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Argentina is a land of immigrants. The majority of its people descend from early Spanish and Italian immigrants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries immigrants from many parts of Europe arrived in the country. 3% of Argentina's population is native indian or meztizo, the rest of the population is white.
|Population, total (millions)||32.73||37.06||41.22||43.85|
|Population growth (annual %)||1.4||1.1||1||1|
|Income share held by lowest 20%||4.8||3.2||4.6||5|
|Life expectancy at birth, total (years)||72||74||76||77|
|Fertility rate, total (births per woman)||3||2.6||2.4||2.3|
|Adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-19)||73||67||64||63|
|Contraceptive prevalence, any methods (% of women ages 15-49)||..||65||55||81|
|Births attended by skilled health staff (% of total)||97||99||95||100|
|Mortality rate, under-5 (per 1,000 live births)||29||19||15||11|
|Prevalence of underweight, weight for age (% of children under 5)||..||..||..||..|
|Immunization, measles (% of children ages 12-23 months)||93||91||95||90|
|Primary completion rate, total (% of relevant age group)||..||98||105||101|
|School enrollment, primary (% gross)||106.6||117.4||116.7||109.9|
|School enrollment, secondary (% gross)||71||97||102||107|
|School enrollment, primary and secondary (gross), gender parity index (GPI)||1||1||1||1|
|Prevalence of HIV, total (% of population ages 15-49)||0.3||0.3||0.4||0.4|
|Forest area (sq. km) (thousands)||347.9||318.6||286||271.1|
|Terrestrial and marine protected areas (% of total territorial area)||3.3||4.3||..||7.5|
|Annual freshwater withdrawals, total (% of internal resources)||..||9.8||12.9||12.9|
|Urban population growth (annual %)||1.9||1.3||1.2||1.1|
|Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita)||1,407||1,661||1,908||2,015|
|CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita)||3.43||3.84||4.56||4.75|
|Electric power consumption (kWh per capita)||1,300||2,078||2,847||3,052|
The People of Argentina - History
We’d like to think that it is common knowledge that anti-blackness is a global phenomenon but unfortunately, the targeted white-washing of known history has prevented that. History has been white-washed so severely that often, the extent of racism across the world is masked. The country that has been most ‘successful’ in white-washing its population, history and culture is Argentina.
Argentina is considered the whitest country in South America, which is odd considering that, like Brazil, they were colonized and subjected to Spanish colonists shipping in African slaves from the West Coast of the African continent. Currently, Argentina’s population of European ethnicity constituted 97% of the population – this is a disturbing figure taking into account that “[b]y the late 1700s nearly 50 percent of the population in the interior of the country was black, and between 30 and 40 percent of the population of Buenos Aires was black or mulatto,” reported The Root. When asked about Afro-Argentines, most Argentineans believed that Argentina never took part in the slave trade or that the Afro-Argentines left Argentina “naturally”. Both of these theories are wrong.
“Former Argentine President Carlos Menem who once declared: ‘In Argentina blacks do not exist, that is a Brazilian problem.’” – The Root
What actually happened to Black Argentineans is so disturbing and inhumane, it would be shocking that it wasn’t being taught in classrooms if the world wasn’t so inherently racist. It is widely reported that president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, undertook a ‘covert genocide’ that wiped out the Afro-Argentinean population to the point that by 1875, there were so little Black people left in Argentina that the government didn’t even bother registering African-descendants in the national census.
“On a broader scale, the ‘elimination’ of blacks from the country’s history and consciousness reflected the long-cherished desire of successive Argentine governments to imagine the country as an ‘all-white’ extension of Western Europe in Latin America.” – The Root
During his term, Sarmiento instituted highly oppressive and deadly policies to eradicate Black people. He segregated the Black community from European descendants, placing them in squalor with no descent infrastructure and healthcare. This became a death sentence when cholera and yellow-fever outbreaks ravaged this community with no adequate measures to prevent or treat the illnesses. Sarmiento’s genocide also constituted, “the forced recruitment of Afro-Argentines into the military, mass imprisonment for minor or fabricated crimes, and mass executions.” Sarmiento also enlisted Afro-Argentinean men in the army to fight the Paraguayan War of 1864. Allegedly, Sarmiento knew that Argentina wouldn’t fare well in the war, sending thousands of Afro-Argentine men to their deaths. The war impacted the gender balance so severely that Afro-Argentine women were “forced” to have children with white or mixed Argentinean men.
Tellingly, Sarmiento 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,” – International Business Times
The endeavor was pushed by Argentinean leaders and intellectuals, who wanted to erase the Afro-Argentine presence from all parts of Argentinean life, including culture. The Tango is Argentina’s most prized cultural export but according to early art relating to the dance, it has African origins through the influence of Black Argentineans. The Tango has deep roots in the former African kingdom of Kongo and is currently considered one of the world’s most beautiful dance forms. Legendary white Tango dancer Carlos Gardel actually had Black composer and poet, Gabino Ezieza as his tutor, which shows an Argentinean dedication to not associating the Tango with any form of blackness.
