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Capilla de los Negros: A Testament to Argentina’s Black Heritage

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Sitting outside in the sun on a white plastic garden chair, Antonio Luis, the man who describes himself as the last of Chascomús´ black Afro-Argentines, keeps watch over the chapel his enslaved ancestors built 150 years before.

From his garden on the plot of land next to the ‘Capilla de los Negros‘, he oversees the comings and goings of coachloads of tourists, pensioners, and schoolchildren who arrive from the capital seeking some green respite.

Antonio Luis, 70, looks after the Capilla de los Negros' (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Antonio Luis, 70, is the capilla´s current custodian. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

The task of taking care of the capilla(chapel) – cleaning it, attending to the people who visit it – has been Antonio´s for the past 22 years, ever since his mother Elíosa died.

¨For me, this is paradise,¨ he says, when asked what the capilla means to him personally.

¨It´s where I was born and raised. A treasure.¨

Many historians and Afro-Argentines would agree. The simple brick and adobe building, surrounded by a luxuriant garden, dates from 1862 and forms part of UNESCO´s Ruta del Esclavo del Río de la Plata. It was declared a historic site in 1962, and has been described as one of ¨the few testimonials to the presence of a black population, not just in the city, but in the country,¨ by philosopher Dina Picotti, who authored a chapter on the building for UNESCO´s Sitios de Memoria last year.

In censuses taken in Buenos Aires in 1810, 1822 and 1838, blacks and mulatos were reportedly more than 25% of the population.

But ask any Argentine about their nation´s black heritage, and you will likely hear narratives about Africans being cannon fodder during the wars for independence and subsequent civil wars, and thus having been erased from the face of the nation.

¨It´s not a myth that blacks were cannon fodder,¨ Afro-Argentine activist and academic Miriam Gomes explained when asked about the supposed ¨disappearance¨ of Afro-descendants on television. ¨We were. But it didn´t end the black population in Argentina. There were women and children who were then mixed into the European population.¨

An analysis of blood samples in 2006 by the Centro de Genética de Filosofía y Letras de la UBA found that 4.3% of people in Buenos Aires and surroundings had African genetic markers, which could indicate a national Afro-Argentine population of nearly two million.

Gomes points to the combined processes of geographic dispersion, invisibilisation through historiographical racism, and ethnic mixing that together led to an Afro-Argentine population far less visible than those of neighbouring Brazil or Uruguay. ¨We´ve been made invisible, people don´t see us even though we´re right in front of them,¨ said Gomes in a slot about the chapel on the television programme ‘Vivo en Argentina’.

An old newspaper article about the capilla (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

An old newspaper article about the capilla (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Antonio´s niece Soledad Luis, a direct descendant of the chapel´s founders and a tour guide for the monument, has shared this experience. ¨People will see you on the street and ask you where you are from. It´s something cultural, that there aren´t any blacks here.¨

According to Picotti, who was described by La Nación newspaper as having ¨rescued¨ the black race in Argentina, and who dedicated a good part of her life to studying the black presence here and across America, Argentina began ¨denying¨ its black history because of its links to slavery.

This is despite the indelible marks African cultures have left on Argentine culture.

Words such as zambo (a person with one black and one Indian parent), malambo (a folkloric dance), mucama (maid) and tango have their origins in black Africa, as do the 2X3 rhythms of folkloric music and the use of percussion.

¨Those who were reduced to slaves, sent to the battlefront in wars, employed in inhumane conditions in all manner of jobs, gave to us, despite all of this, song and dance,¨ argued Picotti in La Nación.

Soledad Luis certainly encounters a wide range of opinions from Argentines while on the job.

¨There are people who attempt to justify slavery, elitists, or those who go to the other extreme and apologise for being white,¨ she says.

Soledad Luis gives guided tours of the building. ¨It´s got its own particular kind of mystique,¨ she says. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Soledad Luis gives guided tours of the building. ¨It´s got its own particular kind of mystique,¨ she says. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Nestled in the province of Buenos Aires, the historical centre of the small, quiet, rural town of Chascomús was so visibly and audibly populated with African slaves and their descendants that it was known as the barrio del tambor, or ‘Drumtown’, a name that remains in use today.

Men did farm work on the estancias in the area, caring for animals, driving carriages, taming horses, while women and children were delegated domestic tasks.

¨In those days, parents would travel often, and they left their children. They were practically raised by the slaves,¨ says Soledad.

Blacks were given the surnames of the hacendados, not because they wanted them to be part of the family, but because giving them their surname demonstrated ownership of the individual. Thus, many Afro descendants have or had double surnames that came from well-to-do families.

