A Tale of Two Cities: Buenos Aires, Córdoba and the Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina

By Erika Denise Edwards

The recent explosion of black studies in Argentina has been a welcoming effort of various scholars and activists that have refused to accept the old and tired categorization that Argentina is a country of European descendants.[1] For instance, most recently activists challenged Argentine president Mauricio Macri’s association between Mercosur and the European Union at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2018. There the president stated, “I think the association between Mercosur and the European Union is natural because in South America we are all descendants of Europeans.”[2] I can’t say I wasn’t proud to see and hear the strong backlash that challenged this outdated and very tiresome notion that Argentina has always been a white nation. But is that all that is left for us? What I mean more specifically is we can and will continue to dispel that Argentina is a white country of only “European descendants,” but as the field of black studies in Argentina develops it is also time that we take a hard look at the scholarship and ask ourselves what comes next.

My response is that it is time to expand westward. Why? Because scholars of Argentina’s black history have tended to focus on Buenos Aires.[3] So much so that the black experience in Buenos Aires has become the national narrative. In other words, Argentina’s black history and more specifically the process of black disappearance references the black experience of Buenos Aires during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century. By the mid-nineteenth century intellectuals such as Juan Batista Alberdi and Domingo Sarmiento (president of Argentina 1868-1874) justified policies that encouraged European immigration using pseudoscientific theories that purported to prove the biological superiority of “whites” over “nonwhites.” In effect, Sarmiento, and similar intellectuals joined the larger Latin American process of blanqueamiento, or whitening. Blanqueamiento serves as an operative word to describe the late-nineteenth-century state-led modernization process. Like Argentina, many other Latin American countries looked to European immigrants as the way to bring civilization. Historians have argued that this ideological erasure is one of the main reasons for the disappearance of people who identified as black in Argentina.[4]

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A busload of immigrants in Buenos Aires, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead of enforcing segregation policies to sanction white superiority, Argentine authorities sought to eliminate blackness through European immigration and miscegenation. The constant arrival of European males through immigration made this goal attainable. For example, Sarmiento often touted mulatos as proof of progress because they “had the brute force of the African and the intellect of the European.”[5] By the turn of the twentieth century, it seemed that the whitening project had achieved success. In 1905 Juan José Soiza Reilly wrote in the magazine Caras y Caretas, “The [black] race is losing in the mixture its primitive color. It becomes gray. It dissolves. It lightens. An African tree is producing white flowers.”[6]

In turn, scholars have also documented the importance of the Black press, which has proved paramount in understanding how African descendants in Buenos Aires responded to blanqueamiento. [7] Prominent Black newspapers such as La Broma were geared toward a more elite audience, while others, such as, La Juventud appealed to working-class audiences. La Broma perpetuated the politics of respectability while La Juventud focused on the social and economic choices left for a community whose proportion in the population continued to decrease every year because of European immigration. Over time, the newspapers revealed a developing class conflict within the Black community which failed to reach a consensus regarding how to deal with blanqueamiento.

The country’s adoption of blanqueamiento and the reactions to it in the Black press demonstrates the “success” of a state-led project that marked the beginning of the myth of black disappearance and more recently has propelled the field of black studies in Argentina. However, this is a Buenos Aires narrative. To be fair, this practice reflects larger trends in Argentine history as Buenos Aires’s history eclipses the histories of other prominent cities and regions in the country. And to borrow Macri’s natural analogy, it is very much because it is the capital as well as the largest city in the country. But if we are continuing to develop the field of black studies it is time to expand westward first to acknowledge that African descendants resided in all of the cities throughout Argentina and second that cities’ geographic, political, and cultural characteristics directly shaped and molded how they disappeared. In studying other cities, we not only extend the scholarship, but we also acknowledge that diverse and dynamic history of Argentina beyond Buenos Aires. My forthcoming book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina focuses on the city of Córdoba and expands our understanding of Africans and their descendants. It concentrates on the process of disappearance during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, prior to state-led and institutionalized whitening at the end of the nineteenth century.

