, predominantly Catholics.

First European contact in Uruguay with its First Nations people, the macro-ethnic Charrúa group—Charrúa, Chaná, Güenoa-Minuane, Yaro, Bohán and Arachaná tribes and the Guaraní people—was around 1516 by Spanish explorer Juan Díaz de Solís. However, Díaz de Solís and all but one of his crew members were attacked, killed and eaten by Natives the moment they attempted to occupy our land. For over three hundred years, the Charrúa tribes and Guaraní people resisted and or integrated with European invasion. Some First Nations people even fought alongside Whites to liberate Uruguay from Spain and Portugal. But our war cries for the liberation of our motherland were in vain. On 11 April 1831, the newly founded government ordered its recently established military to imprison women, children and our elders, and to eliminate Indigenous nomadic peoples in Uruguay, via General Fructuoso Rivera’s Salsipuedes (Leave-if-you-can) campaign. The massacre took place in a site known as ‘Cueva del Tigre’ (The Tiger’s Cave)—on 15 December 2021 this location was finally acknowledged as a memorial ground, under the National Law 19641.

The only way to defeat First Nations people of Uruguay after three hundred years of resistance was to betray our people by inviting the chiefs of different tribes for a peace treaty feast with alcoholic drinks, and waiting to kill them once they were highly intoxicated. Soon after the betrayal, Charrúa mothers would be torn from their children’s embraces and placed into enslavement as house servants. Uruguayan records claim there were forty killings and three hundred imprisonments, but Charrúa oral history suggests many more were killed and enslaved, and even more fled.

Four Charrúa people—Senaqué (a chamán, or medicine man), Laureano Tacuabé (a warrior), Vaimaca Pirú (a young cacique, or chief) and María Micaela Guyunusa (Pirú’s pregnant lover)—were sold to a Frenchman, shipped to Paris in 1833, and exhibited in a public human zoo. After the massacre of Salsipuedes, the Charrúa identities were not even considered to exist anymore, despite the documentation in letters of the distribution of Charrúa tribes’ women and children and elders as commodities.

In the first national census of 1852, the only categories available to select under racial identity were Whites, Mulattoes, Blacks and foreigners. The original custodians of the land were not given the option to identify themselves, their egos taken from them like the children that were ripped from their mothers’ arms. Today in Uruguay, First Nation descendants are still waiting for the ratification of the ILO Convention 169 for Indigenous rights to be incorporated into the Uruguayan constitution.

In Identity and First Language Attrition: A Historical Approach, Professor Monika S Schmid interviewed thirty-five German Jews who had left Nazi Germany to permanently migrate to an English-speaking country between 1933 and 1939. In these intimate dialogues, Schmid measured and compared their native-language fluency. What she found through her research was that language erosion can be emotionally linked to experiences of extreme traumatisation and the severity of the trauma (in this case study, the persecution of an identity) to the point where native speakers subconsciously choose to stop speaking in their mother tongue in an attempt to acquire native-like dominance of their new language in order to better fit into their new environment, a neurological survival strategy. I think about how the Charrúa language was supressed by colonial violence to the point that fewer than seventy words were recorded by Mayor Dn Benito Silva in Boletín de Filología Vol. II N. 6-7 (1938). Blas Wilfredo Omar Jaime, the last speaker of Chaná, a macro-ethnic Charrúa group language, recounted that ‘they would cut off the tip of the tongues of the girls who spoke Chaná.’ It is evident that our past was hushed by bloodied White hands, just like our native tongues. Eduardo Galeano is often quoted saying:

En América todos tenemos algo de sangre Originaria, unos en las venas, otors en las manos.
In America we all have some Native blood, some in our veins, others in our hands.

I would add to this ‘And some have both’, because as my great-uncle Lucio use to say, ‘Those conquistadores couldn’t keep their hands off our women’. Those conquistadores killed our men (blood in their hands), then raped our women (blood in our veins), resulting in pregnancies (blood of both—like me).