“The Kikongo word for sun is ntangu”, Thompson writes, and the movements of the ntangu through the sky inspired dance forms on Earth that were eventually Creolized with Spanish and Italian influences in Buenos Aires as tango, which means, literally, “‘moving in time to a beat.’ ” – The Root
Across the world, movements have erupted to fight back against the systematic erasure of black humanity so seeing a country actually succeed in removing blackness from its identity is chilling. It seems every day, black people are finding just how much we are hated just for being ourselves and on top of that, we have to deal with living a world that would let something like this happen with little to no international outrage. The amnesia that Argentineans enjoy has led to comments like “Argentina has no black people, so we can’t be racist” but I think we have to contend with another country on earth that might rival America as a hostile place for black bodies.
History of Argentina
The history of Argentina has been heavily influenced by European art, architecture, literature and lifestyle, but at the same time keeps its own unique image. Famous writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Manuel Puig created their image, whose writings have put Argentina on the map. The culture of Argentina is embodied in the tango. Argentina is the place that discovered and made tango into the famous dance that it is today. You may be inclined to follow the pilgrimage to Carlos Gardel's life size statue, the famous tango singer, to pay homage to his impeccable artistic tango abilities. The liveliness of their famous prose combined with their electrifying music, dance and romantic language culminates into a unique place to experience and explore.
Here are some facts about Argentina. It is believed that Argentina was inhabited 13,000 years ago. You can trust that archaeologists are still exploring and studying the evidence. Ferdinand de Magellan touched the shores of Patagonia in 1520 before discovering the strait that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And in 1536 Pedro de Mendoza found the settlement of Santa Maria del Buen Aire, which is today the Buenos Airesthe capital of Argentina. Interestingly enough Buenos Aires did not become the capital until 1776, which marked their independence from Spain.
Argentina like many countries during the 1800s were involved in the slave trade. And it is said that in 1810, African Americans in Buenos Aires and surrounding cities made 30% of the population. However, by the end of the century this demographic had reduced dramatically to 2%.
Argentina continued to grow and prosper well into the twentieth century becoming one of the richest countries in the world. Argentina people were heavily dominated by the Europeans. However Argentina took a turn for the worse in 1930, when the first military coup began. And in 1943 Juan Domingo Peron emerged as the leader of Argentina, but who was also at the forefront of the coup. He and his charismatic wife Evita Peron, a champion of the social welfare programs asserted their popularity on the masses, which evidently led to the demise of their economic prowess. After 1955, he was overthrown as president. The years that followed the military coup are referred to as the years of the Dirty War, which brought the disappearance of some 30,000 Argentina people. The most famous victims were the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Fortunately the history of Argentina and the culture of Argentina were resilient and strong. And now their economy is back on the rise, while their poverty has been reducing since 2004.
Argentina is still today a prosperous country, and although they have had their downfalls, they have had many successes as well. Argentina people are proud of their heritage and will welcome to share their scars and achievements with anyone who asks. Not to mention that they are also happy to play soccer as long as you show an interest and have athletic feet to keep up. This is a vibrant country to visit that is sure to leave lasting memories.
The People of Argentina - History
Along with numerous nomadic tribespeople, two main indigenous groups existed in Argentina before the European arrival. In the northwest, near Bolivia and the Andes, was a people known as the Diaguita, while further south and to the east were the Guarani. Together the Diaguita and the Guarani constitute the origins of permanent agricultural civilization in Argentina, both developing the cultivation of maize. The Diaguita are also remembered for having successfully prevented the powerful Inca from expanding their empire into Argentina from what is now Bolivia.
It was perhaps a legacy of this successful resistance that enabled the native peoples of Argentina to carry on a prolonged campaign against colonization and rule by the Spanish. The first Spaniard to land in Argentina, Juan de Solis, was killed in 1516, and several attempts to found Buenos Aires were stymied by the local inhabitants. Inland cities were more successful, and it wasn't until the late 16th century that Buenos Aires was securely established.
Despite its military success, indigenous resistance was inexorably weakened by the introduction of diseases from Europe. Even after the native threat became minimal, however, Argentina was still mostly neglected by Spain, which was more interested in developing Lima and the riches of Peru. Buenos Aires was forbidden to trade with foreign countries, and the city became a smuggler's haunt. The restrictive trade policy probably did little to endear Spain to the colonists. The British attacked Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807, as Spain's had come under the control of Napoleonic France. The colony managed to repulse Britain's attacks without any assistance from their mother country, an act of strength that no doubt helped to foster the region's growing sense of independence.
When the French captured Spain's King Ferdinand VII, Argentina fell completely under the rule of the local viceroyalty, which was highly unpopular. The locals rebelled against the viceroyalty and declared their allegiance to the captive king. By 1816, the deep division between Argentina and its mother country had become quite apparent, and a party of separatists decided to declare the country's independence. One of the new patriots, Jose de San Martin, crossed the Andes and captured Lima. Along with Simon Bolivar, Martin is credited with breaking the shackle of Spanish rule in South America.
Early independence in Argentina was marked by an often bitter struggle between two political groups: the Unitarists and the Federalists. The Unitarists wanted a strong central government, while the Federalists wanted local control.
Argentina's culture has been greatly affected by its immigrant population, mostly European. Their influence contributed to the demise of pre-Columbian cultures, resulting in the lack of a dominant indigenous population. The European immigrant groups each adopted different roles. The Basque and Irish controlled sheep rearing, the Germans and Italians established farms, and the British invested in developing the country's infra- structure.