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Cordoba Landscape, reproduction of wood engraving by Alberto Nicasio, Archive of Hispanic Culture, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Córdoba was a prominent city that served as a center of distribution because of its central location in the Río de la Plata during the colonial period 1573-1810. Like Buenos Aires, Córdoba had a large black population. But unlike Buenos Aires, Córdoba did not experience a wave of enslaved Africans at the end of the eighteenth century.[8] Instead, the city of Córdoba remained a small, close-knit society of ruling families who could trace their lineage back to the conquistadors, Indians and their descendants who survived the conquest, and Africans and their descendants both enslaved and free.  Together, they numbered roughly 7,240 inhabitants according to the 1778 city census. This small concentrated population stood in stark contrast to Buenos Aires which around the same time had 24,363 inhabitants. [9]

Absent of state-led institutionalized notions of blanqueamiento during the eighteenth century, individual choices and negotiated identities described the process of disappearance in the small but prominent city of Córdoba. This is because identity remained influx and dependent on dress, phenotype, occupation, and an individual’s reputed persona, which culminated into calidad during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Examples of calidad labels in Córdoba included negro (referenced the enslaved or freed Africans) mulato (mixture between European and African), indio (Indian), pardo (mixture between descendants of European, Indian and/or African mixture), mestizo (mixture between European and Indian), and español (referenced people born in Spain or their descendants). As a result, when possible, African descendants—especially those whose phenotype was often described as “the color of a Spaniard” in the documents—chose whiteness, as evidenced through contested marriage cases, to achieve privilege and status. Moreover, African descendants who risked enslavement sought Indian status in contested freedom cases, because Indian status meant freedom. Cases of contested freedoms continued throughout the early nineteenth century and African descendants continued to claim a case of mistaken identity and they were in fact Indians. After providing extensive proof of Indian identity which included dress, place of origin, voluntary service, and maternal Indian lineage, African descendants evaded enslavement and gained their freedom.

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Patio of Universidad Nacional, Cordoba, Argentina, no date, Archive of Hispanic Culture, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

African descendants’ transformation into Indians complicates the notion that all African descendants attempted to ascribe to whiteness. My findings have determined African descendants’ attempts to achieve freedom by transforming into Indians provides a more colorful narrative about the disappearance in the interior city of Córdoba. In particular, the transformation from African descendant to Indian status represents a “browning” rather than “whitening” process. As a result, Córdoba’s browning process at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century provides a stark juxtaposition to blanqueamiento, which is very much associated with the late nineteenth century and the Buenos Aires experience.

By examining black experiences in interior cities such as Córdoba, the developing field of Black Studies in Argentina will not only continue to dispel myths of black disappearance but expanding westward will result in a field that reflects the varied and diverse black experiences in Argentina.

Professional Look IIIErika Denise Edwards is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is an expert on the black experience in Argentina. She has written various articles, book chapters, and has given lectures about her current research about the myth of black disappearance in Argentina. She has also been quoted and/or consulted by the New York Times, National Geographic, and interviewed by La Voz del Interior, an Argentine newspaper. She is currently finishing her manuscript Hiding in Plain Sight: The Disappearance of the Black Population in Argentina.

Featured image (at top): Façade of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Córdoba, Argentina, no date, Archive of Hispanic Culture, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Erika Edwards, “Slavery in Argentina,” ed. Ben Vinson III, Oxford Bibliographies in Latin American Studies, May 2014.

[2] Federico Pita, “Marci y su orgullo blanco,” Marcha: Una mirada popular y feminista de la argentina y el mundo, January 31, 2018, http://www.marcha.org.ar/marcri-y-su-orgullo-blanco.

[3] George Reid Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980); Miguel Rosal, Africanos y afrodescendientes en el Río de la Plata : siglos XVIII-XIX (Buenos Aires: Dunken, 2009); Marta Goldberg, “La población negra y mulata de la ciudad de Buenos Aires 1810-1840,” Desarrollo Económico 16, no. 61 (1976): 75–99; Marvin Lewis, Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996); Lea Geler, Andares negros, caminos blancos. afroporteños, estado y nación Argentina a fines del siglo XIX. (Rosario, Argentina: Prohistoria Ediciones, 2010); Alejandro Frigerio, “‘Negros’ y ‘blancos’ en Buenos Aires: repensando nuestras categorías raciales,” Temas de patrimonio cultural 16 (2006): 77–98; Edwards, “Slavery in Argentina.”

[4] Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900.

[5] Domingo Sarmiento, Obras de D. F. Sarmiento: viajes por europa, áfrica i américa 1847–1854, vol. V (Paris: Belin Hermanos, 1909), 67.

[6] Juan José Soiza Reilly, “Gente de color,” Caras y Caretas, November 25, 1905.

[7] Geler, Andares negros, caminos blancos. Afroporteños, estado y nación Argentina a fines del siglo XIX.; Tomás Platero, Piedra libre para nuestros negros: la broma y otros periódicos de la comunidad afroargentina (1873-1882) (Buenos Aires: Instituto Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 2004); Norberto Pablo Cirio, Tinta negra en el gris del ayer: los afroporteños a través de sus periódicos entre 1873 y 1882 (Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2009); Lewis, Afro-Argentine Discourse: Another Dimension of the Black Diaspora.

[8] Alex Borucki, From Shipmates to Soldiers: Emerging Black Identities in the Río de La Plata (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

[9] Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900, 66.

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