Despite this history, schools in Uruguay teach their students that they’re mostly of European heritage. Recent research by Monica Sans, Professor in Biological Anthropology at Universidad de la República, Uruguay, has proven this to be inaccurate. Sans and her team have shown through their mitochondrial DNA sequences that over one third of the Uruguayan population is of Charrúa descent. In northern towns such as the Tacuarembó region and its surrounding cities, around sixty-four per cent of its population carries Indigenous bloodlines in their veins.

Additionally, Sans obtained data from maternity clinics in Uruguay that confirmed that nearly forty-two per cent of Uruguayan babies are born with Mongolian spots, which are most commonly found in babies of African and Asian heritage, which is another indicator of Charrúa ancestry through the Asian migrations to Abya Yala, as Amerindians came from Asia. I have a Mongolian spot on my left hip and my Afro-Indigenous Uruguayan husband has one on his right. When we make love or dance, our ancestors kiss. Once I read all this information, I looked at the blue veins running under my white skin and questioned how much of my identity has been whitewashed?

Three of my four grandparents have at least one Native ancestor, like many Uruguayans of my generation, the erasures of my education prevented me from processing or articulating this connection. I only joined the dots when I watched the documentary El País sin Indios (Nicolás Soto, 2019) and got in contact with one of the protagonists of the film, Charrúa activist and scholar Mónica Michelena Díaz. It was then that I began to see all the beautiful Charrúa traditions and words that my grandparents had passed down without explaining the germ of their teachings. Like when my paternal grandparents presented my sister and I to the moon for protection, a Charrúa ceremony, and sang, ‘Bilú, bilú, bilú,’ the Charrúa word for ‘beautiful’. Today, I hold onto everything I know about my ancestors and feel the weight and the value of their guaroj, or closed hand.

One of these connections occurred when I read an anthropological and archaeological study by Rafael Guedes Milheira and Camila Gianotti García: The Earthen Mounds (Cerritos) of Southern Brazil and Uruguay. The title grabbed my attention because of the word ‘Cerritos’, a word familiar to me, loaded with ancestral history and knowledge, handed down to me by my grandfather Napo. In this paper Guedes Milheira and Gianotti García describe how ‘The cerritos are earthen mounds comprised by anthropic soil with polished and knapped lithic instruments, faunal and botanical remains, ceramic shards, and sometimes human remains’. Human remains. I repeated this to myself and thought of my grandfather Napo, his mud-brown eyes. I continued reading and the paper explained how the original inhabitants of this land had many functions for the cerritos, one of them being burial sites, cemeteries. Again, my grandfather Napo sprouted in my mind, his starry night-coloured hair. Memories flooded my emotions just like the cerritos in Tacuarembó were once flooded by surrounding rivers.

When I was fourteen years old, my grandfather Napo sat our family down, his long pointy fingers playing with the breadcrumbs on our redwood dinner table as he spoke. He explained that since we were no longer allowed to bury our family in our Cerro Chato (our cerrito) in Rivera because the land was now privately owned, he’d decided to buy each of us a niche in the cemetery facing our Cerro Chato. This way we wouldn’t be far from our ancestors, my great grandmother Acacia, my grandfather Napo’s mother, being already buried there alongside our other family bones. At the time, as an ignorant fourteen-year-old who was biologically far away from death, of course I responded, ‘When I die, does it matter where I lie?’ But now, over twenty-five years later, now that I know the seed of this Charrúa tradition, it does. When I die, I want to be held tight by the earth made from the flesh and bones of my ancestors, a guaroj, a closed hand of our land.


The Afro-Uruguayan poet Virginia Brindis de Salas describes the complex trauma of assimilation in her poem Negro: siempre triste (Black: always sad), written in 1949:

Por temor al amor, por esclavitud
negro triste olvida …
Los buques negreros, aquellas sentinas oscuras
del barco, horrores, el hambre,
azotes sufridos, olvídalo todo;
que lentamente viene, la ansiada libertad!
Out of fear of love, out of slavery
sad black forget …
The slave ships, those dark bilges
of the ship, horrors, hunger,
lashes suffered, forget everything;
that slowly comes, the long-awaited freedom!