More than one-third of the country's 32 million people live in Buenos Aires, the capital, which along with other urban areas accounts for almost 90% of the total population. The principal indigenous peoples are the Quechua of the northwest and the Mapuche in Patagonia. Other marginal groups include the Matacos and Tobas in the Chaco and other northeastern cities. There are strong Jewish and Anglo-Argentine communities throughout the country small communities of Japanese, Chileans and Bolivians and enclaves of Paraguayan and Uraguayan residents.
The universal language of Argentina is Spanish, but many natives and immigrants keep their mother tongues as a matter of pride.
True or False: There Are No Black People in Argentina
Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers , author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof , to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 87: What happened to Argentina’s black population?
In watching this year’s World Cup, did anyone find it peculiar that there were no black players on the Argentinian national team , when their archrivals, the Brazilians , have more than half a dozen (not to mention the greatest soccer player of all time among their alums, Pelé )? After all, both countries are in South America, one on top of the other , and both were colonized by European powers that relied heavily on African slaves to turn a profit: Portugal, in the case of Brazil, and Spain, in the case of Argentina. Yet walk down the streets of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro today, and you’ll see a racial gap even more pronounced than on the soccer field. Is it just coincidence, an accident of history perhaps, or is history itself at play?
Argentina’s Slave-Trading Past
According to Erika Edwards, author of the “Slavery in Argentina” entry in Oxford Bibliographies:
In 1587 the first slaves arrived in Buenos Aires from Brazil. From 1580 to 1640, the main commercial activity for Buenos Aires was the slave trade. More than 70 percent of the value of all imports arriving in Buenos were enslaved Africans. Slaves came primarily from Brazil via the Portuguese slave trade from Angola and other Western states in Africa. Once arriving in Buenos Aires, they could be sent as far as Lima, Peru slaves were provided to Mendoza, Tucuman, Salta Jujuy, Chile, Paraguay, and what is today Bolivia and southern Peru. Córdoba functioned primarily as a redistribution center for this slave transfer until 1610.
It's difficult to pin down the exact number of African slaves who passed through Argentina, since so much of the trade involved illegal smuggling (due to shifting laws against the importation of slaves and traders' desire to avoid paying taxes). But to get a sense, I searched the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database , which suggests that 63,845 slaves disembarked at the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata between 1601 and 1866 (compared with the more than 3 million slaves in Brazil). La Plata , under Spanish dominion after 1776, was headquartered in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s present-day capital city, and touched parts of present-day Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. After earlier European settlers had tried—and failed—to subjugate the native population in the region, trading in African slaves, legally or illegally, proved too lucrative to pass up. At various points, the French, Portuguese and British were in on the action, with the latter two wielding the greatest influence. Even the Jesuit priests of Córdoba had a hard time saying no to slavery.
After 1789, many restrictions on trade for American subjects were lifted, Joy Elizando writes in her profile of the country for Africana, the Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition . “Slaves then came from Portuguese factories in Angola ([the people] were called Congos, Angolas, Benguelas, and Luandas) and from Mozambique. Between 1750 and 1810 approximately 45,000 slaves were imported by both legal and illegal means.” Their presence was key to Buenos Aires’ rise as an economic and political power, Elizando adds, citing the work of historians Sergio Villalobos, Russell Edward Chace and George Reid Andrews. Amazingly, as a result, Elizando writes, “[b]y the late 1700s nearly 50 percent of the population in the interior of the country was black, and between 30 and 40 percent of the population of Buenos Aires was black or mulatto.”
But you would never know that today. In fact, many Argentinians themselves don’t know that. Some even think their country managed to avoid the slave trade entirely, victims of a sort of cultural amnesia that finds the black presence in Argentina somehow inconvenient, something to be denied.
So Where Did They Go?
While Argentina was battling for independence from Spain between 1810 and 1816—a war, I should note, in which Afro-Argentinian slaves were conscripted into the liberation army of Gen. San Martín —the assembly of the United Provinces officially banned the importation of slaves. The year was 1813, but, as Elizando is quick to point out, “the slave trade continued until a pact with Britain in 1840 effectively ended it.”
In a June 2013 article in the International Business Times titled “Blackout: How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History and Conscience,” Palash Ghosh writes that there were slaves in that country until about 1853. It was about that time that the “blackout” began.
“While a number of Latin American countries pursued policies of racial Whitening ,” Elizando writes, “Argentina stands out for its ‘success’ in this area.” Some blamed it on the 19th-century wars that country fought, in which the black population suffered heavy casualties after being put on the front lines. Others attributed it to assimilation through marriage. Still others pointed to the devastating and disproportionate effects of such epidemics as cholera and yellow fever on black people, as well as emigration out of the country to other South American locales. “This traditional view,” explains Robert Cottrol, of the George Washington University Law School, in the Latin American Research Review, “was captured in a statement by former Argentine President Carlos Menem who once declared: ‘In Argentina blacks do not exist, that is a Brazilian problem.’ ”
Now, however, thanks to the trailblazing work of recent historians, among them Chace, Andrews, Marta Goldberg and others, we know there were more deliberate forces at play.
