Currently, the homeland of soccer player Diego Maradona insists, “it contains no blacks.” This mantra is often repeated, and although there is no evidence to support the claim, it is a reflection of the country’s subconsciousness (reproduced even in the country’s education system) and history: one that demarcated the ability of citizens to belong and excluded those who should not form part of the national rhetoric - among them Afro-Argentines, for various reasons. Afro-Argentines belong to category that should be called ‘the disappeared’, a term that has enormous symbolic weight in a country that endured a terrible dictatorship which persecuted 30,000 victims of State terrorism: the “disappeared.”
Even if many consider that racism is not connected to rhetoric, this only due to the fact that the tie is so evident and obvious that it is not detected; it’s just common sense, if you will. There are writers who argue that what was done with blacks in Argentina is equivalent to a “discursive genocide” in keeping with the construction of power. It reveals the final, premeditated outcome desired by the Argentine political elite - the famous “Generation of 1880,” whose rhetoric denied alterity.
Negation is another unmasked form of modern racism and one of the most recurring methods employed in Latin America, according to Teun Van Dijk. The symbolic elite has an enormous responsibility for the social reproduction of racism, in order to keep itself in power and preserve its status. For this group, the best way to protect itself from elements considered dangerous is the rhetorical negation of the Afro-Argentine collective: the “invisibilization” of black actors in Argentina’s official history.
The construction of a Nation-State is a material process that also took on the form of a historical narrative. In Argentina, the story is based more on racial purity than on miscegenation. Racial purity, which was so popular in the nineteenth and early twenty centuries, produced an excess of “purity.” This gave way to the obsession for isolating impure elements, before eliminating them.
It is within this narrative that the famous “melting pot” theory emerged, which was promoted by leaders during the enormous wave of immigration that increased the population from 1.3 million (in 1859) to 3.9 million (1895), as also happened in various American countries. The harmonic amalgamation of recently arrived immigrants with the few already there would later give way to the creation of an un-diverse new citizenry or, better said, a homogenous one which evaded ethnic problems because black Argentines were easily and explicitly isolated and silenced. This practice went even further: it was declared that blacks were extinct. In 1883, Argentine ex-President Domingo Sarmiento, the country’s “first educator,” observed that blacks had disappeared as a social group, and that there were only a few of them left.
As the nation-State was being built, the Argentine ruling class (and others in the region) warned of the presence of “others.” The response was to corner them and impose a vertical social structure. The elites took on the responsibility of undermining these marginalized identities, which eventually became peripheral, resulting in the creation of “historical alterities” (historical others in the country’s history) narrated and contained within a national context. The modern nation-State is egalitarian in viewing marginalized communities. Individuals are equal under nationality, as French philosopher Étienne Balibar suggested, although that ideal was not put into practice Afro-Argentines.
How did this reality come to be? In the case of blacks, the attempt to whiten and homogenize Argentine society at the end of the nineteenth century eradicated any ethnic traces that did not serve the Europeanizing mission. The final result is that Argentina boasts it is a white nation; it is proudly the most whitened country in South America. Methods including extermination, intimidation, concealment, and others were employed so that no difference could threaten the Argentine collective that had been formed in the “racial melting pot.”
Blacks were first ideologically erased, then expunged from the nation’s collective imagination and memory. Even today, groups that look the most European discriminate against those who do not, or are farther from being so than others in Latin America. National identity in modern States required the whiteness of their inhabitants, whether or not they had a non-white population. Modernity considered the color white emblematic; it became synonymous with modernity. Conversely, non-whiteness ended up being seen as pre-modern and primitive. One only needs to review the way the Western media presents Africa as a barbarous space inhabited entirely by black population -- although there are whites.
Given these variables, which existed in all of Latin America, it is logical to conclude that Argentina is a country that is proud of its European roots. One might consider that its inhabitants “descended from ships” coming from southern Europe since the late nineteenth century, but another type of ships had arrived earlier: a very different kind, which sailed from numerous ports in Africa. These were slave ships that left an important human cargo not only in the Río de la Plata regions, but also in the interior of what would become Argentina in the future.
The first formal arrival took place in 1588, when three blacks slaves ended up in Buenos Aires. There was a constant shortage of workers at this austral latitude, and since the city authorities turned a blind eye to this problem, contraband became the norm. Many powerful men participated in this enterprise, and slaves were one of the most profitable products. By the early seventeenth century, Bueno Aires governor Hernandarias de Saavedra decreed an end to the annual arrival of fifteen slave ships, each containing two thousand slaves. Yet, the African population kept growing as intensely as the trafficking. By 1778, the first census of what would become Argentina showed a population of 200,000, of whom 92,000 were blacks and mulattoes (46%). In several provinces, more than half of the population was “brown and black.” Notwithstanding, the 1895 census reveals only 454 Afro-Argentines among the country’s four million inhabitants. This is when the myth of their disappearance began, yet no one questioned the validity of the official figures. This myth defends the idea that blacks were not able to leave any mark because they were extinct in Argentina.
