‘Cantoras’: A novel about Uruguayan women struggling for freedom
The Tupamaros of Uruguay

Thanks to a recommendation from one of our indispensable public librarians, I discovered Uruguayan author Carolina de Robertis’s beautiful novel Cantoras. I recommend the author’s reading in Spanish for its liquid musicality, but it is also available in all formats in English.

Cantoras is set in Uruguay, beginning during the brutal dictatorship that ruled that country for twelve years, from June 1973 through 1985. “Cantoras” or “singers” sounds benign compared to many epithets flung at queer women, but it becomes immediately clear that in late 20th-century Uruguay, both during and after the dictatorship, this term, like the innocuous word “gay,” became a cruel label—though the women eventually reclaim it.

Much of the story takes place in and around a rundown dwelling the five main characters purchase together on the Uruguayan coast on the gorgeous, remote Cape Polonia. Against the backdrop of the cape’s wild seascape, they enjoy cooking, swimming, and chatting in the only place they feel able to be their full selves, both politically and sexually. Yet even there they are vulnerable to harsh reality, from internal dissension to depression, to violation by soldiers of the dictatorship.

Over 35 years, the women meet at Cabo Polonia to cook, eat, swim, and talk through their lives, as they face patriarchy, homophobia, dictatorship, stifling traditions, and, later, the bewildering changes of the 21st century. De Robertis portrays the five cantoras and their sometimes tumultuous relationships in exquisite detail, drawing us into their loves, struggles, and secrets, and giving us a fascinating picture of their central importance to each other as they face life’s challenges.

Juliana Barnet

Portraying a revolutionary

My writing about fiction focuses on depictions of people engaged in the work of social transformation, people whose stories tend to be under- and misrepresented. Recognizing De Robertis’s skillful characterizations, descriptions of daily life, and historical authenticity, my review of Cantoras concentrates on its portrayal of activism.

Romina, one of the five point-of-view characters, is a wholehearted supporter of the struggle against the military dictatorship that took power in Uruguay in the 1973 military coup. Following her militant brother’s arrest, Romina becomes part of the clandestine resistance. It is through her experiences, including her harrowing two-week imprisonment, that we get the fullest picture of life as an active fighter against the brutal junta.

It’s interesting to note that the coup in Uruguay happened a couple of months prior to the much more widely known 1973 coup in Chile that installed the Pinochet dictatorship. Although I am fairly well informed about Latin American current events and history, I’d forgotten about the Uruguay coup. Cantoras allows us an up-close look at the scary, stifling atmosphere of daily life under this dictatorship, one of so many that pervaded Latin America in the 20th century—established and maintained with active U.S. support—even as the story focuses on the interrelations among the five women.

Romina rarely appears on the page engaged in activism. Nonetheless, her militancy looms large in her thoughts, enabling us to relive her experiences and identify with her struggles.

The dearth of social justice activists in mainstream fiction with whom we can identify and empathize makes De Robertis’s portrayal of Romina particularly valuable. She is a complex, relatable activist who deals with intersecting struggles as a lesbian, Jew, female, and only daughter in a family where the son was disappeared by the regime—all of which pull on her. Romina wants to involve herself more fully in the struggle against the dictatorship but feels torn because her parents are terrified the repressive apparatus will swallow her as it did her brother.

Particularly nuanced and poignant is the rendering of Romina’s guilt over having suffered less than many of her comrades: during her relatively brief imprisonment, she was raped by “lo tres”—only three—goons, while other captive women suffered longer and even more horrifying brutalization.

With all the characters, we get a clear impression of the endless grind of living under the dictatorship, and the intense challenges they face as they attempt to pursue dignified lives as queer people—individually, in various combinations, and as a group.

Even though the world of the book is harsh, the story itself is a lively and beautiful portrayal of the women’s experiences as they pry open tiny but vital cracks in the massive wall of repression surrounding them, building a community together, gradually bringing in others, and supporting each other through many difficult circumstances, sharing love and adventure, as well as disappointment and conflict, with one another.

