The Afro-Argentine

During the Spanish colonial period and well into the nineteenth century, Buenos Aires served as an important New World port of entry for slaves from Africa. As seen below with this table taken from the Slave Trade Database, roughly 50,000 slaves landed in Buenos Aires throughout the period.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.52.41 PM

During the last years of Spanish colonial domination, almost one-third of the city’s population was black. In both 1836 and 1838, about twenty years after the Argentine Wars for Independence from Spain, blacks still made up approximately one quarter of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. Looking at the table below, what is odd and doesn’t make initial sense, is that within half a century, by 1887, the number of Afro-Argentines was said to have dropped to less than 2% of the population – a huge decline. How did this happen? Why did this happen? It doesn’t quite make sense. This decline in the Afro-Argentine population earned Argentina the nickname of the Land of the Vanishing Blacks. Buenos Aires itself gained the nickname – the White City.

table afro-argentine

Early scholarship attributed this decline to four factors:

  • – The end of the importation of Africans when the slave trade was abolished
  • – High mortality and relatively low birth rates among Afro-Argentines
  • – Extremely high battlefield casualties among black males during the wars from 1810-1870
  • – “Race mixture and gradual lightening” of the Afro-Argentines exacerbated by the number of male deaths in the military

However, the Afro-Argentinian community continued to make immense contributions to the country’s artistic, military, and social fabric long after their supposed near disappearance from the population. Check out those hyperlinks for details on Afro-Argentinian influence on Argentinian culture!

According to George Reid Andrews, the decline of the black community was not as stark as historians initially believed. Andrews argues that historians and elites of the period artificially accelerated the decline of the Afro-Argentine population through the “statistical transference of a large segment of the Afro-Argentine population from the black category to the white”. (89)

Historians and politicians wishing to cultivate the myth of a white, civilized, Europeanized, and modern Argentina simply eliminated their country’s “undesirable element” from the record. It was historical sleight of hand.  This sleight of hand was aided by providing a racial ‘out’ on their national census. One could select trigueno which was a vehicle which permitted Afro-Argentines to be tabulated as racially ambiguous in this semi official racial category. As time went on, in 1895 the national census provided no statistical data concerning race.

whitening afro-argentine

– The Whitening of an Afro-Argentine. An advertisement for collars and cuffs appearing in the picture magazine Caras y Caretas multiple times during 1902.

WHY Did this happen? Argentinians wanted to be known as the “only white country in South America” especially when “comparing it to mongrelized countries”. These ideals were perpetuated by the racism of the Brazilian elite who were obsessed with the ideal of “whitening” their culture. Ultimately, it is immensely important to reexamine the disappearance of Afro-Argentines from the population as it is clear, due to the amount that they contributed culturally, as well as the loopholes pushed on them by the Argentinian elites, that the historical record in this case does not represent the full truth. These sentiments and the outs created were by no means singular and isolated to Buenos Aires or Argentina but extended throughout South America.

WHY Is it relevant to the present? “Societies cannot decide to actively combat racism until they are willing to recognize the phenomenon, a preliminary condition that no Latin American country besides Cuba has yet fulfilled.” If we as a modern society are to make progress throughout the world in fighting the battle against racism, it is of the utmost importance to understand where the racism in today’s society came and how it became a part of the socially accepted norm of today. Today, there is a whole science studying micro aggressions that examines the everyday sayings and actions that perpetuate racism enacted by people who don’t know they are doing something wrong. If micro aggressions are to be addressed and our society is to take a step forward, we must all come to a greater understanding through an open and honest discourse. This discourse must begin with History, a dissection of where we came from, and extend into Sociology, an examination of where we are today. Ultimately, I hope this project shed a small ray of light onto a subject and a past that is so shrouded in darkness and silence.