The erased protagonists: Afroargentines and the whitewashing of history
The received wisdom about Argentina’s African ancestry is full of spurious myths – the first being the notion that there is no such thing.
When we think of Afroamerica, a hemisphere transformed by the forced population transfer of millions of West African slaves, rarely does Argentina spring to mind. The country is widely perceived to be the “whitest” in the region and many Argentines self-style themselves as “the Europeans of South America”. But as Néstor Ortiz Oderigo, one of the forefathers of Afroargentine studies, wrote: “[Argentina is] not different from the rest of the continent for not having a black population, but for not seeing that population as a part of [its] identity.”
In the late 18th century, a third of Argentina’s population were slaves or of African origin. In the city of Buenos Aires, often epitheted as the “Paris of the South”, Afrodescendants accounted for half the population in the early 19th century. When General San Martin’s Argentine army legendarily helped liberate Chile from Spanish rule, half of its members were former slaves granted freedom in exchange for military service.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Afroargentine population vanished, decimated as cannon fodder in the Paraguayan War, and devastated by subsequent epidemics of yellow fever and cholera.
But this shibboleth disregards the existence of a significant Afroargentine community today. Further, it glosses over the way in which the country and its consciousness were systematically and purposely “whitened” by its intellectual and governing class.
A national mythology, stripped of Indigenous or Afroargentine features, was crafted to present Argentina as a melting pot of largely European immigrants. Unsavoury chapters of the past were excised. And the indelible historical and cultural imprint of Afroargentines – such as tango, which finds many of its roots in Afroargentine music and dance, and Argentine asado barbecues, which owe much to the culinary contributions of Afroargentines – was erased and minimised.
What predominates today in Argentina is the product of that process, the unstated imaginary of a white nation, European in character. In 1997, Argentine president Carlos Menem was asked abroad at a university – “are there black people in Argentina?” Menem responded: “No, Brazil has that problem.”
Norberto Pablo Cirio is a musicologist, anthropologist, historian, and director of the programme of Afroargentine and Afrolatinamerican Studies at the University of La Plata. As Argentina’s celebrates the Bicentenary of its Independence this year, we spoke to him to discuss Afroargentines in the country’s memory and oblivion.
The descendants of enslaved Africans taken to Argentina are known as “Afroargentinos del tronco colonial” (Afroargentines of the colonial trunk). They see themselves as forgers of Argentina. In what way?
From heroic acts on the battlefield of independence, to things that may seem quotidian, but are no less important. Like the language we use that is of African origin: mondongo (intestines), mucama (maid), quilombo (brothel/mess). Or the food or the music that we recognise as “traditional”. These were very much shaped by the influence of Afroargentines.
But despite the significant historical role played by Afroargentines, in this country there is a naturalised perception that what is black is foreign. As I say when I teach on Argentine historical figures: “they are all white until proven otherwise.”
Where does that perception come from? How has the whitewash of Argentine history taken place?
There were various generations of intellectuals that shaped the historical narrative like the so-called Generation of 1837. Then you have the Generation of 1880, which had a very precise project to reposition the country as a global power based on a blind faith in progress and positivism, for which they turned to the United States and particularly Europe, for ideas, values, and populations. They opened the country to mass immigration to “regenerate” the Argentine “race”, which was largely composed of Indigenous peoples and Afrodescendants, who they saw to be unproductive, lazy, and culturally indifferent, incapable of regenerating themselves as workers.
This generation of intellectuals had power in many spheres. They wrote the basis of what today we know as Argentine history, they disseminated their ideas through the press, and they governed the country as politicians. They marked Argentina with fire, and among their desktable certitudes, was an idea that Argentine slavery was relatively light compared to other American latitudes, that numerically the Africans were insignificant, and that they had basically disappeared, along with their traditions.
This historiographical and negationist discourse about Afroargentines managed to permeate into society and constitute itself as common sense, something which remains to this day. Bearing this in mind it’s possible to explain why our country, as opposed to nearly the rest of Latin America, thinks it has no Afro population or cultural expressions of this group.
What are some of the most popular myths that persist about Afroargentines as part of this historical legacy?
One of the main myths is this idea of light slavery. “But they didn’t suffer as much as others in the Americas. They were treated well because they were basically part of the family.”
Who says they didn’t suffer as much? Their descendants or white people? And if they didn’t suffer, how do you explain so many fugitive slaves, so many prohibitions of their culture? There is a scandalous social anaesthesia over the dimensions of pain; as if the only pain that mattered was physical, as if the prohibition of the use of their ancestral languages, their own names, their own religiosity, wasn’t valid. Slavery is slavery, wherever it is.
