Argentina is perceived by many to be a primarily white, European country, with Buenos Aires often referred to as the “Paris of Latin America” in popular culture. This perception is rooted in a post-colonial process where Argentine leaders and intellectuals in the 19th century, especially during the Generation of 1837 and the Generation of 1880, actively made an effort to systematically erase Black Argentines from the country’s history, popular culture, and society in an effort to position the nation as a global power modeled after the US and Europe.
By the second half of the 1700’s, roughly a third of the population of Buenos Aires was comprised of Afro-Argentines. While some were free, most were enslaved, brought in slave ships during the late 16th century in the hundreds of thousands to work as domestic servants and on plantations in the Rio de la Plata region. During the 18th and 19th centuries, people of African descent spread across Argentina. In some provinces, including Salta, Córdoba, Santiago del Estero, and Catamarca, Black Argentines accounted for roughly half the population. Meanwhile, General San Martín’s army was heavily comprised of Afro-Argentines. In the battle of Chacabuco, for instance, which was key in helping liberate Chile from Spanish rule, half of the soldiers were Afro-Argentines promised freedom from slavery in exchange for military service.
The presence of Afro-Argentines had a significant and irrefutable effect on Argentine culture, although their origins have been for the most part erased. For instance, tango— ironically one of Argentina’s most well-known cultural contributions around the world— was a direct result of African influence. In fact, the first documented paintings of people dancing tango depict Black Argentines as the creators of the famous dance. Another archetype of Argentine society, asado barbecues, were heavily influenced by culinary contributions of Afro-Argentines.
However, during the second half of the 19th century, the Afro-Argentine population was rapidly and heavily decimated. This was the result of several factors. In the first place, Black Argentines were enlisted en masse to fight for the Argentine military in the Paraguayan War of 1865. The conflict resulted in the deaths of thousands of Black men, culminating in a heavy gender imbalance in the Afro-Argentine population. As such, this led Black women to increasingly form relationships and have children with white or mixed partners.
Then, cholera epidemics hit Buenos Aires in the 1860’s, followed by yellow fever in 1871, devastating the Afro-Argentine population due to the squalid conditions in which many were forced to live as a result of systematic discrimination, with nearly non-existent access to proper sanitation or healthcare. Other Black Argentines fled to Brazil or Uruguay where they hoped they would encounter both better living conditions and more opportunity.
Yet, the hard blow to this population was not enough for many Argentine leaders, politicians, and intellectuals who wished to elevate Argentina’s position in the world so it would be equal in rank and social prestige to the United States or many of Europe’s great powers. Viewing the whiteness of a population as a measure of social status, the mere existence of Afro-Argentines symbolized to these leaders an inherent antithesis to Argentina’s ascension in the global sphere.
This was especially true of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who would be president from 1868 to 1874, and saw the world in stark, black and white dualities. In his political speeches and writings, he espoused rhetoric of a vicious struggle between noble civilization—represented by white, European influences in Buenos Aires— and barbarism, epitomized by the Afro-Argentines and indigenous populations.
A 1848 diary entry of Sarmiento reveals his highly racist logic: “In the United States…four million are Black, and within twenty years there will be eight million. What is to be done with such Blacks, hated by the white race? Slavery is a parasite that the vegetation of English colonization has left attached to the leafy tree of freedom.”
Viewing the mere existence of Black Argentines as an existential threat to the advancement of the country , Sarmiento was widely reported to have carried out a massive, targeted, covert genocide of people with African heritage. Throughout his presidential term, he instituted highly oppressive and many times deadly policies toward the Black community. These included policies of segregation—which forced Argentines of African origin to live in slums rife with disease and non-existent healthcare— the forced recruitment of Afro-Argentines into the military, mass imprisonment for minor or fabricated crimes, and mass executions. Sarmiento’s genocide was so successful that Afro-Argentines were nearly wiped out by the end of the 19th century; by the 1895 national census, the government didn’t even bother to recognize their existence.
Once the Black population was decimated in Argentina, and a wave of white immigrants from Europe began to flood the country in large part due to the 1853 Constitution, Argentine leaders went about rewriting and whitewashing history. Original paintings of Afro-Argentines dancing tango were re-done with white, European protagonists. Gauchos— national figures of Argentina who typically had indigenous or African roots— were often portrayed in popular culture with light skin and eyes. Paintings of a victorious Argentine army often showed no hint of non-white soldiers. In this way, while their contributions to Argentine culture remained, the existence and image of the Afro-Argentine was purposefully, systematically eliminated from Argentine history and mythology by the elite ruling class. What was left was an illusion of an Argentina that was, and had always been, white.
Argentina remains, undeniably, a product of this whitewashing. According to a poll conducted in 2010, over 97 percent of the population is of European descent, while 0.4 percent identifies as having African ancestry. Today, the misperception of an Argentina that has always been this way is used by many to excuse blatant racism. The phrase “there are no black people in Argentina, so we can’t be racist” is common. In 1997, when then-President Carlos Menem was asked if there were Black people in Argentina, he stated: “No, Brazil has that problem.”
Yet, it is not only the scorn and denial toward Afro-Argentines that underscores the racism of an Argentine population, especially an Argentine elite, that continues to look down on those with darker skin. In school plays, the use of blackface is still common. The word “negro” is all too often often wielded as an insult by schoolchildren and adults alike. Those with darker skin are routinely denied admission to nightclubs, and often arbitrarily pulled over or questioned by police. Meanwhile, current socio-economic discriminations toward those of African and indigenous descent still persist, acting as roadblocks to opportunity and resulting in significantly higher rates of poverty and illiteracy for these Argentine minorities.
While over the past two decades Argentina has taken certain strides in fixing the country’s racial problem, the effectiveness of such laws has been significantly undercut by scarce funding and enforcement. Meanwhile, Argentine politicians, including President Mauricio Macri, continue to use racialized language in reference to Buenos Aires’s crime rates to argue against non-European immigration and gain support in the polls. Yet, in the face of globalization and ever-growing rates of immigration across the globe—including a significant increase of Haitians heading to Brazil, Chile, and Argentina—it seems nearly impossible for the country’s racial diversity to remain stagnant.
If we truly wish to develop Argentina into a nation that allows all of its citizens to thrive, regardless of race or status, it is necessary for the current administration to make a concerted effort toward not only changing its own racialized rhetoric, but also in collecting accurate census data, bettering public education programs, and increasing funding to anti-discrimination agencies and laws. It is only with these efforts that we can begin to push back against Argentina’s long history of discrimination so that every citizen can begin to fully realize their socio-economic potential regardless of race, to the undeniable benefit of the nation as a whole.