Destination Uruguay

Carmelo: A Town of Stories and Legends

Even thought the town of Carmelo makes no claim to fame other than that it is home to the only swing bridge in Uruguay and also the only town in the country founded by national hero José Artigas, its streets are paved with stories, some of which have been collected by author Carlos María Domínguez, who is Argentinean by birth and Uruguayan by inclination.

Texto y fotos Gloria Algorta

The town of Carmelo makes no claims to fame other than that it is home to the only swing bridge in Uruguay and also the only town in the country founded by national hero José Artigas. I went to Carmelo as a kind of personal pilgrimage, drawn there by writer Carlos María Domínguez, who is Argentinean by birth and Uruguayan by inclination. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and I am privileged to have had him as the teacher of my writing workshop. Domínguez has studied this area, where the political borders of the two countries divide lands that are naturally united by the islands of the Paraná Delta. He has written accounts of the Río la Plata, along with novels set on both of its shores.

Three Notches on My Rifle1 is a novel based on the true story of Julia Lafranconi, the daughter of an Italian immigrant who used reeds, a ceibo tree, and his unbreakable will to build his own island —measuring nearly two square miles— by defying wind and water to shore up sediment carried by the rivers. He planted fruit trees, cultivated a garden, and constructed a handful of precarious structures on stilts —for protection from regional storms that flooded the island when they blew in from the southeast— where his daughters grew up and eventually brought their men. Of the daughters, Julia was the undisputed heir, the queen of Juncal Island. The islands are shifting lands where the strong prevail and smuggling and piracy are not necessarily consigned to the past.

As Domínguez relates in Written in the Water (2011), young Julia Lafranconi, always wearing a hat that had belonged to her father and with the legendary rifle slung in a bandolier, was seen in the ports of Tigre (Argentina) and Carmelo and Nueva Palmira (Uruguay), dealing in fruit and buying raw materials. When she still enjoyed good health, she frequented the taverns in the company of men, drinking and smoking like a man. She progressed from trading to trafficking in everything from spare truck parts to immigrants during World War II, including Jews who passed through Uruguay to Argentina and later, Nazis who took the same route.

Haroldo Conti —an Argentinean writer assassinated by the last dictatorship— relates that all sorts of “eccentric and obsequious” characters from both shores visited Julia every year on her birthday. Conti wrote to Julia: “Since you have a keen sense of friendship, I became part of your history and we shared the same rivers, the same friends, the tree house built by old Lafranconi, the path marked with capybara tracks to the left of the house, the female pilot of that portentous sloop that now sails between the pier and the henhouse, the carousing nights, the rough songs, the dead you lent me because I was new to this, those tragic stories whispered behind your back, those friendship ceremonies we initiated, and above all my girl, those wild stories, never the same, that seemed to be a cursory summary of your life, sagas and legends that grow more dramatic every year, adding more deaths and ruffians, with ships of obscure ancestry that slip their moorings after the first drink and sail by memory, malefactors that are fully part of life on the river. 2

Julia died in 1965 and her remains rest in the mausoleum in the Carmelo cemetery. One wall of the mausoleum bears the name of Ramón Guillermino, the man she stole from her sister and who, in a twist of poetic justice, fled with Julia’s niece, which explains why he is not lying in the mausoleum as planned.

Eager to see Juncal Island, I reached Carmelo on a warm November night. It was strange to be on the Río de la Plata and see the opposite shore —or perhaps I should say the shores of the islands in the delta. The widest river in the world is not so wide near its birthplace. I like the fine sand of the river beaches and the fact that trees grow right on the beach.

The following morning, I went to the Calera de las Huérfanas, a tumbledown estate with a rich history. It used to be a Jesuit mission with a population of some three hundred and workshops for various trades, in addition to kilns for bricks, tiles, and lime. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, the Buenos Aires Council named Juan de San Martín, father of the Argentine liberator, governor of the estate. He lived there, married there, and saw his three oldest children born there. Domínguez notes that some people say that José de San Martín was born in what is now Uruguay and that in the mid-20th century, an Uruguayan journalist stole Instrucciones del Año XIII, José Artigas’ most significant work, from a Buenos Aires library, and in revenge, an Argentinean journalist tore General San Martín’s birth certificate out of the Carmelo parish register. Domínguez confirmed that a page is indeed missing from the register.

Later, Juan de San Martín was sent to govern other Jesuit towns in Argentina, and the estate passed into the hands of the Buenos Aires Colegio de las Huérfanas, from which it takes its current name. In my view, the lime kilns were the most interesting thing about Calera de las Huérfanas, because it was just so fascinating to crouch inside them and reflect that Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Colonia relied on the lime produced here. I was also struck by how solitary the landscape is, how the only sounds are birdsongs and the call of the occasional partridge.

That day I had lunch in a restaurant near Carmelo’s main square, where I came upon a fountain that simply screamed kitsch. The church was also quite modern and did not match the age of the town. After speaking with Carmelo residents, I managed to sort out the confusion. This was the main square, but not the oldest. That honor belongs to Plaza Artigas, which boasts a monument to the founder and is fronted by the Cathedral, the Town Hall, and other constructions from the early 20th century. The peace and solitude typical of the siesta hour reigned. I wanted to see and touch the register that is supposedly missing General San Martín’s birth certificate, but the church was closed. The entire town slumbered.

Shortly afterward, I visited the cool and shady cemetery to seek out Julia Lafranconi’s mausoleum. Here she is known simply as “Miss Julia.” All the elders remember her, and many tell of visits to Juncal; someone swore he used to swim there in the mornings and return in the afternoons. They talk of “Miss Julia” respectfully and nostalgically. I do not know if the nostalgia is for her or for the youths they were when they knew her. “Miss Julia” lives on in the collective memory of the towns she frequented, at least on this shore. The cemetery caretaker mentioned that many people visit the mausoleum and the authorities keep it in good repair, as befits a legend that has only spread and grown since the publication of the novel by Carlos Domínguez.

There are other tourist attractions in the area. Leaving Carmelo and heading west toward Nueva Palmira, near the Las Víboras stream, is a dirt road a little over a mile long that runs inland to the Narbona Estate and Chapel, a national historic monument from the 17th century. The caretaker zealously watches over the ruins of the estate and the chapel. I have to take my photos from the doorway of each room, since no one is allowed inside for fear the structure will collapse. The buildings and the lovely, secluded surroundings are definitely a draw.

Lastly, not very far from there is ground zero for the Río de la Plata: a delightful, well-maintained spot with a buoy indicating where the Paraná and Uruguay join to form the widest estuary in the world.

I am grateful to my writing teacher for having awakened my curiosity about this part of the country. We tend to go east to the beaches or, if we like antiquities, to the city of Colonia. Carmelo and its environs are worth touring, whether or not the visit is a tribute to a novelized real-life character like Julia Lafranconi.

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