About a month before I left for Buenos Aires I got an exciting e-mail from my friend Fede Pita, an Afro-Argentine slave descendent and political activist in Buenos Aires. He let me know that:
1.) He was getting married!
2.) He had been elected the president of the organization La Diaspora Africana en Argentina
I was ecstatic about both events, especially because I would just happen to be arriving in Buenos Aires as he would tie the knot.
Fede was one of my first contacts within the communidad afro en Argentina two long years ago. He gave an inspiring speech on a panel of activists and academics during The Week of Africa en Argentina, (although it was only later when I transcribed the speech that I was inspired, as my Spanish at the time was “mas o menos”). Nonetheless, I was impressed with what I did understand and his fiery energy that made his words shoot out in bullets. About four months into my exchange in Buenos Aires, I met with Fede, and his little brother Nico Pita for helado at the mall. We talked easily, despite my verbal hobbles in trying to express concepts of black liberation in my alien language.
The Pitas and the Nadals are two of Argentina’s largest existing Afro-Argentine families of slave descendents, and they are closely linked by marriage ties. Unfortunately, most people don’t believe that they exist. That’s right, throw away your visions of all Latin American countries being rice and bean eating brown and black people who speak a smooth Spanish. (Ok, maybe those were my prejuicios coming from the vision of the black and white city of Pittsburgh.) One of the most common phrases that you’ll hear in Buenos Aires is “no hay negros in Argentina”.
Porteños will tell you that these Afro-Argentine families just don’t exist anymore. Yup, “They’ve all disappeared” or “They were all killed off in the wars and by yellow fever.” or “We never really had very many slaves anyways, they all came from Brazil”. No hay negros in Buenos Aires.
Ok, so how can this be??
Well, at the turn of the 19th century, Argentina’s founding fathers went through the identity crisis similar to that which most Latin American elite were experiencing. As their colonizers were pushed back to their high chairs across the sea—they realized that THEY COULD NO LONGER CLAIM WHITENESS, they were LATIN AMERICAN. The remaining elite (and often the lightest breeds) who would often become the founding fathers, scrambled to find ways to become obedient children to their former colonizers. One of the best ways to make themselves more appealing to the Mama Patria (and to their own colonized minds) was to make themselves whiter!
Argentina just happened to be more successful than most countries.
The country that some 200 years ago was one third Afro-Argentine, is now the "whitest" country in America Latina with only a speculated 2-3% of population claiming to be Afro-descendants.
How the hell did they do it?
Well, I can’t tell you why Argentina specifically was so successful at ridding themselves of black and indigenous people—I’d say part efficiency, and part luck.
-- Founding Fathers such as Sarmiento (like an Argentine George Washington) literally wrote up a plan to make the country whiter and therefore more “civilized”.
--Similar to Americans, in the late 1800’s the national government organized a genocidal tour around the Argentine countryside in hopes of reinventing and modernizing Argentine society. (Read: Kill all brown and black people by whatever means necessary.)
--At the beginning of the 20th century founding fathers mused that the most efficient way to civilize the population was to just bring in more Europeans. They received over 6 million European immigrants, doubling the population of the capital city in just a few years.
--At the end of the 19th century, a yellow fever epidemic broke out. By taking no precautions to protect the slums, 20,000 people died—most poor, and disproportionately black.
--Ok, well clearly a bitter sweet luck. Argentine's fought numerous and consecutive wars in their independence process, killing off a great deal of Afro-Argentine men who were fighting for their freedom.
--By endorsing the silly notion that miscegenation would actually whiten the country and civilize the people of color. (White blood is stronger, so they said.) Their genetic miscalculations actually came to fruition when the deluge of Europeans drowned out the number of colored folks.
While importing Europeans and courting the British and French, the Porteño elite also worked hard through the 20th century to continue to rebuild their port city specifically to resemble Paris. The Argentine independence process was like 100 years of plastic surgery that the current Porteño population wants no recollection of. Despite the extensive indigenous and African influences on the culture of the country, the national imagery remains one of European mixture.
Everything that is black or indigenous is often geopolitically located to neighboring countries. When telling cab drivers what I research, one common suggestion is that I move my research to Brazil, where I might find something. When asking Argentines about the Afro-Argentine traditional music Candombe, they politely tell me that the tradition is from Uruguay.
Everyone who is phenotypically black is considered a foreigner in Argentina and so the Pita and Nadal families go through pains in trying to explain their existence.
“How is it that you are Argentine?” People ask quizzically.
“But where are you REALLY from? Where are you parents from?”
Some, blinded by a white Argentine mythology firmly bolstered by public education, refuse to believe in the existence of Afro-Argentines.
Most of my interactions with Fede Pita involved political meetings or at least political conversations. He’s incredibly well-read and well-spoken, and because of his constant interest and research on the diaspora, his ideas and understanding about black social politics in Argentina is often on a different dimension than older activist with very localized definitions of culture and race. As the name of the group “Diaspora Africana en Africana” suggests, his activist politics are firmly rooted in organizing a cultural African diaspora in Argentina. His views come partly from his voracious reading of diasporic literature…and partly from his interest in hip-hop.
Fede and his family own the biggest hip-hop clothing and shoe company in Buenos Aires, and he is actually one of the biggest inspirations for my writing my thesis on music, and for applying for a grant to study hip-hop.
Where the topic of my studies will take me, I’m unsure, but with Fede (and wife) onboard the Afro-Diasporic train, I’m interested to see where we’ll all be going...