By Nadiyah Fisher
During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved Africans worked on plantations and as silver miners and blacksmiths in Latin America. Brazil served as one of the first slave ports for Portuguese colonizers. More enslaved Africans were imported into Brazil than all of North America (Brown, 2012). Due to the high number of enslaved Africans in Rio de Janeiro, they were transported from Brazil to Buenos Aires. In the 1800s, about 70 percent of the imports in Argentina were enslaved Africans (Edwards, 2017). Buenos Aires served as the “capital of the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata” (Rose, 2015). The Rio de la Plata or “River of the Silver'' consisting of the Paraguay, Parana, and Uruguay rivers was discovered by Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. When Italian explorer Cabot traveled up the Paraguay River, he made an exchange with the Native Americans for silver, hence the name of the river (Oliveira, 2014). According to Rose (2015), the trading of silver, wool, and linen helped grow the merchant class in Buenos Aires. The establishment of a trading network influenced the demand for enslaved Africans for labor. Now, less than five percent of Argentines identify as Black or of mixed race (Gates, 2014). How can one of the major ports of enslaved Africans in Latin America erase the blackness of their past?
Many attribute the whitening of Argentina to the war with Paraguay in 1864 where many Afro-Argentines were drafted into the war to aid in the whitening of their country. However, there are still over 1 million Afro-Argentines in Argentina currently (Ghosh, 2013). Similar to Brazil, Argentina practiced blanqueamiento, or the whitening of the race for “modernization.” Due to the war with Paraguay, many Afro-Argentine men died, creating an unequal distribution between the sexes. The widowed Afro-Argentine women were encouraged to reproduce with European immigrants (Ghosh, 2013). Over time, Afro-Argentines became lighter and “passed” as white. In addition to the erasure of Afro-Argentines, other non-white Argentines, such as those in the indigenous populations, were killed off. In Argentina, race is determined by skin color, not heritage. Those who were darker, even if they were indigenous, were seen as negro. Afro-Argentines with lighter skin classified themselves as blanco (Ghosh, 2013).
In order to “effectively” pass as blanco, Afro-Argentines would straighten their hair chemically (Ghosh, 2013). In Holden’s (2014) experience in Argentina as a Black American, she points out how African features such as curly, kinky, coily, or braiding hair sparked curiosity in white Argentines. People came up to Holden and would touch her hair without permission. Her hair and skin were topics of conversation everywhere she went. Older Argentines would ask Holden if she was directly from Africa because the difference between nationality, race, and ethnicity were foreign concepts to them. Afros were seen as “negative” and “untidy.” Afro-Argentines are encouraged to hide their natural hair from an early age (Holden, 2014).
This false notion of a homogenous Argentina is enforced by President Domingo Faustino. Faustino claims that you can find Black people in Brazil because there aren’t any in Argentina (Gates, 2014). In the BBC documentary, What it’s like to be Black and Argentine, Afro-Argentines recount their experiences in the country. Lighter Afro-Argentines are viewed as “exotic” and “strange.” Their beauty is accounted for by the lightness of their skin. They are viewed as a “pretty little black thing.” In the very next clip of the documentary, white Argentines are interviewed. They claim that “there are no Africans” and everyone is of “Italian or Spanish descent” (Green et al., 2018). In the documentary Si, Yo Soy Afro: What it’s like to be Black in Argentina, the embracement of Spanish heritage is explored again. Those with grandparents of Spanish descent are considered Spanish, but their African ancestry is ignored. The erasure of African heritage is effectively achieved through education. Afro-Argentine history is not taught. Students rely on oracles and traditions to learn about African history (King et al., 2020).
Despite the attempts to erase blackness in Argentina, Afro-Argentine culture is seen everywhere in festivals like Carnival and in food. In Carnival, African drums and guitars are used to dance to an African folk dance called Candombe. Drummers take to the streets of Argentina to perform inspired by their enslaved ancestors’ pursuit for freedom and expression (Latin American for Less, 2014). African dance instructor Alma Velasquez Huichulef describes her knowledge of being Afro-Argentine as a “rude awakening” after being approached by a stranger. Her father’s attempts to deny the blackness of his family allowed Huichulef to believe she was white. When prompted to account for a time when she changed the mindset of an Argentine who took her African dances classes, Huichulef could not recall a single person (Latin American for Less, 2014).
Why are Argentines hesitant to acknowledge the presence of Afro-Argentines, but readily engage in Afro-Argentine culture? In my personal account of racism in the United States, the culture of Black people is readily exploited and appropriated. The hair of Black women and men is used as costumes and “new looks” for the runway when braids have been around for hundreds of years. Do Argentines want Black culture without the commitment to acknowledge Afro-Argentines? Despite the efforts to erase Afro-Argentine heritage, Afro-Argentine culture lights up the city of Buenos Aires with African dance and is on the headpieces of every Carnival dancer.
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