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MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Uruguay's black community, long in the shadows of the country's cultural and political mainstream, is enjoying an awakening as its African roots are celebrated in a pulsating drum Carnival parade.
On the first Thursday and Friday of February, thousands of people crowd the capital Montevideo's traditionally black neighborhood as costumed drummers and dancers kick off a street fiesta known as the "llamadas" -- Spanish for "calls."
It is a tribute to the once-ignored African roots of this small South American nation tucked between Argentina and Brazil.
Street bonfires flicker toward the nighttime sky as rows of men pound on drums and female dancers gyrate in skimpy feather-and-sequined outfits in the most popular of Uruguay's many Carnival parades.
Young men twirl flags on long poles as the driving drums echo throughout the narrow streets.
Growing international interest in recent years in the celebrations' music -- called "candombe" -- has helped give momentum to a burgeoning black cultural movement.
"We're finally getting some recognition," said Beatriz Ramirez, a former civil rights activist and adviser to a government office promoting black women's rights.
Some black Uruguayans also credit the street festival's increasing popularity with helping to raise racial awareness about Afro-Uruguayans historically overlooked in a country made up largely of Spanish and Italian immigrants.
"This is Uruguay celebrating who we are," said Dariana Luz, a 53-year-old Afro-Uruguayan.
Black Uruguayans represent more than 9 percent of Uruguay's 3.3 million population, according to recent studies.
Most are mired in poverty, living in downtrodden neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital. They earn considerably less than white people, few graduate from high school and no blacks have cracked the upper echelons of business.
There are few signs of racial tensions, but many black Uruguayans say they routinely suffer from discrimination.
During Spanish colonial times, Montevideo was a major slave trade port in South America, a transit point for African slaves sent to work silver mines in Peru and Bolivia.
The "llamadas" are vestiges of African dance rituals and were once shunned by the Uruguayan elites.
Today, they are carried live on national television, the highlight of monthlong Carnival festivities, and attended by Uruguay's top political leaders.
Blacks and whites participate in the parade side by side, and Ramirez said it has helped introduce white Uruguayans to black culture.
"The challenge now is that their interest not be limited to just two nights a year, but the rest of the year too," she said.
Editing by Doina Chiacu