MONTEVIDEO, MINN. - Walk through downtown Montevideo and it's hard to miss the towering statue of José Artigas, the national hero of Uruguay who has stood guard over this small Minnesota town for 62 years.
Swing by the town's Fiesta Days in June and see diplomatic and civic leaders from the South American nation enjoying a Uruguayan-style barbecue with Minnesota friends.
Or stop by the library and meet a Uruguayan photographer who just published a book documenting the quirky and historic friendship between the two Montevideos.
In 1905, an unlikely friendship was forged between the farm town of Montevideo, Minn., and the capital city of Uruguay, one that remains vibrant today. With 6,000 miles between them and commercial airlines not yet invented, odds were that the connection would fade. But a lively give-and-take has endured between these two cities that defies explanation.
It's one of the oldest of the thousands of city-to-city partnerships in the nation and is well known among the national leaders who oversee them.
"Minnesota and Uruguay are definitely unique among the partners, " said Melissa Golladay, a director at Washington, D.C.-based Partners of the Americas, a network of the 60-some partnerships that the Montevideos joined in 1965. "They share the same name and a cultural bond. It's amazing the impact they've had in their communities."
For Uruguayan diplomats such as Nury Bauzan, the consul general based in Chicago, coming to Montevideo last week ended 20 years of wondering what this place was about.
"Diplomatically, we know about these things but I had never been here," Bauzan said. She was supposed to be joined by the minister of foreign affairs and a trade delegation -- all who were unable to come because of flight cancellations.
"I think it's fantastic," Bauzan said. "There is a link to the land, a love of the land, that we share."
Six decades of fiestas
That "link" was evident earlier this month during Fiesta Days, first celebrated in 1946, when Montevideo men grew sideburns and dressed up as Uruguayan cowboys. The fiesta queen today still wears a traditional Uruguayan gown during her appearances.
While the "Little Prairie Pickers" performed country music from the bandstand, a Uruguayan volunteer chef grilled mountains of meat over an open fire and Minnesotans sipped a special South American tea through metal straws.
The next day, Bauzan laid a wreath at the foot of the Artigas statue -- a wreath she personally picked up at the local gardening center.
"Are you from Uruguay?" one of the men working at the shop asked her.
"Yes," Bauzan and her two companions responded.
"Welcome!" he said. "There's a lot going on this weekend."
And so the conversation went. The presence of diplomats from a South American nation is old hat here, as are the dozens of blue-and-white Uruguayan flags flying next to U.S. flags on main street. Ditto for the police arm badges showing the Artigas statue and the impressive Uruguayan art collection housed at City Hall.
Even Uruguayans who come to the University of Minnesota for professional projects, such as veterinarians, artists and teachers, wind up driving to this western Minnesota town.
"We're kind of the hospitality nerve center," said Patrick Moore, a board member of Minnesota-Uruguay Partners of the Americas. "Montevideo is the place where you can always find an open home, an open bed, and someone to take you around."
Photographer Federico Estol found that out last year. He discovered Minnesota's Montevideo while googling a weather forecast and wondered, "What is this?"
Estol wound up spending a month in Montevideo last year. "People were really friendly," he said. "I started to feel part of the community."
It's all in a name
The Montevideo connection started in 1905, when the mayors of the two cities sent their national flags to each other. Montevideo, Minn., reportedly was named because of the bluff views (which in Latin would translate into something like "montanus vidéo") overlooking the Minnesota and Chippewa rivers, Moore said.
The relationship was informal for decades, with exchanges of gifts and greetings. But the arrival of the enormous bronze statue, weighing a ton and a half, in 1949 sealed the friendship, inspiring continued visitors.
"Even today, people wipe tears from their eyes ... they get very emotional at the sight of the statue," Moore said.
Sergio Manancero, a Uruguayan businessman from the Twin Cities, recalled when the Uruguayan government issued a call for public donations of bronze to create the statue in the 1940s. His parents donated discarded faucets, he said.
"So a piece of my farm is in that statue," said Manancero, who attended Fiesta Days.
The relationship became official when Minnesota and Uruguay became members of Partners of the Americas in 1965. Exchanges beyond the Montevideos flourished, in particular with the University of Minnesota veterinary and forestry schools, and a criminal justice program.
No one can say for certain that this is the longest-running city-to-city connection. Sister Cities International recognizes Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain, as the oldest sister cities: they formalized the relationship in 1931, said Jim Doumas, executive vice president.
Before then, no one really tracked the relationships, said Doumas, who was not aware of any city partnerships dating back to 1905.
Will the relationship last another 100 years? Moore thinks so, especially with ever-sophisticated global communications: "There's a lot of love in the two places."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511