Breaking the Silence: We Need to Talk About Race in Argentina
Arriving in Argentina, I was unsure of how my racial identity would affect my experience. I perceived my time abroad as a break from microaggressions: the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward marginalized groups, and racism and discrimination more generally. More profoundly in my second semester here, race has surfaced in ways I did not expect. I now realize that race is linked to class and nationality here in Argentina.
I was relieved to learn nationality is seen as a principal identity in Argentina. Being primarily seen as a girl from the US came with certain assumptions of your holding certain mobility. I enjoyed normalizing the idea that Blacks travel because often in the US, they are not associated with the same success.
Aware of the large wave of European immigration at the end of the 1800s, I believed there was a scarcity of blacks here by choice. When I commented, “it’s not like Argentina had black slaves” to my friend, Constance, an Amherst alum who came to visit me from Chile, the history buff responded instantly with “slavery was abolished in Argentina in 1813.” I was shocked. In further conversations, she explained that at least 70% of slaves arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, were Africans and before 1587 there was most likely a significant population of native slaves.
Since our conversation, I have done some independent research and discovered that the absence of Blacks in Argentina I first characterized as voluntary is rather an erased history more than anything else.
In the late 16th century, several hundred thousand Africans arrived in Argentina. In some northern provinces such as Cordoba, Catamarca, and Salta, Africans represented up to half of the population. Though it is commonly believed that the Paraguayan War and the spread of yellow fever caused the decline of the African population, the nation’s intention to “lighten” the population is actually the cause. The whitening process included using labels focused on skin color during the censuses to move towards a white nation, which in turn signified a modern nation. The whitening process also brought a period where miscegenation was encouraged to gradually rid the population of “African blood” according to president Domingo Sarmiento.
My classes this semester have supplemented my research and given me perspective of Argentina’s trajectory at the time. During the 1800s Europe was viewed as the world’s center because of its reputation economically, politically, and globally. Argentina worked to make itself the most European country in Latin America in effort to model Europe’s success. Argentina invested in industries where they could export products to Europe. The main exporters were large families who held monopolies over the industries and resulted in select families holding all the political and economic clout. Essentially, this movement toward Europeanizing Argentina focused on Argentines defining themselves as a European nation: defining themselves as being white instead of Latino. As the European immigration
Argentina commissioned rose, the country attained the European look it desired and the memory of Afro-Argentines faded further.
This process of Europeanizing Argentina has contributed to the lack of record of African contributions to Argentina. Europeans were the first group to introduce race as a concept and construct a narrative around the inferiority of blacks. I now realize that here in Argentina, classism is mentioned when addressing that racism does not exist, however the two intersect and are not mutually exclusive. Here in Mendoza, people with darker skin sometimes are called “negro.” Some even use negro as a loving term no matter what their loved one’s features are. However, negative uses of the word connect to the term’s “official” history referring to the arrival of darker skinned, indigenous migrant workers in Buenos Aires. At a dinner at my friend’s house, she was explaining how someone who walks down the street that alarms you because you’re afraid they might rob you is called “un negro.” She assured me it didn’t have any reference to a black person, but in the US it’s usually a “negro” or black person that people believe will steal from them. The term used here seems classist but I’ve noticed a pattern that the darker skin color of the people who go to an event described as “negro” are called “vagos,” lazy people who don’t want to work. Lower classes in Argentina and Blacks in the United States are painted in similar ways further convincing me that Argentines are denying their history.
The most challenging part of coping since filling my knowledge gap about the state of blacks in Argentina, has been struggling to explain or address topics of racial tension in a society that does not understand the history of racism, discrimination, and marginalization in the United States though it carries its own shielded history about Blacks in its country.
Last month, I attended a friend’s birthday party. Held in her house, I was introduced to her friends. Naturally questions of where I am from, why I am in Mendoza, and what type of music I like came up. And after the first half hour of talking with them, they even told my friend, “we like her!” and the feeling was mutual. One thing I noticed about her friends was their frequent references to songs and movies in English. This habit intrigued me because of the usual lack of references to US content among my own Argentine friends. Though I wanted them to focus on speaking to me in Spanish, I went along with it. I corrected phrases or references they messed up and we laughed it off. All was well until one of the friends used the “N word” in a phrase she obviously heard on television or online. I immediately told her, “that word, you can’t say” and she responded to me saying in Spanish, it’s not a big deal. I went quiet after that moment because I was so upset.
Though rare, there have been moments when I have said something in Spanish and people have told me “you can’t say that.” Instantly, I would apologize and then try and understand what was wrong with what I said. When the girl shrugged her shoulder the way she did, I was annoyed because it felt like she was showing disrespect for my history. I was annoyed because it felt like these kids were trying to claim culture that they didn’t even understand or care to comprehend fully. Because of the United States’ influence globally, images of U.S. race relations and black popular culture are consumed by foreigners without scrutiny.
I decided to study abroad because I wanted to explore a different culture and learn how to grow and work with others across culture. I’ve found that at times, cross-cultural understanding is hard to realize when those who I engage with are unaware of their own country’s history with discrimination and racism. I realize that I too lacked an understanding of my country’s history in interventionism in Latin America and it likely made me closed off to those conversations previously. Since deciding to leave my own country to learn about another for an entire year, my mind has been opened and many of my ideas have changed in respect to US relations abroad.
I hope as more scholarship is published about the whitening period in Argentina and the national climate before that time, Argentines do not cling to the myth that “there are no Black people in Argentina” like I did at first. Living here as a Black woman inevitably led me to notice patterns in language and in the mentality of a nation that held prejudices against those with darker skin. Being the only Black woman in my program in the last year has made it difficult to process these thoughts, but as reaching out to other students of color who have studied in Argentina and researching more recent scholarship has confirmed ideas I was previously nervous to discuss. Until our history with discrimination and racism is addressed and no longer denied, true cross-cultural dialogues about these topics cannot happen.
Please feel free to read more about this topic here: http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/african-tree-white-flowers/