It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army and by forcing blacks to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care). … Tellingly, Sarmiento 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.’
Consequently, Ghosh adds, “[b]y 1895, there were reportedly so few blacks left in Argentina that the government did not even bother registering African-descended people in the national census.” Instead, as Elizando explains, the focus was on “whitening” Argentina’s population through European immigration, especially from Italy and Spain.
To justify it, Elizando continues, “[i]ntellectuals such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Carlos Octavio Bunge, and José Ingenieros advanced theories of scientific racism.” She adds: “Creole elites had written for years about plans to attract European immigrants to temper the ‘degenerate’ qualities of Argentina’s diminishing black and decimated indigenous populations. By the second decade of the twentieth century, approximately one-third of the country’s population was foreign-born.” And today, in a population of 42 million, an astonishing 97 percent of Argentinians are (or at least claim to be) white!
Over the decades, some of black Argentina was replenished through new immigrant waves from Cape Verde, or internally, Elizando writes, by “cabecitas negras (literally, little black heads)” migrating from the outskirts to the capital. But never again did the country’s overall population reflect its early history. Also disappearing over time, Elizando observes, was the demarcation “between pardos (mulattoes) and morenos (blacks).” In other words, a porous color line between whites and non-whites made it easier to claim and categorize more Argentinians as white than black over time.
“On a broader scale,” Ghosh concludes, “the ‘elimination’ of blacks from the country’s history and consciousness reflected the long-cherished desire of successive Argentine governments to imagine the country as an ‘all-white’ extension of Western Europe in Latin America.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that black Argentinians left no mark on the culture. Far from it, in fact!
The Tango’s Black Roots
Referring to research by historian George Reid Andrews, Elizando informs us “that some forms of popular entertainment have featured Afro-Argentine themes two such dramatic productions are the 1940 musical Candombe de San Baltasar and a 1947 play, Cuando había reyes (‘When There Were Kings’), which recounts the lives of a black community under [19th-century Argentine leader Juan Manuel de Rosas]. Some candombes have also survived and are performed in festivals by both black and white Argentines.”
In the candombe, which shares its origins with neighboring Uruguay, one can see the origins of the tango. Ghosh goes even further than Elizando, writing, “Ironically, Argentina’s most famous cultural gift to the world—the tango—came from the African influence,” as evidenced by early paintings in which art imitated life, depicting a tradition that innovated one of the world’s most celebrated dance forms.
The most stunning account of the tango’s black roots is found in art historian Robert Farris Thompson’s 2005 book, Tango: An Art History of Love , of which you can get a multisensory glimpse in his 2010 talk at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian . It wasn’t just that legendary white tango performer Carlos Gardel had for his tutor and inspiration the black composer-poet Gabino Ezeiza , Thompson notes, but also that the tango itself has deep roots in the former African kingdom of Kongo.
The Kikongo word for sun is ntangu, Thompson writes, and the movements of the ntangu through the sky inspired dance forms on Earth that were eventually Creolized with Spanish and Italian influences in Buenos Aires as tango, which means, literally, “ ‘moving in time to a beat.’ ” In this way, Thompson explains, “[t]he path of the sun [became] the path of the tango.”
Today, the Argentinian tango is one of the most beautiful dance forms in the world, indistinguishable from Buenos Aires itself, as any traveler there knows. Read Bob Thompson and I guarantee you'll never see or hear the tango the same way again. And through the tango, the slaves and freed black people of south Buenos Aires live on, as we are so vividly and “wittily” reminded in the 1995 painting that Thompson references in his talk, Robert Colescott’s El Tango , in which a King Kong figure says to a lady in red, “You’re tango?”
Still, wherever historical amnesia sets in, one inevitably comes across repressive opinions disguised as fact. For example, as Elizando relates, “[a]n article appearing in The Montreal Gazette in 1998 quote[d] a Buenos Aires museum director’s response to the possibility of an Afro-Argentine exhibit: ‘We have too many important events and personalities to show. We can’t waste space putting things that don’t have any relevance to our history.’ ” Consequently, Elizando adds, Argentina’s “self-image coexists with continued manifestations of racism. The same article explains that when the Argentine soccer team was to play either the Brazilian or Nigerian team in the Olympic finals, a sports newspaper ran the headline, ‘Bring on the Monkeys.’ ”
My answer to that: Be careful what you wish for. Since the launch of the World Cup tournament in 1930, Brazil has won more titles than any other country—five!—a fact unchanged by this year's brutal loss to Germany. And on Sunday, Argentina lost the championship to Germany by a score of 1-0. But who knows, with the wonders of DNA research, maybe one day we will find out that there are black players wearing the blue and white after all.
In the meantime, I proudly stand with groups inside Argentina such as Africa Vive, which was organized in 1996, Elizando notes, “to raise awareness of Afro-Argentine history and culture.” Among the group’s successes was persuading the government in 2001 “to hold a ceremony to honor the country’s black military heroes. … Such developments give Afro-Argentine leaders hope that the national culture eventually will fully embrace, rather than try to erase, its African roots,” Elizando writes.
