Feb 1, 2022
Content Warning: Racism
Art by R. Bliss
Argentina has a problem with racism. As one of the whitest1 countries in Latin America, Argentina has done a poor job of accounting for the histories and contributions of its non-white populations, both historically and at present. This is especially true for Argentina’s Black population, so much that many white Argentines will tell you that “aquí no hay negros,” “there are no Blacks here,” while just last year Argentina’s president caught flak after repeating an old saying,“Mexicans came from the Indians, Brazilians came from the jungle, but we Argentines came from the boats, and those boats came from Europe.”
Such commonplace statements, although plainly expressed and honestly believed by those who repeat them, constitute a pernicious and historically tenacious lie. They serve to obscure and erase the indelible mark that Blacks have left on Argentine history and culture since Spanish and Portuguese slavers first forced them across the Atlantic in chains. In fact, Afro-Argentines are integral to the story of many of the most important symbols of Argentine culture and nationhood, from the ubiquitous tango to the rugged gauchos of the Pampas. Despite these contributions, the nation-building project of Argentina’s creole elite has sought to construct a national identity based on European heritage and to erase Black Argentines’ role in the country’s history. Let’s begin to do justice to the story of Afro-Argentines by highlighting some aspects of their history.
Like elsewhere in the Spanish Empire in the Americas, the importation of Africans to Argentina was a direct response to the need for a cheap workforce in the wake of the demographic devastation of Indigenous populations incurred by genocide, conquest, and disease. Most enslaved Africans were sent to the mines and fields in Peru and Mexico that became the mainstay of the extractive economy of the colonial period. Throughout most of the colonial period, Argentina was something of a backwater, being sparsely populated and without significant economic activity. Buenos Aires, however, as one of the most important Spanish port cities on the Atlantic coast of South America, became an important slave market early in the trade. Many enslaved Africans arrived by ship there to be transported inland or transferred to other colonies. A 1778 census reported that in agriculturally important provinces such as Santiago del Estero, Catamarca, and Salta, among others, Blacks constituted a racial plurality (the same census reported that Blacks stood at 37% of the national population). In these peripheral provinces, as in the vast central plains of the Argentine Pampas, many Blacks became gauchos, a type of rural horseman analogous to the North American cowboy. Most gauchos, like many cowboys, were non-white, as racial mixing between Europeans, Indigenous people, and Blacks was common in such frontier zones. Many Black gauchos would play a seminal role as cavalry in the battles of the Argentine War of Independence and later wars throughout the nineteenth century.
A significant number of Africans also remained in Buenos Aires, where by the mid-nineteenth century they constituted more than a quarter of the city’s growing population; here they primarily worked as domestic servants for the white elite, though some made a living as merchants and artisans. Here, too, Blacks were important militarily; a mixed Black and Indigenous militia called the Batallón de Pardos y Morenos assisted in the defense of Buenos Aires against two attempted British invasions in 1806 and 1807. Elevated to the status of regiment in 1810, this unit would go on to fight in the War of Independence that resulted in the proclamation of the Republic of Argentina in 1816.
At first, independence brought few substantive changes for Afro-Argentines. As slavery was not abolished in Argentina until 1853, it remained widespread among Afro-Argentines for decades after independence (although after 1813 freedom was guaranteed to the children of slaves). Institutional discrimination, of course, remained widespread even after the abolition of slavery. In response to little official representation and recognition of Afro-Argentines and their specific concerns, Blacks began publishing their own magazines and campaigning for greater rights. Yet as Argentina became subject to the second largest wave of immigration in the world (second only to the U.S.) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Argentine government increasingly leaned into European identities to define the national character. This was a time when the creole elite, rich off exports of frozen beef and wheat from the Pampas and with intimate business relations with British investors, looked to Europe, and especially France, to define themselves. Elites of this time spoke French, dressed in Parisian fashions, and redesigned the historic center of Buenos Aires in the image of European neoclassicism. Amid such changes there developed a concerted effort to erase Argentina’s Black history.
It was also in the 1910s and 1920s when the Argentine elite, seeking to consolidate a national identity for the ethnically heterogeneous and majority immigrant country, began to identify tango with Argentine culture—moreover, it would soon become one of the country’s chief cultural exports and national symbols. Ironically, because the contributions of Afro-Argentines to the development of tango, beginning in the 1880s, cannot be overlooked. The word itself is commonly thought to derive from one of several Niger-Congo languages once spoken by Africans in Buenos Aires. By the late colonial period the term was being used to refer to subversive gatherings of slaves to dance and play music, similar to the candombe, an African style of dance and music still common along the Río de la Plata. By the time tango made its way to Europe and the U.S. in 1913, its partially Black origins were cause for horror on the part of racist journalists covering the subversive new dance. Initially, in the first decades of tango’s development in the lower-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires populated by non-whites and poor immigrants, the dance inspired the same horror and disgust in Argentina’s creole elite, who associated it with brothels, degeneracy, and vice (naturally, all things said elite also associated with Blacks). It was only after the dance was popularized in Paris, and from there exported to the rest of Europe and the U.S., that Argentine elites themselves began to dance it—now that it had been adecentado, literally “made decent,” by Europeans. Tango had to be sanitized—and the role of Afro-Argentines in its development erased—before it could be incorporated as a symbol of Argentine culture. Has the same kind of white appropriation of Black culture while erasing its history not happened countless times in U.S. history?2
How has it happened that only in recent decades have Afro-Argentines emerged from their long invisibilization to assert their existence? One answer relates to the failure of the process of blanqueamiento, or “whitening,” a eugenicist policy that sought to reduce and eventually eliminate Argentina’s non-white population through racial mixing with whites. If the one-drop rule in the U.S. had it that anyone with any amount of African ancestry was Black, then in Argentina the opposite was theoretically true: to have any amount of white ancestry was to make one white, and to be white was to have access to Whiteness and its privileges. Thus, as a matter of survival in a racist system which eventually came to deny even the existence of Blacks in Argentina, many Afro-Argentines sought to distance themselves from Blackness; whether of dark skin or light, most would no longer identify as Black. But the promise that doing so would result in equal social status turned out to be utterly untrue—Argentina’s racial disparity remains as severe as anywhere, while the slang term _negro _is still used in the local dialect as a derogatory way to describe people of the lower and working classes, Black or not; it also bears connotations of criminality.
The failure of such attempts at assimilation to equalize racial disparity, as well as increasing discourse around issues of race in the global context, have prompted Afro-Argentines to proudly reclaim their heritage and histories. The same has happened with other non-white identities in Argentina, including the diverse Indigenous peoples whose histories and cultures have similarly been long invisibilized by the hegemonic narrative proclaiming that “Argentines descend from the boats.” The daunting challenge confronting the subjects of such invisibilized identities is now to prove to Argentine Whiteness what it has long denied: that aquí sí hay negros.
Note that “white” can mean something different in Latin American contexts than in the U.S., given these regions’ different histories and constructions of race. Although most Argentines are of primarily European descent, many who consider themselves white might come to the U.S. and find their Whiteness revoked on account of their nationality or the varying degrees of racial admixture common in Latin America. Whiteness, as in U.S. history also, is contextual. ↩︎
For comparison, there are certain similarities between tango and jazz in terms of the contexts in which they developed. Both are examples of musical syncretism taking cues from both African and European traditions (but jazz is more substantially Black than is tango), and both developed in lower-class neighborhoods of major river deltas. Both underwent a process of being “made decent” (read: deracialized) before being co-opted by Whiteness as national symbols of their respective countries. ↩︎