The chapel in Chascomús, built as a headquarters for a black community association, originally had very little to do with popular religion. The modest construction with dirt floors and open walls was, in fact, something of a good time venue.

¨It was for meeting up, for joining together, for celebrating candombe and carnaval. They went to dance, to smoke leaf tobacco, drink white liquors, to converse,¨ recounts Soledad.

They also went to celebrate their saints and their particular form of spirituality, mixing African rituals with Río de la Plata candombes, the dances and musical expression of African origin that served as a resistance to the oppression of slavery.

During epidemics of cholera and yellow fever in the middle of the 19th century, the building operated as a quarantine for the ill.

Up until the death of Soledad´s grandmother Eloísa in 1990, it was where the family met every Sunday, and where the comparsa, a music and dance group, was organised.

¨People said that when they played the drums, you could feel it. It was a huge, immense fiesta. We had big parties, asados, with my family, and people who didn´t have anything to do with us came and joined us all the same,¨ Antonio remembers.

¨But the traditions have just about all been lost.¨

A portrait of Eloísa Guillerma Gonzalez Soler de Luis, Antonio Luis´ mother and Soledad Luis´ grandmother. Eloísa devoted much of her life to caring for the capilla, a task passed down from generation to generation. Her grandfather was a slave brought to Argentina from Cabo Verde. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

A portrait of Eloísa Guillerma Gonzalez Soler de Luis, Antonio Luis´ mother and Soledad Luis´ grandmother. Eloísa devoted much of her life to caring for the capilla, a task passed down from generation to generation. Her grandfather was a slave brought to Argentina from Capo Verde. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Soledad also laments the chapel´s change of role from epicentre of the Afro-Argentine community to depository of artefacts from popular religion, such as images of saints, rosaries, artificial flowers and crucifixes.

This likely came about in the 1950s after the building was nearly destroyed by a cyclone. It was rebuilt by neighbours, but with modifications such as an altar added in.

Nonetheless, the chapel is taking on a significant role as a resource for the transmission of Argentina´s African heritage and as a focal point for candombe groups.

Soledad has recently been organising anniversary festivities involving the monument in November and June next year, as well as finishing off a short film about the chapel which is to be broadcast on the INCAA television channel.

She also works with DIAFAR, the Diaspora Africana de la Argentina, an NGO which aims to increase the visibility of Afro-Argentines and tackle racism and discrimination. At the same time, other Afro-descendants such as Gomes are advocating for the inclusion of Afro-Argentine history in the school curriculum. Until that day comes, they say, the history of Argentina is not going to be complete.

More recently, the chapel has been filled with religious icons (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Images of saints and virgins have been brought to the capilla by visitors: its original function was a meeting place for the Afro-Argentine community. (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

In the meantime, creeping vines are entwining their way into the roof and the adobe of the building – and it´s going to take specialists to remove them and to fix large wooden windows with appropriate wood. Being a national historic monument, any changes require paperwork and patience.

Antonio Luis is in no hurry, greeting neighbours and listening to the radio in his garden, his dog Benito asleep with his belly full at his side.

¨They built the capilla. They sang, they danced, they gathered. Some died, some left, and I´m the last one,¨ he says, smiling into the sun.

Mind Your Language

Argentine Spanish speakers frequently, if perhaps unwittingly, spice their language with expressions considered derogatory towards Afro-descendants.

A report published by the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) targeting local media aims to rid the country of colloquialisms that don´t sit well in a nation rediscovering its multicultural roots.

The word ¨negro¨, for instance, is sometimes used to describe workers pejoratively.

It is commonplace in workplaces, the report says, for superiors to refer to their employees as ¨los negros¨ collectively. It´s also used to refer to marginalised Argentines, indigenous descendants and Latin American migrants in a discriminatory manner, a manifestation evident in the chants of football fans.

The report also recommends not using ¨negro¨ as an adjective to describe an element or situation negatively. For instance: a ¨día negro¨, or ¨trabajar en negro¨ (work illegally), the latter a ¨naturalised expression which evokes work without pay and in terrible conditions which slaves were subjected to¨. It suggests ¨trabajo informal¨ as an alternative.

The word quilombo is of African origin, referring to South American settlements of escaped slaves, something clearly considered threatening and undesirable by colonial society. Thus the term was negatively appropriated and came to mean a brothel, or a mess in colloquial Argentine Spanish.

Argentine media have also been advised by INADI not to associate Afro-descendants with foreigners, since the vast majority of Afro-Argentines have been in the country for many generations, or describe African religions as sects.

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One Response to “Capilla de los Negros: A Testament to Argentina’s Black Heritage”

  1. Alesa says:

    Really good and interesting story but Capo verde people were not brought into Argentina, they were voluntary immigrants.

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