One clear sign that we all are heading in the right direction: The blue FIFA banner the Argentinian team and other players stood behind at the World Cup in Brazil urging the world to #SayNoToRacism. To that I say, “G-O-A-L!”
As always, you can find more “ Amazing Facts About the Negro ” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .
Argentina Facts Argentina People
One third of the population in Argentina live in the capital city Buenos Aires. 92% of the people live in urban centres, which means cities and towns.
The biggest cities in Argentina are Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Rosario and Mendoza. Patagonia is only sparsely populated.
In Argentina, herders on horseback called 'gauchos' look after the large herds of cattle or sheep.
Gaucho - Herders
In Argentina, kids go to either free public schools or attend private schools which can be really expensive. In private schools pupils wear a uniform, often complete with tie and blazer, whereas at public schools the pupils all have to wear a white lab coat over their dress so they look alike. Children either attend school during the morning shift from 8am-1pm, afternoon from 1pm-6pm or some might even be required to sit in school during a night shift.
The sports that are the most popular in Argentina are soccer (called f ú tbol) , basketball, rugby and tennis. The national sport, however, is called 'pato' and is similar to polo.
Pato match in Argentina
Pato is played on horseback with the rider holding a net in the hand. However, few play the national sport as it is an expensive sport. Soccer is the most popular sports activity and Argentina has won the world cup two times. There are famous soccer stars such as Maradona, Messi and others.
Argentina is the world's biggest exporter of soybean meal and the third biggest exporter of both corn and raw soybeans.
Argentina, unlike most Latin American nations, has a population that is principally of European descent, especially of Italian and Spanish origin. The mestizo portion of Argentina's population is very small, except in the northwest, because there has been little mixture between European and indigenous peoples. The native population, which has steadily declined since the coming of the Europeans, is still strong only in parts of the Gran Chaco and the Andean highlands. Italian, Spanish (including Basque), French, German, British, Swiss, and East European immigrants came to Argentina during the 1880s other large in-migrations of Europeans occurred in the 1930s and following World War II. There has also been some in-migration of Chileans, Bolivians, and Paraguayans.
The gaucho, or Argentine cowboy, the nomadic herder of the Pampas—depicted in Martín Fierro, the great Argentine folk epic by José Hernández—is still a legendary national symbol. Many gauchos were people of mixed Spanish and African descent who had crossed the border from Brazil to escape slavery. By the 1990s, however, Argentina had a predominantly urban population with about four fifths of its people living in cities and towns more than a third of the total population lives in and around Buenos Aires.
About 90% of the population is at least nominally Roman Catholic. The Jewish population, while only accounting for about 2% of the people, is the largest in Latin America and the fifth largest in the world. Spanish is the country's official language, although English, Italian, German, and French are spoken as well. Argentina has one of South America's lowest population growth rates (under 1%).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: South American Political Geography
Argentina Rediscovers Its African Roots
The chapel in the small lakeside resort community of Chascomús is at best underwhelming. Its whitewashed brick exterior is partly obstructed by a tangle of vines and bushes, and its dim, one-room interior is no more majestic than its facade. Wooden pews and an uneven dirt floor are scarcely illuminated by sunlight from a single window. The gray, cracked, dusty walls are adorned with crosses, photos, icons — things people leave to mark their pilgrimage. A low front altar is layered with thick candle wax, flowers and a pantheon of black saints, Madonnas and African deities like the sea goddess Yemanja of the Yoruba religion.
Despite its unkempt state, this chapel, the Capilla de los Negros, attracts a little over 11,000 tourists each year who come to see a church named for the freed slaves who built it in 1861.
The chapel is “where we can locate ourselves and point out the truth that we are here,” said Soledad Luis, an Afro-Argentine from the tourism office who led me through the space. She knows it well. It sits on a plot her great-grandfather helped secure, and her family still gathers there weekly for a meal.
Capilla de los Negros feels off the beaten path, but it is part of a list of slave sites in Argentina created in 2009 by Unesco. Its inclusion signals the growing consciousness of African heritage in Argentina, seemingly the most Europeanized country in South America.
Argentina at one time had a robust African presence because of the slaves who were brought there, but its black population was decimated by myriad factors including heavy casualties on the front lines in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay in the 1860s a yellow fever epidemic that rich, white Argentines largely escaped and interracial offspring who, after successive generations, shed their African culture along with their features. And European immigration swelled the white population — 2.27 million Italians came between 1861 and 1914.
The demographic shift has been sharp. In 1800, on the eve of revolution with Spain, blacks made up more than a third of the country, 69,000 of a total population of 187,000, according to George Reid Andrews’s 2004 book “Afro-Latin America.” In 2010, 150,000 identified themselves as Afro-Argentine, or a mere 0.365 percent of a population of 41 million people, according to the census, the first in the country’s history that counted race.
But the culture the slaves brought with them remained. And in recent years, Argentina has gone from underselling its African roots to rediscovering them, as academics, archaeologists, immigrants and a nascent civil rights movement have challenged the idea that African and Argentine are mutually exclusive terms.
Some see creating tourist trails, with plaques and brochures, as a way to educate locals and tourists alike about this long-suppressed history. In my several visits the last few years and during my time living in the country, the trail led me to the other Argentina, one that is just starting to be woven into the country’s narrative about itself.