In this tragic dynamic, forgetting is both a form of liberation from past wounds and a signifier of the alienation undergone by those enslaved Africans forcibly brought to Uruguayan shores. Brindis De Salas reclaims Afro-Uruguayan history and translates the legacy of past suffering into a call to arms, a manifesto of a tangible emancipation, coming soon to end all misery.

Between 1786 and 1812, over sixty thousand Africans (mostly from West Africa but also from neighbouring Brazil) arrived on the River Plate. It’s estimated that some twenty thousand disembarked in Montevideo, and by the 1800s twenty-five per cent of the Uruguayan population classified themselves as African or Afro-Uruguayan, my ancestors included. Subsequently, Pueblos de Negros (Black Towns/Territories/Peoples) also known as Salas de la Nación (Rooms/Halls of the Nation) were founded in Uruguay during the 1830s; thirteen ‘salas de la nación’ were owned by Africans and Afro-Uruguayans. These salas were bought or rented plots of land (outside the city walls) where headquarters or encampments were built to house religious gatherings, political meetings and ancestral dances. Later these settlements additionally served as a place to raise emancipation funds to free enslaved brothers and sisters, lobby public officials and provide legal aid to those experiencing disputes or conflict with their owners, their oppressors. They were similar to neighbouring Brazil’s Quilombo dos Palmares, a democratically organised, slavery-free territory that existed between 1580 and 1710, where ex-enslaved people of African origin and their descendants formed several townships. The word ‘quilombo’ comes from the Kimbundu language: kilombo, meaning camp. And in Uruguay’s kilombos, enslaved First Nations people were always welcomed, and this is where I imagine my Charrúa/Guaraní ancestors met my African ancestors. A romance of politics and music.

Like the Charrúa and Guaraní tribes, Africans fought in the independence wars of the 1810s and 1820s and the civil wars of the post-1830s. But unlike First Nations people, enslaved Africans who served in the military were rewarded by the Free Womb law of 1825, by which babies birthed by enslaved women were considered free on the condition that they remain serving their mother’s master until they reached adulthood. Slavery was formally abolished in 1842 but in reality Afro-Uruguayans continued to face discrimination, fear, hate and bigotry, which made it hard for our ancestors to find the liberating forgetfulness Brindis de Salas describes. Many of these stories of oppression were captured in the Afro-Uruguayan periodicals such as La Conservación and Nuestra Raza, and in Carnival songs, such as 1872 lyrics from Raza Africana (a comparsa, or Carnival group): ‘For white people we’re pariahs’. These words are living records of the many layers of Othering and cruelty, that leave ripples of intergenerational trauma, making it hard to ever ‘forget everything’.

It is relatively well known that trauma shapes the brain, in particular the brain areas implicated with stress response, such as the amygdala, resulting in trauma being coded into our DNA and passed down onto future generations. And there are many words of African origin, like cachumba, mina, mucama and chingar, used in Uruguay and in parts of Abya Yala where enslaved Africans were sent, which are semiotically marked by their violent histories. For example, the word kilombo first signified a place where enslaved or recently freed minds collected and thought, bodies gathered and danced, voices harmonised and sang, and hands played and composed, which of course didn’t go down well with White people. Hence, they started using the word quilombo to describe a chaotic place of sin and violence.

This word is just a fragmentary example, of course. But we know that language is a critical part of cultural formation and world disclosure. Linguistic reclamation is integral to many decolonial movements around the world, which prompts me to wonder what could happen if we were to take quilombo back and restore its original meaning? Will we with time commence to neglect the noise of disorder encoded by Whites? Will redefining, reclaiming, repeating kilombo, peel the layers of pain off it? Will it reshape our brains? Recode our genes? Will replanting its core and letting its first sense resprout and rise again like a tent at an encampment, will it help us (its diaspora) ever ‘forget everything’?


