As a descendant of two slaves, Maria Lamadrid has a hard time biting her tongue when airport officials think her Argentine passport is not real because ‘there are no blacks in Argentina’.
And that was in 2002.
The 25th of March marks the landmark 200th anniversary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Though the trade continued after this date, it marked the beginning of the end of the transatlantic trafficking of Africans.
Ms Lamadrid is fighting to alter the common belief that all blacks who live in Argentina are foreigners. In 1997 she founded Africa Vive, a non-governmental organisation that defends the rights of African descendants. Today, she claims, there are 2m Afroargentines in Argentina.
Ms Lamadrid and Miriam Gomez, a history professor at the University of Buenos Aires, have dedicated themselves wholly to the NGO’s cause because “there is so much to do and very few people to do it.”
In 1778 the Buenos Aires census recorded that 30% of the residents were of African descent, otherwise known as Afroargentines. However, the successive waves of Europeans who emigrated here during the end of the 19th and 20th centuries altered the demography of Buenos Aires completely, a welcomed change in the eyes of presidents Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Julio Argentino Roca, who, unlike their predecessors, were not sympathisers of the plight of the Afroargentines. The African culture that flourished under both Bernardino Rivadavia, the first president—who was of African descent—and Juan Manuel de Rosas, was no longer valued.
Ms Gomez confirms that there are African roots in cultural activities that are still popular today such as tango, the milonga and the candombe. Famous Afroargentines include the musician Jose Maria Morales and the poet Gabino Ezeiza.
However, the myth of the invisible Afroargentines is deep-rooted, as airport officials confirmed when they told Ms Lamadrid in 2002: “This can’t be your passport. There are no blacks in Argentina.” This attitude echoes prejudices that allegedly died out in the late 1800s, but have seemingly survived past the millennium. A court case on the issue produced no ruling.
In 1996 Carlos Memen, the president, famously stated: “In Argentina there are no black people; Brazil has that problem.” Ms Lamadrid told me that this triggered her protest. She wrote to all national newspapers, but only Página 12 let her publish an article. Mr Memen never responded to her request for an interview.
But there have been small breakthroughs as more investigations are carried out to trace African roots in Argentina. In 2006 the World Bank funded a pilot census that questioned 1,500 people from Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, a provincial capital. It revealed that 5% of Argentines recognise that they are African descendants; 20% were not sure. The genetics department of philosophy and social sciences of the university of Buenos Aires found that 4.3% of residents of the capital had traces of African genes. Ms Lamadrid said that they are scattered all over the country, claiming 5% living in San Telmo and about 3% in the province of Santa Fe.
Africa Vive has requested that a separate category for African descendants be reintroduced in the 2010 census. Ms Lamadrid said the most frustrating thing is that there used to be one: 1887 was the final year that Afroargentines were recognised in the census; the results showed that 2% of the residents of Buenos Aires were of African descent at that time. She added that indigenous people, who have also suffered discrimination, have their own category because they have more support.
Africa Vive, however, is restrained by a lack of finance. It does not yet have an office. Its managers want their own private space for functions instead of having to rent out inadequate spaces. Ms Lamadrid works twice a week as a cleaner and wants to retire, but fears the government will not help her. “Today, I am a slave of the system,” she said.
History books used today in schools still perpetuate the myth that there are no Afroargentines, suggesting instead that they were all wiped out in the 1870s during the war in Paraguay and the yellow fever epidemic. True, many African male descendants were killed in the war but women and children survived. Similarly, yellow fever killed some, but not all.
Nowadays, in a culture that values blonde, blue-eyed people above all, one of the biggest problems facing the African population comes from within. Many people do not want to recognise their genuine roots because of the prejudices they may face. One friend of Ms Lamadrid’s, who is a successful lawyer, said the reason she keeps her ethnicity a secret is fear it would hurt her career prospects.
Sadly, masking identities seems to be a rule rather than an exception, which becomes easier as mixed marriages fuse skin tones. “If you are looking for traditional African people with very black skin, you won’t find it, Ms Gomez explained. “African people in Argentina are of mixed heritage.”