How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History And Conscience

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Tens of millions of black Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands from the 16th century to the 19th century to toil on the plantations and farms of the New World. This so-called “Middle Passage” accounted for one of the greatest forced migrations of people in human history, as well as one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever witnessed.

Millions of these helpless Africans washed ashore in Brazil — indeed, in the present-day, roughly one-half of the Brazilian population trace their lineage directly to Africa. African culture has imbued Brazil permanently and profoundly, in terms of music, dance, food and in many other tangible ways.

But what about Brazil’s neighbor, Argentina? Hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought there as well – yet, the black presence in Argentina has virtually vanished from the country’s records and consciousness.

According to historical accounts, Africans first arrived in Argentina in the late 16th century in the region now called the Rio de la Plata, which includes Buenos Aires, primarily to work in agriculture and as domestic servants. By the late 18th century and early 19th century, black Africans were numerous in parts of Argentina, accounting for up to half the population in some provinces, including Santiago del Estero, Catamarca, Salta and Córdoba.

In Buenos Aires, neighborhoods like Monserrat and San Telmo housed many black slaves, some of whom were engaged in craft-making for their masters. Indeed, blacks accounted for an estimated one-third of the city’s population, according to surveys taken in the early 1800s.

Slavery was officially abolished in 1813, but the practice remained in place until about 1853. Ironically, at about this time, the black population of Argentina began to plunge.

Historians generally attribute two major factors to this sudden “mass disappearance” of black Africans from the country – the deadly war against Paraguay from 1865-1870 (in which thousands of blacks fought on the frontlines for the Argentine military) as well as various other wars; and the onset of yellow fever in Buenos Aires in 1871.

The heavy casualties suffered by black Argentines in military combat created a huge gender gap among the African population – a circumstance that appears to have led black women to mate with whites, further diluting the black population. Many other black Argentines fled to neighboring Brazil and Uruguay, which were viewed as somewhat more hospitable to them.

Others claim something more nefarious at work.

It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army and by forcing blacks to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care).

Tellingly, Sarmiento wrote in his diary in 1848: “In the United States… 4 million are black, and within 20 years will be 8 [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 leafy tree of freedom.”

By 1895, there were reportedly so few blacks left in Argentina that the government did not even bother registering African-descended people in the national census.

The CIA World Factbook currently notes that Argentina is 97 percent white (primarily comprising people descended from Spanish and Italian immigrants), thereby making it the “whitest” nation in Latin America.

But blacks did not really vanish from Argentina – despite attempts by the government to eliminate them (partially by encouraging large-scale immigration in the late 19th and 20th century from Europe and the Near East). Rather, they remain a hidden and forgotten part of Argentine society.

Hisham Aidi, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, wrote on Planete Afrique that in the 1950s, when the black American entertainer Josephine Baker arrived in Argentina, she asked the mixed-race minister of public health, Ramon Carilio: “Where are the Negroes?” In response, Carilio joked: “There are only two — you and I.”

As in virtually all Latin American societies where blacks mixed with whites and with local Indians, the question of race is extremely complex and contentious.

“People of mixed ancestry are often not considered ‘black’ in Argentina, historically, because having black ancestry was not considered proper,” said Alejandro Frigerio, an anthropologist at the Universidad Catolica de Buenos Aires, according to Planete Afrique.

“Today the term ‘negro’ is used loosely on anyone with slightly darker skin, but they can be descendants of indigenous Indians [or] Middle Eastern immigrants.”

AfricaVive, a black empowerment group founded in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s, claimed that there are 1 million Argentines of black African descent in the country (out of a total population of about 41 million). A report in the Washington Post even suggested that 10 percent of Buenos Aires’ population may have African blood (even if they are classified as “whites” by the census).

“People for years have accepted the idea that there are no black people in Argentina,” Miriam Gomes, a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, who is part black herself, told the Post.

“Even the schoolbooks here accepted this as a fact. But where did that leave me?”

She also explained that almost no one in Argentina with black blood in their veins will admit to it.

“Without a doubt, racial prejudice is great in this society, and people want to believe that they are white,” she said. “Here, if someone has one drop of white blood, they call themselves white.”

Gomes also told the San Francisco Chronicle that after many decades of white immigration into Argentina, people with African blood have been able to blend in and conceal their origins.

“Argentina’s history books have been partly responsible for misinformation regarding Africans in Argentine society,” she said. “Argentines say there are no blacks here. If you’re looking for traditional African people with very black skin, you won’t find it. African people in Argentina are of mixed heritage.”