Yet, what actually happened is quite different. Blacks in this Southern Cone country were ignored by census takers, statisticians, and the intelligentsia: it was they who created the myth of a “white Argentina.” It was also assumed that the African presence would require dealing with the country’s slave past. Despite this deliberate effort to “whiten” the statistics, which should be examined and critiqued, explanations employing the myth of the disappearance of blacks are still repeated and are still quite current. These explanations fall into four categories: 1) the series of wars beginning in 1810, especially against Paraguay; 2) a low birthrate and high mortality rate concomitant with unfavorable living conditions, and the Yellow Fever epidemic in the capital, in 1871, which took many black victims; 3) a reduction in slave trafficking; and 4) miscegenation.
Even if these four profoundly disseminated explanations hold some measure of truth, something basic is missing: they have not been rigorously proven. Furthermore, the concomitant thesis that blacks disappeared without leaving a trace holds no water at all in the face of historical evidence.
The Afro-Argentine problem rests in the fact that it is not acknowledged, and in the repression of its representation in the shaping of the national imaginary and resulting narrative. Perspectives that make invisible the contributions of this social group tend to confine their presence to the colonial (non-Argentine) past and highlight their current absence, to reinforce the myth of their extinction. For example, at school presentations children in blackface selling empanadas, candles, and other products represent scenes of 1810, commemorating the year independence was declared. Everyone knows that it was blacks that mostly did this kind of work. Yet, as if by magic, at commemorations of Argentina’s Independence Day, July 9th, all the actors are white.
To counter this myth, we should recall that Afro-Argentines made numerous contributions to our national culture, even if historical rhetoric took on the task of silencing them (quite successfully). Three specific areas in particular are worth a close look: statistics, language, and music. The most recent national census (2010) estimated the Afro-descendant population at about two million. At least 150,000 people self-identified as Afro-Argentines. As a result of the Diaspora, a considerable group of Cape Verdeans (and their descendants) came to Buenos Aires and other areas close to the capital, from the beginning of the twentieth century on. They now number about 15,000, although they aren’t even noticed in the context of the enormous mass of people that arrived from Europe. Currently, Argentine Spanish contains 1,500 words that were introduced by African slaves; they are called Africanisms and fused with lunfardo (port slang in the River Plate area). Words like mina, mucama, quilombo, and tango are some of the quite commonly used words in Argentine speech, and they are African in origin, principally from the Bantu language family spoken in central and southern Africa. Even so, slaves from western Africa also ended up in the Río de la Plata region. Throughout Latin America, the devil is seen as mandinga; it is no coincidence that this word is the name of an ethnic group from West Africa that was enslaved in America.
The tango, which quintessentially defines Argentina, is African in origin (although this is highly disputed). Those who started developing the genre, in its early days, were black. Today, well-known pianist and composer, Horacio Salgán, is an Afro-Argentine. The word ‘tango’ is an Africanism that had multiple uses associated with the slave trade; it is of Yoruba origin (an ethnic group in Nigeria) that explains the presence of the god of thunder, so ‘tango’ is like something sacred: Shangó is the orisha of thunder and lord of percussion instruments. Candombe, an extremely popular Río de la Plata rhythm, is undoubtedly African in origin. Some link it to the birth of tango, and the famous milonga, too. This is more evidence of the black imprimatur on Río de la Plata Spanish.
What is the place of blacks today? We must repatriate the absence that resulted from the efforts of an oppressive group to make invisible another oppressed group; they put into action a deliberate policy to negate and silence this reality. Despite this terrible silence, one of the most common insults employed when talking about the poorest people in society (and they are not necessarily non-whites) characterizes them as “shitty blacks,” “people with black souls,” “pickaninnies,” and “gronchos.” Throughout much of the Americas, “blackness” now refers not only to Africanness, but also to the lowest element in society.
This is the reality, the ways that an exploitable workforce are referred to and reviled, as a lingering hindrance since colonial times. According to Van Dijk, Latin American racism confuses social class with the idea of a “color hierarchy.” In the Argentine case, said identification is not racial, but socio-economic, as Argentine sociologist Alejandro Frigerio explains it. The problem lies with the fact that despite the myth of physical disappearance (in theory) of Afro-Argentines, they reappear (diffusely, along with others) negatively in rhetoric, as marginalized subjects who are no longer racialized. Thus, racism is not only a relevant issue for Argentina, but also for all of Latin America. Yet, as a prestigious Argentine musician once sang: “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid.”