In Latin America, we often repeat the joke that “Argentines are the children of ships,” as Facundo Cabral used to say. And the fact is that the country of the far south, in addition to its asados and its milonga, has been famous for its direct and more recent links with the old continent.
During most of the 20th century, Argentina was the destination of millions of refugees from the old continent, became a cultural epicenter, and even tested the pulse of England over the Falklands.
Argentina has been so much like Europe in so many ways that it has also insisted on distancing itself from its African roots, becoming proudly Eurocentric and racist.
Few know that Argentina was also an epicenter of the slave trade and that Afro blood runs along with the Rio de la Plata from beginning to end.
“Argentina needs to understand that it is both very racist and very Afro,” said Black activist and researcher Alí Delgado to The Guardian.
“In Argentina, it used to be said that here there were no blacks; therefore there was no one to be racist with – and hence there was no racism,” agreed university lecturer Patricia Gomes.
But the truth is that, between the 16th and 19th centuries, long before the European migration wave, more than 200,000 enslaved Africans arrived in the twin River Plate ports of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, capitals of what is now Argentina and Uruguay.
“The number of slaves who arrived at the region of the River Plate is almost half of those who arrived in the US, which gives an idea of the magnitude of slave traffic in the River Plate region,” according to Alex Borucki, an Uruguayan academic at the University of California Irvine, who co-manages the SlaveVoyages website that traces every ship carrying enslaved people that reached the Americas.
However, Argentina continues to deny its Afro tradition.
The 2010 census recorded some 150,000 people of African descent in Argentina, a nation of 45 million people. Still, activists estimate the real figure is closer to 2 million following increased immigration and because many Argentines have forgotten or ignored African ancestry.
“It’s a very contested figure,” said Nicolas Fernández Bravo, an anthropology professor at the University of Buenos Aires who is part of an Afro-Latin American studies group and a government policy adviser, to The Grio. “The state doesn’t have the slightest idea of the number because measuring race is difficult, and the state is not taking it seriously.”
Paradoxically, since just 2013, Argentina has celebrated the National Day of Afro-Argentines, in homage to María Remedios del Valle, who died on November 8, 1847, after fighting in the Army of the North and was appointed captain by General Manuel Belgrano.
However, this year’s November celebration of African culture in Argentina is dedicated to the memory of María Magdalena Lamadrid – “La Pocha,” an Afro-Argentine activist who died in September. In 2002, this fifth-generation Afro-Argentinean was prevented from leaving the country by a customs official who insisted that there were no black Argentines and claimed that her passport was false.
However, oppression and discrimination did not go on without a battle. Many Afro-Argentines began organizing in the late 19th century and publishing newspapers to fight for their rights.
As reported by the African American Registry, in the 1880s, there were about twenty Afro-Argentine newspapers in Buenos Aires, and some researchers believe that these social movements were instrumental in introducing socialism and the idea of social justice into Argentine culture.
Some Afro-Argentines entered politics. José María Morales and Domingo Sosa acted as high military officers and held important political positions. At the end of the 19th century, the Afro-Argentine population consisted mainly of women, mixed with many European men.
Today there is a notable Afro-Argentine community in the Buenos Aires neighborhoods of San Telmo and La Boca. There are also quite a few Argentines of African descent in the cities of Merlo and Ciudad Evita in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.
In Argentina, the Afro-Argentine community has re-emerged through black organizations such as the “Grupo Cultural Afro,” “SOS Racismo,” and, perhaps, the most important group, “África Vive,” which are helping to revive interest in Argentina’s African heritage.