The queer LatinX poet Denice Frohman in her poem ‘Borders’ says,

There are some borders you can’t cross by foot.
‘But borders’, I tell her, ‘that can only be crossed by stubborn backbone.’

‘Borders’ walks us through Ana María’s migrant experience of crossing borders but never being able to assimilate into her new country. Ana María grappled with a border that could only ever be crossed through activism and acceptance of who she was, kinking her r’s and all, because the border had already left its mark on her. When a body finally acknowledges it carries its borders within it no matter where it stands because the spine is the internal boundary between the languages and cultures that are eternally contained and overlapped within, then and only then can a body become its own nation. My paternal grandparents were the embodiment of integration, with their Portuñol Riverense adding twang to their tongues. It was there when they said words like Beñ or Dispōs or Asíñ, words that were neither Spanish nor Portuguese, words that said we are a stubborn backbone.


Throughout my childhood I lived with my paternal grandparents, and most of the time we spoke Spanish at home. However, when an English word escaped, like they always did, the perpetrator, whose tongue flapped like a foreigner in our household, would receive a boring lecture on the importance of not forgetting where we come from by practising our ‘native’ language. If we don’t speak it at home, we will eventually lose it because we hear English all day, they would argue. Although Spanish was also the ruling order under my parents’ roof, my grandparents were exempt from it. Cheekily, whenever they wanted privacy from the rest of the household, they banished us by speaking their native tongue, Portuñol, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese infused with local Indigenous words and Africanisms. They never taught my father to speak it because it was considered a lower-class pidgin, a dialect to be ashamed of. At times the Portuñol speaker was even thought to suffer from a form of dyslexia. Despite my frustration, as their words formed an invisible line around them, I listened and learned. And by persistently integrating my ears within my grandparents’ speech, I found my own feet crossing a border.


The Colombian-American poet Carlos Andrés Gómez explores linguistic places in his poem Where Are You Really From?

But I … I am from a place beyond place,
a place where, once you’re from there, you can never leave,
because it exists beyond dirt and flesh,
beyond your linear and limited concept of time.

Where Are You Really From? describes the experience of carrying your homeland in its language, taking it with you as you travel. Liminality becomes your new place in space, and your body becomes a political document, curved into an inverted Spanish question mark: ¿Where are you really from?


My familia migrated to Australia from Uruguay when I was seven years old. I lived in a multilingual household where, once I stepped foot past our front door, I had to speak ‘Espanish’, but there was no way in the world that my bilingual tongue could ever be tamed. Code switching between my languages and blending Spanish and English together, inventing new words, was my thing. For example, the translation of fence in Spanish is ‘cerca’ or ‘valla’. However, the Spanglish diaspora birthed the word ‘Fensa’ by making an English word sound more Spanish. I don’t know who invented it but we all use it, from Australia to Canada to the USA. The first time I said the word fensa, immediately my Spanglish-speaking fam knew what I was referring to, despite fensa essentially being a made-up word that doesn’t exist in a dictionary. In Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands (1987) she states ‘Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself’. Alas, where I’m really from is no longer a place but instead a Spanglish diaspora that understands the song of my mixed beat tongue. Where I’m really from is the womb of my mother tongues.


In her essay ‘On Rendering My Own Novel into Spanish’, the Uruguayan American writer Carolina de Robertis describes linguistic hybridity as a constitutive aspect of her identity: ‘when it comes to language I have two mothers. Just like my own children.’ And like other kinds of mothers and children, she writes that the relationships between them are complex, primal, and protean. Reflecting on my own bilingual experience I agree; at times this form of existence means that my mothers argue behind the closed doors of my mind, rendering my own thoughts a poorly translated poem.



Feminine noun

Literal translation/Overtable

a. After meal conversations.

b. The moment where you all sit around the dining table, bellies full. Yet, remain seated because you crave words as well as bread. This is when families are formed into linguistic structures, as well as generational ones.