Ironically, Argentina’s most famous cultural gift to the world – the tango – came from the African influence.

“The first paintings of people dancing the tango are of people of African descent,” Gomes added.

On a broader scale, the “elimination” of blacks from the country’s history and consciousness reflected the long-cherished desire of successive Argentine governments to imagine the country as an “all-white” extension of Western Europe in Latin America.

“There is a silence about the participation of Afro-Argentines in the history and building of Argentina, a silence about the enslavement and poverty,” said Paula Brufman, an Argentine law student and researcher, according to Planete Afrique.

“The denial and disdain for the Afro community shows the racism of an elite that sees Africans as undeveloped and uncivilized.”

Palash Ghosh

Source: International Business Times

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4 thoughts on “How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History And Conscience”

  1. Shameful, dirty business. When the people will be free, South America will be Africa. The dynamics will converge at the appointed moment. Everybody will want to be black.


  2. Henrietta Lacks and her family are finally being recognized for their contribution to science but will not be sharing in any portion of the billions of dollars that were made.

    Family of Baltimore woman wins recognition for immortal cells
    The Canadian PressBy Malcolm Ritter, The Associated Press | The Canadian Press – 7 hours ago..

    In this July 30, 2013 photo made available by the National Institutes of Health, a researcher places HeLa cells in an incubator at 37 degrees Celsius at a lab at the National Cancer Institute in order for them to multiply. The cancerous cells, originally taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 without her knowledge or consent, were the first human cells that could be grown indefinitely in a laboratory. These “HeLa” cells have been crucial for key developments in such areas as vaccines and cancer treatments. (AP Photo/National Institutes of Health, Maggie Bartlett)View Photo.
    In this July 30, 2013 photo made available by the National Institutes of Health, …


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    NEW YORK, N.Y. – Some 60 years ago, an American doctor removed cancer cells from a poor black patient named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. Those cells eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments and laid the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar biotech industry.

    The Baltimore woman’s saga was made famous by the 2010 bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

    Now, for the first time, the Lacks family has been given a say over at least some research involving her cells.

    Lacks’ family members have never shared in any of the untold riches unlocked by the material, called HeLa cells, and they won’t make any money under the agreement announced Wednesday by the family and the National Institutes of Health.

    But they will have some control over scientists’ access to the cells’ DNA code. And the Lacks family will receive acknowledgment in the scientific papers that result.

    The agreement came after the family raised privacy concerns about making Henrietta Lacks’ genetic makeup public. Since DNA is inherited, information from her DNA could be used to make predictions about the disease risk and other traits of her modern-day descendants.

    Under the agreement, two family members will sit on a six-member committee that will regulate access to the genetic code.

    “The main issue was the privacy concern and what information in the future might be revealed,” David Lacks Jr., grandson of Henrietta Lacks, said at a news conference.

    Jeri Lacks Whye, a granddaughter who lives in Baltimore, called the agreement historic.

    “In the past, the Lacks family has been left in the dark” about research stemming from HeLa cells, she said. Now, “we are excited to be part of the important HeLa science to come.”

    Medical ethicists praised the NIH action. There was no legal obligation to give the family any control over access to the genetic data.

    “They’re doing the right thing,” said Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton of Vanderbilt University’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Society. “Having people at the table makes a difference in what you do,” she said, noting that some Native American groups have a similar arrangement with researchers.

    Rebecca Skloot, author of the acclaimed 2010 book, sat in on the negotiations leading to the agreement, and she said family members never demanded money.

    “This discussion wasn’t about money for them,” she said. Skloot noted that family members are earning income from a packed schedule of speaking engagements and have also received donations from a foundation the writer established.

    Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 at age 31, was being treated for aggressive cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital when the cells were removed. The lack of consent was typical of the time, long before modern-day rules were put in place.

    The cells were the first human cells that could be grown indefinitely in a laboratory. They became crucial for key developments in such areas as vaccines and cancer treatments.

    HeLa cells are the most widely used human cell line in existence today. But Lacks died of her disease without knowing about them, and family members didn’t learn of them until 25 years later.

    They weren’t told in the 1970s, when doctors did research on Lacks’ children. And in the 1980s, family medical records were published without family consent, said Rebecca Skloot, author of the 2010 book.

