Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bicentennial: 200 Years and counting of denial

Millions of people showed up to see the Bicentennial Celebration. 900,000 people's daddy's weren't glassmakers. A few people actually saw the celebration. This photo will also be used to play Where's Willis aka Find the negro en Buenos Aires. Good luck.

This week Argentina celebrated the Bicentennial, the 200 year anniversary of the La Revolucion de Mayo. While La Revolucion de Mayo is comparable to our American Independence day, official independence from Spanish Colonization didn’t come for Argentina until 1816. These celebrations actually commemorate the first steps of rebellion that would catapult Argentina into their fight for independence, including their rejection of the Viceroy, and the formation of their own local government.

To be very honest, before all of the noise that was made about the 200 year anniversary, I was none the wiser to all of the intimate details of political rebellion. I will always know the 25 de Mayo for the very specific way that students all over Argentina recognize the Afro-Argentine community, who at this time made up a striking ONE THIRD of the population of Buenos Aires. Yup, I’ma say it again…about 33% of the population of Buenos Aires was considered black according to census data carefully examined by scholar George Reid Andrews. Slaves, and freed Afro-Argentines made up a huge part of the port city, were hugely important in wars of independence, and yes, in the cultural development of Argentine identity—so how are blacks portrayed in the 25 de mayo celebrations?

Two years ago, while conducting interviews of members of the black community in BsAs, there seemed to be one collective memory that constantly resurfaced and caused some anxiety amongst Afro-Argentines…

“We don’t learn about Afro-Argentines in school. We learn a little about slaves. Then every May 25, students act out the Revolucion de Mayo events, and someone gets their face painted black with cork to play the slaves selling empanadas. After that, they disappear, we never talk about them again..”

So, Argentines like to celebrate independence day with a little bit of children in black face? But, I mean, who doesn’t….

Another Cape Verdean interviewee told me that each year the schools would pick their child to play the slave, because, well frankly, there aren’t too many colored kids to choose from. One year, in an ironic twist, he put his foot down and insisted that she play the role of the elite.

With pressure from groups such as INADI, INDEC, and Africa Vive, Argentina’s official posture on Afro-Argentines has become more inclusive, and dedicated to opening up the national imagery of European mixture. This year they have agreed to officially rewrite history accounts of Afro-Argentines, and will conduct a census that for the first time in a hundred years will include Afro-Descendiente as an option! Unfortunately, huge government sponsored events like the Bicentennial celebration really show just how much the Afro community will have to battle for itself to receive their proper recognition.

This is the official propaganda that the Argentine National Broadcasting Station put out:


What is striking, is the acknowledgement and inclusion of the indigenous part of the Argentine identity—it isn’t often that you see BROWN people in advertisements, especially not for the government. Ads and commercials that come from Buenos Aires have a tendency to idealize the blond and blue eyed rather than give an accurate representation of the spectrum of brown that exists in the country.

What is still troubling is what the ad does not show. The quote in the advertisement comes from a document written in 1810 by Mariano Moreno, a very important figure in establishing the first local government, and starting the first free press newspaper.

The video clip comes from the following passage:

La libertad de los pueblos no consiste en palabras, ni debe existir en los papeles solamente. Qualquier déspota puede obligar á sus esclavos, á que canten himnos á la libertad; y este cántico maquinal es muy compatible con las cadenas, y opresion de los que lo entonan. Si deseamos que los pueblos sean libres, observemos religiosamente el sagrado dogma de la igualdad. ¿Si me considero igual á mis conciudadanos, porque me hé de presentar de un modo, que les enseñe, que son menos que yo? Mi superioridad solo existe en el acto de exercer la magistratura, que se me ha confiado; en las demas funciones de la sociedad soy un ciudadano, sin derecho á otras consideraciones, que las que merezca por mis virtudes.

The irony here is in noticing what is left out from Morenos words. They carefully snipped out (from this passage and another passage that they use) each phrase in the series that included any mention of slaves. Though impressive amounts of Afro-Argentine slaves and free people fought in these wars and revolutionary processes, there was not one parade, ceremony, or visual acknowledgement of the Afro-Argentine community during the whole week long celebration. This blatant dismissal of the black community during this important event is quite telling of the type of public memory and identity that Argentine officials are trying to maintain. As the nation and the international community looks onward, the government continues to privilege pride in certain and identities while contributing to the invisibilization of the Afro community.

Luckily, the Afro community did not hold their breath waiting for the government to recognize them as an integral part of the Argentine nation. There were various marches, and a calendar of Diasporic events organized by IARPIDI, an anti-racism and discrimination organization in Buenos Aires. The events were inclusive of the entire diaspora, even those more recent immigrants, who also contribute to the current development of what it means to be "Argentine". The Afro-community marched, held drum workshops, capoeira classes, presentations of documentaries, musical performances--all proceeds going to an organization that helps Haitian refugees. Now, call me a hypocrite if you must but, I still had a quite sour taste in my mouth about Afro political events and thus, i opted out.

Happy 200 years of independence Argentina...we can only hope that one day you'll also be freed from this identity crisis that so plagues you.

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