Just over 150 years ago, Argentina’s African population was deliberately decimated. Today, the relatively few Afro-Argentines remaining are reckoning with a traumatic history and a present social climate bent on rendering them second-class citizens.
Today, Argentina is considered the whitest country in South America, with just 0.365 percent of the population identifying as Afro-Argentine during the 2010 census. Yet less than 200 years ago in 1800, black people accounted for more than one-third of the country—69,000 out of a population of 187,000. What happened?
Argentina was colonized in the 16th century by the Spanish, who relied heavily on African slaves. Africans first disembarked in Argentina during the later 16th century in the area now known as the Rio de la Plata, which includes present-day Buenos Aires. By the late 18th and early 19th century, black Africans comprised up to half the population in some provinces. Slavery was officially abolished in 1813, but continued unofficially until the early 1850s—around the same time that Argentina’s black population began to plummet.
The sudden and drastic disappearance of black Africans from Argentina is typically attributed to two factors. First is the war against Paraguay from 1865–1870, in which thousands of black people fought for the military, as well as various other wars. Deaths on the battlefield also led to a vast gender gap among the African population, leading black women and white men to bear children together and dilute the black population; many black Argentines also fled to neighboring Brazil and Uruguay, which offered a somewhat more welcoming political climate. A second devastating factor was the outbreak of yellow fever in Buenos Aires in 1871, which killed swathes of the local population. Many sources, however, point to a far more sinister force at work: the “covert genocide” perpetrated by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, president of Argentina from 1868–1874, which played a key role in decimating the Afro-Argentine population.
Sarmiento was a staunch proponent of white European racial purity: Discussing the mixed-race Argentine cowboys known as Gauchos, he stated that their only use was to serve as fertilizer when they died. Equally chilling, he wrote in his diary in 1848, “In the United States… 4 million are black, and within 20 years will be 8 [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 leafy tree of freedom.”
During his time in office, Sarmiento commenced a systematic erasure of African existence through a series of policy decisions that ultimately proved inimical to black life. He segregated the black community from European descendants, depriving them of tolerable infrastructure and healthcare and thus effectively condemning them to die when cholera and yellow fever outbreaks swept through the city. He also forcibly recruited Afro-Argentines into the military, imprisoned them for crimes that were minor or entirely invented, and executed them en masse. By 1875, the toxic mix of repressive policies, disease outbreaks, and ongoing conflict had so depleted the black population that the government did not even bother to register African descendants in the national census.
Today, black people have been erased not only physically but also metaphorically from the country’s consciousness and perceived history. Some Argentines even think that their country never trafficked in slaves at all, a mindset that Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing for the Root, calls “cultural amnesia that finds the black presence in Argentina somehow inconvenient, something to be denied.” Even Argentina’s most precious cultural export, the tango, has been divorced from the historical background that ties it to black Argentines: According to early dance-related art, it has African roots in the former kingdom of Kongo. This massive erasure of historical, physical, and cultural meaning is considered a victory by Argentine governmental leaders, who have for many generations preferred to imagine the country as an all-white extension of Western Europe in Latin America.
For the country’s few existing Afro-Argentines, daily life is beset by racist acts on both the micro and macro levels. The term “negro” is applied to anyone with slightly darker skin—regardless of whether they are descended from Africans, indigenous Indians, or Middle Eastern immigrants. Those with darker skin are commonly denied admission to nightclubs, and are needlessly pulled over or questioned by the police. In school plays, the use of blackface remains common. On a broader scale, socioeconomic discrimination toward those of African and indigenous ancestry persist, leading to higher rates of poverty and illiteracy among minority groups.
Politicians, for their part, have been of little help in mitigating racism, and have in fact blatantly deployed racialized rhetoric to raise citizens’ ardor regarding crime rates and give themselves an advantage in the polls. Besides general racial profiling, policemen have specifically begun to harass African street vendors in recent years, refusing to recognize their residency documents, bullying them for cash or free merchandise, and even stealing their items, with threats of arrest or violence upon resistance.
Abuse against street vendors has reached a high enough pitch to attract the attention of various rights groups, thus shedding some measure of light on racism in Argentina. In June 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination expressed concerns about violence against African migrants and refugees, who they stated were “routinely exposed to harassment and extortion by the police.” And on June 20th of the next year—recognized across the globe as World Refugee Day—more than 20 human rights organizations came together to condemn “the escalation of violence exercised by the State against Senegalese street vendors” in Buenos Aires and demand the implementation of “comprehensive solutions” for the plight of the Senegalese community. But with institutionalized racism permeating all facets of Argentine society, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will take action in favor of Afro-Argentines.
Nevertheless, certain segments of the Argentine population and of the international community are rediscovering long-forgotten fragments of African tradition, albeit in small ways. In 2014, for example, the New York Times ran a profile on Capilla de los Negros, a church named for the freed slaves who built it in 1861, which attracts slightly more than 11,000 tourists per year. The chapel is also part of a list of slave sites in Argentina curated in 2009 by Unesco. That same year, Movimiento Afrocultural was founded in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighborhood to promote African and Afro-Argentine heritage. It joins movements such as Africa Vive—whose stated mission is to fight discrimination and raise awareness of black Argentines’ place in the country’s history—in slowly chipping away at ignorance and prejudice.
Honoring Afro-Argentine culture is one step in a larger project of coming to terms with the atrocities committed hundreds of years ago. If Argentines “conveniently brush them under the rug,” writes Enrique Tessieri for Migrant Tales, “we are in danger of committing the same crimes again.” To strive for racial parity and a more honest view of racial history, such a change will need to occur not only within Argentine citizens but also on the administrative front, a prospect that may prove more daunting given long-held prejudice and the need to curry public favor. Writing for TheBubble, Allie Pitchon speaks to the necessity of a concerted effort by political leadership toward “not only changing its own racialized rhetoric, but also in collecting accurate census data, bettering public education programs, and increasing funding to anti-discrimination agencies and laws.” Only then—and only in combination with reckoning on the individual and communal levels—does Argentina stand a chance of discarding its whitewashing ways once and for all.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.