About two weeks ago I ran into Marcelino, an activist from Dock Sud , the most cohesive community of Afro-descendants in the Great Buenos Aires. I met with Marcelino in a coffee shop so we could find a mutual understanding--what was it that brought us together? I didn’t know what the guy was about, or what his organization was, and he wasn’t sure why I was in Argentina bothering with black people, but we were certain that there was a reason that we had met each other. We sat with a beer and a few empanadas while he questioned me intently about what it was I was doing here. The question for me is still a bit difficult as sometimes I can’t answer it myself. Am I a researcher writing about hip-hop sometimes, am I an activist in the black community interested in music…am I photographer on vacation?
At this point my explanation was that I was researching youth in the black community and how they use music to express their Afro identity. My interest is his work did not come from a research interest but from a personal interest in participating in a community organization that was really helping diasporic peoples. I explained that I was tired of people talking about how much they were doing when they had hardly been outside of a conference room. I told him that I had just finished doing work for a really exciting non-profit in my home town and so I was ready to use a bunch of new skills that I had just learned.
He nodded sympathetically, and always with an “uh-huh”, a deep throaty affirmative response that seemed calculative, and introspective. His eyes were deep and probing…his emotions at his beck and call. He would pour my beer, but his eyes stayed fixed in mine. He was sizing up my intentions with my talk, was feelin out the vibrations of my heart.
He'd been in the game for more than 25 years, he had heard it all before. He'd seen a million politicians with the cara de buena and with ganas de hacer leave his organization cold after they'd gotten what they wanted out of it. He'd been left with battle scars and suspicions about those outside of the community coming in.
Marcelino was born in Cape Verde, a tiny group of islands off of the coast of Africa, and came to Argentina on a scholarship some 40 years ago. He moved directly to the neighborhood of Dock Sud, where he joined numerous other ex-patriots from his homeland. More than 100 years ago, a large wave of Cape-verdean immigrants settled to work at the docks, and their presence continues to dominate the neighborhood. It is probably one of the only places in Buenos Aires that you can find a "black neighborhood" because though Africans and Afro-descendientes continue to immigrate to Argentina, there isn't much of a pattern to where, how, and when they settle. In contrast, the Cape Verdeans through proximity, social and political action, have maintained their family, their language, and...their color.
Marcelino's mission has always been to focus on his community, to understand their needs and to respond to their problems before they found alternative ways to address them.
Yet, Marcelino does not divide his dedication by color.
Though his neighborhood is completely inhabited by those who most Porteños would call "negros" many are not "Afro-descendientes"--many are not phenotypically black.
In Argentina, the word negro has generally been disassociated with the racial phenotype. Inline with Argentine discourse, the word negro is used very emphatically and yet paradoxically.
It can be used as a term of endearment for anyone, most often for those who have darker hair, or have a bit of brown in them.
"Ay mi negra querida"
But in regards to Marcelino's barrio "Dock Sud", when people call them "esos negros" it is usually a derogatory term to describe their social and economic state.
poor people.dirty people.brown people.unfortunate people.dishonest people.
Those who live in the "conventillas" shanty towns
Bolivians, paraguayans, those from the provincias of Argentina and general outsiders to Buenos Aires who come to "steal jobs" from the "hard working" Porteños.
"Negra de Mierda"
Nigger (or the closest you'll get with a completely distinct slavery narrative)
This is why his organization Amigos de Cabo Verde en Dock Sud
He admitted to me that he was pretty uninvolved and had been uninterested in the "Afro" political community in general in Buenos Aires.
In other words: they talk a lot of shit but they don't back it up. They are actively activist-ing for their own pockets, not the rest of the community that needs the money.
And he's right. There is a serious problem in the community in terms of distribution of money. A few of the older politicians and activists run things like super-cargo, as they've completely replicated the slave master oppressor formula, and they act as intermediaries to the victimization of their communities so that they can have careers. They prefer to have conferences lamenting the poor ideological state of the community rather than set up concrete plans of auto-ayudo where those that truly need in the community can speak for their own needs.
"Almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or "sub-oppressors." The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity." (Friere, Pedagogy of the oppressed)
I talked very little in general except in very empathetic nods, his thoughts and ideas dominated the conversation. The conversation was just in this way. I told him what little I knew of myself at 22 and he tried to paint me a picture of what he knew in his sixty odd years to be true with only 2 hours of words.
Then, he invited me to his sons birthday party.