MY FIRST STOP required some dancing shoes. I dropped in on a tango lesson at the Movimiento Afrocultural on Buenos Aires’s Calle Defensa in San Telmo. The cultural institution was started in 2009 to promote African and African-Argentine heritage. As I scanned its events calendar, there were many activities that had an obvious African bent, but tango?
“There are no doubts that tango has an African origin,” the teacher, Veronica Rueco, told me. Together, we watched locals and tourists practice their dance moves in the center, a converted warehouse whose walls were lined with candombe drums carved with images of slave ship hulls filled with chained human cargo. “The only doubt is the exact story of how it came about.”
The dance form, she went on to note, was created in the late 1800s, the result of a fusion of African and European immigrant culture. (The term tango is thought to originate from a Niger-Congo term that survived the trans-Atlantic passage along with the slaves, according to Dr. Erika Edwards of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.)
The center’s director, an Afro-Uruguayan named Diego Bonga, leads a drum circle that draws a diverse crowd. The night I attended there were Porteños (from Buenos Aires), Chileans, Uruguayans and even a woman from Iran. The curious peered through the gates at us. Those onlookers are part of the party on Sundays, the neighborhood’s busiest day, when antiques vendors line Defensa, and Plaza Dorrego becomes an open-air milonga, or tango salon, with performers, locals and tourists dancing past midnight. That day, Movimiento Afrocultural holds a candombe parade. Spectators become participants, dancing on the cobblestones in the jittery shake of a murga comparsa, an Argentine dance popular during Carnival season, also rooted in African culture.
I followed the musicians down Defensa as they reached Plaza Dorrego, yellow lights casting a 1920s postcard sepia dream tone over dancers moving two by two. I watched as bystanders searched for the source of the loud, boisterous music. They began stepping in sync with the candombe, bringing to life again their abandoned African forebears.
My next visit was a little less lively. It was underground. It’s no secret that underneath Old Buenos Aires lies a latticework of tunnels, used by colonial smugglers to avoid Spanish tariffs and by priests to travel between Jesuit churches like San Francisco and San Ignacio at the Manzana de las Luces historical site.
Lesser known are the tunnels that run under residential buildings like the one at Defensa 1464 in San Telmo. The complexity of that structure, which is the subject of a 2009 documentary directed by David Rubio, was uncovered by Freda Montaño, an Afro-Ecuadorean who runs the restaurant Rincón Ecuatoriano and once lived there. The colonial-era building’s history has partly been obscured by a new belle epoque facade that it got at the turn of the last century, a period when Buenos Aires consciously mimicked Paris. Still,
Ms. Montaño said she found tunnels in the basement and a small door meant “for someone who services the house, so as not to interfere with what is being done by the white people.” She said that neighbors told her the tunnels lead to Parque Lezama, where slaves were sold and then transported underground to the households purchasing them.
Plaza San Martín, home to the statue of Argentina’s liberator, José de San Martín, was the city’s other main slave auction site. These sites, along with entire districts within Buenos Aires’s colonial core, are part of Unesco’s slave route heritage listing but remain largely unmarked by historical plaques.
Ms. Montaño opened a short-lived cultural center at Defensa 1464 but was forced to close when the landlord wanted to sell the house. She says she hopes the city buys it and creates a museum, and believes that demonstrating the tunnels’ relationship to slavery will benefit tourists and locals alike, “where the world knows nothing of this because people say in this country there are no Afro-descendants.”
Slavery’s connection to the tunnels under this building is unclear, though academics like Pablo Cirio, director of Afro-Argentine studies at the National University, said they were used “to transport goods and live workers — read human slaves — but no serious studies prove it.”
Another network of tunnels lies underneath El Zanjón de Granados museum in San Telmo. They lead through a dried-out, brick-covered creek used as a sewer system. The city’s smallest house, Casa Mínima, is part of the museum complex, and tours explain that it was owned by a freed slave, among Buenos Aires’s few open recognitions of its slave past.
There have been other attempts to examine Argentina’s African roots in Buenos Aires, including a now-closed maritime museum discussing the slave trade in the La Boca neighborhood. And during Argentina’s 2010 bicentennial, cultural institutions sought to mark the country’s diverse past. The National Historical Museum grouped paintings from the museum’s permanent collection of the five-decade-long Emancipation era. The exhibition center Casa Nacional del Bicentenario occasionally surveys African influences in Argentine music. Outside the capital, in San Antonio de Areco, there are exhibits on Argentina’s black gauchos, or cowboys, in the Museo Ricardo Güiraldes and Museo Las Lilas de Areco. Near Cordoba, the Museo de la Estancia Jesuítica de Alta Gracia, part of Unesco’s slave trail list, also contains exhibitions on the relationship among Jesuits, natives and African slaves.
But those attractions all look backward. As part of the shift toward embracing Afro-Argentine culture, the country is beginning to welcome contemporary African influence. El Buen Sabor restaurant in the Villa Crespo neighborhood, for example, was started by a Cameroonian in 2008. The small, yellow space seats perhaps two dozen, but its reputation is outsize. I caught up with its owner, Maxime Tankouo, during one of my visits. “I was seen as a little weird here when I arrived” in 2001, he said. “It was eight days before I saw someone of my race.” He said, “I mix many things, Moroccan, African, Cameroon, all in the same plate.” At first Mr. Tankouo was supported largely by French and other tourists. Now locals are the majority of clients.
