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It's the similarities between the people of her home country, Uruguay, and the United States that caught the attention of Maria Gilda Battagliese during her visit here. She is pictured Wednesday at the statue of South American liberator Jose Artigas. It has been a part of Montevideo's downtown since 1949, a gift from Uruguayan children. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny
It's the similarities between the people of her home country, Uruguay, and the United States that caught the attention of Maria Gilda Battagliese during her visit here. She is pictured Wednesday at the statue of South American liberator Jose Artigas. It has been a part of Montevideo's downtown since 1949, a gift from Uruguayan children. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Educator from Uruguay finds warmth in the plains of cold land, its folks

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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

MONTEVIDEO -- One day Maria Gilda Battagliese was basking in the summer warmth on the beaches of Montevideo, Uruguay, and on the next, she was in a jet airliner on her way to Montevideo, Minnesota.

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Little did she know that an Arctic air mass had just left Fairbanks, Alaska, with the same destination, meeting up with her just a few days after her flight landed Jan. 15 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. And what is her most lasting impression of Minnesota, some three weeks later?

"The warmth,'' said Battagliese. "The people are so nice, so good, they keep you warm.''

Of course, it is the people and not the weather that Battagliese came to meet.

She is an English teacher in her hometown of Montevideo, Uruguay, with the Alianza Cultural Uruguay-Estados Unidos. The nonprofit organization has been working since 1939 to strengthen cultural and educational ties between the two countries.

She and other English instructors vied for the opportunity to spend their summer vacation time -- January -- in Minnesota through an exchange being offered by the Partners of Americas and the U.S. Department of State.

She was the one chosen, and she prepared in part by watching the movie "Sweet Land,'' which was filmed in the Montevideo area.

She arrived knowing that the snow-covered landscape and bracing cold of a January in rural Minnesota would look and feel nothing like the urban and tropical place she calls home.

Yet Battagliese said that it is really the similarities that have captured her attention here. "There are way more similarities than differences between the cultures,'' she said.

Both countries share agricultural heritages. Both appreciate basic values, such as a love for family and appreciation for education, she pointed out.

It helps too that she landed where she did. By the happenstance of their identical names, the two Montevideo's have a sister city relationship that dates to 1905.

Montevideo, Minnesota, is home to one of the largest collections of Uruguayan art and memorabilia in the U.S. Since 1949, it's also been home to a larger-than-life statue of South American liberator Jose Artigas. The downtown statue is a gift from Uruguayan elementary students who had saved their pennies to send the emblem of the friendship to North America.

One of Battagliese's goals is to continue to build on the relationships that exist between the two communities and countries. She's also here for the opportunity to immerse herself in American culture and further her study of English.

She's been staying in Montevideo at the home of Ellen Moore. Moore's brother, Patrick Moore, is a member of the board for the Partners of Americas and has served as Battagliese's guide to much of the region.

Battagliese has visited a host of schools -- Montevideo, Willmar and the Fergus Falls Community College among them -- to see the American educational process.

Education is free to all students in Uruguay. Battagliese said she loves computers and technology, and had originally pursued a career as a computer instructor.

One day, she discovered that it was the teaching -- and English -- that she loved most.

For the last 12 years, that has been her vocation and passion, helping Uruguayan students of all ages master English and learn about U.S. culture.

She's made two previous trips to the U.S., both "for fun.'' They include a honeymoon trip with her husband Pablo Maggi, an electrical engineer, to New York City. The two are parents to two children, Agustin, 5, and Martin, 8, and their other U.S. destination was Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

This trip has served to show her the heartland of America, and one she said she appreciates all the more.

She will spend next week in the Twin Cities and meet educators at the University of Minnesota, Hamline University and the College of St. Catherine.

Then it's back to Uruguay, where the new school year has started but summer warmth still waits.

Battagliese said she has adapted to the cold of Minnesota better than she expected. When she arrived in the Twin Cities, the temperature was 36 degrees. She was encouraged to make a "snow angel,'' but shuddered at the very thought.

Three weeks later, she's made snow angels with the mercury below zero, tried cross country skiing and even did the unthinkable: She set foot on a frozen Green Lake and toured the Spicer Ice Castle. "It was kind of scary,'' she said. "There was so much ice, and it was really cold.''

But the message she will bring back to Uruguay about what she found in Minnesota is far different. "It's really warm,'' she said, explaining it has everything to do with the people she met. "Cold weather makes warm hearts.''

To learn more about the Alianza Cultural Uruguay-Estados Unidos de America, visit its Web site: http://www.alianza.edu.uy/

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