One of the most convincing perceptions in Latin America is that Argentina is the whitest country in South America. It is viewed as a largely white, European society and the country’s capital, Buenos Aires, is usually referred to as the “Paris of Latin America” in popular culture.
But this state of affairs exists simply because of ugly racism that wiped out black people from Argentina’s psyche. The way Argentina is today is due to a myriad of factors premised on systematic racism that ensured the deliberate and calculated deletion of black people from Argentina’s history, culture and society.
The racist attitudes of superiority reigned supreme with such horrific intensity in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The idea of a glorified nation rested on how white that nation was. Argentina aspired to be a lofty, glorified, prosperous nation gravitating towards American and European ideas of racial purity. Such were the prevailing attitudes to the extent that black people were an unwanted appendage to the desired glory of Argentina. They had to be wiped out. History today in Argentina fails to properly appreciate that at one point, there were many Afro-Argentine in their land.
Spanish conquest and colonization meant that hundreds of thousands of African slaves were being shipped in Argentina. Most slaves were brought to Argentina around the late 16th century, and by the mid-1700s, approximately a third of Buenos Aires’ population was Afro-Argentine. The slaves labored as domestic servants and worked on plantations in the Rio de la Plata region. The population of the Afro-Argentine rapidly expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries, as black Argentines accounted for roughly half the population in some provinces. The army was perhaps where one could find large proportions of black Argentines. General San Martin’s army was mainly constituted with Afro-Argentines, and most of these soldiers where promised freedom slavery in exchange for military service. Either way, putting black men into military service was equal to sending them away to die in war. It is clear that Argentina once had a robust African presence. By the late 1700s, around 50% of the population in the interior was black.
One of Argentina’s most popular exports, the tango, had African origins when it first started. The tango dance had African influences, forging its unique nature from the conflation of African and European immigrant cultures. It is thought that the name tango is derived from from a Niger-Congo term that survived the trans-Atlantic passage along with the slaves. The earliest instances where tango is documented show are from paintings that show Black people as the originators of the dance form. But in a well-computed manner, the influence of Africans on the tango has been erased by white Argentina. As was everything to do with black people.
The egregious decimation of the black population took centre stage during the second half of the 19th century. A combination of many factors, that were calculated, proved to have a wipe-off effect for the black people. The Paraguayan War of 1865 was one of the factors that led to black people being deleted from Argentina’s conscience. Black Argentines were conscripted into the army en masse. Argentina knew they would not fare well in the war.. So the country literally sent black men there to die in the heavy conflict. They sent black men to their graves. A huge discrepancy between genders inevitably emerged and black women, due to the circumstances, were forced to procreate with white or mixed Argentinean men.
Another deadly blow was inflicted by a cholera outbreak that devastated Buenos Aires in the 1860s. Since the black community was forced to live in appalling squalor, these outbreaks had their deadly effect on the black community. These deplorable conditions made it difficult for the black community to survive disease outbreaks. The 1871 yellow fever had the same effect on black Argentines, and thousands died. These poor living conditions were a result of the racial segregation that took place – white people and black people were not allowed to co-exist. For black people in Argentina, there was absolutely no hope of having residence in a place with proper sanitation and healthcare. Many died, and other fled to Brazil, or Uruguay pursuant to better living conditions; conditions denoting a decent and dignified existence.
The most venomous serpent in the elimination of black people from Argentina was Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was the country’s president from 1868 to 1874. He envisioned a mighty Argentina with considerable global influence. But that vision, according to him and many others who shared the same toxic sentiments, could not be achieved as long as black people were present in Argentina. The goal was to achieve social prestige equal to that of the United States and other European countries. To them, Argentina would not rise globally if black people were not eliminated.
And so began a covert genocide against black people at the hands of Sarmiento. It was a massive, clandestine genocide targeted at people with African origins. They had to be rooted out if Argentina was to achieve civilization in alignment with Western standards. Sarmiento’s presidential term was characterized by “highly oppressive and many times deadly policies toward the Black community.” Segregation, which plunged and condemned blacks to live in slums where proper sanitation and healthcare were non-existent became the official policy of the country. Afro-Argentines were sent to prison in scores for minor and fabricated crimes. Mass executions were the order of the day. Mass recruitments into the army had a massively decimating effect for the black population in Argentina. It was a successful genocide. The government never cared about the existence of Afro-Argentines, Sarmiento’s policies nearly wiped them all out. Add to that the mass influx of European immigrants coming to find settlement in Argentina. White European immigrants increased Argentina’s white population – between 1861 and 1914, 2.27 million Italians came to Argentina.
In 1848, Sarmiento wrote in his diary, “In the United States…four million are Black, and within twenty years there will be eight million. What is to be done with such Blacks, hated by the white race? Slavery is a parasite that the vegetation of English colonization has left attached to the leafy tree of freedom.” All he harboured were vile racist attitudes. As soon as Sarmiento’s genocide had impact of epic proportions, and white immigrants were flooding Argentina, the new task was to delete and re-write history. The new task was to whitewash history so that no one could ever recall black people once had a vibrant presence in Argentina.
The Bubble gives an accurate picture of the whitewashing of history that ensued: “Original paintings of Afro-Argentines dancing tango were re-done with white, European protagonists. Gauchos— national figures of Argentina who typically had indigenous or African roots— were often portrayed in popular culture with light skin and eyes. Paintings of a victorious Argentine army often showed no hint of non-white soldiers. In this way, while their contributions to Argentine culture remained, the existence and image of the Afro-Argentine was purposefully, systematically eliminated from Argentine history and mythology by the elite ruling class. What was left was an illusion of an Argentina that was, and had always been, white.”
And so, that is how black people were deleted from Argentina’s history, thinking, psyche, culture, and society. One would think that Argentina has never had a black population. Currently, over 97% of the population is of European descent. Only 0.4% identify as having African ancestry and heritage. The moves that were made in erasing Afro-Argentines are extremely inhumane, shocking, enraging and yet this is information that is conspicuously left out of school curricula around the world. Argentinians now find themselves in the comfort of their amnesia, were thoughts such as “Argentina has no black people so it can’t be racist” exist. And this is completely wrong.
Header image credit – The Root