Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Where Are All the Black People?"

"Where are all the black people?" V. said, as we rounded the corner to Palermo station. When her question met little more than vague murmurs from me, E. jumped in: "I think we're it." After a year and half in Buenos Aires and no good answer, it was about time to hit the books on this one.

If you'd like a laundry list of why Argentina has few Afrodescendents (1), Wikipedia is happy to oblige. But of course their positioning on matters of race and cultural difference is just a bit suspect given that 80% of their editors are male, (probably) white and their CEO possesess questionable political awareness (this photo speaks for itself). Laundry lists aside, that the Afrodescendent population in Argentina is small seems to be at odds with the history and visibility of Afrodescendents in neighboring countries such as Brazil and Uruguay. In 2010, Argentina's national anti-discrimination body (INADI) estimated that the country's "black minority" actually constituted two million people (2). A genetic study by the University of Buenos Aires estimated that 4.3% of people residing in the capital and its suburbs had "African genetic markers" (3). (I'll leave discussion of genetics and the construction of race for another post). While this isn't exactly the 10% reported for neighboring Uruguay, it's still significant enough to make the lack of political visibility all the more startling (4).

As one might imagine, there isn't much writing on this topic and one of the most useful resources I came across was actually written in English. A researcher named Claire Healy in her review essay on Afro-Argentinean historiography describes how writers on Afro-Argentines have variously linked their "decline" to "miscegenation," disease and warfare (Healy, pg. 113). She cites an author on the subject, George Reid Andrews, who posits "that death had less to do with the perceived disappearance of Afro-Argentines than [... racial] reclassification" into mestizos which "contributed to downplaying the contribution of black people to porteño culture and overlooking the patriotism and high level of integration of some black porteños." (pg. 114). Leaving Andrews' positive framing of 'integration' and 'patriotism' to one side, Healy goes on to note the literature doesn't address how the end of (forced) migration from Africa affected "the survival of the Afro-Argentines as a recognisable social group in the face of mass immigration from Europe." (pg. 115).

While clearly there were historical, material events such a disease and warfare that affected the survival of Afro-Argentines, Healy points out several key erasures or omissions at work in the writing itself on this topic:

Historiography on Afro-Argentines has concentrated almost entirely on their disappearance rather than on their existence in nineteenth-century Argentina. A vast problem when assessing the historiography of Afro-Argentines is the almost ubiquitous perception that they were the victims of history and that their ‘‘disappearance’’ was somehow inevitable. As such, analyses of their history frequently relate exclusively to their contribution to and acceptance within white culture, or to reasons for their alleged disappearance (pg. 113, emphasis added).

Indeed, once one begins to look for it, the influence of Afroporteños is immediately evident -- everyday Argentina Spanish words like quilombo and possibly even tango originate in the Afroporteño language of bozal (cited in Healy, pg. 112). Just as striking as the erasure of these contributions to wider Argentinean society, Healy notes a further omission:

One glaring void in the various theories that seek to explain the ‘‘disappearance’’ of Afro-Argentines is their obvious failure to account for a substantial proportion of the entire population of Afro-Argentines. That is, Afro-Argentine women (pg. 115).

Although Healy doesn't discuss it, this omission is startling given what has been written about " miscegenation," or more accurately blanquemiento, in Latin America. Blanqueamiento or "whitening" is the process through which a family lineage, and by extension an entire "race," is made "whiter" and "improved" through reproduction (5). This is distinct from a US racial system which uses the "one drop rule" whereby a person with even one drop of "African blood" is considered black. In Latin America, blanqueamiento generally involved Afrodescedant or Indigenous women giving birth to children by European men. With women tasked with improving the nation through reproduction, blanqueamiento opens the door for policies on marriage, divorce, rape, education, sanitation etc. that sanction violence against Afrodescendent and Indigenous women in the name of a whiter nation (Nelson, pg. 215). And the nation was all the whiter for policies massively promoting European immigration (Nelson, pg. 215), for which Argentina is notorious.

In failing to discuss Afro-Argentine women's historical realities, both Healy and the writers she surveys cover over what the statistics are saying: through enblanqueamiento, many Argentineans do have Afrodescedant heritage but this is rarely acknowledged and is not seen as "making someone black." Without acknowledgement and political visbility for Afrodescendencia, the violent history of blanqueamiento is occluded and its logic installed every time we ask and fail to answer "where are all the black people?"

To conclude, from my very, very brief google scholaring, it seems like there is a strong need for further research that connects Argentina's Afrodescendent heritage to wider conversations on race, nation and postcoloniality in Latin America and the Carribbean. And, just as importantly, to bring those conversations from the books to the streets of Buenos Aires.

Post-script: The Argentinean antidiscrimination body has recently launched a program "Afrodescendents Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism" to
coincide with 2011 as the UN-declared "International Year of Afrodescedants."

1. A note about terms. I'm a little at a loss here and so take my cue from the National Antidiscrimination body (INADI) and use an English translation of afrodescendientes for people who are descended from Afro-Argentines. Afroporteños refers to Afro-Argentines resident in Buenos Aires.


4. Although, this could also be said about Indigenous groups and I think comparing their political situation to that of Afrodescendents' would tell an interesting and important story.

5. You can read more on this in Nelson, Diane (1999) ‘Bodies that Splatter: Gender, “Race” and the Discourse of Mestizaje’, in A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala, University of California Press.

6. Nelson, pg. 215.