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Federico Estol has made Montevideo and its annual Fiesta Day celebration the focus of his work. Estol returned to his native Ur-uguay Thursday to create a book of photographs he took at Fiesta Day. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Small-town celebration about to get one mighty audience

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MONTEVIDEO -- When it comes to fiestas, Federico Estol can show us a thing or two.

Estol snapped the photographs, while his friend Antonio di Candia authored the narrative on more than a year's worth of fiestas in their native Uruguay.

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Their 2009 book "Fiestas del Uruguay'' tells the stories of 90 different community celebrations. Estol captured the images as people celebrated everything from their immigrant heritage to the watermelons they raise as a cash crop. He's even witnessed a "sausage'' festival in which men essentially enjoy three days of nonstop eating and smoking.

Last month, Estol was training his camera on Montevideo, Minn., and its annual celebration known as "Fiesta Days.''

He returned Thursday to Uruguay with images he believes will prove very interesting to residents there.

"It's a lot of fiesta for a town of 5,000,'' Estol, 28, said.

And that's a very good thing in the eyes of this photographer.

Community celebrations represent much more than a time to party, he said. "It's the most epoch point in a town's society,'' Estol said.

Community celebrations are integral to developing a community's identity, and hence a community's appeal as a place to live, he said.

The celebrations are also critical in developing the working relationships between people within a community, said Estol. Communities that know how to fiesta have what it takes to be vibrant, aspiring places.

Estol's and Candia's 1½-year journey to document the fiestas of Uruguay was sponsored by the country's Cultural Heritage Institute. It had the purpose of helping promote the events as well as the social importance of them.

Uruguay is really no different than the U.S. in that small, rural communities struggle to retain their heritage and identity in a world of super stores and mass media, where everything is made the same, he said.

Yet after living the past month in Montevideo, nothing is quite the same for Estol. He said it still impresses him to see a statue of South American liberator Jose Artigas standing over a Main Street in North America.

The statue was a gift from the people of Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1949 to celebrate the unique relationship between the two sister cities. It's not the only sign of this friendship: Every year the community pulls out the flags and colors of Uruguay for its summer celebration, and even the patches worn by police officers all year celebrate the connection between the two cultures and countries.

Estol is no stranger to playing the role of candid anthropologist in a foreign land. He spent nearly two years with his camera in Europe, working at various jobs while capturing scenes from Spain to Italy.

Estol grew up in the capital city of Montevideo, home to more than one-half of the population of Uruguay. His parents are medical doctors.

He found a camera when he was 17 or 18 years old at the airport, and photography has been his passion ever since, he said.

He had just completed his work on the "Fiestas del Uruguay'' when he stumbled upon Montevideo, Minn., and the ties to his hometown while surfing the Internet. Intrigued, he looked into things and it wasn't long before contacts with the Partners of the America led to this new project.

Estol said he's been influenced by the works of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian-born educator who came to the world's attention in 1969 with the publication of "Pedagogy of the Oppressed.'' Freire promotes the ideas of popular education and rural identity development.

Estol is not saying how those themes may shape his work on "Fiesta Days in Montevideo, Minnesota,'' but there will be a chance to find out. He is hoping to return next year with the finished product.

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