‘Black Lives Matter’ Is a Global Cry, But White Argentinians Don’t Hear It
Afro-Argentinians want their fellow citizens to stop erasing their past and present
“Where are you from?” This question, sometimes loaded with suspicion, hostility, or just simple but no less hurtful ignorance, is heard by people like Jennifer Parker on an almost daily basis. Whether it’s picking up groceries at the corner market, sitting in the bus, posting selfies on Instagram, or meeting new co-workers, the implication is always the same: You’re different. You don’t really belong here.
Jennifer Parker is a 24-year-old Afro-Argentinian who lives in Buenos Aires. On her Instagram account of more than 27,000 followers, she explains why blackface is racist or why it’s problematic that a White Argentinian pop star insists on sporting cornrows. Her role as an anti-racism activist in Argentina consists of educating White people about racism while actively calling for an end to the erasure of Afro-Argentinians from the country’s conscience — something Parker and fellow activists are getting increasingly tired of.
Growing up in San Luis, in west central Argentina, Parker’s childhood was, in her words, “absolute shit.” She continues: “I always felt alone. People would always yell stuff like, ‘You Black piece of shit. You’re not going to play with us because you’re Black.’ Things like that, and always tied to the color of my skin.” It was only after connecting with more Black activists online, both in Argentina and other parts of Latin America, that Parker began more actively fighting racism in her home country.
George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota on May 25 sent shockwaves of outrage throughout the world. There was even a small march in Buenos Aires in early June. However, activists like Parker find themselves frustrated with the way public discourse in Argentina has become swept up with calling out racism in the United States while barely paying attention to the plight of Black and Indigenous Argentinians.
“It makes me angry, because it’s very easy to point fingers instead of looking at yourself in the mirror,” says Luanda, a 25-year-old Afro-Argentinian trap and hip-hop artist based in Buenos Aires who prefers to go by just their first name. “Argentina, like many other countries, has a tendency to constantly look toward the United States and then think that it represents the universal history of activism,” they explain. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I know Angela Davis.’ Yes, that’s fantastic. She’s incredible. I really admire her. But do you know any Afro-Argentinian activists? Do you know Brazilian activists? Do you know the history of activism in this country? Or even just this country’s Black history?”
In 1996, Argentina’s then President Carlos Menem famously said, “There are no Black people in Argentina.” The truth is that Afro-Argentinians have always been present in Argentina and have shaped the country’s politics and culture in deeply significant ways. Like many other South American countries, Argentina’s ports were important hubs through which enslaved people from African nations were trafficked. It’s estimated that by the late 1700s, roughly a third of the population of Buenos Aires was Afro-Argentines, including both enslaved people and their free descendants. Afro-Argentinians played a significant role in the country’s battle for independence, but their roles as generals, leaders, and freedom fighters are barely mentioned in the history books. Argentinian cultural treasures like the tango or the chacarera have deep African roots, and the famed asado — Argentinian barbecue — was heavily influenced by Afro-Argentinian culinary contributions.
Fifty-eight-year-old Miriam Gomes, president of the Unión Caboverdeana, a mutual aid association, tells ZORA, “We’re constantly being asked where we’re from. It invisibilizes and denies our existence. During most of the 20th century, there was an absolute silence regarding the Black experience in Argentina. We were erased from all books, all media, from all scholarship, and from all statistics.”
“I had been told that people of African descent in Argentina had all died in the Independence Wars or during the yellow fever epidemic of 1871.”
Gomes grew up in Dock Sud, in a community of Afro-Argentinians with mostly Cape Verdean roots. For her, the systematic erasure of her community and of other Afro-Argentinians prompted her, together with activists like Alejandra Egido, founder of the Black women’s theater troupe Teatro en Sepia, and María “Pocha” Lamadrid, founder of the organization África Vive, to push hard for the inclusion of an Afro-Argentinian category in the 2010 national census. Because only 10% of the forms ended up including this category, the end result — supposedly 150,000 people of African descent live in Argentina — was woefully unrepresentative. Gomes, Lamadrid, and Egido estimate that the real figure is closer to 2 million, perhaps even more.
When 60-year-old Alejandra Egido arrived in Argentina in the early 2000s, she was told that there weren’t any Afro-Argentinians in the country anymore. “I had been told that people of African descent in Argentina had all died in the Independence Wars or during the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. I knew that that couldn’t be true, that something weird was going on,” she says. The notion that Afro-Argentinians were all killed during the battle for independence from Spain in 1813 due to forcible conscription, or during the wars with Paraguay in the late 1860s, is a common refrain among many White Argentinians. That belief also completely negates the important cultural, political, and social contributions Afro-Argentinians made in building up the freshly minted nation of Argentina.
That’s why it’s particularly painful, both for younger activists like Parker and Luanda, as well as for older generations like Gomes, Egido, and Lamadrid, to see even liberal fractions within Argentinian society condemning racist police violence in the United States while ignoring the reality for Afro-Argentinians in their own country. “Police harassment here is brutal,” Gomes says, noting that in the city of Buenos Aires, the police particularly go after members of the Senegalese community, who can often be found selling trinkets like sunglasses, belts, and souvenirs in plazas and neighborhood squares. “They chase them, they beat them, they steal their merchandise, their money, their phones. It’s almost like there’s an order to go after them, it’s so systematic.”
“There have been so many cases of Black or Indigenous kids being shot by the police for simply doing nothing, for sitting outside of their homes or going to buy bread,” Parker adds. “That’s ethnic cleansing on a state level. We need leaders who are really committed to ending this violence.”
Cases like the death of Massar Ba, a Senegalese human rights activist who was killed in 2016, or the violent police attacks toward the Qom community in the Chaco province earlier this month, remain unsolved, another example to activists of how little is done to protect Black and Indigenous lives in Argentina. “I don’t even remember the names of all the people who have been killed, because there are so many,” Luanda says.
Many Afro-Argentinian activists don’t think the current global attention on Black Lives Matter movements will change their reality in Argentina anytime soon. There have certainly been a few official changes, including the 2013 introduction of the National Day of Afro-Argentinians on November 8 of every year, but the racism in the country is too ingrained, too systemic, and too pervasive for things to change from one day to the next. “Racism has always existed, and it’ll keep existing because capitalism needs bodies that are simply worth less,” Luanda says. “We need to rip everything up from its foundations in order to combat racism. We’d need to rebuild everything.”
For Gomes and Egido, it’s the young generation who will hopefully lead this change. “This will all blow up, in positive ways,” Gomes says, “and it will be this new generation that will bring change. I know they will make a difference.”