Alejandra Brum’s family emigrated to Uruguay, and despite living with her grandparents who only spoke Hungarian, she didn’t learn the language. She joined a Hungarian community in Montevideo where she was able to learn folk dance and a form a special bond with Hungary and its culture. Because of this strong connection, she decided to move to Hungary at the age of 18. Now that she has studied and learned the language, she considers herself Hungarian and is passionate about the importance of passing on the knowledge and culture of her ancestors.
Alejandra is part of the ‘Remigrates’ books, which collects interviews with emigrates, who decided to return and experience their motherland, and is also involved in I Dance Hungary, the first online platform in the world dedicated to the non-Hungarian speakers of the dance house movement, started under the patronage of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today and Ungarn Heute. Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Alejandra and talk about her Hungarian roots, the folk dance movement, and her Hungarian identity.
You have Hungarian roots on your mother’s side of the family, but she doesn’t speak the language. Do you remember the exact moment in your childhood when you realized that you are not only Uruguayan but also Hungarian?
It was a long process. My grandfather was born in Uruguay but he still spoke Hungarian. But he hadn’t used the language actively – he spoke Spanish with my mother, and she spoke to us in Spanish as well. However,
I have old memories of my grandfather singing and speaking Hungarian and noticing that it was another, special language, but at that time as a small child, I hadn’t realized that I am Hungarian as well.
Then a few years later, when I was eight, I started to go to the Hungarian House in Montevideo to learn Hungarian folk dance. In fact, this was the beginning of the realization of my Hungarian roots.
What language did you speak at the Hungarian House?
Spanish as well. Some spoke Hungarian, especially the older people. I knew they spoke Hungarian, I was curious about it, but it wasn’t until the age of 17-18 that I said I was Hungarian.
Then one day I woke up and felt something was wrong, something was missing.
I can’t explain it, but I still remember the moment. I started thinking that actually I was almost living in the Hungarian house, folk dancing, singing, and although I could not speak Hungarian, I thought maybe I’m Hungarian too. Then I felt that I had to come to Hungary to study Hungarian.
Have you been here before?
No, I haven’t been to the country before. There was a Hungarian teacher in Uruguay who taught me and I asked her to help me get a scholarship to Hungary. This is how I found the Balassi Institute, through which I spent a year in Hungary studying Hungarian language, history and literature. It was a very defining moment in my life, I felt that finally I belonged somewhere.
What was it like to arrive in Hungary for the first time?
Before I came here, I had dreams of what it would be like to arrive “home.” But on the first day and even after that for a while, I felt like it wasn’t quite what I had dreamed of.
For example? What impressions did you have in the beginning, how did you see the country?
It was a long time ago, in 2003. Back then, I felt a bit depressed or an overwhelmed mood here in the country. It was different than it is now. People seemed heavy, negative. Then I began to understand it, when I learned Hungarian history that after communism, there was not enough time for a change in their mentality, a change that I now feel in their mentality. Despite this, I loved being here, learning Hungarian, dancing… I even found a dance group here.
You mentioned that the first day in Budapest was interesting, what happened?
We could say it was very rough, I was immediately thrown into the deep end. At that time I didn’t speak Hungarian well, just the basics I had learned in Uruguay. I arrived at the airport where they didn’t speak Spanish; even those who waited for me. Meanwhile, one of my suitcases was lost, and I had to deal with it without a common language. And because of the lengthy process, I missed my train to my friend’s where I was staying. So, after Ferihegy airport, my first encounter with Budapest was at the Southern Railway Station. My first thought was “God, where did I end up.” But of course, after overcoming language differences and homesickness, all of this was gone. I really loved living here.
Well, after all, regardless of your roots, you came to a foreign country without language skills and your family, this feeling is natural.
Yes, I felt that way, and as I said, the mentality of the people was also completely different. But inside, I knew it would be good. I wanted to try it out, I wanted to learn the language. And I did. After three months, I felt it was going really well. By the end of the year, when I already had friends here, I felt like I didn’t want to go home. I planned to stay on and start studying here.
My mom was sick, so I had to go home to Uruguay. But my heart always pulled me back, and at least every two years I came to Hungary, either alone or with the Hungarian dance group from Uruguay.
It was always a great feeling to come back, I felt like somehow it was my country, and my place was here.
But still, I always went back to Uruguay.
It must have been a weird, dual feeling to feel at home here and in Uruguay as well.
Oh, yes. Here, I felt that I had everything I really liked, that which I didn’t have in Uruguay. But there I had my family, my friends… But still, somehow, it’s different here. I can’t express it in words. Perhaps it is the culture what caught me the most. Dance, language, history… Uruguayan history and culture are somehow not as rich as Hungarian. And I want Hungarian culture to be mine too. And I cannot find or have all those Hungarian things out there. The Hungarian house is there, but it’s not the same, I only feel complete here.
How and why did you moved to Hungary permanently?
In 2013, we came back with the dance group and were in Upper Hungary, when I met a folk musician and ended up staying in Hungary for him. I went back to Uruguay one more time, but then I came back. I may have needed that extra boost, love, to finally come back.
How do the rest of your family relate to the Hungarian culture? Are they also as close to it as you?