Another myth is that there weren’t many slaves in Argentina. “There weren’t any plantations or mines here.”
Firstly, who says there weren’t? I’ve documented songs from black sugarcane cutters from Tucumán, the same ones that remembered stories from their elders recounting how their masters forced them to reproduce with enslaved women, in order to generate more productive “merchandise.” Secondly, the quantitative question of their existence is no reference point to make judgments about their relevance. Minorities have rights per se, and precisely because they are minorities, they need attention and care to protect their existence and identity, because they were historically affected.
Another certainty of common sense that negates the actual presence of Afroargentines of the tronco colonial is colour-blindness in the public sphere. “Oh, but I don’t see them down the street.”
I usually ask in response: “What streets do you walk down? What are your streets?” Buenos Aires is an extensive city, spanning over 202km2, with over ten million people. There are lots of streets. Not everything has to take place in the radius of the tourist-friendly city centre.
Culturally, common sense also sees Argentine identity as a set of symbolic expressions that have no connection to sub-Saharan Africa, despite the millions of slaves that were brought over the course of three and a half centuries. “But we don’t have black culture, like Uruguay or Brazil. The candombe [a form of music and dance that originated from African slaves] that is played on the street is Uruguayan.”
If a cultural practice is not publically expressed, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. At a very asymmetrical moment between the nation-state and Afroargentines, Afroargentines decided to withdraw their own candombe to the familial, private sphere, removing it from the streets.
It was the best way they thought to preserve their culture, and they were successful. The candombe of Buenos Aires never became extinct. Only today it is recovering its public protagonism through an empowerment of the Afroargentine community, seen through organisations such as Asociación Misibamba.
Finally, we see the racialisation of culture, the speculation that (black) skin is an indication of the purity of (black) culture: “But the Afroargentines that are around today are not black.”
Generations of documentaries and Hollywood have propitiated an essentialist vision of culture: the greater the blackness of skin, the greater the knowledge of black culture. What happens is that having endorsed the certainty that being Argentine is synonymous with being white, the average citizen has a culturally poor vision of society’s diversity and when they come across someone whose skin is markedly black, they infer they are undoubtedly a foreigner.
Together with the central myth of disappearance, there’s also an ingrained ignorance, an erasure of the contribution of Afroargentines, from music to literature.
It’s true. But there’s also a fundamental absence of rigorous investigation. Let’s take the example of Bartolomé Hidalgo, a founding author of the gauchesco movement, the first literature that was originally ours. In 1817, Joaquín de la Sagra calls him a ‘mulatillo’ (little mulatto). The father Castaneda describes him as ‘the dark Montevidean”. Now, of course we have to continue investigating. Having a pair of quotations isn’t enough to deduce that Hidalgo was Afro, but if he was, we’re talking about one of the pillars of our identity: gauchesco poetry.
In my research into the culture of Afroargentines from the tronco colonial, one of my concerns has been establishing the Afro ancestry of figures that are central to the shaping of Argentine society and culture. I always start with questions.
What do we know for example about [early 19th century political activist and revolutionary] Monteagudo? What was he like? White? Who says? Well it seems like he wasn’t. Then you have to enter into his work, analyse it, read between its lines, undertake stylistic studies comparing it to ideologies from the dominant narrative at the time, and see if there are coincidences or not. That doesn’t let you by itself assume that all the creations of an Afrodescendant were created along Afro coordinates, but it also doesn’t let you think the opposite, that their blackness was a mere accident of history, situating them in Eurocentric coordinates naturalised as “universal”.
Following these indications, pursuing these leads, can take you nowhere or they can change the pulse of the past. White is not the only colour in history. We have to start painting our world with a broader palette, the broadest possible. The act of colouring history is, in some way, a subversive act, because we’re offering an alternative to the dominant narrative, giving another version of events. Hopefully blackness will enlighten us.
Despite the whitening of history and culture, in Argentine society racial language is ubiquitous. The word “negro” is used with frequency. How do you explain this usage in a society that thinks it has no black citizens?
The insult of insults in Argentina is to call someone “negro”. But that concept of “negro” is displaced from its originary racialisation towards the idea of social class. When you’re talking about “negros” today in Argentine, you’re usually not talking about people who are racially black, but you are thinking of them, at least on an archetypal level, to reduce the Other to a minimal level of humanity.