These new immigrant arrivals are unintentionally bridging a gap that has already been partly overcome. Even traditional restaurants have an Afro-Argentine touch, albeit unintentional. “Our gastronomic symbol has an African character,” Nicolás Fernández Bravo, a University of Buenos Aires social anthropologist, said of the asado, the Argentine grill consumed by nearly all visiting tourists. He told me of the 19th-century Argentine literary classic “El Matadero” by Esteban Echeverría, with descriptions of cows being butchered and the dividing out of the mollejas, or glands. “Sweetbread parts were given to the slaves,” he said. “This is now part of the general meal, and thought of as a special delicacy, but at one time this would never have been eaten among the elites.”
Argentina still wrestles with its complicated identity. Back at the chapel, Ms. Luis told me she is often the first Afro-Argentine local tourists have met, some arguing she is from elsewhere. Because of this, she said, “the history of blacks must be told to you by blacks.”
Her boss, José Fares, head of Chascomús tourism, explained that the chapel is one way Argentina can overcome its own myths, recounting the Argentine axiom, “ ‘the Mexicans descended from the Mayans, the Peruvians from the Incas, and us, from the boats.’ We Argentines think we are the Europeans of South America.”
Ms. Luis reminds us that her ancestors came by boat, too, saying: “They immigrated. We were brought here.”
The general history of slavery in Argentina is dominated by the black experience in Buenos Aires during the 18th and 19th centuries. Andrews has written two books that detail their experiences. The first, Andrews 1980, is the first social history of slavery written in English. He later followed up with a general comparative history of blacks throughout Latin America (Andrews 2004). This book is highly recommended for undergraduates. Andrews has since expanded this book to include the 17th and 18th centuries in his most recent publication Andrews 2016. Within the province of Buenos Aires, Mayo 2004 provides an economic history about labor conditions at the end of the 18th century. Pineau 2011 is an anthology that captures the black experience from the slave trade to today. Outside of Buenos Aires, three works, Becerra 2008, Borucki 2015, and Pistone 1996, explore the black experiences in the provinces of Córdoba, Banda Oriental (modern-day Uruguay) and Santa Fe, respectively. Becerra 2008 provides a historiography of texts produced since the 1960s about Córdoba. Borucki 2015 delves into the social networks created among African descendants from the late colonial to early republican periods. Pistone 1996 provides a general history about slavery in the province of Santa Fe. Most recently, Siegrist and Rosal 2012 and Guzman, et al. 2016 are anthologies that fill a crucial gap in the historiography as they trace the black experience in Argentina and the Rio de la Plata from the 18th through the 21st centuries. In particular Guzman, et al. 2016 goes beyond Buenos Aires and discusses other cities, such as La Rioja, Córdoba, and Santa Fe.
Andrews, George Reid. The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800–1900. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
This book is a social, cultural, and military history of the black experience in Buenos Aires during the 19th century. The book tests the myths of black disappearance in Buenos Aires, Argentina. These myths include disease, genocide, and wars. Andrews argues that though they are partly true, the real reason stems from an ideological erasure known as the whitening period and a statistical transfer in the censuses.
Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000. New York: Oxford, 2004.
This is a general book on the black experiences from the beginning of the republics to today. It is divided into periods, including the wars of independence, the modernization/whitening process, the mestizaje period, and today’s black movements. It compares the black experience throughout Latin America.
Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600–2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
This is a general history of the black experience from the 17th century to 2000. It expands on his 2004 book. This book provides additional information on the colonial period.
Becerra, María José. “Estudios sobre esclavitud en Córdoba: Análisis y perspectivas.” In Los estudios Afroamericanos y Africanos en América Latina: Herencia, presencia y visiones del otro. Edited by Gladys Lechini, 145–163. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, 2008.
Becerra provides a historiographical overview of slavery in Córdoba, focusing primarily on Argentine scholars from the 1960s to today. The scholars are framed within various methodologies and schools of thought.
Borucki, Alex. From Shipmates to Soldiers: Emerging Black Identities in the Río de la Plata. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015.
Borucki focuses on the creation of various social networks—slave ship experiences, religious brotherhoods, soldiers—among African descendants. He sheds light on their experiences in Montevideo, an important slave port in the 18th century and part of the Rio de la Plata until the independence of Uruguay in 1825.
de la Cerda Donoso de Moreschi, Jeanette C., and Luis J. Villarroel. Los negros esclavos de Alta Gracia: Caso testigo de población de origen africano en la Argentina y América. Córdoba, Argentina: Ediciones del Copista, Biblioteca de la Historia, 1999.
The city of Alta Gracia, Argentina, is a small town in which extensive African slavery existed. The authors note that the stories of the slaves in this town have almost been erased from history thus, they attempt to rescue the memory of this group of human beings that carried the stigma of being black and being slaves.
Guzman, Florencia, Lea Geler, and Alejandro Frigerio. Cartografías afro latinoamericanos: Perspectivas situadas desde Argentina. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Biblos, 2016.