I have a vivid memory of getting lost in translation. I was nine years old and had just started speaking English. In the middle of a science lesson, I felt a bump on my tongue that stung as I caressed it against my teeth, I knew what it was because I had had one before and my mother had told me previously not to worry as it was only a ‘Sapito en tu lengua’ and I could cure it by simply adding ‘sal’ on it or just leaving it be because my own saliva would eventually heal it.

However, as my Year 3 teacher Miss Palin scribbled planet names on the blackboard, the sapito became more and more uncomfortable, its pulsing pain distracting my mind from the solar system. Thus, I thought the best thing to do was to ask Miss Palin for some sal to place on it, but to do this I had to translate my own thoughts. Lengua means both ‘language’ and ‘tongue’ but in this case it obviously meant tongue. Sal can mean both ‘to get out or leave’ and ‘salt’, however I knew that in this scenario its correct translation was salt because that’s what my mother had placed on my tongue to cure it last time. But what did sapito translate to? Sapo in Spanish means frog, and ito in Spanish is a suffix that transforms the word to a diminutive version of itself. Luckily, in a previous science lesson we had learnt about the frog’s lifecycle, so I knew all the words for frogs in their different life stages and most importantly their sizes. But I didn’t have a froglet on my tongue, or did I? Froglets, were, I guess, the teenage frogs, because it was just before they metamorphosised into adult frogs, the biggest version. No, it had to be smaller than that. Tadpole, maybe? No, tadpoles have tails, the sapito on my tongue did not resemble such a wriggly amphibian.

I searched my newly formed English language neural connections. Maybe the translation was spawn, the smallest version of a frog, and since the bumps on my tongue looked like an egg-shaped mass, there was reason behind this word. Spawn, I whispered to myself. But that sounded silly, I thought. As I stumbled through the language system in my brain, I had the sudden realisation that I didn’t have the Spanish words for a frog’s life cycle; I had migrated to Australia before that class was given in my home country Uruguay. ¿Sapito, sapito, sapito, what are you?

Finally, I decided I was just going to use the words little frog, the most direct translation of sapito, just maybe that was the right word in English too.

‘Miss Palin,’ I said, rubbing my swollen papillae cluster against my inner cheek.

‘Yes. How can I help you?’ She turned around, adjusted her round glasses, leaving white marks on their golden frame and focused her hazel eyes on me.

‘I need salt for the little frog on my tongue.’ I poked my reddened, moist, oval-shaped organ out for her to see. As you can probably imagine, Miss Palin found this amusing and at the same time confusing. I wanted to hide behind the closed doors of my mind where my mother tongues argued.

Now, after speaking English for nearly thirty years, I live through less and less of these moments, but there are many times when words taste heavier than usual and I’m suddenly unsure how to structure my sentences or pronounce some words, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being bilingual is a privilege, and while I occasionally get lost within its different poetries, translation is an art.





Literal translation / wild hen psittacism water

(Uruguaí in Guaraní language from Charrúa Nation and its borders)

a. A republic in South America. 72172 sq. mi. Capital: Montevideo.

b. We carry three continents in our veins, Abya Yala, Europe, Africa. We bleed currents of pain, knowledge and stamina. We are the Charrúa Nation, always have been, always will be.

c. River of wild birds, river of painted birds, only heard in Guaraní, not seen by White men and their binoculars. Five per cent of the world’s avifauna lives here, always here in Uruguay, but they’re not counted, never counted, but felt like a bird’s pinion guides flights without thought, just does, just be. Exist. Flow like water, spill like paint, chirp like song. Our song. Always ours.


With thanks and appreciation to Mónica Michelena Díaz, Victoria Bonilla-Báez and Paula do Prado, without whose love and knowledge this essay could not have been written.


Natalia Figueroa Barroso

Natalia Figueroa Barroso is a Uruguayan-Australian poet and storyteller and a member of Sweatshop Literacy Movement, with degrees in Communication, Screenwriting and Media Production. Her work has appeared in the collections Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate and Bigotry; Any Saturday, 2021: Running Westward and Between Two Worlds and various literary magazines. She’s currently a post-production coordinator for Fika Entertainment.

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