This is an interesting question. I would say yes and no. I have a brother who also went to the Hungarian House, he also tried Hungarian folk dance, but not for long. But he is completely Uruguayan. Of course, he knows he is of Hungarian descent, but he feels closer to Uruguayan culture. Meanwhile, my father, who has Spanish-Basque roots, always goes to the Hungarian House because he loves Hungarian culture and especially Hungarian cuisine. He has nothing to do with the Hungarians, but he is interested in Hungary, because of my mom, and now that I have become “so Hungarian,” also because of me. Actually, he is even better at cooking Hungarian dishes than my mom and they are learning Hungarian together. And I guess my mom lives her Hungarian identity through me.
You said your brother feels completely Uruguayan. Do you rather feel Hungarian? Have you ever had a sense of identity crisis because of this?
I feel I am both. In the diaspora, Hungarian identity is a bit different than in the Carpathian Basin. I feel that someone here is either Romanian or Hungarian, or Slovak or Hungarian. In our case the two do not rule out one another. In fact, they rather complement each other. I’d say it gives a plus to my identity.
By speaking two languages, knowing two cultures, you feel like you belong to two nations. I am proud of this – when I am in Uruguay, where I respect and love customs and traditions as well, everyone knows that I am Hungarian too.
You were involved in the Petőfi program in the Carpathian Basin, in helping Hungarian communities in the cross-border community to maintain Hungarian culture, and in the Rákóczi Association, you were involved in the diaspora program. Did this “plus” you have mentioned help you connect with people? Beyond the border, in small Hungarian settlements, was it strange that you were Uruguayan, not just Hungarian?
In the Petőfi program, I had very good experiences in this regard. I participated twice, first in Transylvania, in a small Calvinist community where my partner was a scholarship holder, and I helped him as a volunteer. It was a very nice community, with Romanians in the majority, followed by Roma people and then Hungarians. It was a difficult situation, I didn’t speak Hungarian so well back then, my accent was stronger, but people accepted that I came from Uruguay. I think they learned a lot from me because of my Spanish background. You know, I am much more direct, more passionate, I smile a lot more than Hungarians. I worked with disadvantaged children, taught them folk dance and I was kind of a mentor for them, I listened to them, helped them. Although I didn’t speak Hungarian so well, I noticed that they were more accepting, listening to me more than my Hungarian boyfriend. They saw this plus in me, the specialty. And maybe they felt it was also sympathetic how much I was trying to learn Hungarian, how important the culture was to me.
And you also had an experience of living in a minority, even if it appears in a completely different way in the diaspora. You were a good example of how to preserve Hungarian identity well.
Yes. In this village, there were two options for choosing a school: children could either go to the Romanian school or to the Hungarian one.
I told many families not to take them to the Romanian school, because the Hungarian language, Hungarian culture is such a treasure that cannot be lost.
I also talked a lot about the Hungarian community in Uruguay, which was completely new to them. I told them that it is also hard to maintain the culture, the identity there, but in a different way. In Uruguay – and in most cases in the diaspora, the problem is not that the country’s system suppresses the community’s aspirations of keeping the Hungarian identity alive, but rather losing language to the modern, free world.
Folk dance is therefore good because it conveys Hungarian culture without words. You can communicate with other Hungarians – not through the language, but with the movements, the dance.
I Dance Hungary, in which you participate, is also a good opportunity to help foreigners connect to Hungary through dance.
Yes. I know from my own experience that it is difficult to find good sources of Hungarian folk dance without Hungarian language skills. I couldn’t find anything in English or Spanish when I applied to the university. And I think it is a very important part of the culture, because folk dance brought me closer to Hungarians, and after that, came the language learning. It’s really good for starting this whole process. I wrote my university thesis about the influence of folk dance on Hungarians in South America. The numbers show that folk dance is the first activity that brings together young people of Hungarian descent and helps them learn Hungarian. And not only dance itself, but also the music, the costumes, the traditions. Through these, we can meet Hungarian culture and our roots without words. This is what I want to do: to keep the Hungarian community alive in Uruguay. Dance is a key element in this goal, so that young people can get involved in the community and realize they are Hungarians. They are the future. And I Dance Hungary is a great help because it gives you the opportunity to get to know Hungarian folk dances and music from a good, authentic source anywhere, even without a knowledge of Hungarian language. There are more bad sources than good on the internet – and I Dance Hungary is really reliable, authentic, composed by dancers and musicians who really know the folk culture. And most amazingly, there are foreigners who are not Hungarians, who learn folk dance through it. It also shows how rich and attractive Hungarian culture is.
Have you ever thought about going back and maybe help in the community or are you staying here permanently?
No, I’m staying here in Hungary. I’m definitely not planning to move back, as I can’t really imagine moving away from here, since I feel at home. But I really want to help Hungarians in Uruguay, especially with folk dance. And now that I have done my degree in dance, I have the opportunity to help with it. I want to start a training course for dancers. I have many plans to get young people more involved in folk dance.
You didn’t learn Hungarian in your childhood. Now that you are here in Hungary, if you’ll have children in the future, will you pass the Uruguayan culture to them and the Spanish language so that it won’t be lost?
I would like to give them the plus that I have with the Hungarian language and the Hungarian culture. So I am planning that in the future, to speak Spanish with my children and pass on the culture as well.
I have also experienced many times that grandparents and grandchildren cannot communicate with each other and do not speak the same language. It is very sad. My parents don’t speak Hungarian, so unless I teach my kids Spanish, they wouldn’t be able to speak with their Uruguayan family. I couldn’t imagine that.
Photos by Zita Merényi/Hungary Today