    The story took a new turn in March, when German researchers published the DNA code, or genome, of a strain of HeLa cells. The researchers hadn’t sought permission from the Lacks family before publishing, and the family found out about it from Skloot.

    “It was shocking and little disappointing, knowing that Henrietta’s information was out there,” Whye said. “It was like her medical records are just there to view with the click of the button. They didn’t come to the family. … It was like history was repeating itself.”

    After complaints, the researchers removed the genome data from public databases.

    Meanwhile, a team from the University of Washington had derived a genome from a different HeLa strain with funding from the NIH and submitted it for publication.

    The new agreement will restrict access to the genome data from both studies. Researchers who want to use that data will have to ask permission from the six-member committee.

    Applicants will have to agree to restrictions such as not sharing the DNA information with others, reporting back on their results, and acknowledging the Lacks family in their publications.

    The deal also covers any future HeLa genomes produced with NIH funding.

    “They’ve basically put (the family) at the table where the decisions are going to be made. That’s really a common-sense thing to have done,” said Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.

    The family has a legitimate right to say, “We want this to be a partnership, not an exploitation,” Cook-Deegan said.

    He and Clayton said the Lacks saga was so unusual that they don’t expect the agreement to be repeated for other cases. But they said the deal highlights the ethical issues surrounding the handling of DNA and other biological samples from patients in research.

    Clayton said she thinks it will promote the idea of controlling access to genome information, or at least obtaining explicit and informed consent from donors before putting such information in publicly accessible databases.

    Cook-Deegan said the agreement promotes the idea that donors or their family should have some kind of say over how their DNA or tissue is used for research.

  3. An African Community In Argentina: The Cape Verdeans

    by Professor Miriam Gomes

    Buenos Aires, Argentina: The Cape Verdean community of Argentina is made up of approximately 8,000 residents according to the 1980 census. Actually it is the only organized black community in Argentina. Even though there have always existed, of course, the African descendants of the former Argentine slaves and there are immigrants from African countries, those groups are neither unified nor do they view themselves as a community. Rather, they are dispersed in pockets throughout the country. Most of the Cape Verdeans and their descendents are concentrated in the province of Buenos Aires. There they have organizations which hold them together: the Society Of Mutual Aid “The Cape Verdean Union” of Dock-Sud (South Dock) and the Cape Verdean Sport And Culture Club of Ensenada. Both organizations have existed for more than 60 years. Even though there is evidence that some Cape Verdeans had already arrived in Argentina by the end of the last century, the first great wave of Cape Verdean immigrants began arriving in the 1920s and continued until the Second World War. The seafaring character of Cape Verdeans essentially determined that these immigrants would settle near seaports and make their living in jobs connected to the sea. And even though, the immigration to the Americas by of Cape Verdeans was not forced, as with other African peoples, it was forced all the same by living conditions on the Cape Verdes. The great exodus by Cape Verdean from their homeland came about for many reasons, among them, their opposition to the Portuguese colonial administrators, their lack of jobs and recourses on the islands, but also, to a certain measure, their spirit of adventure and love of seafaring. Those were the things, in the past, which linked together our diasporic community. But today, in actuality, what keeps us united? More than anything, it is our realization that we are in an Argentine society which has a big dose of racism and which is disintegrating. In the first place, that which keeps us united, in my opinion, is the sense of belonging to a group and the constant reminder of the ethical and cultural values of our mother islands. Without a doubt, this sense of belonging brings about many problems. One of them is living in a society that does not accept differences among peoples. The person who doesn’t conform is forced to live on the margins of society. That ranges from suffering taunts from classmates in elementary school, to snide and sly remarks on the street, to the loss of opportunities for jobs due to discrimination. The former constitution of Argentina, modified in 1994, restricted the immigration of people of African or Asian origin, while encouraging that of Europeans. The Cape Verdeans were accepted because they came to Argentina with Portuguese passports when the Cape Verdes was still a colony of Portugal. Our problems in Argentina include the constant bombardment by the media of messages which demean the image of Africa, which impose of an idea of beauty that doesn’t include us, and which presents of black people in films as either subservient or criminal. These are all images which work against integrating young people of African descent in the society. It hurts our young people’s sense of self-worth, and it perpetuates a situation which keeps us on the margins of Argentine society. The Cape Verdean community of Argentina today faces the challenges, both, of building it’s self-esteem, while continuing to struggle to maintain it’s unique identity. To those ends, in 1932 we established in Buenos Aires the S.S.M “Cape Verdean Union.”

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