Guzman, Geler and Friegerio’s anthology provides a diverse array of essays that examine the black experience in various regions of Argentina from the colonial period through the 20th century themes include racial labeling, urban slavery, black artisans, abolition, entertainment, and memory.
Mayo, Carlos. “Gauchos negros: Los esclavos de la estancia colonial.” In Estancia y sociedad en la pampa, 1740–1820. By Carlos Mayo, 135–150. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Biblos, 2004.
Mayo investigates the economic progression of Argentina’s rural areas in the late colonial era. He acknowledges these rural areas as slave-occupied territories with progressive transformation to agricultural commercialization and economic prosperity. Mayo also addresses how the rural areas were culturally and socially modified.
Pineau, Marisa. La ruta del esclavo en el Río de la Plata: Aportes para el diálogo intercultural. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial de la Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero, 2011.
This book is a compilation of several chapters stemming from an international seminar organized by the Catedra Unesco de Turismo Cultural, held in Buenos Aires in 2009. The purpose of this book is to promote cultural and artistic dialogue between Latin America and African countries.
Pistone, J. Catalina. La esclavatura negra en Santa Fe. Santa Fe, Argentina: Junta Provincial de Estudios Históricos de Santa Fe, 1996.
Pistone examines the origin and presence of black slavery in the city of Santa Fe, particularly in relation to religion. Pistone thoroughly examines primary municipal and clerical documents to show the development of slave culture in the region and how blacks were incorporated into society through mestizaje, or military service.
Rosal, Miguel. Africanos y afrodescendientes en el Río de la Plata: Siglos XVIII–XIX. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Dunken, 2009.
Rosal examines black property owners, including both freed people and slaves. He provides a general history of the black experience in Buenos Aires during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This book’s appendix provides a listing of all blacks, pardos, and mulattos who left wills and their location in the Archivo General Nación.
Siegrist, Nora, and Miguel Rosal, eds. Cuestiones interétnicas: Fuentes, y aportes sobre el componente afromestizo en Hispanoamérica, siglos XVII–XIX. Saarbrucken, Germany: Editorial Académica Española, 2012.
This anthology focuses on various new methodologies surrounding the black experience primarily in Buenos Aires. It focuses on criminal proceedings, racial identity, and social relationships.
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Argentina&rsquos flag dates back to 1812. It has three horizontal bands the top and bottom ones are light blue, and the middle is white. The meaning behind the flag's colors is disputed, but some say the white represents silver.
Early Spanish conquistadors named the country Argentina after the Latin word Argentinum, meaning silver, thinking that the region contained vast amounts of the precious metal. The blue bands may represent the sky, the waters of Argentina&rsquos Rio de la Plata, or the blue used by the Spanish royal house of Bourbon on their coat of arms. Observing the flag, our gaze is immediately attracted to its center, where we find its most striking feature: a human face wearing a neutral expression inside a gold disc with straight and wavy rays emitting from its center, representing a sun. The sun, known as el sol de mayo (The Sun of May) after Argentina&rsquos May revolution (which eventually led to the nation&rsquos independence from Spain), is a national emblem.
Argentine coinage dating back to 1813 has an image of the same sun, as does the Uruguayan flag (differing only in the number of rays), and early versions of the Peruvian flag. Juan de Dios Tupac Amaru (1760-1843), a Peruvian descendant of Incan nobility, designed The Sun of May, which pays tribute to the Incan sun god Inti. The Incas worshipped the sun and its life-giving power. They believed that their ruler was a direct descendant of the sun, and they built sun temples throughout their empire. The original 1813 national anthem of Argentina also makes dramatic, a lyrical reference to the Incas, assuring that their dead &ldquoare shaken, and in their bones, the ardor revives, for the sons of the homeland, ancient splendor.&rdquo
Argentinian politician and revolutionary military leader Manuel Belgrano (1770-1820) designed the flag itself. He based the design on the cockade of Argentina that he created in 1812, a circular logo similar to the Argentine flag with a light blue circular band following its perimeter, a white inner band of the same width, and a light blue dot in the middle creating a bulls-eye effect. The cockade is also a national emblem and National Cockade Day is celebrated May 18th. The cockade and the flag were designed shortly after the 1810 May Revolution, which eventually helped lead to Argentina&rsquos independence from Spain, as a source of identity for the nation as it fought for its freedom. Argentinian revolutionary soldiers wore the cockade and swore allegiance to the flag to show loyalty. Their blue colors also differentiated them from the red used by Spanish royalist forces.
National Flag Day is celebrated on June 20th, the day of Belgrano&rsquos death. Besides designing the flag and cockade, Belgrano is remembered for his involvement in extensive freedom fighting campaigns, particularly in the upper Peru region. Flag Day celebrations are most vibrant in Rosario, the place where Argentina&rsquos flag was first raised in 1812. Here, every year on Flag Day, public officials make speeches and police, armed forces, war veterans, and others participate in a parade to honor the flag. Recently, the people of Rosario created what some call the longest flag in the world. This flag, carried by people from Rosario, also makes an appearance in the parade. National Flag Day celebrations honor Argentina&rsquos flag, a flag which reminds us of the nation&rsquos forefathers who fought for the independence modern Argentinians enjoy and celebrate today.