Queer activism in Cantoras

As soon as the political situation in Uruguay opens up in the mid-eighties, Paz, the youngest of the five friends, turns her Montevideo home, once a refuge for Tupamaro militants, into a gay gathering place called La Piedrita, the Pebble—a tribute to Stonewall—providing a new type of space for people to explore being themselves as a group coming out of deep shadows.

In the latter portion of the book, in 2013, we see the women marveling at, yet nonplussed by, recent changes in the situation of queer people. We see the cantoras navigating a much-improved situation while continuing to face past wounds and persisting struggles.

During the final moving scene, a secondary character, Diana, illuminates the central oppression that runs through all their struggles: being silenced. Their victory comes in finding their voices and the courage to use them.

Clearly, I am a fan of this book! Nonetheless, stereotyping of activists creeps in when we’re not looking. The author skates close to a couple of common stereotypes that commonly plague the portrayal of activists in fiction.

Paz’s mother, who hid female members of the revolutionary Tupamaros in her basement, is a weirdly awful mother, much less nice to her daughter than to the people she harbored. By the same token, Romina’s brother, jailed for over a decade by the dictatorship for his participation in the struggle to change the unjust sociopolitical system of his country, turns out, when finally located by his sister, to have a narrow-minded, patriarchal attitude toward her, pressuring her from prison to be a “good daughter” and refrain from politics. Later, he condemns her homosexuality.

Undoubtedly, there are activist mothers who have problematic relationships with their daughters and plenty of revolutionaries who struggle to accept newer forms of activism and who hold on to narrow views of morality.

The problem is that the “activist mother who fights to save the world and neglects her children” is a pervasive stereotype, going back at least to the film Mary Poppins, and reproduced countless times.

Just as common is the “hypocritical revolutionary, who preaches equality and justice, while practicing the opposite in his personal life.” The latter trope tends to stereotype male activists, while the former typecasts female ones.

Nowadays, carefully examining our word choices, tone, and other story elements to catch cultural, racial, gender, physical, and other stereotyping is becoming a required aspect of editing, since we’re now more conscious that the oppressive culture surrounding us imbues us with bias, like it or not.

The same way authors seek to counter bias in portrayals of women, people of the global majority, and other oppressed groups, I feel we must scrutinize our writing to avoid stereotyping activists. Why not create a militant mother who loves and supports her daughter, and find another way to give Paz the push she needs to leave home at an early age and hone her independent character, as the plot of Cantoras requires?

Why not have the communist brother be open-minded, as so many of his comrades clearly were and are? There’s no lack of ways the author could throw sexism and homophobia into Romina’s life, without assigning this role to the activist brother. This suggestion, by the way, applies to stories where sexism among activists is not a key focus. If the story is about the all too frequent real-life situation of women encountering sexism within activist organizations and movements, then we have the challenge of rendering it in a nuanced, authentic, humanizing way. An author’s imagination can find many ways to make the story work—this is one of fiction’s superpowers.

I very much appreciate Cantoras and other works that show, with nuance and authenticity, activists living their lives. I would respectfully suggest that, as authors of fiction featuring activists and social movements, we pay that extra bit of attention to root out characterizations that further stereotype and misrepresent our folks. Because activists in fiction are rare, the biggest misrepresentation being total erasure, it behooves us to refine the portrayals we offer.

We need to bring to life activist characters, whether central or secondary, who are each unique, complex, flawed, genuine, and engaging. We can have them do their work in the story while avoiding painting “typical” activists when in reality there is no such thing.

I applaud Carolina de Robertis and other authors who open windows into the authentic experiences of folks working for justice, peace, and planetary survival. And I urge them—and all of us who write fiction—to work towards portraying activists fully and fairly. Enlisting a few activist beta readers would be an excellent step in that direction.

This review is reposted by permission, with minor edits reflecting PW style and format. It appeared originally in Barnet’s Activist Explorer Newsletter, Sept. 30, 2023.

Carolina De Robertis
Knopf, 2019
336 pp.
ISBN-10: 0525521690
ISBN-13: 978-0525521693
Also available in Spanish, with the author reading her own text.

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Juliana Barnet
Juliana Barnet

"Reflecting on life as an activist in the belly of the Beast and in the liberated zones we carve out to begin living the new world now."