That’s how the concept of cabecita negra (literally, little black head) emerged to name people from the interior of the country that were a product of the mix of Indigenous peoples with Europeans. As José Ingenieros said: “the worst of the white race with the Indigenous race which was all bad”. According to the historical narrative concocted by Generation of 1880, everything was degenerated by this infamous group.
Society though has forgotten the third Argentine root in the anti-Argentine confabulation of the cabecita negra: the Afroargentines, who also mixed with Europeans and Indigenous peoples. We have three, not two roots; we have to think of things in a tripartite way.
In your writings you also mention how the invisibility of Afroargentines owes itself in part to a lack of distinction between different groups of Afrodescendants.
Exactly. We can’t forget that there is one group of Afrodescendents of Argentina – the tronco colonial, the descendants of slaves – but many groups in Argentina. We have Cape Verdeans who arrived with Portuguese passports at the beginning of the 20th century, as part of the mass immigration. Halfway through that century we see the arrival of Afro-Uruguayans, followed by Afro-Ecuadorians, Afro-Brazilians, and Afrodescendants from other American nations, and during the 1990s, immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
In many situations, all these groups are placed under the indistinct label of “Afro”. I think that conceals more than it contributes.
There are state institutions that have under their remit a mission to work on “Afro issues”, such as combating racism or discrimination. They put on “Afro” festivals but rarely explain the particularities or origins of each group. The public results are expected: there’s lots of interest, but in the words of a man I once overheard at a festival: “very nice, all these foreigners.”
Under such proposals, Afroargentine culture is diluted. That’s why Afroargentines from the tronco colonial rarely participate, preferring to show themselves separately, following their own dynamic of empowerment and cultural promotion.
The debt the Argentine state has isn’t with “the Afrodescendants”; it’s with Afroargentines from the tronco colonial. That’s the group the state enslaved. Other Afrodescendant groups came here largely voluntarily in the condition of immigrants. They have another relationship with the state, another set of demands, despite a common struggle against racism.
What are some of the most important struggles faced by Afroargentines of the tronco colonial today?
A lot of struggles are related to labour precarity, to health, to education, but they’re not central. The fundamental problem relates to inclusion in history; to a demand that their historical contribution be recognised and acknowledged.
What do you think of the response of state and cultural bodies to that demand?
There’s little to celebrate. There are lots of events, lots of performances, almost all of them under a festival theme, but the lacerating problems remain, denting the quality of life of Afroargentines and their relationship to national history.
In museums it’s hard to see any significant improvements. Many museographers I’ve spoken to are aware of the latest insights, but when it comes to staging exhibitions, stereotypes and absences continue scripting their best intentions.
At too many events, Afroargentines are invited but only to do “their thing”, to perform music. Not to debate, not to give their vision of history. They’re a decorative, artistic element. Wouldn’t it instead be interesting and provocatively original to hear an Afroargentine recount national history from their ancestral experience, as a descendant of slaves?
Do you think there’s any possibility of genuine political change regarding the invisibility of Afroargentines in Argentine history?
There is, but the corridors that matter are not those within ministries, but those where communities live. 90% of community members do not want to approach the subject or get involved. That’s what we have to address first.
You know how difficult it is for an Afroargentine, for example, in Ciudad Evita, to overcome their shame of talking in public? First you have to work on self-esteem, which is often low. I’m aware of many Afroargentines who are still trying to understand who their ancestors are, because there’s always one grandmother lost in the oblivion of the wardrobe of shame. Afroargentines are still trying to learn about their past. To get from there to participating in cultural activities, to opening a door to an academic, to putting pressure on a ministry, there’s light years. That’s why visibilisation starts with fortifying the pride of belonging.
Finally, what has focusing on Afroargentine history and culture taught you?
I’ve always tried to understand and complete history from another perspective, from the counter-hegemonic perspective of the excluded, and through that process, you live robbing yourself of illusions. You begin to understand how your history was told, and how you can tell it in another way. You realise there is no single history, not a truth with capital letters, but many truths. As the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe says, the history of the enslaved is never a neat, linear, complete history; it’s riven and choked by silences, inequalities, rough edges, that hinder making everything convincingly explainable.
When you start to understand the plot of the Afro dimension of Argentine history, just like Indigenous history, the myths crumble and nothing remains the same. But that is totally fecund. It’s constructive, not destructive. Once we’re there, we can work to write a better history, and from there, push to make a better world. For everyone, not for the same people as always.
Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik is a freelance journalist, covering human rights in Latin America.